Monday, December 14, 2009

Crimes of the Heart

What do Terry Stanton, Tiger Woods, Silvio Berlusconi, Eliot Spitzer, and Bill Clinton all have in common? Each of these men has attained a certain degree of celebrity not only for their professional abilities, but also for their extramarital exploits. More importantly, each epitomizes a tendency to make value judgments about human sexuality. Bonobos have recently come into the news because of their polymorphous perversity, bisexuality, and, in the case of males, generalized priapic behavior. Recent stories have revealed a degree of admiration for these love apes—though a piece in The New Yorker qualified the matter by questioning the bonobo as a paradigm of cuddliness, and introduced the specter of aggression into the palette of their behaviors.
Victor Hugo, George Simenon, John F. Kennedy, Eisenhower, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and most of the characters in novels by mid-20th-century American authors like Richard Yates, John Updike, and John Cheever—all indulged in adulterous exploits. In fact, far more repressive times have yielded a greater admiration for infidelities. Even as children, we were taught that Benjamin Franklin explored electricity in ways other than simply flying a kite. Colette, George Sand, Anaïs Nin, Djuna Barnes, the abstract expressionist artist Joan Mitchell, and Mary McCarthy are only a few of the famous women who led equally colorful sex lives.

Yet for all the openness about sexuality in our current age, and all the attempts to deal with both the problems and pleasures of the libido, few periods in history, with the exception of the Puritan world of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, seem to be as censorious of human impulse as the present day. Yes, crashing cars and hiring prostitutes might be a source of interest and even concern. It’s true that condom companies are the only endorsement Tiger Woods is likely to retain in the coming year. But the shock and surprise that a golfer might gratify the attraction generated by his legendary swing betrays a questionable threshold for human transgression. Adultery isn’t a victimless act, but why has it risen to the top of the food chain in the evolution of society’s response to human sin? Only the French seem to cherish desire as the ultimate form of natural selection.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.