Book review: “Lust” by Simon Blackburn

blackburn.lustMost of us find it uncomfortable to speak about lust. Philosopher Simon Blackburn is no exception, even though he lectured on the subject at the New York Public Library and expanded his remarks into a short, spritely book Lust, published in 2004 by Oxford University Press.

In fact, Blackburn spends five of his book’s 133 pages, explaining why he shouldn’t have to take up the task, including his age (about 60 at the time), his being a male (in an era when women dominate gender discussions) and his British nationality.

We English are renowned for our cold blood and temperate natures, and our stiff upper lips….Other nationalities are amazed that we English reproduce at all. One cannot imagine an Englishman lecturing on lust in France.

Those sentences capture Blackburn’s witty, playful tone in Lust, and so does his discussion of the Cynics of ancient Greece who “thought too much song and dance was made about the whole thing.” Diogenes, one of the leading Cynics, argued that there was no good reason why shame should be attached to sex.

Rising to the challenge, Diogenes’ pupil Crates and his wife Hipparchia are credibly reported to have copulated first on the steps of the temple as they got married, and thereafter repeatedly and happily in public.

Yes, well. One wonders if such copulations should be classified as lust. My guess is that, philosophers being philosophers, any making-whoopee between Mr. and Mrs. Crates on the temple steps had more to do with the Mr.’s reason and desire to make an intellectual point than with desire plain and simple.

Being a Brit and a philosopher himself, Blackburn goes through the many variations in motivation and experience that can lead a couple to couple. Within that context, he defines lust as “enthusiastic desire, the desire that infused the body, for sexual activity and its pleasures of their own sake.”

Sappho, in fragment 31, describes lust this way:

…and my tongue is struck silent, a delicate fire
suddenly races underneath my skin,

my eyes see nothing, my ears whistle like
the whirling of a top

and sweat pours down me and a trembling creeps over
my whole body, I am greener than grass
at such times, I seem to be no more than
a step away from death…


“But not yet”

Blackburn quotes Sappho as well as a host of other writers from William Shakespeare to Dorothy Parker, and, truth be told, 133 pages of their randy jottings would probably communicate more about lust than Lust does.

That’s not really a failure on the part of Blackburn. He does a fine job of teasing out the many ways that great thinkers over the millenniums have tried to fit lust into a framework of reason and logic.

Consider Thomas Aquinas on the subject:

As Isidore says…”a lustful man is one who is debauched with pleasures.” Now venereal pleasures above all debauch a man’s mind. Therefore, lust is especially concerned with such like pleasures.

Like many philosophers and Christian theologians before and after him, Thomas’ beef with lust is that, at some point in the act, if done well, the participants lose their reason and find themselves transported in an experience that, Blackburn writes, is very close to religious ecstasy.

The brain requires a lot of blood, so there is a saying that men have two organs that require a lot of blood, but only enough for one at a time. There is a literal truth here, and not only about men, which is that sexual climax drives out thought. It even drives out prayer, which is part of the church’s complaint about it.

As usual, Shakespeare says it even better. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he has Duke Theseus state:

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.

Not only does that get at the mind-blowing aspect of sex, but it also gives a nod to poets over philosophers as the sort who see “more than cool reason ever comprehends.”

By middle age, St. Augustine was railing against lust. But in his teens and 20s, he relished the hot and heavy. Indeed, he writes that he would pray to be given the strength to be chaste and continent “but not yet.”


Nitty-gritty facts

Lust came about as part of a series that the New York Public Library and Oxford University Press put together on the seven deadly sins — pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony and lust. A prominent writer was asked to tackle each sin in a lecture and a book.

Blackburn goes into the many ways that lust has been viewed as a sin — from the perspective of early Christian teachings all the way up to present-day feminist scholarship.

Along the way, he trots out some interesting and/or odd factoids.

He notes, for instance, that one male lion was observed by researchers to have sex 157 times in 55 hours with two different females. Similarly, a female chimpanzee went at it 84 times in an eight-day period with seven different partners. Clearly, for these animals, sex wasn’t simply to ensure the survival of the species, whatever the Church Fathers might say.

The view that evolution has made human males dominant and females submissive is complicated by such nitty-gritty facts as the size of male equipment, Blackburn writes. Male gorillas are fairly monogamous, don’t need to compete and have small genitals whereas, with chimpanzees, it’s just the opposite.

Human males have large penises by primate standards, and the relative size of their testicles comes somewhere in between chimpanzees and gorillas. These are indications that males are built for sperm competition…

In other words, human males don’t seem to be all that dominant.

The strong element of distaste with which many Christian preachers have viewed lust down through the centuries doesn’t carry over into Eastern traditions. Blackburn points out that Taoists saw sex as a theoretical road to immortality.

Indeed, one of the Taoists manuals asserted that the Yellow Emperor became immortal after having had sexual relations with twelve hundred women, although it seems probable that the number twelve hundred is more accurate than the claim of immortality.

(Blackburn missed a chance here to note, for whatever it might be worth, that NBA star Wilt Chamberlain claimed in his 1991 autobiography to have had sex with 20,000 women in his life. Wilt, though, didn’t achieve immortality. He died in 1999.)


“Clubs cannot part them”

Lust is not love as Edna St. Vincent Millay lets her soon-to-be (momentary) lover know in no uncertain terms in sonnet lxi:

Think not for this, however, the poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity — let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.

But lust can be love. Again, Shakespeare, from a speech by Rosalind in As You Like It:

…for your brother and my sister no sooner met but they looked; no sooner looked but they loved; no sooner loved but they sighed; no sooner signed but they asked one another the reason; no sooner knew the reason but they sought the remedy; and in these degrees have they made a pair of stairs to marriage, which they will climb incontinent, or else by incontinent before marriage. They are in the very wrath of love, and they will together. Clubs cannot part them.

Lust, Blackburn writes, is a virtue. And a communion. And, when successful, it is like music-making.

When the string quartet comes to a triumphant end, the players have been responding and adjusting to each other delicately for the entire performance. No wonder there is a sense of communion on completion…

It is not the movements, but the thought behind them, that matter to lust. The way the symphony unfolds can be anatomically as various as the partners can desire or manage, and as psychologically various as well….

It is rather that we do something together, shown by our alertness to the other, and the adjustments we make in the light of what the other does.

Patrick T. Reardon

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