Ancient sex does not begin and end with the Kama Sutra.
Looking for something literary to write about for Valentine’s Day, I came across Sam Jordison’s clever take-down of The Kama Sutra in the Guardian — but it left me in a foul temper, wondering why we always zip right past Western classics in our haste to embrace the wisdom of the ancient East?
Jordison’s piece underscores another seldom mentioned fact: Just as the Bible is more talked about than read (see Laura Miller’s piece at Salon.com for that discussion), so is almost every ancient text we pretend to hold dear.
Clearly, almost no one actually reads the Kama Sutra, but instead savor it for those sexy illustrations. If we did read the text then we wouldn’t be so startled (and boy, was I), by Jordison’s revelations about what the damned thing actually prescribes: applying insect “bristles” to the penis for 10 days as a sort of early Viagra, or a “mixture of powdered milkweed thorns, hogweed, monkey’s [dung] and root of glory lily on a woman” as a love potion.
Best of all, Jordison quotes the Kama Sutra’s detailed instructions on how a man should beat a reluctant partner during sex: “[I]f she sobs and protests, he strikes her on the head with his hand hollowed and the fingers slightly curled and, choking back her babbling and sobbing within her mouth, she sighs and weeps when intercourse ends.”
I don’t know about you, but this kind of takes the romance out the Kama Sutra. As Jordison jokes (and he has to explain to some twit in the comments section that it is a joke): “It’s further confirmation of my belief that the wisdom of the ancients is most generally to be ignored.”
But I’m serious when I say (a) we’d all be better off if we actually read the books (modern as well as ancient) that we talk about and allude to and (b) while the ancient wisdom of the Far East is all well and good, our mania for it has caused us to ignore excellent sources in the Western tradition.
Take for example, The Song of Songs — yes, that little book in the Bible that is seldom mentioned from any pulpit. Traditionally, rabbis and ministers alike have sought to spiritualize its contents as an allegory of God’s love for Israel or Christ’s love for the church, or God’s love for Mary or some such.
Be that as it may, the poems contained in The Song of Songs constitute some of the greatest erotic poetry ever written. When I read the verses it seems to me to extol human sexuality as an expression or pathway to spirituality, not merely to serve as symbols of spirituality.
“[T]he joints of thy thighs are like jewels, the work of the hands of a cunning workman./Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor: thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies / Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins.”
But merely quoting some of the more sensual passages out of context does the entire work a disservice, too. It’s not merely a song in praise of sexual love, it’s more than a sort of ancient version of “Sexual Healing.” The two lovers continually miss one another, held apart by some unnamed strictures of wealth, or class or perhaps race. They must struggle toward consummation of their passion.
To me, this immeasurably enhances the tension and grace of the poem, and not only gives it greater resonance, but makes it sexier, too.
So while you’re looking at the illustrations in the Kama Sutra (and I suggest stocking up on aspirin and ice before trying those positions), I’ll sit over here in the corner with The Song of Solomon. Or perhaps a Sumerian love song or two (“The brother brought you into his house/ and had you lie down on a bed dripping with honey.”)
And beyond sexuality to that other wisdom brand so dominated by the ancient East, mysticism: I love the Tao as much as anyone, but we ought not let it blind us to the rich tradition of Western –even Christian — mysticism. A great starting place, The Cloud of Unknowing, written in the 14th century by an anonymous monk.