Alain de Botton is a writer who, at least for me, defies easy description. Although he has written novels, I think of him more as an essayist or public thinker. He might be described as a philosopher, but he doesn't seem to fit the traditional category of philosophy. Suffice it to say that his writing is a pleasure to read, thoughtful and though-provoking, timeless and relevant.
His recent book, How to Think More About Sex, places the emphasis on think much more than on sex, as you might expect from a writer of his caliber. This is not a book of titillation, nor is it a sex manual, or a biological study. De Botton takes this usually unmentionable subject and presents reflections that build appreciation for our relationships.
The book is filled with passages that made me smile and think, that's true, but I never thought of it like that before. For instance, the attractive/revolting nature of the act itself. "At the precise juncture where disgust could be at its height, we find only welcome and permission. The privileged nature of the union between two people is sealed by an act that, with someone else, would have horrified them both." He continues, "Lovemaking purifies us by engaging the most apparently polluted sides of ourselves in the procedures and thereby anointing them as newly worthy. This is never more true than when we press our faces, the most public and respectable aspects of ourselves, eagerly against our lovers' most private and 'contaminated' parts . . . thus symbolically lending our approval to their entire selves."
Of course the subject of sex lends itself to humor, which he has plenty of, but it's more understated and observational than bawdy or tasteless. "One of the difficulties of sex is that it doesn't--in the grander scheme of things--last terribly long. Even at its extreme, we are talking of an activity that might only rarely occupy two hours, or approximately the length of a Catholic Mass." And the sex act itself is not merely about physical intimacy; "rather, it is an ecstasy we feel at encountering someone who may be able to put to rest certain of our greatest fears, and whom we may home to build a shared life based upon common values."
Despite his non-religious perspective (he is an atheist who has an admiration for religious culture and values), his writing has sparks of religious themes and Christian morality. He admires the monogamist impulse of religious ethics. Against the temptation to stray, both physically and mentally (as with pornography), "we should be able to see for ourselves that untrammeled liberty can paradoxically trap us, and that . . . we might be doing ourselves a favor if we willingly consented to cede certain of our privileges to a benign supervisory entity."
Regarding adultery, he recognizes that "few marriages . . . perfectly fuse together the three golden strands of fulfillment--romantic, erotic, and familial," but that even in an imperfect or incomplete marriage, "it is impossible to sleep with someone outside of marriage and not spoil the things we care about inside it. . . . 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."
Don't get me wrong; de Botton's sexual ethic may not pass muster for a Sunday school curriculum. But, as he intended, we can all learn a bit more about ourselves and our relationships, thinking more about sex. If nothing else, de Botton will help us not take sex, and our sexual partners, for granted. I love his advice for the bored or complacent: "We might learn to effect on our spouse much the same imaginative transformation that Manet performed on his vegetables. We should try to locate the good and the beautiful beneath the layers of habit and routine. . . . [We may] have forgotten that dimension in him or her that remains adventurous, impetuous, cheeky, intelligent and, above all else, alive." The way I read that is treasure your spouse, view her with eyes that see her as no one else does. Sounds like good advice to me.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy.