Why the obsession with sex? O it’s a fine thing; I don’t mean to belittle it. There is nothing quite so splendid as a mindblowing orgasm, whether in the master bedroom or standing up in a canoe. While it’s happening it’s overwhelmingly important, of course.

But the rest of the time it doesn’t have anything to do with our lives. So why does it seem important? Why do people talk about it, read books analyzing it, join discussion groups on the internet, dial up people in Birmingham or Kapuskasing to compare notes, pore over catalogues of sexual apparatus, and worry about their `performance’? It is like a mild tooth-ache: the tongue can’t leave it alone.

And talking isn’t enough; people have to write about it. The internet contains hundreds of `erotic’ effusions written by naОve literary hobbyists who are convinced the word can evoke the thing. Like good children of the modern technical world they think in terms of objects and processes. It never occurs to them that eroticism lives in imagination, that descriptions are dead. In clinical detail they lather adjectives and adverbs on body parts and the technical ways in which these parts can be fitted to the parts of other bodies. The banality of the result is astounding. When a woman in a story I read was described as “slurping up cunt-juices” I gave up. There are hundreds of such documents, and I imagine, from a sampling, that they are all alike.

And what of de Sade and Bataille then, intelligent and skilled writers that they are? They don’t seem to me to do any better. In the pages of both I detect an hysteria of despair. The experience is as unwriteable as ever. In a famous story by Bataille a woman comes into possession of the eye of a freshly-dead torero. She stuffs it into her vagina. This is certainly a vivid image, but it’s hard to read it as erotic.

The difficulty is that an orgasm that sends the needle off the dial cannot be described. This is not because of its intensity; while eating a mango the needle scarcely flickers, yet this sensation cannot be described either. It seems that the nature of sensory experience itself cannot be come at by the mind. Strictly speaking, a sensual experience cannot even be remembered. I remember a superb sun-ripened pear pulled from a tree overhanging the road during a bicycle trip fifty years ago, but in fact what I remember is having eaten it and thinking, at the time, how good it was. The experience itself occupies a firm place in the memory (a `placeholder’ in technical talk) but has no dimension, no volume, so to speak. Pear and orgasm are as incommunicable as God. The core of the experience can be alluded to, perhaps compared to other sensations, but not touched.

This interest in sex as a subject in itself has perhaps had one good result: people now feel free to use plain old anglo-Saxon words for parts of our bodies instead of that strange language that doctors impose on us. When I walk into a doctor’s office my cock shrinks into a pathetic little `penis.’ Yes, the honest old words have been coming back into speech, back onto the printed page during the last twenty-five years and I call it good because these short blunt words connect us, no matter how tenuously, with the anglo-Saxon roots of our language.

Few people today, apart from linguists and other academics, seem aware that English is a mix of two sources: Latin in the form of French that was brought to England when the Normans invaded, and what we call Anglo-Saxon or Old English that we inherit from northern Europe `old-teutonic’ as the dictionary says. Ordinary speech contains words of both derivation, but the swearwords—with the exception of `bugger,’ a Balkan import—are pure Anglo-Saxon

I can remember the first time I heard a woman say `fuck.’ This ancient word has now come to be part of the language, though tediously over-used as what the church calls `profanity’. There is a plague of `fucking this’ and `fucking that,’ which leads to quite slovenly speech. But there is a good reason. Anglo-saxon is the emotional side of our language. If we call someone fat, it hurts, as it’s meant to. If we call them obese it is merely a disinterested medical statement. When we—I speak for you, I am sure—when we are totally frustrated by the treachery of fate, the apparent malevolence of luck or the intransigence of human nature, nothing is as emotionally satisfying as a deeply felt “SHITT!”

No matter how passionately the Normans may have cursed the obstinate British, not one of their Latinized curses ever took root. Occasionally in England I heard young men say `merde,’ but they were miseducated, hoped to be thought cosmopolitan, and didn’t know any better.

The only word I dislike is `cunt’ because among the farm boys and men I grew up with it was the standard term of contempt for anyone they didn’t like, man or woman. I am aware that the invective of choice is now `asshole,’ but I cannot bring myself to use the other. The fact that one of the most charming parts of the body is a curse tells a lot about how men feel about women. In any case, who needs it when we have the lovely sensual world `vulva,’ even though, as it happens, it comes from the Latin side of the language.

I sometimes wonder if the spread of English internationally is partly due to the fact that the emotions are safely tucked away in the Olde Englishe side, as it were, leaving the rest of the language devoid of emotion and therefore well suited to people of the modern technical cast of mind who prefer to think without emotion.

However, I want to write about sensuality. It refers to the five senses, obviously: touch, taste, hearing, sight and smell, as every child learns by heart – or used to. Without these faculties we could not know that the world is, or that we are.

The banished Duke in As You Like It, marooned in the Forest of Arden in midwinter describes the snowstorms and the cold as “counselors that feelingly persuade me what I am. “ Shivering in the woods makes it clear to the duke that he is fragile and mortal.

People find it hard to separate sensuality from sexuality. On the internet , sites that call themselves sensual are not just erotic but pornographic. The Church, until recently, has warned against `sensuality,’ and this is probably because the bishops couldn’t separate it from sexuality. To a bishop, to be sensual is to be sexual. This is curious because their Bible tells them that God walked in his garden “in the cool of the day.” If this is not a sensual experience I don’t know what is. What is more sensual than birdsong and the odours and colours of plants? It is during this stroll that he goes looking for Adam to see how he is getting along with the tillage. Adam was supposed to be the gardener; it was in the contract: “to dress it and to keep it.” Instead he finds him sharing fruit with his wife and discussing the possibilities of human development with a serpent.

Childhood, particularly growing up on a farm, is a sensual experience: The long summer evenings, a distant coyote, the cigarettes of the adults glowing in the porch, the first breeze of a gathering storm. . . .

But when I grew up and began to think about women, sensuality was less clear, became confused with sexuality. In those times, among the men I knew there was an unspoken assumption that men were to womanize. Men were to pursue, women were to flee, but not too quickly. It was absurd and I was never very good at it. But then came the seventies, Trudeau’s time. That era seemed charmed to me. Women in the western world were emerging as people. It was an immense relief to abandon the knee-jerk compulsion to womanize and meet women as friends. Those who ridiculed `womenslib’ failed to grasp that the liberation of women was the liberation of everyone.

Women are such a pleasure to watch! Walking in groups, laughing, dealing with men with deft irony, lingering over coffee, standing hipshot at a counter, striding about their business, gossiping, gardening. I admire the small hips and broad shoulders of contemporary women sculpted by treadmills and aerobics, their carefully cultured `abs,’ hard as iron no doubt, but I feel more at home with women of a more traditional build: the tapering thighs, the bulk of the hips and strong belly balanced by the rise of the breasts, the poise of the head. The shape of the calf of the leg, with its two distinct muscles, is as elegant as any other part. Sometimes it’s hard to separate sensuality from aesthetics. Parts of the body are the elbow with the main tendon/muscle, the two bones of the forearm that allow the elgant hand to swivl . . . as elegant on men as on women. My aesthetic vis-Ю-vis women is as old-fashioned as that of boats.

I feel a certain imagined kinship with lesbians: they must surely look at the bodies of women in somewhat the same way as I do, though I expect that a woman who is turned on by other women would curl her lip at the suggestion of kinship with anything as questionable as a man.

The clothes! The endless inventiveness of clothing the figure. And dressing for themselves instead for men. A rack of clothes in the shop is a mystery to me, the most elegant gown feels like a flour sack, it’s inconceivable to me that it could clad a living person. But a woman can approach a rack, tilt her head consideringly, make a choice, hold the result against herself and decide on the moment. When this frock appears later with herself inside it . . . voila!. Carol Shields has a fine bit on clothes in one of her short stories: Tamara “never checks the weather before she dresses; her clothes are the weather. . . “

If wit be defined as `the giving of sudden intellectual pleasure by the unexpected association of previously unconnected ideas or things,’ as the dictionary says, there is a constant play of wit to this process of adorning oneself as a considered object. I am half convinced that when women are clad and coifed and shod to perfection they could worship themselves_icons, as it were_but for that tiny but constant anxiety that they seem to carry with them.

On the other hand, there are garments that allude to nakedness: jeans cut as low as possible without falling off, swimsuits that draw attention to the crotch, `daring’ cleavage in gowns—clothes that reveal rather than adorn. I can see why Muslims find this cheap eroticism disgusting. It’s not the amount of skin sets one’s teeth on edge, it’s the suggestion of the `hoor.’ To my eye the white three-piece bikini is a truly elegant garment. It’s witty in the best sense. Consider the parameters of the design. It has been decided for some reason, never quite put into words, that the nipples of women cannot be seen in public by any Tom Dick or Harry, and that for entirely different reasons, still not defined, vulvas may not be gawped at. The brilliant solution was to package each of these offending pieces separately in a triangle, and make the packages themselves attractive. And behold: the result is classically elegant. Best of all, a voluptuously plump femme can wear a bikini with panache.

It is unfortunate and depressing that the classification `beautiful woman’ has shrunk to female persons aged between late teens and early twenties, preference white, preference blonde, very strong preference boobs, definitely no wrinkles, and definitely thin to skinny. This development was probably inevitable because of the invention of colour photography and the growth of magazine advertising: the lens shows the least wrinkle, and it has been decided that wrinkles are ugly. The beauty contest (chicks with boobs) and the ad agencies manage between them to exclude virtually all the interesting women in the world

`Beauty': Are women beautiful? Is any woman beautiful per se? Was Ava Gardner? If a `beauty queen’ is beautiful, then a woman of 46 with lines in her face cannot very well be considered beautiful. I saw some days ago the hands of an old woman reading a magazine. The joints were knobs, the skin between had shrunk almost to the bone, but they seemed luminous to me at that moment. This is not to say they were beautiful as we have been acultured to hear a particular oboe concerto as `beautiful.’ I mean, rather, existentially beautiful. They would not have seemed beautiful to anyone else, nor to me the next day I expect. Beauty isn’t an attribute then, it’s temporary state of being. But when it happens it will shine out, as Hopkins says. It catches us by surprise. Beauty in this sense is something we bring, unexpectedly, to the world.

Once, years ago, my wife was caught in an inner contradiction that she could not resolve. It may have had to do with one of my `affairs.’ She was blocked; her distress was too deep to be accessible to apology, cheap advice, sympathy, comfort_there was nothing anyone could say that would have helped. We were lying on our sides on the bed, facing each other, noses almost touching. She looked ravaged. Her skin was stretched taut, coarse and stringy, reticulated almost, and her breath was utterly foul. There was a third quite evident physiological symptom of profound dismay, I have forgotten what. This went on for some time, and there was nothing I could say or do.

But then, abruptly, she saw her way out of this paralysis. I have no idea what it was, but at once—within seconds you must understand—two things happened: her skin smoothed out visibly before my eyes and bloomed, sleek and golden, but what was most extraordinary was that her breath changed, almost between one breath and another. It took on an incomparable, almost intolerable sweetness. There are phenomena which have no apparent origin and will not fit any category and cannot be named.

A woman once said to me in surprise, to my surprise, “You make love with your eyes open!” Doesn’t everyone? The world is so splendid—and so horrible, yes yes I know—but so interesting, and we have so little time.

I take it that, for a man, giving a woman pleasure is the point of this odd transaction called coitus. There are warm winter afternoons or cool summer evenings in amber light, the slight tac of sweat cooling on naked skin, two bodies, no program, just being there with this person, time that seems to have come to a stop, the visibly swollen lips, a nail scraped lightly across the inside of a thigh, I knew a woman who liked to be lightly switched, it turned her on, different strokes for different folks . . .

There have been times, when cosseting caressing teasing tantalizing, and kissing, scratching and biting and sucking that one does somehow, absurd as it all seems when recalled in the light of day, with the aim of inducing a vulvic convulsion, I have been prey to a curious doubt. This, it occurs to me, is not a fine careless sensual abandon, this is the deliberate manipulation of one person by another. One could easily become a technician. It gives one pause. But then I have to reject this absurd scruple. Because in the end, for all the contemporary talk of `sensitivity to the needs of other,’ and `getting in touch with our feminine side,’ to both of which I ardently subscribe, when it comes down to it the essence of heterosexual coitus is thrusting. Men are accused of being phallocentric—well of course we are in that literal sense, how could it be otherwise?

In recollection, two moments in the age-old seduction enterprise amuse me. One is the opening stage. The woman is lying on her back, being conventionally reluctant, and perhaps really so, her panties halfway off, until she abandons all pretense and sends them flying, with an exuberant flip of the foot.

The other is the end of this transaction. I have seen, over and over, the look on a woman’s face when the man—myself, that is, how else would I know?—has shot his bolt so to speak: this look can only be described as smug. Laughably smug. She takes this male shudderation to be a tribute to herself—as of course it is.

Now that I no longer get into other people’s beds—a disreputable practice at the best of times, I know—I think of Yeats’ question to Hanrahan: Does the imagination dwell the most on woman won or woman lost? I cannot decide.

O ladies! Ladies! I hope I have written an adequate paen, an acceptable tribute to women. It’s long-winded, I know. But I think you are wonderful. And to those, living or dead, whom I have known carnally, I think of you, each so ardent and honourable in her own way.


Two extreme examples of sensuality come to mind. For coarse animal sensuality, picture early morning in the cow barn on a prairie farm. The hired man is milking by the light of a coal-oil lantern set on the floor (those cows have kicked over more buckets of milk, those lanterns have burned down more barns. . . . ) A small boy is watching, the cat waits. The hired man aims a sustained squirt at her. She opens her mouth so wide it splits her face, she swivels it back and forth in greed to get the lovely white stuff down her gullet. Man and boy laugh.

And then, for sensuality refined almost to the vanishing point, consider the young-old witch Serafina in Philip Pullman’s book The Golden Compass. When asked why she wears so few clothes in such bitter cold she says she likes to feel “the tingle of the stars, the silky touch of moonlight on the skin.”

They feelingly persuade her what she is.