Friday, December 7, 2007

Edward Shorter's "Written in the Flesh": Book Review

Edward Shorter's "Written in the Flesh" Book Review

Surprisingly absent from any local public and many a university library, I had to seek out this book subtitled "A History of Desire"-- it deserves a wider readership. Perhaps the fact it comes from the U of Toronto may account for its relative scarcity, or a franker tone (award winning in Canada to boot) suited more to a less puritanical audience than that supposed in America. But, such generalizations, as Shorter, a Toronto-based medical historian with many previous books, would lecture us, now can be revealed as false. He notes, two decades ago, how a "random national survey" of 2700 of my fellow Americans had found about half of them claiming "between eleven and sixty sex partners." Shorter finds "these lifetime numbers of sex partners similar to those of Casanova."

Well, although I confess being well below average here, as one of the final have-nots coming of age during what this book also documents as the "total" collapse in the 1970s of premarital inhibitions (I assure you it was not for many of those with whom I attended starting in the fall of '79 my purportedly Catholic college, alas), and therefore I lagged way behind many of my polled compatriots by 1988-- let alone what will be 2008 standards. Nonetheless, since the 1860s or so, what we tend to think of as the sexual revolution of the later Sixties actually began to stir.

Why so late? The Romantics, Shorter argues, tended to swoon towards matters of the spirit and emotions, while discounting the demands of the body. Not until the Industrial Revolution lured many from the prying community and the surveilled farmhouse where ten to a bed a family might itch and stink and scratch (these are all enlivened with relish) could many men and women find a "room of one's own." With the collapse of the hindrances of dogma and disease, eroticism began to flourish. Yet, Virginia Woolf's assertion that "On or about December 1910 human nature changed" may be a bit delayed. Shorter cites her "Old Bloomsbury" paper for Lytton Strachey's fingerpointing at Vanessa Woolf's white dress with the stain that he ascertained and queried aloud as "Semen?" This admission triggered talk of sex, and as the Bloomsbury crowd overcame their reticence then, so I do now. This kindled "The Great Breakout."

This publicizing of sexual desire took a century. The avant-garde, both hetero- and homosexual, pioneered such talk and behavior, but it took a gradual transmission and often underground methods of expression to spread. It's tricky to base any study of sexual behavior on what we can uncover; Shorter cautions how extracting what John Boswell celebrates as "the bisexuality of the time" from a few cynical Roman poets equates with observers a century from now "relying upon the comic monologues of Chris Rock as evidence" for our own sexual mores. (64)

I have wondered how "everyday" people find out about sexual practices that once were thought outré but now anything goes; Shorter offers little beyond the obvious here. Perhaps urbanization and mass media led to the ease of discovering the frisson if not the shock of the new, but Shorter tends to head off into the S&M and gay subcultures towards the later stages of the past century. (As a relevant aside, Shorter excels on Sade: his "social allegories are not stroke manuals" [211]. The top rules the bottom, the exchange of power truly pricks the domineering over the submissive. He reminds us that, as with the term masochism, sadism took a sensationalist twist distorting the concept when Krafft-Ebing published in 1886 Psychopathia sexualis.) So much of what became licit or licentious depended on one's circle. Tongue kissing proved extremely rare until not too long ago, fellatio almost unheard of for much of the past, and stimulation of the nipples quite uncommon for most of our ancestors. Shorter seems to have his own obsession with male nipples not getting their fair share of the bedroom action, by the way-- this predilection's rarely been noted. To each his own.

College grads appear to have led the way towards liberalizing sex, so perhaps they picked up on the same hints that their professors and peers of Shorter must have. I propose Richard Dawkins' social "memes" could be a model to apply here. I suppose Shorter, as with any historian, must rely upon the fragments of court trials, diaries, pottery shards, and doggerel which, until recently, tended to be all the documentation we have for thousands if not millions of years about how humans before us regarded sexual activity. We have no trace of all the pick-up lines and pillow talk and lover's spats and pub putdowns that could tell us so much. Only inquisitions, testimonies, boasts, confessions, and rumor. Or, has this always been the case with what goes on if not behind closed doors than at least in whispers meant for another pair of ears only?

New notes, and not merely new arrangements, make sex like music. Shorter argues that earlier people had indeed an erotic baseline, a minimum of a charge that would raise sparks, but that many men and women, after the fall of Rome, had perhaps no idea that the body could be used so variably. They did not appear to let themselves go wild. The fear of God, of death, of recrimination suppressed much erotic potency. This state of repression and ignorance lasted nearly until our own century for all but the few who left some gasp of pleasure in the few traces we can find from the past millennia of Western Civ (the East provides another tale beyond the scope of this short book.) He quotes D.H. Lawrence's Connie Chatterly in his 1928 novel: "'The human body is only just coming to life,' she said. 'With the Greeks it gave a lovely flicker, then Plato and Aristotle killed it, and Jesus finished it off. But now the body is coming really to life, is really rising from the tomb.'" (147)

He implies that Foucault's "social construction," Lillian Federman's theory of a butch-femme embedded dynamic, or any "third sex" circa 1700 are all themselves weak arguments compared to an essentialist force that hard-wires us differently. (Shorter also glances at Kinsey's "ten percent" for gays and finds that as he was homosexual himself he tipped the scale in his own sampling of interviews; two percent's more like it.) He shows how the effeminate swish went in and out of favor in the gay community, and how the dyke herself rose into and fell out of lesbian style. Shorter in mapping the dominance for our own generation of "total body sex" opines that our ancestors may not have even considered the erogenous potential of their bodies as they were more fixated on survival. Any sex they were likely to have could be observed by family members, eavesdroppers in the literal sense, or the eye of a censorious neighbor eager to report the sight to priest or judge. The conceptions in same-sex male encounters of what constituted relations also evolved from times when lack of hygeine led to genital contact predominantly. Therefore, homosexual "buggery" that imitated the predominant "missionary position" of heterosexuals shifted more slowly than might be expected to an optional form of release using the mouth. This happened much later, when cities again allowed in the 20c a more anonymous rate of exchange in tea rooms and clubs, unlike the furtive activity that earlier men had often to engage in quickly and under constant fear of discovery-- at least.

Similarly, with the fetish changing from fur a century or more ago to leather, Shorter demonstrates how fashion allied with mass production and technological innovation to create new demands for products sold to wider audiences eager for the next Betty Page or Greenwich/ Castro St. fantasy. (This brisk narrative does whir by too rapidly. For example, Shorter should have given a nod to Village People & Freddie Mercury here; I think of the Dodger Stadium family crowds who now sing along to Queen & "YMCA"-- surely this represents a popularization unwittingly perhaps of what was known largely by only a Tom of Finland bathhouse demographic not that long ago?)

Shorter credits the only in the 1960s the concept that one could let one's senses free to achieve "total body sex" but finds its origins in the fin-de-siecle with the demi-monde. The literary and artistic circles appear to have publicized their derring-do, and gradually in the cities and colleges this appears to have trickled down to the wider populace in a pattern still continuing. But as to the present-day resistance-- in both Christian and Muslim societies-- Shorter tends to ignore.

He concludes by acknowledging that sexual liberation need not be seen as anti-rational or irresponsible. Rather, it signals the breaking of centuries of clerical, communal, and personal taboos enforced. He does find that the more sexually active one is, the more one mistrusts others. He ends his study pondering how the increased bonds between a pair have been diminishing the ties to one's religious practice or social affiliation in an extension of the "bowling alone" thesis. This tendency, he finds, has accelerated in our own times along with the loss of restraints towards sexual choice.

The popularity of sex without reproduction or repercussion-- for the first time in our species-- also could not have emerged without medical improvements. Foremost, the loss of fear by women that they could be one of the 10% who died in childbirth or post-partum-- every coital act was thus a grim roll of the Reaper's dice. We also can go to bed with enthusiasm. Our bodies and those we explore can be free of the stench that would have discouraged even the libertines of the past. Thanks to the hygienic attention that eradicated scabies, lice, and smallpox, our post-Bloomsburian relaxed attitudes towards intimacy can be thanked to clean living. And not only the dirty pictures that come with guiltless and effortless access via the media. Shorter leaves the reader free to wonder about what seems the most natural of activities but in fact remains one of the most mediated, even within the privacy of one's own bedroom in an anonymous city.

(Posted to Amazon US today with obvious excisions.)

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