A friend did a review of Alain de Botton's new book on sex, and I fear that she and I will have disagreements about the review. I rather liked de Botton's book on travel, and I liked his books about airport life and the nature of work. I haven't been too impressed with his books on religion or philosophy, but I wasn't angered or put off by them, either. My friend, however, is put off by de Botton's views about sex. I haven't read his book, but I did spend time this morning reading through her review. I suspect we'll disagree on a couple of things.
My friend Ms. Flox is dismissive of de Botton's views because she finds them Freudian. I've been an admirer of Freud since my teens. He's an intellectual hero of mine, and his "The Future of an Illusion" has a firm place on my shelves. I've studied and lived in and enjoyed Vienna, and it was through a biography of Freud (more precisely, a biographical novel read one high school springtime) that introduced me to Vienna. So I'm disposed to like Freud, and I smile a thin, cold smile whenever I hear him dismissed out of hand by feminists or devotees of the neuroscience cult.
My friend cites this passage as a reason for disliking de Botton's book: “The precise origins of our enthusiasms may be obscure, but they can almost always be traced back to some meaningful aspect of our childhood: we will be drawn to specific things either because they recall appealing qualities of a beloved parental figure or else, conversely, because they somehow cancel out, or otherwise help us escape, a memory of an early humiliation or terror." To me, of course, the quote seems totally unexceptionable. We are creatures of our histories. We carry our pasts with us. Does my friend really think that we aren't shaped by our childhoods, or that what we desire or love or fear doesn't grow out of our pasts?
It did strike me that she had her own reasons for disliking that passage. De Botton follows Freud in tying fetishes and enthusiasms to our childhoods and how our psyches are shaped there. My friend says something a bit later that caught my eye: the need to evade responsibility underlying the entire work is toxic: It’s not that I like this [fetish] because I’m weird, it’s that my psychological history has a deficit... That stopped me and rather surprised me. There's more there than just rejecting Freud's ideas about how childhood shapes how we see sex as adults. The word "responsibility" is a red flag here. And consider her phrasing. Is she arguing that one does have certain "enthusiasms" because one really is "weird"? The other side of "responsibility" is guilt. Always. I read that as saying that my friend does want people to think that they should feel guilt about their enthusiasms or fetishes, that whatever they like or do doesn't have a history, that it's always a matter of context-less, history-free choice that can be derided as "weird", something that should induce guilt.
I'd hate to think that's what she's saying.
Our enthusiasms, our fetishes, all come with histories. All our loves and hates come with predispositions and genealogies. Mine do, certainly. I can look back at what I've fancied or desired down the years and see how those things evolved. And it's not hard to see some of the things I've been looking for through my particular tastes. It's certainly not hard to see how my predispositions were shaped, to see that when I was beginning to think of sex and desire, the channels were already dug for where my tastes would flow.
I'll make it a question, then. What routes did you travel to your desires and enthusiasms? I know what the choke points have been in my own life, where the channels had been excavated long before I started to travel down them. I hope you'll think about those things in your own lives, that you'll think of the genealogies of desire.
I hope, too, that you'll understand that your enthusiasms and fetishes evolved along the roads that lead back to your pasts. They didn't appear out of nothing, and they didn't appear because you're "weird". I remain somewhat disappointed that my friend would use that word, and that she's rejecting the idea of history. I'm disappointed that she wants to invoke the idea of "weird" and the guilt associated with it, and I'm disappointed that she thinks that what we like or desire or hate isn't shaped early on. She wants to cut away the baggage of the past and then saddle us with the far heavier baggage of the word "weird".