Mating in Captivity

Unlocking Erotic Intelligence

By Esther Perel

God, I hated this book.

I shouldn’t even have read it. I don’t like self-help books, and I don’t like books written by therapists, and I don’t like people who use the word ‘erotic’ – this obviously wasn’t the book for me.

But my mother gave it to me (which is worrisome in of itself, and I am not going to unpack it here) and asked me what I thought, and it’s just a short little book and I figured: eh, how bad can it be?  Just blow through it, tell Mom what’s what, move on.

Mating in CaptivityI was right about one thing: it is short.  But since it was excruciating to read, it didn’t feel short.  And since (as I have mentioned before) I have a rule about finishing books once I’ve started them, I couldn’t move on once I’d begun, and so I became sort of mired in ‘Mating in Captivity‘, (captive to it, if you will) thrashing and miserable and unable to get free.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that ‘Mating in Captivity‘ isn’t about sex – it’s about intimacy.  This is a book about relationships, about how to maintain a sexual connection in the context of a long-term relationship.  But it isn’t exactly a self-help book.  It’s more a series of case studies: different couples, the way in which their sex life is guttering, the advice that she gave that couple, why she gave it.  How she understands the problem, why she believes that problem arises.

Now, I really hate talking about intimacy.  Not sex – I love talking about sex.  But talking about intimacy makes me uncomfortable.  And, yes, I am aware that makes me a poor audience for this book (or perhaps the perfect audience, hard to say).  And, yes, I went in skeptical – I did not have an open mind.  I tried, but when I know that intimacy is going to be the subject, people talking about feelings and connecting and closeness, then I just cringe away instinctively.

Esther Perel.jpg
This is the image of Esther Perel from her book jacket, and, you have to admit, she looks super cool.

Let’s start with the positive: ‘Mating in Captivity‘ is probably not a bad book.  And Perel is probably a great therapist.  She comes across as wise, and gentle, unjudgmental but also unfoolish.  She managed to write an entire book about sex and intimacy without once making me wonder what her own sex life is like, and that’s a serious accomplishment.  In fact, that’s a major therapeutic credential, and I’m honestly impressed.

I’ll also say this: she is open-minded about decisions, mistakes, and lifestyle choices which other therapists would pathologize, and I’ll bet that makes her a more effective counselor for struggling couples.

The book is clear and well-organized.  The argument is lucid and evenly applied.  I’ve never read any book in this genre at all, so I can’t say whether the thinking is totally novel, but I can say it is not conventional, and it’s probably often useful.

But I hated it.  I hated it a lot.

First of all, I hated the narrative voice.  Perel adopts a tone which is confidential and sexy: part cool aunt, part girlfriend, part romance novelist.  I feel almost bad dinging her for this, because I think I know why she’s doing it: one of the projects of her book is to remind people that sex is supposed to be fun, and so she tries to inject that fun into her language.  But you can’t force fun.  Maybe it works well in person, but on the page, you sound like you’re trying too hard.  Her writing bristles with flirtatious little locutions:

“luscious sexual life” (p. 24)

“with whom he lay in a languorous paradise” (p. 28)

“get their groove back” (p. 142)

“feeling free to express the bawdiness of his lust with her” (p. 116)

Language like this feels self-conscious to me; it makes me wince.  When I feel as though she’s trying to spice up her prose like this, I pull away from the argument.  Forget intimacy – this kind of language makes me want to avoid sex.

But, if we’re being completely honest, the more fundamental problem is that I don’t buy into the project of this book.  I don’t really understand, having read it, what it was meant to accomplish.  Was it supposed to help couples who are having problems like these?  Are you supposed to identify a couple whose problems resemble your own, and then take the advice given to them?  Are you meant to sort of wallow in the general, intimate atmosphere of the book, picking up good tips for relationship hygiene?  Was it meant to get a conversation going, encourage people to think about their own relationships a little bit more?

I don’t think intimacy works this way.  It’s not that I’m a therapy-skeptic, not at all.  On the contrary, I believe that therapy, including couples therapy, can really help people.  I’m just not convinced that reading about other peoples‘ couples therapy is as helpful.  And so this books starts to feel like Perel just…musing about relationships, laying out her general ideas about how intimate couples should and do work.

And, while she is a licensed and practicing couples therapist, I’m not sure why I’m reading that book.  While I agree with her basic values, and each chapter is coherent, I don’t feel like I really know anything now that I didn’t know before.  She is not presenting a unified theory of intimacy, and she is discussing the problems of a very narrow slice of the population.  This is a book about the normal marital depressions that affect the affluent, via specific case studies of people who are often quite obnoxious, and I wouldn’t have read that book if I had known what it was.

I really want to give Perel credit where she is due it: despite the fact that I think most of her advice is generic, on some things she is unusually open-minded, and these chapters are the most interesting.  Her stance on infidelity, which is pretty radically unjudgmental, is the best example of this, and, because she isn’t spending time blaming anyone for adultery or adulterous urges, she manages to write about those things with genuine wisdom and humanity.  And the things she says about them are interesting; I have not read them before, and I have not thought about them that way before.

The State of Affairs.jpg(It’s also worth noting: I was apparently not the only person who thought that Perel was at her best when writing about infidelity.  Someone at Harper must have agreed with me, because her next book, which I have not read, is called ‘The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity‘.  I would actually, despite my aversive reaction to ‘Mating in Captivity‘, be kind of interested to read this book, which is probably the best recommendation that I can give Perel).

I think that my conclusion is this: given that the subject matter makes me want to jump out of my own skin, and that I don’t really endorse the project, it would have been a mistake for me to expect to enjoy this book.  The best that Perel was going to get out of me was a grudging respect, and this she did get.  Probably a great read for anyone who likes reading about relational difficulties, but for the intimacy-avoidant among us, ‘Mating in Captivity‘ should be avoided.

The Aeneid

By Virgil

Translated by Robert Fagles

All posts contain spoilers.

AeneidI know that I’m not supposed to admit this, but I don’t like ‘The Aeneid‘.

Obviously, this is my problem; I am aware that this qualifies me a philistine.  The great minds have, through the ages, cherished Virgil.  Propertius, another Roman poet, wrote upon the publication of ‘The Aeneid’, “Give way, you Roman writers, give way, Greeks/Something greater than the Iliad is being born” (2.34).  Dante included Virgil as his guide in ‘The Divine Comedy‘.  Dryden dedicated his own translation of ‘The Aeneid’ to “those Readers who have discernment enough to prefer Virgil before any other Poet in the Latine Tongue”.

Nevertheless, despite these excellent references, I just don’t like ‘The Aeneid‘.

virgil1I hadn’t read an English translation of ‘The Aeneid’ since high school, and I’d been wondering whether, perhaps, my initial aversion to it was a maturity problem, whether ‘The Aeneid’ is something only adults enjoy, like drinking espresso or discussing property values.  It’s not uncommon for me to find that, upon re-reading, I really like authors or books I loathed when I was younger, and I hoped that ‘The Aeneid’ might be one of these.

It isn’t.  I’ve just re-read Fagles’ translation, and I didn’t enjoy it any more this time around than I did when I was sixteen, and I think I’ve figured out why.

1. Aeneas is lame. 
The Aeneid‘ is often paired with the two great Homeric epics, ‘The Iliad‘ and ‘The Odyssey‘.  It really shouldn’t be: it has a different author, writing from within a different civilization, in a different language.  The comparison is particularly invidious when it comes to main characters: Achilles and Odysseus are much richer and more complex than Aeneas, who is ever-noble, ever-handsome, ever-brave, ever-pious, and ever-victorious.  All his misfortune is the result of the personal animus of the goddess Juno, who doesn’t dislike him per se, but all Trojans (since Paris dissed her way long ago); he is essentially a victim of divine racism.  But he himself is personally flawless and so narratively dull.

2. Virgil is unsexy.  
One of the perks of taking Latin in school is that you get to read more dirty poetry than the kids who take Spanish.  Almost all of the Roman poets wrote about sex; many of them went out of their way to cram raunch into verse where it wasn’t necessary. Horace, for example, wrote about 9,000 odes that all go approximately like this:

Spring is here, the young tree is all green.
New buds are springing out everywhere.
Its flowers bloom; birds sing in its branches.
But soon it will be winter; the leaves will shrivel and brown,
and no one’s going to want to fuck that tree then.

Virgil

Virgil is the exception: there is depressingly little sex in Virgil.  In the entirety of ‘The Aeneid‘, there’s only one sexual encounter, and Virgil can’t even bring himself to describe it – he describes a metaphorically significant thunderstorm instead.  His prudishness is a real joy-killer, especially in light of the fact that…

3. The plot of ‘The Aeneid‘ is boring. 
I’m sure that I’m coming across as something of a blunt instrument, but this third point is incontrovertible.  The plot of ‘The Aeneid’ is not scintillating – it isn’t character-driven, it isn’t sexy, the conclusion is announced at the beginning, and the pacing is atrocious.  The most interesting section, Aeneas in Carthage and the tragic fate of Dido, is elbowed into one book (not coincidentally, the book with the only sex).  Several books, however, are given over to the battles for Italy, which sounds interesting but aren’t.  Instead, the battles read like a very violent roll call: Bob cleaves the head of Sam, and is then stabbed by Frank, who is in turn disemboweled by Andrew, who falls off his horse and is smooshed by John, &c.  It’s difficult to make extreme violence boring, but Virgil manages it.  It’s not all, perhaps, his fault (‘The Aeneid’ is, of course, unfinished; Virgil died before he could complete it), but that doesn’t make it any more fun to read.

There are wonderful parts; there are parts which are transcendent, but they are almost all short sections of incredible linguistic beauty or rhetorical power.  For example, when, before she kills herself, Dido curses Aeneas’ descendants:

Cayot Death of Dido
‘The Death of Dido’, by Claude-Augustin Cayot, from the Louvre

“And then to any Power above, mindful, evenhanded,
who watches over lovers bound by unequal passion,
Dido says her prayers.
…”That is my prayer, my final cry – I pour it out
with my own lifeblood. And you, my Tyrians,
harry with hatred all his line, his race to come:
…No love between our peoples, ever, no pacts of peace!
Come rising from my bones, you avenger still unknown
…Shore shall clash with shore, sea against sea and sword
against sword – this is my curse – war between all
our peoples, all their children, endless war!” (Book IV, 651 – 784)

Two thousand years later, every person who has had their heart broken will still understand this passage.

Or Virgil’s description of the gates of Hell:

 “There, in the entryway, the gorge of hell itself,
Grief and the pangs of Conscience make their beds,
and fatal pale Disease lives there, and bleak Old Age,
Dread and Hunger, seductress to crime, and grinding Poverty,
all, terrible shapes to see – and Death and deadly Struggle
and Sleep, twin brother of Death, and twisted, wicked Joys
and facing them at the threshold, War, rife with death,
and the Furies’ iron chambers, and mad, raging Strife
whose blood-stained headbands knot her snaky locks.” (Book VI, 312-320)

(If you doubt the mighty influence of Virgil, perhaps this second passage reminded you of another:

 “Spirit, are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom.” (‘A Christmas Carol‘, Charles Dickens))

It is for passages like these Virgil is so beloved, and they are magnificent.  But there’s a lot of dry, poetical bullshit to get through to achieve them, a lot of Aenean virtue, a lot of sailing, lots of lists of dying men you’ve never met and won’t remember.

And I know that the failing is mine, but I wish I’d re-read ‘The Iliad‘ instead.