Being on top

John Ryle

  • Sexual Desire by Roger Scruton
    Weidenfeld, 428 pp, £18.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 297 78479 X
  • The History of Sexuality. Vol. II: The Use of Pleasure by Michel Foucault, translated by Robert Hurley
    Pantheon, 293 pp, $17.95, December 1985, ISBN 0 394 54349 1
  • Western Sexuality: Practice and Precept in Past and Present Times by Philippe Ariès and André Béjin, translated by Anthony Forster
    Blackwell, 220 pp, £17.50, April 1985, ISBN 0 631 13476 X
  • No Magic Bullet: A Social History of Venereal Disease in the United States since 1880 by Allan Brandt
    Oxford (New York), 245 pp, £18.50, August 1985, ISBN 0 19 503469 4
  • Jealousy by Nancy Friday
    Collins, 593 pp, £12.95, January 1986, ISBN 0 00 217587 8

What is more important: is it the project of understanding why sexual desire is, or has become, a problem for us like no other, fraught with particular anxiety and special perplexity; or is it the task of establishing – maintaining, perhaps – principles according to which this desire can be regulated, guided, temporised? The change in relations between the sexes and the concomitant change in relations between members of the same sex, the double alteration that has come over us in the last two or three generations makes a certain kind of intellectual investigation possible for the first time. The impure hush has ended; the tongues of desire have been freed. Texts that were formerly read selectively, through a haze of anxiety, or feverishly perused for the legitimation of proscribed longings have at length entered ordinary scholarly discourse.

The same alteration does not seem to have benefited the discourse of sexual ethics. Although the freedom to discuss sex without circumlocution has been used affirmatively by sexual minorities for the elaboration of appetite into self-definition, it has not been used by them for its regulation. And the general recognition and institutionalisation of the variety of sexual experience has had a relativising effect on traditional morality – the morality that privileges and circumscribes a single idea of sexual relations. Cross-cultural and trans-historical comparisons, comparisons which make it possible to characterise the still obscure features of our – possibly changing – sexuality, tend to compound this relativism. For a brief period the struggle for liberation from the constraints of traditional morality appeared to provide in itself an ethic for sexual behaviour. But the Utopian vision of sexual liberation has degenerated in practice into a set of hedonistic precepts that hardly constitute a moral system at all.

This is the terrain vague of our sexual life, the habitat of eros. Science has failed to frame this subtle carnivore. Now the philosophers take the field. In Sexual Desire, Roger Scruton is bent on recapturing eros in the name of the old morality and restoring him to his proper place in the ethical zoo. No relativist he; for him the two projects described above, descriptive and prescriptive, are inseparable; correct analysis of the nature of sexual desire gives rise to appropriate rules of behaviour; philosophy itself should be concerned ‘not to explain the world so much as to be at home in it, recognising the occasions for action, the objects of sympathy and the places of rest’. For the late Michel Foucault the problem was just the opposite: to separate the two issues and locate the historical moment when sexual desire became a particular focus of moral attention. ‘What is philosophy,’ he writes, ‘if not the endeavour to know how and to what extent it might be possible to think differently, instead of legitimating what is already known?’

In the first volume of his History of Sexuality, which was published in 1976, Foucault’s analysis appeared to conform to the vision of his earlier work on the origin of the modern world in tracing the emergence of what he came to call ‘desiring man’ to a point between the late 17th and the 18th century, with antecedents in the specialised confessional disciplines of Christian monastic life. He discerned in the age of reason a new, sinister shift of interest to the sexuality of children and ‘the relationships between sexual behaviour, normality and health’. But in the present volume, the second, which did not appear until 1984, he explains that the form of his investigation changed, taking him further into the European past than he had expected in pursuit of the practices by which individuals were led to ‘decipher, recognise and acknowledge themselves as objects of desire, bringing into play between themselves and themselves a certain relationship that allows them to discover, in desire, the truth of their being, be it natural or fallen’. This second volume, The Use of Pleasure, the first of what comprise now the three final volumes, is a study of Greek medical and philosophical texts on the proper conduct of sexual activity; the last two, Care of the Self and Confessions of the Flesh, not yet translated, continue the same inquiry through Roman and Patristic literature to the Christian era, concluding, rather than opening, on the threshold of modernity. The brilliant obscurities and grandiloquent gestures that make much of Foucault’s writing so exhausting, exhausting in his lack of exhaustiveness, are subordinated here to detailed exegesis and explications de textes. In a striking departure from previous practice, Foucault makes full use of current scholarship in the areas in question and gives generous acknowledgment to the work of others.

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