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THE PURSUIT OF PLEASURE
By Lionel Tiger
Little, Brown, 330 pp.

By all means, let’s judge this book by its cover. For an ostensibly intellectual treatise (its author is the Charles Darwin Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University), the dust jacket is decidedly come-hither.

Nude but for a cascade of fabric from her wrist to her hips (has her arm become entangled in the shower curtain?), a young woman turns her silken back to us. The title, The Pursuit of Pleasure, flows across a bordered white band in the luscious script of an assorted-chocolate box. The suggestion is that the book is sealed with a ribbon, gift-wrapped in the semiotics of soft core, as though there is something delicate but illicit inside.

Clearly, this is being billed as a book about sex, the most piquant pleasure of them all. As such, it promises a double pleasure of its own: books about sex require thinking about sex, and thinking about sex is thinking at its most enjoyable.

True to its marketing, it opens with an account of the author’s own fumbling sexual awakening (and more fumbling than most; raised in a repressed Quebec before the Quiet Revolution, Lionel Tiger was so wary about what might happen that his first sortie into self-stimulation was conducted in a bathtub). Why, he wonders, are we so ashamed of some pleasures that an adolescent must initiate himself in fearful ignorance?

A good question. But it develops that the dust jacket is a tease. Yes, sex is prominently discussed, but in the dry voice of the anthropologist (Tiger, after all, is the author of Men In Groups, the book that gave us the phrase “male bonding”). It’s on food and its pleasures that he lavishes his sensual affection. Talk about sublimation.

Those looking for lewd thrills are therefore going to be disappointed. Alas, so are those expecting a bracing cerebral exercise. Tiger offers not so much a sustained argument as a compendium of snappy observations and disconnected musings. His thesis is that human “progress” has outstripped the natural evolution of the species, bringing a host of dysfunctional quandaries. Biochemically, we are still creatures adapted to a time when we lived in small groups, when sugar was available only via fruit, when animal fat was a rare delicacy, when mood-altering drugs did not exist, when copulation led to pregnancy. Now we are the uncomprehending prisoners of our pleasure drives, gorging ourselves on excess, lurching from one deadly delight to another. Even more: the sheer availability of pleasures has become a means of social control. It is in the ability to draw boundaries between the permitted and the forbidden that power resides.

So far so good, but something is amiss in the execution. The work is divided into two-page chunks, punctuated by cutesy play-on-word headlines (“Look back in pleasure,” “Legal but not tender,” “That old gang rape of mine”), so that the insights riffle past like flashcards. Too often, prose that is supposed to be luxuriant comes across as simply engorged. Again and again, the phenomena under discussion seem linked by nothing more than a pun. (Is carnal pleasure really equivalent to the pleasure of a job well done? Is the pleasure of intellectual effort the same as the pleasure of amusement-park play?) And throughout, in his zeal to score rhetorical points, Tiger resorts to a brutish biological reductionism.

Why were perhaps a million women burned in Europe as witches over a 500-year span? Because, suggests Tiger, they may have enjoyed sex too much. Why did the Dionne quints fail to grow up “normally?” Because they were denied the pleasure of their mother’s touch when the Canadian government installed them in sterile compartments during their infancy.

Well, maybe so, but there was likely a good deal more involved, and for an author attuned to the social uses of gratification, Tiger is oddly insensitive to the politics of pleasure. Certainly, he’s silent on the question of what to do about the guilty pleasures, the destructive pleasures, the pleasures that rarely speak their names.

The strange thing about pleasure (unlike pain) is that it can’t be sustained indefinitely; ask the sybarite whose bane is ennui. The failing of this book is the problem of pleasure itself: it’s not enough.eg

Globe and Mail February 15, 1992