Thinking Well of Sex

Alain de Botton Explains Our Emotions About Sex

Exceptional Thinking Is Matched by Exceptional Writing

Proves the Two Are One and the Same

Actually, how to think about real life sex – better than anyone has before

Don’cha love self help books? They always promise the secret of bringing emotional order out of chaos, but somehow the promise is never fulfilled. Instead of seeking and exposing inner truths, all we get are trite homilies, and ways to manipulate ourselves and others. What we need is a philosopher to apply his or her truth seeking to everyday life and tell us the way it is, really. But where is that writer?

It is none other than Alain de Botton, who has guided us so successfully through topics as diverse as Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdus, how to be an atheist and a revised idea of success to How to Travel. Now he has turned his hand to sex, and the result is a triumph of truthseeking. This is odd and unexpected in a way,k since Alain has led a charmed life, himself, born well off and privileged in his education and in his looks, if we are permitted to say so.

We last saw him at his reading in Manhattan at a small bookstore on Lexington in the 70s, as we recall, where we noted that he had a ravishingly beautiful young woman in tow who obviously shared the same fine education as he had himself (or so we imagined). What has this lucky fellow got to teach those of us lesser folk in our wrestling with the eternal challenges and verities of relations between the sexes?

Well, quite a lot, it seems. What we have in hand is a copy of How To Think More About Sex, his contribution to the series he founded, The School of Life. Unlike the other small volumes in this series, it is superbly written – by which we mean, it is written with the unique method which de Botton has patented, which is to apply his fine mind to the truths of daily life and give them words which shine with the light of honest revelation.

How unexpected that de Botton should be able to guide us through our own lives and experience when his own is so privileged. But his success is that of a man who is unafraid to confront his own insecurities and, recognizing that they are universal, explain them perfectly in terms of reality and the emotions we feel – hope, trepidation, yearning, bliss – when we venture into the realm of sex, which involves and engenders emotional intimacy as well as physical, unless we are in the idiot realm of “the hook up”, the latest fashion among young college females in the US and perhaps all over, where for the sake of their “career” sex is undertaken with a determined resistance to any vulnerability of that kind.

If that sounds confused, it is the kind of confusion which de Botton with his mastery of delineating truths by finding precisely the right words for them can be counted on to disentangle in this book, which proves once again that writing well is in fact thinking well, and that the only way to find out what we really think and feel is by writing it down. In the hands of a master, we find out what we really are.

The only reservation we have is that the title is cleverly provocative for sure but still a little misleading. What the book is really about is How to Think Well About Sex. But as a woman commented who saw us reading it in line at a store, it certainly is a very effective way of meeting people!

How to Think More About Sex

by Alain de Botton

[spoiler title=”Click the tab for the long excerpt” open=”0″ style=”1″]Introduction

It is rare to get through this life without feeling generally with a degree of secret agony, perhaps at the end of a relationship, or as we lie in bed frustrated next to our partner, unable to go to sleep that we are somehow a bit odd about sex. It is an area in which most of us have a painful impression, in our heart of hearts, that we are quite unusual. Despite being one of the most private of activities, sex is nonetheless surrounded by a range of powerful socially sanctioned ideas that codify how normal people are meant to feel about and deal with the matter.

In truth, however, few of us are remotely normal sexually. We are almost all haunted by guilt and neuroses, by phobias and disruptive desires, by indifference and disgust. None of us approaches sex as we are meant to, with the cheerful, sporting, non-obsessive, constant, well-adjusted outlook that we torture ourselves by believing that other people are endowed with. We are universally deviant – but only in relation to some highly distorted ideals of normality.

Given how common it is to be strange, it is regrettable how seldom the realities of sexual life make it into the public realm. Most of what we are sexually remains impossible to communicate with anyone whom we would want to think well of us. Men and women in love will instinctively hold back from sharing more than a fraction of their desires out of a fear, usually accurate, of generating intolerable disgust in their partners. We may find it easier to die without having had certain conversations.

The priority of a philosophical book about sex seems evident: not to teach us how to have more intense or more frequent sex, but rather to suggest how, through a shared language, we might begin to feel a little less painfully strange about the sex we are either longing to have or struggling to avoid.

Whatever discomfort we do feel around sex is commonly aggravated by the idea that we belong to a liberated age – and ought by now, as a result, to be finding sex a straightforward and untroubling matter.

The standard narrative of our release from our shackles goes something like this: for thousands of years across the globe, due to a devilish combination of religious bigotry and pedantic social custom, people were afflicted by a gratuitous sense of confusion and guilt around sex. They thought their hands would fall off if they masturbated. They believed they might be burned in a vat of oil because they had ogled someone’s ankle. They had no clue about erections or clitorises. They were ridiculous.

Then, sometime between the First World War and the launch of Sputnik 1, things changed for the better. Finally, people started wearing bikinis, admitted to masturbating, grew able to mention cunnilingus in social contexts, started to watch porn films and became deeply comfortable with a topic that had, almost unaccountably, been the source of needless neurotic frustration for most of human history. Being able to enter into sexual relations with confidence and joy became as common an expectation for the modern era as feeling trepidation and guilt had been for previous ages. Sex came to be perceived as a useful, refreshing and physically reviving pastime, a little like tennis – something that everyone should have as often as possible in order to relieve the stresses of modern life.

This narrative of enlightenment and progress, however flattering it may be to our powers of reason and our pagan sensibilities, conveniently skirts an unbudging fact: sex is not something that we can ever expect to feel easily liberated from. It was not by mere coincidence that sex so disturbed us for thousands of years: repressive religious dictates and social taboos grew out of aspects of our nature that cannot now just be wished away. We were bothered by sex because it is a fundamentally disruptive, overwhelming and demented force, strongly at odds with the majority of our ambitions and all but incapable of being discreetly integrated within civilized society.

Despite our best efforts to clean it of its peculiarities, sex will never be either simple or nice in the ways we might like it to be. It is not fundamentally democratic or kind; it is bound up with cruelty, transgression and the desire for subjugation and humiliation. It refuses to sit neatly on top of love, as it should. Tame it though we may try, sex has a recurring tendency to wreak havoc across our lives: it leads us to destroy our relationships, threatens our productivity and compels us to stay up too late in nightclubs talking to people whom we don’t like but whose exposed midriffs we nevertheless strongly wish to touch. Sex remains in absurd, and perhaps irreconcilable, conflict with some of our highest commitments and values. Unsurprisingly, we have no option but to repress its demands most of the time. We should accept that sex is inherently rather weird instead of blaming ourselves for not responding in more normal ways to its confusing impulses.

This is not to say that we cannot take steps to grow wiser about sex. We should simply realize that we will never entirely surmount the difficulties it throws our way. Our best hope should be for a respectful accommodation with an anarchic and reckless power.

Meet the Author

Alain de Botton is the bestselling author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, as well as numerous other works of fiction and essays. He is well-known for making complex philosophical and artistic subjects accessible for a wider audience. De Botton founded the School of Life, a series of lectures in London that aim to make academic learning applicable to real life. With the success of the school, this concept was adapted into The School of Life book series. De Botton lives and works in London.

See New York Times interview by someone whose name is not attached in the Times Book Review:

The New York Times

January 24, 2013
Alain de Botton: By the Book

The author of “How to Think More About Sex” was impressed as a young man by Kierkegaard’s claim to read only “writings by men who have been executed.”

What book is on your night stand now?

I’m reading “Zona,” the latest book by one of my favorite contemporary writers, Geoff Dyer. The premise of the book sounds immensely boring — an essay on Andrei Tarkovsky’s fim “Stalker” — but fortunately, like most of Dyer’s works, it isn’t about anything other than the author: his obsessions, his fears, his encroaching (and always endearing) feelings of insanity. The book is held together by the sheer quality of the author’s voice, a feat in itself.

What was the last truly great book you read?

I remain predictably in thrall to Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.” There is so much in the novel, it’s possible for two committed Proustians to love it for entirely different reasons. Some like the dinner parties, some the art history, some the jealousy, some the young girls in bloom. The Proust I respond to is the psychological essayist who observes the motives and emotions of his characters with some of the forensic acuity (and dry deadly wit) of the great French moralists like Pascal, La Rochefoucauld and Stendhal; the Proust who writes things like: “There is no doubt that a person’s charms are less frequently a cause of love than a remark such as: ‘No, this evening I shan’t be free.’”

What is your favorite literary genre? Any guilty pleasures?

I’m devoted to the essay. This is a much less defined genre than, say, the history book or the novel. The kind of essays I have in mind come down in a line from Montaigne, and tackle large quasi — philosophical themes in a tone that is warm, human, digressive and touching. You feel like you have come to know a friend, not just a theme. I have loved essays by, among others, Emerson, Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Donald Winnicott, Cyril Connolly, Joseph Brodsky, Lawrence Weschler, Milan Kundera, Julian Barnes, Adam Gopnik and Nicholson Baker.

Have you read any good books on philosophy lately?

I have been consoled by Arthur Schopenhauer’s delightfully morbid pessimism in “The Wisdom of Life.” “We can regard our life as a uselessly disturbing episode in the blissful repose of nothingness,” he tells us. “It may be said of it: ‘It is bad today and every day it will get worse, until the worst of all happens.’ ” It’s a mistaken prejudice of our times to think that the only way to cheer someone up is to tell them something cheerful. Exaggerated tragic pronouncements work far better.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be? The prime minister?

Your president is a complex case, a man of passion, courage and oratory. And also, a diligent, prickly, practical law professor. I’ve got a weakness for the former side, so would want to put books in front of him that could bolster what I think of as his best impulses. I’d particularly keep him close to Whitman and Thoreau, those great American voices of openhearted humanity, daring and liberty. As for the British prime minister, he urgently needs to read John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, and read up on constitutional matters from a historical perspective.

What were your favorite books as a child? Did you have a favorite character or hero?

I was a very un-literary child, which might reassure parents with kids who don’t read. Lego was my thing, as well as practical books like “See Inside a Nuclear Power Station.” It wasn’t till early adolescence that I saw the point of books and then it was the old stalwart, “The Catcher in the Rye,” that got me going. By 16, I was lost — often in the philosophy aisles, in a moody and melodramatic state. I was impressed by Kierkegaard’s claim that he was going to read only “writings by men who have been executed.”

What books had the greatest influence on you when you were a student?

The French essayist Roland Barthes was, and in many ways continues to be, my greatest influence. I responded to his way of approaching very large topics (love, the meaning of literature, photography) in oblique ways, with great formal innovation and originality. His essay on photography, “Camera Lucida,” is a model of what a highly rigorous but personal essay should be like. I couldn’t have written my first book, “On Love,” without reading his “A Lover’s Discourse.” Barthes taught me courage and innovation at the level of form.

What was the last book that made you cry?

I’m always close to tears reading Judith Kerr’s delightful children’s story, “The Tiger Who Came to Tea.” It tells of a tiger who turns up, quite unexpectedly, at teatime at the house of a girl called Sophie and her mother. You’d expect them to panic, but they take the appearance of this visitor entirely in their stride — and their reaction is a subtle invitation for us to approach life’s unexpected challenges with resilience and good humor.

The last book that made you laugh?

I’ve been reading a nonfiction cartoon called “Couch Fiction,” by a British psychoanalyst, Phillippa Perry. The book is simply the best single volume on analysis I’ve ever read, and takes us through one man’s analysis, and his attempts to resolve a range of problem with his mother and his girlfriend. It’s done with images and speech bubbles by Junko Graat; it’s constantly charming and always deeply accurate and thought-provoking.

The last book that made you furious?

I got very angry about the food industry reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s excellent “Eating Animals.” Now, a few years later, I’m bewildered and deeply worried by the way one can be impressed and moved by a book and yet do absolutely nothing about one’s indignation and simply put all the good arguments to one’s side — frightening evidence of the impotence of books in the hands of fickle readers.

What’s the best love story you’ve ever read?

Goethe’s “Sorrows of Young Werther” is like a distillation of all the themes of the Western approach to love. It’s also a study in immaturity. Werther’s love for Charlotte depends on not being reciprocated. Had she said yes, his love might have foundered in the routines of child care. In other words, it’s a love story that subtly points out how much the standard love story doesn’t prepare us for what mature relationships are like. It’s a book that should be given to the young, with warning.

Are there any architects that you think are also particularly good writers? What are your favorite books on architecture?

Le Corbusier is an outstanding writer. His ideas achieved their impact in large measure because he could write so convincingly. His style is utterly clear, brusque, funny and polemical in the best way. His books are beautifully laid out with captions and images. I recommend “Towards a New Architecture.” It’s a deep pity that while Le Corbusier’s style has been much copied by architects, very few have drawn the right lessons from him about literature and prose style.

If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?

I would have liked to meet John Ruskin, who has been a big influence on me, and whose eccentric visions of the ideal society (at the level of architecture and morality) I am constantly inspired by. He felt sad, persecuted, lonely and misunderstood. I would have wanted to try to be his friend.

And if you could meet a character from literature, who would it be?

Proust’s Albertine sounds high maintenance but rewarding — and, in my eyes, a proper woman, a tomboy, rather than a hermaphrodite.

Who are your favorite writers of all time? And among your contemporaries?

My life has been variously overtaken (and ruined by) Montaigne, Stendhal, Freud and W. H. Auden. I think a lot about W. G. Sebald and Ryszard Kapuscinski. A contemporary of sorts, albeit in a different generation, was Norman Mailer. His largely forgotten book, “Of a Fire on the Moon,” fascinates me: a big sprawling essay on technology and America that deserves a wider audience. Among the living, I deeply love: Milan Kundera, Michel Houellebecq, Philip Roth and Nicholson Baker.

And if you had to give a young person a list of books to be read above all others to prepare for adulthood, what would you include?

I’d give them Theodore Zeldin’s “Intimate History of Humanity,” a beautiful attempt to connect up the large themes of history with the needs of the individual soul. I’d point them to Ernst Gombrich’s “Art and Illusion,” which opens up the visual arts and psychology. There’s a lot of despair in adolescence, so I’d recommend comfort from pessimists like Pascal and Cioran. I’d especially give them a sad, poignant, questing little book called “The Unquiet Grave” by Cyril Connolly (written under the alias Palinurus).

What are you planning to read next?

I’d love to read Chris Ware’s new book, “Building Stories,” which was unfortunately out of stock (an extraordinary oversight) and has just become available again. In the meantime, I feel I’m going to have a great time with Douglas Coupland’s new little book about Marshall McLuhan.

[/spoiler]

Alain de Botton sorts out our fantasies and confusions from ground level, amid the spires and towers that we build to appease them in vain.

Here’s another slice of the Botton cake:

“The psychological aspect of an impression of ‘sexiness’ is also evident in the context of clothing, especially women’s high fashion. Turning once again to the evolutionary–biological point of view, we might draw an easy comparison between couture’s presentation of its product and the mating displays of tropical birds. Just as the quality of the plumage of these birds can indicate the presence or absence of particular blood parasites and thereby swiftly communicate a message about health to a prospective mate, so can fashion seem, at least from a distance, to be narrowly focused on accentuating signs of biological fitness, especially as these are manifest in legs, hips, breasts and shoulders. However, fashion would be a rather one-dimensional business if it spoke to us only of health. There wouldn’t be such intriguing differences between the wares turned out by companies and designers such as Dolce & Gabbana and Donna Karan, or Céline and Marni, or Max Mara and Miu Miu. The foregrounding of health may be one part of the mission of fashion, but on a more ambitious level, this art form also provides women with clothes that support a range of views about what it means to be an interesting and desirable human being. In all their infinite permutations, clothes make statements about values, ethics and psychological dispositions, and we judge them to be either ‘beautiful’ or ‘ugly’ depending on whether we approve or disapprove of the messages they carry. To pronounce a certain outfit ‘sexy’ is not just to remark on the possibility that its wearer might beable to produce thriving children; it is also to acknowledge that we are turned on by the philosophy of existence it represents.

In a given season, we may look at any designer’s collection and consider how we are being invited by it to think of virtue. Dior, for example, may be urging us to remember the importance of such elements as craftsmanship, pre-industrial society and feminine modesty; Donna Karan may be stressing the need for independence, professional competence and the excitements of urban life; and Marni may be making a case for quirkiness, calculated immaturityand left-wing politics. Getting turned on is a process that engages the whole self.Our arousal is an endorsement of a range of surprisingly articulate suggestions as to how we might live.”

Here’s another one, on the temptations of adultery:

[spoiler title=”Click tab to see this excerpt” open=”0″ style=”1″]

We are unlikely to be able to get a grip on this notorious subject if we don’t first allow ourselves to acknowledge just how tempting and exhilarating adultery can be, especially after a few years of marriage and a couple of children. Before we can begin to call it “wrong,” we have to concede that it is also very often—for a time, at least—profoundly thrilling.

Let’s go even further and venture that (contrary to all public verdicts on adultery), the real fault might consist in the obverse—that is, in the lack of any wish whatsoever to stray. This might be considered not only weird but wrong in the deepest sense of the word, because it is irrational and against nature. A blanket refusal to entertain adulterous possibilities would seem to represent a colossal failure of the imagination, a spoilt imperturbability in the face of the tragically brief span we have been allotted on this earth, a heedless disregard for the glorious fleshly reality of our bodies. … Wouldn’t the rejection of these temptations be itself tantamount to a sort of betrayal? Would it really be possible to trust anyone who never showed any interest at all in being unfaithful?

Too many people start off in relationships by putting the moral emphasis in the wrong place, smugly mocking the urge to stray as if it were something disgusting and unthinkable. But in truth, it is the ability to stay that is both wondrous and worthy of honor, though it is too often simply taken for granted and deemed the normal state of affairs. That a couple should be willing to watch their lives go by from within the cage of marriage, without acting on outside sexual impulses, is a miracle of civilization and kindness for which they ought both to feel grateful on a daily basis.

There is nothing normal or particularly pleasant about sexual renunciation. Fidelity deserves to be considered an achievement and constantly praised—ideally with some medals and the sounding of a public gong—rather than discounted as an unremarkable norm whose undermining by an affair should provoke spousal rage. A loyal marriage ought at all times to retain within it an awareness of the immense forbearance and generosity that the two parties are mutually showing in managing not to sleep around (and, for that matter, in refraining from killing each other). If one partner should happen to slip, the other might forgo fury in favor of a certain bemused amazement at the stretches of fidelity and calm that the two of them have otherwise succeeded in maintaining against such great odds.

Ultimately, sex gives us problems within marriage because it gives us problems everywhere. Unfortunately, our own private dilemmas around sex in marriage or otherwise are commonly aggravated by the idea that we belong to a liberated age—and ought by now, as a result, to be finding sex a straightforward and untroubling matter.

But despite our best efforts to clean it of its peculiarities, sex will never be simple in the ways we might like it to be. It can die out halfway through a marriage; it refuses to sit neatly on top of love, as it should. Tame it though we may try, sex has a recurring tendency to wreak havoc across our conjugal lives. Sex remains in absurd, and perhaps irreconcilable, conflict with some of our highest commitments and values. Perhaps ultimately we should accept that sex is inherently rather odd instead of blaming ourselves for not responding in more normal ways to its confusing impulses. This is not to say that we cannot take steps to grow wiser about sex. We should simply realize that we will never entirely surmount the difficulties it throws our way.

[/spoiler]

The pleasing aspect of de Botton’s career is that he has brought a good mind to bear on issues that concern us all in our lives, yet dealt with them on the basis of how we live and how we might want to live, rather than remain on the academic level far above the supposedly mundane concerns of daily life. Like a good novelist he gives substance and definition to what we are often unconscious of in our social lives, and treats seriously the details of familiar issues as they are lived, rather than set them aside for dealing with later in a church or other abstracted setting. Yet he doesn’t turn to fiction and fantasy to explore everyday reality, but makes explicit the lineaments of desire, ambition, greed and every other force which moves us in our lives.

It is something of a marvel that the highest ivory towers of England have produced such a down to earth philosopher from an academic milieu and a society which is rife with more intellectual and class snobbery than almost any other.

PS: Don’t believe us? Then here are a few confirming opinions from the pinnacles of hackdom:

“Many books of pop psychology or pop philosophy try to contend straightforwardly with what ails our age; Alain de Botton’s wonderful How to Think More About Sex comes to mind, an example of an intelligent person helpfully untying some knots that bind us.”—Sheila Heti, The New York Times Book Review

Dwight Garner’s fine review in the Times is more than a match for Botton’s high level pontificating, both noting its preciousness and admiring its perception. “How to Think More About Sex is a meditation on how comprehensively disruptive our urges can be…an honest book that’s on the prowl for honest insight….Self-Help Books for the Rest of Us.”—The New York Times

“It’s like Cosmo meets Plato—finally!”—Salon

“Even if our sexual partners don’t excite us, this writer’s piquant prose will.”—More

“De Botton is never prescriptive, and the intellectual rigor of his investigation prevents this book from settling into a self-help reference guide.”—Publishers Weekly

“By encouraging readers to understand their desires and manifestations of sexuality in new and more reflective ways, de Botton’s addition to the School of Life series offers a tantalizing discourse on this endlessly fascinating, and eternally misunderstood, subject.”—Booklist

“[de Botton] offers a collection of essays that, taken as a whole, serve to pull sexuality into a philosophical consideration of our drives and desires, to illuminate how we can make sense of the urges that drive us senseless….A well-rounded examination of the ways we can marry intelligent thought and physical pleasure.”—Kirkus Reviews

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