Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Punctuated Equilibrium

Can Stephen J. Gould’s notion of punctuated equilibrium be applied to human sexuality?  If evolution doesn’t conform to a smooth pattern, how do we determine what sexual congress will be 500 years from now? For instance, rather than being a period of repression, the Middle Ages were a very sexy time. The Canterbury Tales is one of the most ribald works of world literature, easily competing with Frank Harris, Henry Miller and Anais Nin. Going back further in time, there’s Sappho and the great erotic poet Catullus. It’s odd that the swingers club of the ‘70s was named Plato’s Retreat. Shouldn’t it have been Caligula’s Retreat, for a time when the vox populi was urged to carpe diem?  In fact, sexual expression seems to move by the principle of devolution rather than evolution, with advances in man from his earliest prehensile form, homo habilis, leading to the predominance of mind over matter.  In the ‘60s there were love children, but homo is often not erectus by the time he reaches his adult state. He’s too sad.
Still there’s the notion of progress.  In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud discussed the compromise that man must make between his instinctual drives and his social nature. The mind is rather inventive. If fetishism provides a detour that allows the discharge of sexual energies that might otherwise have been inhibited, then perhaps progress can be described as the movement from merkins (pubic wigs) to hot waxing, from girdles to thongs, from pantyhose to the scene in the appropriately named Basic Instinct where Sharon Stone startles her interrogators by revealing the absence of any undergarment at all?
But what does the future hold?  If the sexual drive derives from procreation, then Viagra has helped to make sex a gratuitous act that persists far beyond the procreative years. Will there be some drug in the next century that makes sex possible for consenting adults who have already passed away? Nicholson Baker created a character in his novel The Fermata who has the futuristic ability to undress women with little or no consequences. Now this fantasy has become a reality with the new generation of security devices to be used in airports around the world.  Do these devices herald the prospect of a kind of parthenogenesis or immaculate conception—at least in airports—in which the voyeuristic impulse can impregnate another mind? What about timeless erotic passion, what the Germans called Liebestod, or love-death? And what about Wagner? Will there still be a Bayreuth Festival in 2500?

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