Kama Sutra

Ever since my first visit to India back in 2001, I always have an illustrated translation of the Kama Sutra not far away. Today I want to explain why I keep it and what I see in it. Not for any a particular reason—but simply because it pleases me to do so.

(Note, you yahoos who may be out there: don’t expect any smutty stories, let alone steamy confessions. In case you have not yet noticed, that is not me.)

As some readers will know, the Kama Sutra (The Way of Pleasure or, as others translate it, Desire) dates back to the last centuries before the beginning of the Christian era. It is the oldest surviving Sanskrit text, a fact which may indicate its importance in the eyes of subsequent scribes who kept copying it. In the process various other bits, pieces and commentaries were added.

The best known English translation of the Kama Sutra was made by Sir Richard Francis Burton towards the end of the nineteenth century. Since then there have been many others, some by people whose native language was English, others by Indian scholars. Translations into other languages also abound. These editions vary considerably in what they include, what they exclude, and the number of pages they contain. For those who are interested, the one I have was published by Bookwise, New Delhi, in 1999.

Burton himself was a traveler, explorer, geographer diplomat, and occasional spy who worked first for the East Indian Company and then for the British Government. Above all, he was a demon linguist who often took only weeks to master a new language. By the time he died he had learnt no fewer than thirty, or so people said. Throughout his life he published a vast number of works on geography and ethnology, many of them heavily annotated.

The reason why he translated the Kama Sutra as well as some other erotic works is of some interest here. Today most of us are convinced that, when it comes to what is and not permitted in the bedroom, it is the West, having gone through the so-called “Sexual Revolution,” which is freer, less inhibited, and psychologically healthier than other civilizations. Aren’t the media full of stories about all the terrible things Moslems in particular do to their poor enslaved women? Burton’s view was exactly the opposite. Partly perhaps because he was married to a strictly Catholic wife, partly because he had his experiences over much of Africa and India, he saw his Victorian contemporaries as sexually ignorant, straight-laced and frustrated. In this view he was later joined by many others from Sigmund Freud down.

Freud’s method in trying to rid his patients of their neuroses and set them free was to put them on the couch and psychoanalyze them. Burton sought to achieve the same goal by having them read and savor oriental erotic literature. Not always with success, as it turns out. Some years ago I wrote a magazine article in which I quoted a couple of lines from the Sutra. Whereupon the editor, a good friend, asked why I was troubling him and myself with such smut. It turned out that he had never laid his eyes on the book. Whereupon I sent him an illustrated copy. What he did with it, if he did, I do not know.

Ever since Burton translated it, the Kama Sutra has owed its fame above all to the endless lists of sexual positions it contains. Each has a name, and each is explained in some detail. But two observations need to be made. First, only about one fifth of the book deals with the positions in question. Second, almost any non-fiction ancient Indian book one opens will be found to contain similar lists of various things. Why? Because dividing reality into different parts, categorizing it, slicing it (like a loaf of bread, so to speak) was the typical Indian method of coming to terms with it and understanding it. Not the most entertaining one, some might feel, but certainly one that is as valid as any other.

So let’s forget about the positions. The rest of the book consists of advice, less in sexual questions than in those that pertain to love. Presumably because most people could not read, much of the advice is aimed at well educated, well to do, men belonging to the upper classes. Some is aimed at women, particularly courtesans who have no man to feed and protect them and who must fend for themselves.

To explain why I admire the book as much as I do, here are some typical verses. The translation is by Indra Sinha, an English writer of Indian descent. His novel, Animal’s People, was shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize and winner of the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Europe and South Asia.

Never touch the wife of a relative,

Friend, high-priest or king.

Ignore [the] commonly quoted dictum

That these women may be enjoyed

If they have slept with five or more lovers.

Within the context of a society based on rigid class distinctions, this is sound, even tender, advice. However:

…adultery

corrupts both men and women

ruins their characters, destroys virtue and wealth.

Men and women with any wisdom

will never even think of doing these evil things.

And what does a desirable woman look like?

Her heavy breasts

Are firm as ripened pomegranates,

like jars of beaten gold.

High they ride,

Twin bosses on the brow of Krishna’s elephant.

The image of pomegranates also occurs in the Song of Songs, though in a somewhat different context. I go on reading:

The wise know also that physical pleasure

Is not the sole end of lovemaking.

It can be like music, stirring the emotions,

quickening the senses, dissolving

Thought into rhythm, until only rhythm exists.

And here is what the Kama has to say about love blows, so beloved of the hucksters and fucksters that crowd the Net:

Try always to remember, therefore,

That your lover is much weaker than you are

and passion is much stronger.

Furthermore, since not all girls like being struck,

Think twice before you use the love blows.

Both tender and realistic, isn’t it? And now, to courtesans. The basic assumption is that women do not like to make love for money but are sometimes led by circumstances into doing so. To be successful, a courtesan must be clever without showing it too much and look after herself first without going too far in this direction. She must study and master the sixty-four arts including drawing, decorating a house, music, dancing, acting, conversation, using scents and perfumes, and playing a good party of chess (remember Miranda playing with Ferdinand in Shakespeare’s The Tempest?). However:

The greatest courtesans are beauties

With alluring youthful bodies,

Sweet voices and charming manners.

They adore lovemaking

And value a man’s character above his wealth.

Neither tricking nor deceiving their lovers

Faithful and self-possessed.

These girls are connoisseurs of the arts

Devoted to the gods

And welcome at every society gathering.

How absolutely wonderful.

Yes, They (Sometimes) Can

I have in front of me a book by a British scholar, Peter Greenhalgh, named Early Greek Warfare. Published by Cambridge University Press as far back as 1973, it is a scholarly treatment of the topic clearly aimed at the specialist. On the cover there is a sixth- or early fifth-century BC image of a two men amicably riding side by side. Originally it was painted on a vase now at the Martin-von-Wagner Museum in Wuerzburg. The vase shows the couple twice, once from the right and once from the left. As you can see, the older man is a warrior with powerful shoulders. He is wearing a tall helmet of the so-called Chalcidian type as well as greaves; he is also carrying a shield and two spears. The younger looks more like a teenager and is not nearly as strongly built. Unarmed, all he wears is a light tunic with very short sleeves, showing his slender, immature arms.

The men are probably on their way to war, and the eagle at their back was meant as an auspicious omen. Never mind. To anyone at all familiar with ancient Greek history, the image—in my view, a beautiful one indeed—strikes a chord. What we see is neither a casual encounter nor a so-called “Platonic” one. It is a homosexual couple consisting of the lover, or erastes (from eros, sexual attraction), and his beloved, or eromenos. The latter was usually a young boy in his teens. Modern scholars agree that such relationships were socially approved. In some cases they may even have formed part of a semi-official initiation rite. One not too different, say, from those practiced until not so long ago by some tribal societies in Papua-New Guinea during which the novices were made to fellate grown men as part of obtaining the essence of masculinity. Provided only the relationships were consensual—there was, nota bene, no age of consent—Athenian law allowed them. Indeed one scholar has claimed that they formed “the principal cultural model” for what a free relationship between citizens could and should be.

The Summer of 1942, a 1971 novel that was later made into a film, told the story of an affair between an American teenager and a woman several years older than he. It was based on real events; however, so considerable are the differences between the film and the book (by Herman Raucher) on which it is based that it is hard to say what really happened. Hence I shall not discuss it here.

Fast forward to 1998. In Germany the book, “Wir waren Hitlers eliteschueler” (“We used to be Hitler’s Elite Students) was published. It is a collection of short essays, each written by a former student at one of the so-called Napolas, short for Nazional-Sozialistische Politische Erziehungsanstalten. Taking the place of the old Kadettensschuelen, or schools for cadets, which the Allies after World War I ordered closed, the Napolas enlisted twelve-year olds and graduated them six years later. Somewhat similar to America’s military academies, they emphasized history, “racial science,” drill, and sports. Competition to enter them was keen, and looking back on their experience many of their absolvents had little but praise for them.

I shall not go into the question as to how good or bad the schools were, the extent to which they were and were not responsible for all the terrible things the Nazis did, and so on. My point is rather that one of the former students, who was fifteen years old at the time, tells how he befriended a young woman living nearby. She was lonely—perhaps her boyfriend or husband was at the front. The rest followed of itself. Again, looking back on his experience, he only had good things to say about it.

Four years later another book made tis appearance. The author was the world-famous Israeli writer Amos Oz; the title, A Tale of Love and Darkness. It, too, has been made into a movie, albeit one that never attracted as many viewers as The Summer of 1942 did. Oz, who was born in 1939, moved to a kibbutz after his mother killed herself. There while still a teenager, he either seduced or was seduced by—it is hard to tell—a female teacher twice his age. In the end it was she who put an end to the affair. Decades later, while on a lecture tour in the US, Oz met a woman who looked strikingly like her. Going up to greet her, it turned out that she was his former teacher’s daughter who had come to listen to him. The mother was also present. She was, however, in a wheelchair. Suffering from Alzheimer, she did not recognize her former student.

Any number of similar episodes, some involving boys, others girls, could be cited. Let me make myself absolutely clear: I am not saying that people should start breaking the law and have sex, even consensual sex, with minors. The law is the law, and it has to be obeyed. Still it is useful to know that in Japan, not exactly the most backward country on earth, the age of consent is 13. In China, Brazil, and several other South American countries it is 14. The same applies to Austria, Estonia, Hungary, Italy Liechtenstein, Macedonia, Montenegro, Portugal, Serbia, and Germany. The total number of people who live under these laws, as well as in some “developing” countries I did not list, must be little short of two billion. The German case is particularly interesting. As long as a person over the age of 21 does not “exploit” a 14- to 15-year-old youth, there is no problem. For such a person to be put on trial, a complaint from the younger individual is required; in which respect German law resembles ancient Athenian one.

As the above examples show, there is some evidence that having sex with older people, whether hetero-or homosexual, can be good, or at any rate not bad, for at least some boys. As to the law, not only is it quite arbitrary but it is rooted in social attitudes. Attitudes which, since they vary from one civilization to the next, have little if anything to do with what young people do or do not understand, can or cannot do, want or do not want. Let alone with “basic” human nature at this age or that. Such being the case, it is quite possible that, in at least some cases, the “cure,” which today usually consists of punishing the older partner and actively compelling the younger one to assume the role of a victim, does more harm than good.

As to girls, there seems to be a near-universal consensus that they develop faster, and reach maturity earlier than boys do. So draw your own conclusions.

What Love Is

What is love? Throughout the ages, as many answers have been given to this question as there are poets. Here, motivated by the fast-approaching 31st anniversary of my wife and myself, it pleases me to provide my own answer. Much of it I learnt from her. Needless to say, there are many kinds of love. Red-Rose-02However, the following discussion only refers to the one between a man and a woman. Or perhaps—I have no experience in the matter—also in same sex unions.

The kind of love I am speaking about involves one’s entire being. It has two parts, a mental and a physical. Both are equally important. When everything works as it should, they reinforce each other. The former has the power to magically transform physical spasms into a union that almost deserves the name sacred. The latter seals the former. I would, however, add that, if, after all these years, I had been forced to choose, I would go for the former. And do so, what is more, without regrets.

Love is a miracle. What attracted Julia to Romeo and Romeo to Julia? Why him? Why her? What made each of them so unique as to inspire the other to sacrifice his or her life? Shakespeare does not say. Nor do ten thousand psychologists and their even more numerous studies. Probably it is better that way. In one sense, pre-determined love is not love at all.

We do not love the other because he or she is particularly well-shaped or beautiful. To the contrary: the other becomes beautiful and well-shaped because we love her or him. Says the Bible: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife and they shall be one flesh.” Not just for a moment, which is something animals do as well as we do. But all the time, sharing both pain and joy.

One very peculiar thing love does is to turn the other’s faults—and who does not have them?—into virtues. One loves coming into the bathroom and see that the other has forgotten to shut the toothpaste tube. The other loves seeing the note, complete with its characteristic spelling error, left for him or her in the kitchen with instructions to do this or that. These and a thousand similar things remind each of the other. They make them smile to themselves, knowing that the feeling is mutual.

There are also some things lovers should never say or do to one another. Some depend on personality and differ from one case to the next. Others are common to everybody. Never pull rank. Never badmouth your other in front of others. Never try to make him or her jealous. If you feel that criticize you must, do it in such a way as to make your good intentions obvious (humor, but not sarcasm, helps). And so on. To be sure, being human we make mistakes. Therefore, if we say or do such things, we should apologize just as soon as we can. And make sure the error is not repeated.

Love seems to work on three different levels simultaneously. The first consists of our—at any rate my—need to have somebody to look up to who is more than I am. More intelligent (at least in some ways), better, kinder, nobler. That does not mean the other is superior in every respect. As Simone de Beauvoir once wrote, a relationship based on inferiority versus superiority is not love. All it means is that the other is better than I am in some ways and that, as a result, I value and adore her like a queen.

The second level is that of partnership. We all need somebody whom we can trust. Absolutely, unconditionally and until death us part. Somebody who will stand with us at the time, to quote the great early twentieth-century Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, when, having armed the prow, we cast off and sail ahead. Life is a voyage into the unknown, and often a pretty hazardous one at that. One which very few people can, or should, embark on without the kind of partnership I am talking about here.

The third level is that of trying to do what one can to make the other as happy as one can. Even to the point of spoiling him or her. Not just because what one gives is really needed. That would be either duty or charity, but not love. But simply because there is joy in giving.

Each of the three elements can and often does exist apart from the others. But it is only together that they amount to true love. They are symmetrical, i.e there is no difference between men and women. They also presuppose a certain kind of equality. That does not mean that each side must have exactly the same rights and duties. Rather, it refers to the kind of love that, making the strengths of each obviate the weaknesses of the other, enables both partners to make the maximum of their lives, both separately and together.

To this rule there is one very important exception. Physically men are considerably stronger and more robust than women on the average. Also, nature seems to value women’s lives more than men’s. These facts give women some rights men do not and should not have. Men are duty-bound to defend women. There used to be a name for that: chivalry. That is a word feminists, filled with hate and envy, have dragged through the mud as they have so many other things. The reverse does not apply. A man who lays down his life for a woman is looked upon as a hero, with good reason. A man who allows a woman go lay down her life for him becomes an object of derision. Also, in my view, with very good reason.

It is not enough to feel love. One must show one’s feelings. One early morning Richard Wagner had a small band assembled in front of his wife, Cosima’s, window. Waked by the music, she became the first to hear the notes of the Siegfried Idyll. How I envy him for being able to lay such a gift at her feet! Luckily we do not need to. A word of praise, a gesture of welcome. A smile, a hug, a kiss, a small present at the appropriate moment. Normally it should be done in private. However, here and there doing it when some others, friends, are present can cause no harm.

Finally, it is not true, as Freud and so many others thought and think, that time and habituation necessarily cause love to become tepid and wane away. Provided all the above elements are present, it is as likely to become stronger, deeper and more tolerant. But that does not happen on its own. It takes both goodwill and some effort.

For me, after thirty-one years, the most beautiful moments in life still remain the same. They are those in which she spontaneously breaks into song and I join her. Or the other way around.

The funny thing is, neither of us can sing very well.

He and She

Some years ago I told a friend of mine, a female librarian who unfortunately has died since, that, for the first time, I was taking an interest in women. She looked at me and said: “It is time, don’t you think”?

Seriously, how did a military historian like myself ever start writing about women? The answer is twofold. First, during the 1990s, at the latest, the presence of women in the military, its causes, its significance, and its implications reached such a crescendo that it became impossible to ignore. Second, leafing through the works of the great military theorists I noted that none of them had anything to say about women. Yet women form half of the human race and by no means its least important half. Clearly there was a gap there, and one which, in Men, Women and War, I set out to fill as best I could. 4141F05E81L

Delving into women’s history, I found it fascinating. So much so, in fact, that since then I have devoted a considerable part of my work to that topic. Follows a brief summary of some of the things I think I have learnt.

First, when Steven Pinker and many others say that the characteristics of people of both sexes are in large part biologically-determined rather than socially-constructed they were right. Second, when Margaret Mead said that in all known societies what men do is considered most important and that, should women enter a male field in any numbers, the field in question will start losing both its prestige and the rewards it can offer she was right. Third, when Freud said that a great many women suffer from penis envy—whether biologically or socially based—he was right. After all, as I wrote in a previous essay posted on this website, what is modern feminism if not the greatest outburst of penis envy ever? Fourth, when Thomas Aquinas said that men can do anything women can (except for having children, of course) but not the other way around he was right. Fifth, when Plato said that, though no field of human endeavor is absolutely closed to the members of either sex, in all fields men are better on the average, he was right.

Another very important thing Plato said is that, whereas men and women are similar in some respects, they differ in others. The most important thing they have in common is their humanity, the qualities that distinguish them from animals. Including, above all, their big brains and the things they make possible. True, men have ten billion more brain cells than women on the average. But nobody knows what they serve for.

The most important differences—all of which are statistical and mean little if anything in the case of each individual—are as follows. First, women have less testosterone than men. That makes them less aggressive, less competitive, and less inclined towards dominance than men. Second, their bodies are weaker, less able to absorb shocks and blows, and, unless properly taken care of, less resistant to dirt and infectious disease. Until urbanization started changing things from about 1800 on, the outcome was a considerably shorter life expectancy. Third, women conceive, become pregnant, give birth, nurse, and, as with all other mammalians, are mainly responsible for raising the young. Whereas men do not and are not. Fourth, since men are able to have countless offspring whereas women cannot, society is better able to bear their loss than that of women. The enormous investment women make in their offspring, plus their relative physical weakness, also explains why, as Diderot said, women are less able to find delight in the arms of strangers than men.

To repeat, the differences are statistical. Hence they only go so far in dictating the fate of each individual. They are, however, sufficiently significant to explain many things concerning the way human society has always functioned and, presumably, will continue to function. Indeed there probably is no aspect of life, whether private or public, so isolated that sex and gender will not play a role in shaping it. First, in no known culture has there ever been a situation where all persons male and female, shared all activities on an equal basis and received the same rewards. Second, in all known cultures men did the lion’s share of hard, dirty, or dangerous work. Third, in all known cultures men were responsible for feeding women and not the other way around. Some, the above mentioned Margaret Mead included, saw this as the most important difference that set humans apart from other animals. Fourth, in all known cultures it was men who held the great majority of whatever public positions existed. Though some societies, one of which is traditional Judaism, trace descent by way of the female line, no known one has ever been governed by women. Finally, the higher the positions in question the more likely that they would be occupied by men.

The objective of modern feminism has been to abolish these distinctions. Though not to the point where many women are prepared to marry and support men; several sets of statistics show that women who make more than their husbands are more likely to get a divorce. Depending on how one looks at it, the effort can be said to have been either a success or a failure. It has been a success in the sense that, watching old movies, one is always surprised at the fact that, among important decision makers, there are few if any women. Far more women now work outside the home and have careers than previously, and many of the legal hurdles that used to limit their participation in public life have been removed. The same applies to the kind of laws that made husbands the “heads of the family.” The introduction of the pill has also done away with many sexual restraints, enabling women to sleep around or, as the current phrase has it, “hook up” with men much as men themselves do.

As feminists never stop complaining, however, a society in which absolute equality prevails is as far away as it has ever been. Moreover, such advances as women have made

came at a high cost. Leaving the home, many women have lost their freedom and turned themselves into “wage slaves” just like men. Working women are heavily concentrated in the service sector, including the one known as “household services.” The outcome is that they now do for strangers what they used to do for their own families. They also pay taxes as never before. Since working outside the home means having to spend more on such things as clothing, transportation and help, whether most of them really end up by having more disposable income is doubtful; at least one highly successful female researcher, Elizabeth Warren, has warned against “the two-income trap.”

Judging by the number of best-sellers which claim to advise women on how to efficiently manage their time, no group in the population is more stressed than working mothers. These problems are literally killing them; whereas, for almost two hundred years before 1975, the gap in life expectancy between men and women kept growing in favor of the latter, since then it has been declining.

One reason why progress, if that is the right word, has been slow is that a society based on equality between the sexes might result in more divorced women losing custody over their children and being obliged to support their ex-husbands. It might also lead to the justice system treating women as harshly as it does men; increasing the penalties it imposes on them and executing them much more often than is actually the case. At present even military women only enter combat if it suits them. However, a truly equal system might oblige them to do so. All this explains why, judging by the failure to pass ERA (Equal Rights Amendment), many women are not at all certain whether equality is really what they want.

Even so, the attempt to separate sex—the biologically-determined identity of men and women—from gender—the roles they play in society—has led to a very sharp decline in fertility. That applies to all developed countries except the U.S and Israel. In the latter, to quote a popular song, “her eyes are tired but her legs are quite good looking.” So great is the decline that societies such as those of Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Russia, Japan, South Korea and Singapore either are obliged to rely on immigrants to fill their labor force or simply appear to have no future.

Looking at Europe, what reliance on immigrants may mean, probably will mean, is becoming more and more clear with every passing day. As to having no future, it was that great feminist, Carroll Gilligan, who said that the essence of feminism consists of women looking after themselves first of all. With such an attitude, will there even be a future?