Lust: What if Beauty is dumb and the Beast is just a beast?
Now that Valentine’s Day is over and the best chocolates have long since disappeared from that heart-shaped box, let’s talk about the real heart of the matter, the secret we hide inside all of our flowery phrases and champagne dreams: Lust. Cambridge Philosophy Professor Simon Blackburn contributes this volume on life’s most guilty pleasure to Oxford University Press’s series on the Seven Deadly Sins, and, like the deliciously inviting urge that he examines, Blackburn leaves you momentarily satisfied and not so sure that what just happened was a good idea, but nevertheless craving more.
Lust is a slender, compact book, a sort of philosophical speed-date that introduces us to an extraordinary array of Western philosophers, who wrangle about the meaning of sex. Blackburn excels at pitting philosophers from different historical moments against each other in imaginary debates about the proper meaning and place of lust in morality and culture, and he can’t help cracking wise about the moral struggles of our ancestors, which he does in a knowing, even superior way. After all, it is difficult to take Kant’s notion that “marriage is a contract for each to use the other’s genitals” as the final word on marital ethics (even if you’re prepared to concede that that phrase might usefully be included in standard marriage vows).
A priceless passage from Augustine’s City of God, in which sexual desire is compared to farting and the proper control of sexual desire is compared to musical farting, causes Blackburn much glee: “Such people can do some things with their bodies which are for others utterly impossible and well-nigh incredible when they are reported. Some can swallow an incredible number of articles and then with a slight contraction of the diaphragm can produce, as if out of a bag, any article they please, in perfect condition. A number of people produce at will such musical sounds from their behinds (without any stink) that they seem to be singing from that region.” Thus, the Will can control the natural functions of the body, just as you should be able to control your urge to sleep with that flirty, athletic, unshaven guy at your brother-in-law’s barbecue, or that new woman in accounting who wears the inexplicably alluring false eyelashes.
Blackburn’s lightning-fast tour of the nervous superhighway connecting our heads and hearts to our nether regions is over so quickly and is so enjoyable that it’s easy to forget that you didn’t fully appreciate all of the scenery as it whipped by. The author gives issues of marital fidelity short shrift, and he dismisses feminist arguments about the power of the objectifying gaze almost out of hand, but as a broad overview of historical attitudes about lust—ranging from Lucretius to Woody Allen, Schopenhauer to Barbara Herman, Plato to Proust—Lust is seductive and fun. But it returns you to the genuine article of lust with all the same doubts you had when you started.