Sex in the head

Roy Porter

  • The History of Sexuality. Vol. III: The Care of Self by Michel Foucault, translator Robert Hurley
    Allen Lane, 279 pp, £17.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 7139 9002 3

How are we to read the history of sexuality? In the Introduction volume to his great multi-volume essay in critical-revisionism, Michel Foucault set out to demystify the discourse which has informed post-Victorian accounts about sex, whether therapeutic (Reich), scholarly (Bloch) or polemical (Marcuse). Such histories were traditionally cast in a progressive, Whiggish, emancipatory framework, presupposing a dialectics of drives, repression and liberation. Sex was self-evidently a good thing, nature’s path to pleasure, individual fulfilment and biological fitness. But, such vulgar Freudian histories contended, Western civilisation – indeed, civilisation per se – had chosen to repress it. Why? To some extent, from fear, ignorance and pseudo-science. To a large degree, thanks to the ‘thou shalt not-ism’ of Christianity, for which carnality was the root of all evil. Between them, pastoral theology and canon law had judged sex sinful between almost all people in almost all postures on almost all occasions. And not least, according to Marxists, sexual repression had been demanded by the labour economy of capitalism. Maximising work had entailed minimising sex; the social control of the proletariat, of women, and of children, first required their sexual control. Eros had thus been comprehensively denied. Such histories crusaded for sexual enlightenment to end this tyranny. For Sixties Marxo-Freudians, sexual revolution and political revolution would go hand in hand.

In Karl Kraus’s celebrated judgment, psychoanalysis was the disease of which it purported to be the cure. Foucault debunked this ideology of sexual emancipation in a comparable way. Properly scrutinised, the vulgar-Freudian ‘dialectics of liberation’ could be seen less as a break with, and more as a revamping of, that regime of sexual inquisition from which it promised emotional rescue. Indeed, Foucault demonstrated, that whipping boy, Victorian ‘silence’ (prudery, expurgation, censorship) was a grotesque misnomer. For never had there been so much discourse about sex as then, proliferating around the family (procreation), children (masturbation), women (hysteria) and adults (perversion). Victorian sexology’s expressed goal was psychophysical ‘hygiene’; its modern counterpart aimed rather at expression. Yet both employed similar techniques, a confessional mode, obliging sex to speak its truth within a voyeuristic scientia sexualis.

Foucault’s strategy was not to re-argue the case for sexual ‘silence’ (strange paradox), any more than it was to champion civilisation over libido. It was rather to expose these drive/repression, prohibition/permission scenarios as false-consciousness, at once self-congratulatory, self-serving and shallow. For if, after all, ‘repression’ had been grounded upon a loquacious sexology, how simple-minded to suppose that libido-liberation could emerge from a ‘talking cure’. And ultimately, Foucault insisted, this was because sexuality was not a biological drive to be denied or liberated, but the product of discourse. The history of sexuality must thus be the history of its discourses. And so he plunged back to the earliest sexual formulations within the Western tradition for the succeeding two volumes of his (alas, unfinished) history.

Greek writings about erotics did not, of course, problematise sex in terms of a timeless battle between inner drives (some ‘id’) and external interdictions. As Foucault’s second volume, The Uses of Pleasure, demonstrated, Greek thought primarily problematised sexuality in terms of how sexual pleasures (aphrodisia) could most amply be enjoyed by men who were simultaneously enjoying their social status as educated, leisured, political animals. Sexuality was inscribed in several distinct discourses: dietetics (finding the right frequency and pitch of performance compatible with one’s well-being); economics (the rules governing sexual relations with one’s wife, geared to forming family alliances and maintaining households); and erotics, which rationalised how boys might legitimately be taken as lovers (when friendship, philia, blessed the relationship).

Thus Greek theories did not reveal sex as the secret of the self, as the alchemy of romantic ecstasy, or even as some subversive demon. They made prescriptions for conduct within ethics and aesthetics. Enjoyed in a variety of forms, with different partners, under diverse rubrics, sex was one of the legitimate pleasures a ‘desiring man’ should ‘use’, so long as it was pursued with sophrosyne, moderation. In sex, a man must be free but not loose.

It is the transformation of discourse about aphrodisia from the Hellenistic to the Roman world which dominates the third volume of Foucault’s inquiry. If the Greeks conceptualised sexuality chiefly in terms of what was apt for public man within civic values, Roman thought experienced desires as more problematic, and switched the moral centre of gravity to the self. By this Foucault does not mean an inner psyche, spirit or soul, but rather that Roman values needed to harmonise sexual expression within one’s self-cultivation (cura sui) as an independent moral being, affirming a dignified autonomy in a political world in which public life became less assured. Developments we can broadly label Stoic set store by ‘adult education’ and the practice of sexual self-mastery, not by way of extolling denial as virtuous per se, but as techniques for promoting the culture of the conscious self.

In exploring this hermeneutics of self-possession, Foucault pitches into three fields in which sexual self-culture became particularly manifest. First, the body and health, the meeting-point of philosophy and medicine. Concentrating upon the physicians Galen and Soranus, he argues that Roman civilisation became notably more anxious about the physically debilitating effects of sexual ‘excess’: orgasm was often characterised as pathological, marked by convulsions or a little epilepsy. If semen was a concentrate of the life-force lodged within the spinal marrow, could not seminal loss, as Galen suggested, threaten vitality itself? The Greeks had treated sexual immoderation as unseemly: Roman medicine increasingly believed it unhealthy. Regimens of sexual stringency were prescribed.

Second, Foucault turns to relations with women. Greek thought largely construed marital relations as instruments of family alliance and domestic establishment. As queen of the household, the wife was to be honoured, yet she was neither a special nor an exclusive object of sexual desire or love. This changed in Roman culture. Drawing effectively upon Pliny’s letters, Foucault contends that ‘symmetrical conjugality’ became more prominent in Roman sexual ‘stylistics’. Though moral prohibitions were never uttered against mistresses and prostitutes, the mutual monopoly and reciprocities between husband and wife became prized. Something akin to what Marie Stopes was to call ‘married love’ was held in heightened esteem.

Foucault’s third discussion seems to follow as a corollary: the transformation of relations with boys. Roman mores in no way prohibited attachments between adult men and youths. Yet, Foucault argues, such affairs became subject to a new disaffection. For one thing, the idealisation with which the Greeks had treated of them dispersed. For another, they were increasingly caricatured as decadent and gross: pursuit of bathhouse boys was seen as a symptom of undesirable excess. And, as Plutarch emphasised, the role of the boy in such relations came to be thought of as anomalous (the pleasures lacked reciprocity) and without honour.

To what did these transformations in the techniques of the self collectively amount? Though all pointed towards sexual ‘austerity’, they were, Foucault insists, not a mode of repression but of expression, the adumbration of an ‘art of existence’, an exercise in temperance, an enhancement of self-knowledge in an imperial age when the expansive sociopolitical presentation of the self was, perhaps, becoming more problematic. This reading offers a valuable foil to vulgar-Freudian formulations. It undercuts the ‘hydraulic’ image of the history of sex, read as the resultant of contrary pressures – the unconscious and the conscious, mind and flesh, emerging in cycles of yea-saying and nay-saying epochs. It emphasises that sexuality is the product of cultural choice, a conscious aesthetics, an education in pleasure.

Above all, Foucault’s recapturing of earlier erotics reinstates sexuality as the child of the self – rather than seeing the self as a dog wagged by a sexually psycho-pathological tail. And at the same time it reminds us of a tradition of sexual self-culture – the positive, self-conscious regime, hingeing upon the exercise of ‘arts of existence’ – which flourished quite independently of the sexual normalisation later externally imposed through the confessionals of Church or couch.

Foucault’s discussion of Roman sexual ‘moderation’ should doubtlessly be read as the final shot in his enduring mission of problematising Freud. Not least, as a deliberately provocative tactic, he opens his book with what might otherwise be seen as a ‘digression’: an exposition of Artemidorus’s Interpretation of Dreams. Artemidorus’s prophetic system for interpreting the sexual symbolism of dreams regarded dreaming as an education for life. His treatment of dreams as heuristic – is it any less plausible than reading them as wish-fulfilments? – is thus shown to be of a piece with Antiquity’s perception of sexuality as a creature of the self.

Foucault’s reconstruction of Roman sexual discourse as defined by techniques for self-enhancement and self-respect constitutes a remarkable achievement. Complex texts are explicated with great mastery. At the peak of his powers, Foucault abandoned his protracted war against everyday intelligibility and familiar intellectual forms, and revealed himself as a superb practitioner of conventional intellectual history. And does one even detect here – something previously taboo in his writings – some betrayal of human sympathy for thinkers such as Pliny and Plutarch, grappling with the management of a life of desire?

Nevertheless, as a text it is hardly problem-free. This volume – like the previous one – is characterised by a notable selectivity of sources, and the principles of inclusion are nowhere justified. Is there any good reason why we should, as Foucault does, take our understanding of Roman sexual stylistics from some fairly obscure thinkers (Musonius, Hierocles) to the entire exclusion of its drama or poetry (just two passing mentions of Ovid!), its legal codes, or even its recorded practices? To write of Classical sexuality without Oedipus – Sophoclean or Senecan – is taking provocation to extremes. Proto-Foucault used to head off charges of evidential ‘unrepresentativeness’ by invoking a meta-theory about epistemes, discursive ruptures and continuities. The latterday Foucault dropped such defences: but it is not clear whether, in their absence, he has not simply fallen into the old trap of presenting a shelf of texts as if they were the signs of the times.

A far more problematic issue remains. Foucault’s untimely death has left it unclear how he interpreted the millennium and a half between Imperial Rome (where Volume Three closes) and modern times, so dazzlingly previewed in the Introduction volume. (He had announced at least one further volume, Confessions of the Flesh, focusing primarily upon the Christian epoch.) Relating antiquity to modernity poses intriguing problems, because we are confronted simultaneously by great similarity and great difference. On the one hand, Foucault’s characterisation of Stoic sexual stylistics, with its valorisation of an internal askesis (training), both mental and physical, bears great resemblance to his account of the conservation of sexual energy amongst the 18th and 19th-century bourgeoisie. In both we see the systematic disciplining of sexual expression, involving an economy of health and an aesthetic ‘intensification of the body’, aimed at the goal of personal and social affirmation. The modern bourgeoisie replicated Stoic autonomy by regulating sexuality, within a regime of health, as a counter to the aristocratic privilege of ‘blood’. In both cases, Foucault asserts, the motor was self-control rather than social control.

Yet a world of difference separated late antiquity from the modern era – indeed, despite deceptive similarities, Foucault denied any essential ‘continuity’ between late paganism and the culture of the Cross. Heir to the theology of the sinfulness of sex, 19th-century discourse was more preoccupied with the dangers of pleasure than its uses, and operated via interlocking networks of inquisitions and interdictions, mobilised by public policing agencies – church, state, medicine, the family. The 19th century articulated sex through those metaphors of instinct (‘lust’) and repression (‘morality’) which Freud and fellow liberators exposed, repudiated and reconstituted.

How then do we explain this transformation from the Classical discourse of ‘moderation’ to modernity’s psychopathologia sexualis? Foucault’s texts afford some hints as to his answer. The transformative agency was the triumph of Christian theology and the Church apparatus which policed it. Virginity, chastity and celibacy were now, for the first time, prized above the disciplined pleasures of sex. From the Fall to Paul, the erotic was negativised (at best, it was better than burning). The Christian doctrine of the soul, bared before Omniscience, interiorised sex into a psychological state, giving priority to intentions, pure and profane, rather than the actions of the body. By instituting the confessional, the Church required the secrets of desire to be told, analysed, reformed.

Foucault’s sketch of what ecclesiastical savoir-pouvoir did to pleasure may, in one sense, be called ultra-conventional. As Peter Gay emphasised so well in his The Enlightenment, radical philosophes hated the Church above all for its sexual mutilation of mankind. Christian dirty-mindedness (Diderot has his wise Tahitian say) had turned innocent desire into a crime. Thereafter the Church has always been the Beast for sexual radicals. It would be paradoxical indeed if such a master of paradox as Foucault thus reaffirmed, in a rather flat-footed manner, entrenched liberal platitudes condemning Christianity as the prime agent of prohibition. Paradoxical, not least because that identification has been energetically challenged of late. A mass of modern scholarship, from Nygren’s Agape and Eros to Irving Singer’s multi-volumed The Nature of Love, has, after all, argued the complexity of the integration of sacred and profane sexuality in Christian theology and mysticism; Leo Sternberg has shown how the sexuality of Christ himself figured prominently in Christian art; and John Boswell has pointed to Christian tolerance of homo-eroticism. Many scholars, most recently Edmund Leites (The Puritan Conscience and Modern Sexuality), have further argued that Protestantism developed positive attitudes towards a measured sensuality within companionate marriage – views arguably compatible with Foucault’s Stoics. A glimpse at sexual advice manuals scotches the myth that sexuality was universally deprecated within Christendom.

The thesis that the Christian triumph marked some dramatic, negative rupture in the culture of sexuality cannot thus be taken as unproblematic. In any case, were some such theory to be promoted, such a break would still need to be explained. Why was a faith so positive about love and incarnation, so particularly punitive about sex? The irony is that if Foucault really believed that the explanation of the radical transformation of sexuality between late antiquity and modernity lies in the Church, then his analysis converges surprisingly with that of his bête noire, Freud – himself, in his crusade against religion, a latterday philosophe: érasez l’infâme becomes the rallying-call animating both.

One key difference remains. Freud thought religion a sublimated, neurotic transformation of libido: but Foucault additionally regarded psychoanalysis as the secular heir to religion – no less an agency of normalisation, and no less, in its own way, given to seeing sexuality as a demon. Freud treated sex as a subterranean Other, a protean biological drive, to cage which civilisation had to be invented. Foucault viewed sexuality as an expression of culture itself. Herein may lie the clue to true emancipatory knowledge.