By Mario Vargas Llosa, from Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society, out next month from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Vargas Llosa, who is the author of more than a dozen novels, received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010. Translated from the Spanish by John King.
A few years ago, a small media storm erupted in Spain when the Socialist government in the region of Extremadura introduced, as part of its sex-education curriculum, masturbation workshops for girls and boys over the age of thirteen — a program that it somewhat mischievously called Pleasure Is in Your Own Hands. Faced with protests, the regional government argued that sex education for children was necessary to “prevent undesirable pregnancies” and that masturbation classes would help young people “avoid greater ills.” In the ensuing debate, the regional government of Extremadura received support from the regional government of Andalucía, which announced that it would soon roll out a similar program. An attempt by an organization close to the Popular Party to close down the masturbation workshops by way of a legal challenge — called, equally mischievously, Clean Hands — failed when the public prosecutor’s office refused to take up the complaint.
How things have changed since my childhood, when the Salesian fathers and La Salle brothers who ran the schools scared us with the idea that “improper touching” caused blindness, tuberculosis, and insanity. Six decades later schools have jerking-off classes. Now that is progress.
But is it really? I acknowledge the good intentions behind the program and I concede that campaigns of this sort might well lead to a reduction in unwanted pregnancies. My criticism is of a sensual nature. Instead of liberating children from the superstitions, lies, and prejudices that have traditionally surrounded sex, might these masturbation workshops trivialize the act even more than it has already been trivialized in today’s society? Might they continue the process of turning sex into an exercise without mystery, dissociating it from feeling and passion, and thus depriving future generations of a source of pleasure that has long nurtured human imagination and creativity?
Masturbation does not have to be taught; it can be discovered in private. It is one of the activities that compose our private lives. It helps boys and girls break out of their family environment, making them individual and revealing to them the secret world of desire. To destroy these private rituals and put an end to discretion and shame — which have accompanied sex since the beginning of civilization — is to deprive sex of the dimension it took on when culture turned it into a work of art. The disappearance of the idea of form in sexual matters — like its disappearance from art and literature — is a kind of regression. It reduces sex to something purely instinctive and animalistic. Masturbation classes in schools might do away with stupid prejudices, but they are also another stab at the heart of eroticism — perhaps a fatal one. And who would benefit from eroticism’s final death? Not the libertarians and the libertines, but the puritans and the churches.
Of course, these workshops are only a minor manifestation of a sexual liberation that is among modern democratic society’s most important achievements. They are another step in the ongoing effort to do away with the religious and ideological restrictions that have constrained sexual behavior from time immemorial, causing enormous suffering. This movement has had many healthy consequences, especially for women and sexual minorities. Repression was long the cause of frustration, neurosis, and other psychic disorders in people who had been the victims of discrimination and censorship, whose activities were condemned to precarious secrecy by the rigidity of the dominant moral code. Women today now enjoy, if not exactly the same freedom as men, at least a degree of sexual autonomy that is infinitely greater than what their grandmothers possessed. Prejudice and hostility against homosexuality have been reduced, even if they have not disappeared. Above all, an idea is gaining ground that in sexual matters what adults of sound mind do or do not do is a decision in which nobody, not the state or the church, should interfere.
All of this is progress. But it is wrong to believe, as do many promoters of sexual liberation, that demystifying sex — abolishing any symbolic transgression from the sexual act — will make it simply a healthy, normal activity. Sex is healthy and normal only among animals. It was healthy and normal for bipeds before they were completely human, when sex was little more than an instinct, a physical discharge of energy that guaranteed reproduction. The move away from an animal state was a long and complex process for our species, a process in which a decisive role was played by the world of culture and invention that Karl Popper called the “third world.” Culture entails the gradual emergence of sovereign individuals, their emancipation from the tribe, the development of leanings, aptitudes, wishes, and desires that differentiate them from others and define them as singular beings. Sex played an essential role in this process. As Sigmund Freud showed, the sexual domain, the most recondite area of individual sovereignty, is where the distinctive features of every personality — those which belong to each of us and make us different from others — are developed. It is a private and secret domain, and we should try to keep it this way if we do not wish to cut off one of the most intense sources of pleasure and creativity — that is, of civilization itself.
In the darkness of earliest times, animals and humans alike engaged in a physical coupling without mystery, without grace, without subtlety, and without love. The humanization of the lives of men and women was a long process in which the advance of scientific knowledge and philosophical and religious ideas all played their parts, as did the development of arts and letters. But nothing changed as much as our sex lives did. This change has been a stimulus of artistic and literary creation; in reciprocal fashion, painting, literature, music, sculpture, and dance — all the artistic manifestations of human imagination — have contributed to the enrichment of pleasure in sexual activity. It would not be outrageous to say that eroticism marks a high point of civilization or that it is one of civilization’s defining characteristics. There is no better way to gauge how primitive a community is or how far it has advanced in civilization than to scrutinize the secrets of the bedroom and to find out how its inhabitants make love.
There are many ways to define eroticism, but the best might be to call it physical love stripped of animality. The satisfaction of an instinctive urge becomes a shared creative activity that prolongs and sublimates physical pleasure, providing a mise-en-scène that turns it into a work of art. But eroticism does not only have the dignifying function of adding beauty to physical pleasure, opening up a wide range of suggestions and possibilities through which human beings can satisfy their desires and fantasies. It also brings to the surface those specters, usually hidden in the irrational part of our natures, that are lethal and destructive. Freud called the destructive urge Thanatos, which is in constant conflict with the vital and creative instinct, Eros. Left to themselves, without any curbs, these monsters of the unconscious can lead to dramatic violence (like the violence that bathes in blood and litters with corpses the novels of the Marquis de Sade) and even to the extinction of the species. That is why eroticism considers prohibition not only a voluptuous stimulus but also a boundary that can lead to suffering and death when transgressed. Georges Bataille was not wrong when he warned against excessive permissiveness in sexual matters. The disappearance of prejudice — which is doubtless liberating — must not mean the abolition of the rituals, mysteries, forms, and discretion through which sex became civilized and human.
It was around 1955 when I discovered that eroticism was inseparably bound up with both human freedom and violence. I had just gotten married for the first time, and I had to take on many jobs — I ended up with eight of them — to earn a living while I continued my university studies. The most enjoyable was as an assistant to the librarian of Lima’s Club Nacional, which was the symbol of the Peruvian oligarchy. The librarian was my university teacher, the historian Raúl Porras Barrenechea. My duties consisted of spending two hours daily, from Monday to Friday, in the elegant building of the club, which was celebrating its centenary around that time. In theory, I was supposed to be cataloguing new additions to the library, but — whether because of simple negligence or a lack of funds, I don’t know — the Club Nacional hardly acquired any new books in those years, so I could spend my two hours writing and reading. These were the happiest hours of days during which I otherwise never stopped doing things that interested me little or not at all. I did not work in the beautiful reading room on the ground floor of the club; I was in an office on the fourth floor. There I discovered, with delight, hidden behind discreet folding screens and prim little curtains, Les Maîtres de l’amour, a splendid collection of erotic books, almost all French, compiled by Guillaume Apollinaire (who wrote prologues to and translated some of the volumes). I read the letters and sexual fantasies of Diderot, Mirabeau, Sade, Restif de la Bretonne, Andréa de Nerciat, and Aretino; I read Casanova’s Histoire de ma vie, Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses, and any number of other emblematic works.
Erotic literature had classical antecedents, of course, but it really came of age in eighteenth-century Europe, in the heyday of the philosophes, with their great innovative theories on morality and politics, their campaign against religious obscurantism, and their passionate defense of freedom. Philosophy, sedition, pleasure, and freedom were what these thinkers and artists demanded and practiced in their writings. They embraced with pride the use of the term “libertine” to describe themselves. Historically, the primary meaning of this word was a person who defies God in the name of liberty.
This doesn’t mean that libertine literature must always be seen as a cry of freedom against all the forms of subjugation and servitude — religious, moral, political — that restrict the right to free will, to social and political freedom, and to pleasure. In fact, the great merit of the monotonous novels of the Marquis de Sade is to show how sex, if practiced without any limits, leads to deranged violence because it is the main channel through which the most destructive instincts of personality are manifest. Books that concentrate in an obsessive and exclusive manner on the description of sexual experiences soon succumb to repetition and monomania. When separated from the other activities and functions that make up the lives of men and women, sexual activity loses vitality and becomes a limited, inauthentic depiction of the human condition.
An ideal eroticism would broaden the boundaries within which our sex lives unfold such that men and women might act freely, exploring their desires and fantasies without feeling threatened or discriminated against. But it would still maintain the forms that preserve the private and intimate nature of sex, so that sex lives do not become banal or animalistic. With its rituals and fantasies, its clandestine nature, its love of form and theatricality, eroticism emerges as a product of high civilization, a phenomenon inconceivable in primitive or rudimentary societies, because it requires a refined sensibility, a literary and artistic culture, and a certain propensity for transgression. “Transgression” has to be taken with a pinch of salt here, since, within the context of eroticism, it does not mean a denial of the dominant moral or religious code but rather the simultaneous recognition and rejection of that code. Violating the norm in an intimate setting, with discretion and through mutual accord, the couple or the group performs a theatrical game that inflames pleasure while also maintaining the confidential and secret nature of sex itself.
Without attention to the forms and rituals that enrich, prolong, and sublimate pleasure, the sex act would again become a purely physical exercise — a natural drive in the human organism, devoid of sensitivity and emotion. A good illustration of this today can be found in the trashy literature that purports to be erotic but achieves only the vulgar rudiments of the genre — pornography. Erotic literature becomes pornographic for purely literary reasons: a sloppy use of form. When writers are negligent or clumsy in their use of language, their plot construction, their use of dialogue, their description of a scene, they inadvertently reveal everything that is crude and repulsive in a sexual coupling devoid of feeling and elegance — one that lacks a mise-en-scène — which becomes the mere satisfaction of the reproductive instinct.
Making love in our time, in the Western world, is much closer to pornography than to eroticism. The masturbation workshops that young people will attend in the future as part of their school curriculum might appear to be a daring step forward in the struggle against priggishness and prejudice. In reality it is likely that this and other initiatives designed to demystify sex — revealing it as something as commonplace as eating, sleeping, and going to work — will prematurely disillusion future generations. Without mystery, passion, fantasy, and creativity, sex becomes a banal gymnastic workout.
If we want physical love to enrich people’s lives, let us free it from prejudice but not from the rites that embellish and civilize it. Instead of exhibiting it in broad daylight, let us preserve the privacy and discretion that allow lovers to play at being gods, to feel that they are gods, in those intense and unique instances of shared passion and desire.