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08/16/2005 Archived Entry: "WRitten in the Flesh"
FYI, I had the Feature Article in the Books Section of the Globe and Mail (Toronto's national newspaper) last Saturday. The article was a review of Edward Shorter's new book "Written in the Flesh: A History of Desire." (In case the link is transitory, I've attached the full text below. Just click on 'more.')
It is difficult to criticize a book based on my favourite phrase within sexual theory: the Freudian term "polymorphously perverse." Written in the Flesh: A History of Desire by Edward Shorter, who teaches the history of medicine at the University of Toronto, offers a history "not of sex but of sexual desire." It is a brave, honest book with which I have fundamental disagreements.
In his introduction, Shorter argues that sexual behaviour and pleasure are biologically driven, not environmentally determined. He comes quickly to the conclusion that his book will single-mindedly pursue. "[T]he history of desire is the history of the almost biological liberation of the brain to free up the mind in the direction of total-body sex."
"Total-body sex" is a synonym for "polymorphous perversity," which is the capacity to derive sexual pleasure from any part of the body. Freud viewed this as a natural, primitive response that children repress due to the rules imposed upon them by society. Shorter gives Freud's theory an ingenious twist. He converts it from psychological analysis into a tool of historical interpretation, which he wields over nothing less than the scope of Western civilization. The word "audacious" is appropriate here.
Shorter takes us from "the free-and-easy sexuality" of classical antiquity, through the "sexual night-fall of Christian Europe," into the re-emergence of full-body sex in the late 1800s that culminates in the late 20th century -- specifically, the 1960s. It is a whirlwind tour of what people have done in bed since before Christ was born. And, like any good tour guide, Shorter directs attention to the left and right with colourful explanations of why specific items are significant.
But are his explanations correct?
If Written in the Flesh were merely the presentation of one man's educated opinion, then it would be a well-written, provocative read with which I would not quibble. But the book claims to be more. It is written in support of a theory that is either objectively true or false.
Thus, in reading the book, my reaction was almost a déjà vu of reviewing another book -- Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, which created a literary sensation in 1991. The two books are remarkably similar in method, tone and message.
Both dip in and out of centuries of history and art to select events, snippets of fiction, diary entries and symbols that support their claims about man as a specific type of sexual being. Both slap the reader awake with brazen statements. Both have the same underlying message. Paglia states that "sex is a subset of nature." Shorter says sexuality is hardwired into our brains at birth. Neither makes the claim that nature has preferences -- for instance, for heterosexuality or the nuclear family.
Quite the contrary. Paglia is openly lesbian. And Shorter argues that desire expresses "itself in remarkably similar ways in men and women, adolescent and adults, and in gays, lesbians, and straights alike." (In this observation, Shorter also echoes Freud.) This is a message I like because it is in direct opposition to social constructionism and the political correctness that had dominated sexual theory in recent decades. Social constructionism claims that human nature is not natural; it is not genetic or hardwired. Instead, sexual behaviour is the product of social conditioning. Even so-called biological drives, such as the urge toward motherhood, are creations of society -- or so the theory goes. The theory translates into a demand to deconstruct the institutions of society, such as the marketplace and the school system, and to rebuild them in a manner that produces "proper" behaviour.
Shorter says: "Nonsense!" Human nature and sexuality are genetic; their expression can be influenced, but their essence cannot be altered.
This is a delight to hear. And I hope Written in the Flesh causes as much vociferous debate as Paglia's work did.
Nevertheless, I stumbled over the book. I disagree with some of Shorter's theory and with much of his interpretation of history.
The first thing to be said about Written in the Flesh as a presentation of theory is that it proves nothing. To his great credit, Shorter admits this. His introduction states, "the argument of this book, while incapable of definitive proof, can at least be made plausible." His admission of mere plausibility is likely to be lost, however, in the flood of bold, unqualified statements that follow.
An inherent tension exists between Shorter's theory and his demonstration of its plausibility. Shorter states the theory: "[S]exual behaviour and sensual pleasure are the product of biologically driven desire rather than of fashion or social conditioning. It is capital letters nature not nurture that drives desire."
Nevertheless, the book argues at length that Christian Europe short-circuited mankind's hardwired sexuality for "weary centuries." If social conditions can repress genetic hardwiring for that long, shouldn't "nurture" be written in letters at least as large as, or larger, than "nature"?
Moreover, Shorter claims that total-body sex began to be actualized only when social conditions facilitated it. The shift toward modern sexuality began in the 1870s, due to changes in living patterns; for instance, cities provided the privacy of anonymity, which encouraged sexual experimentation. This argues for a mutual-feedback system, with nature and nurture being equal partners.
I also stumbled over Shorter's presentation of history. I don't quarrel with his skimming the surface over centuries or with mixing history and literature. Shorter employs this methodology in a straightforward, entertaining manner that raises fascinating questions along the way: For example, what role did lice play in the suppression of sex in the Middle Ages? Moreover, an overview can easily prove the presence of a theme within history. Spotlighting homosexual literature throughout the ages, as one instance, establishes homosexuality as a social theme since recorded time.
But Shorter wishes to establish far more than one theme among many. He is presenting an organizing principle. He claims that every human being is and has been driven by genetics toward total-body sexuality. Such a claim cannot be made plausible by quoting a few dozen people from each century or period. The authors quoted may be held up as representative -- Samuel Pepys from the 1660s, Émile Zola from the 1880s -- but, in fact, any author whose work survives through time may be a poor indicator of what the common man of his day felt and did.
The foregoing are theoretical objections, but I also tripped over specifics of Shorter's presentation of history.
Referring to late 19th-century Paris, Shorter writes that "the great majority of young people" fled agriculture to enjoy a life of sexual independence in the city. Similar statements occur about Europe's general population-shift from country to city. My reading of history indicates that young people were economically motivated to move toward factories and higher-paying employment. Sexual freedom may have been a byproduct, but it wasn't the primary cause.
Shorter quotes 19th-century French economist Henri Baudrillart, who dismisses the economic motive for migration, but it would be as easy to quote dozens of other economists who validate it.
Shorter has also misread some of the important sources he quotes. He extracts a passage from the Essay Concerning Human Understanding by the classical liberal philosopher John Locke. "The mind very often sets itself on work in search of some hidden idea, and turns as it were the eye of the soul upon it; . . . and very often [ideas] are roused and tumbled out of their dark cells into open daylight, by turbulent and tempestuous passions." Shorter responds, "What dark cells could he have possibly meant save the desires of the brain itself? Locke thought that the passions unlocked deeper desires, which would rush from below to flagellate the mind."
The Locke quotation comes from Chapter X of the Essay, Of Retention. The chapter consists of a numbered list of the ways in which memory is blocked and can be liberated. In number seven, Locke describes a process by which remembrance occurs; sparked by an emotion, the memory emerges from a dark cell of the mind into the light. The next item, number eight, is on "two defects in the memory, oblivion and slowness." Locke is not discussing sex, nor inviting flagellation. It is an essay on cognition.
Equally frustrating is Shorter's willingness to dismiss counterevidence. Although Europe is said to have been plunged into centuries-long Christian repression, figures such as the Marquis de Sade and Casanova, and episodes of decadence such as the court of Louis XIV, must be accounted for.
Yet against this heavy weight of counterevidence, Shorter continues to make claims with very little evidence to back them up. He writes, "In sexual attitudes, women with a passion for romanticism differed little from traditional women. The evidence these women have left behind is very meagre." Yet the meagerness of evidence does not prevent Shorter from making broad generalizations that continue for pages.
I believe an alternate hypothesis better explains the material presented by Written in the Flesh. Indeed, Shorter hints at this hypothesis as he begins to discuss sexual freedom in classical antiquity. He writes, "maybe the upper classes of the ancient world . . . represented only a unique and tiny elite. Perhaps they are typical only of themselves and of nothing more."
I think Written in the Flesh may best be viewed as a mapping of the sexual attitudes of the upper class, of the financial and intellectual elite who could afford sensuality and whose attitudes toward it survive through diaries and literature. The masses could afford nothing beyond sheer survival and were usually illiterate, leaving no record. Thus, when speaking of addressing the common man, Shorter generally quotes statistics and elite commentators; the upper classes speak in their own voices. I suspect that the sexual habits of the elite in past centuries probably paralleled those of the peasantry no more closely than did their eating habits.
Shorter is on more solid ground in his analysis of 1960 to the present, a period for which documentation is omnipresent and class structure is not such a problem. Here, Written in the Flesh becomes a rollicking read. Shorter opens Chapter Eight with cunnilingus and shoots the reader through an informative thrill ride of toned gym bodies, SM (sadomasochism) and fetishes, lesbianism and the explosion of the gay lifestyle into the mainstream. He chronicles the assertion of total-body sex within our culture, ending with the TV show Sex and the City.
In the epilogue, Shorter the ethicist emerges. He asks, "But if desire has won, what has really been achieved? Is there a price that we as a society have had to pay for elevating total-body sex to the erotic norm . . .?" Shorter does ethics well. He presents questions clearly and provocatively without offering easy, glib solutions Those who read contemporary studies and scholarship on sexuality know that it is common practice to append policy recommendations to a string of statistics and citations. Shorter doesn't attach a political agenda to his scholarship. For this, he should be applauded.
With rare integrity, Shorter reminds us, "There is really no evidence that we are any more dedicated to sensation today than at any other time in history. . . . We don't want to make desire responsible for too much. . . . But we must at least be mindful that it is driving us forward." These are the words of a man who has come neither to preach nor to proscribe; he wants to understand and, in doing so, he increases the understanding of us all.
A good argument is one of the joys of life, especially if it includes wine or dessert. Edward Shorter is the sort of intelligent, entertaining writer with whom it is pleasure to argue.