Tuesday, August 30, 2011

How to Make Love

Every so often a blogger stumbles upon this book. And we laugh, oh, how we laugh.

And then when we are finished laughing occasionally we draw wry conclusions on wider social trends, and how the times have changed, between the retrograde then and the relatively enlightened now.

It is something of a conditioned critical stance – point, laugh, wry – and there isn’t much that is wrong with it, on the face of it. Broadly speaking the times are in fact more enlightened than they were in 1936, when the possibly pseudonymous Hugh Morris set out to produce a book ‘written by a modern writer for modern people who live and love in a modern way’. Except the present as he described it was a fiction, his views representative only of a subset of contemporary American society – and yet they survive to this day, sometimes quite unadulterated, sometimes under a less crude but nonetheless thin disguise.

Man was created strong. Woman was created weak. With this as a basis – the author informs us – we can readily understand the difference between the sexes:
Woman, although she is just as anxious for love as man, must never betray her anxiety. She must always be passive. Man, it is, who must be the active partner. It is he who makes love to woman. He chases the woman who was made to be chased. The success of love depends entirely on the understanding of this basic relationship.
Nowadays you are a right thinking person if you do not hold any of that to be true, unless it is framed as a lesson in evolutionary psychology – therefore not a relic of past superstition, but a product of modern empirical science (of which Men Are from Mars and its byproducts are the pop variety). Essentialism dies very hard. But the following, well, perhaps that really is a viewpoint that cannot be clung to except by referring to tradition and religion, a supernatural order of things that is not discovered, but inherited:
There is only one kind of love and that is the love of a man for a woman or vice versa. Mother love, brother love, sister love, Platonic love, even the “unspeakable loves” of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas and Lesbia and her charming girls on the isle of Paphos, none of these is true love. Man and woman He created them.
Conversely, the legalisation of gay marriage, with its powerfully symbolic encoding of acceptance, is one of the battlelines of Western progressivism. It defines its proponents as forward-looking (unlike in the case, say, of the defence of welfare) and history itself as proceding in a forward motion. As a matter of fact, it is routinely suggested that it may just be a matter of waiting for the remaining Hugh Morrises of this world to cark it. We shall, eventually, overcome. But if one widens the lens from the West alone, or lengthens the timespan as far back as, yes, Lesbia and her charming girls on the isle of Paphos and so forth, then we find that LGBT history does not sit comfortably on a straight line either: it proceeds, as do most other histories, through discontinuities and asynchronous zones, always confronting social structures and ideologies that strive to make its object (and its subjects) ‘unspeakable’, as Morris would have it.

And besides, what makes a book ‘speak’ for its times? How to Make Love was included in a series of short pamphlets that offered also the prophylactic Sex Facts for Men and Sex Facts for Women, the polemical Facts About Nudism (purporting to uncover the 'real truth' about the then neonate movement) and, lest you thought the Mr Morris was only interested in offering moral leadership and romantic instruction, 84 Card Tricks and Fortune Telling by Cards. It was, in other words, a marginal pulp self-help enterprise, one that no publisher bothered to attach its name to.

But then in 1987 How to Make Love was reprinted, albeit still with no publisher information, meaning that at some point in the not too distant past this very small, semi-anonymous 32-page booklet bound with staples retailed for as much as $7.95 (New Zealand or otherwise, it’s hard to say). And that’s the part that puzzled me. The foregoing notwithstanding, I struggled to see how the book could have been presented as remotely current – also in a commercial sense – or in any way useful half a century after its original release, if not to generate the kind of commentary that one finds nowadays on the web, and whose value is correctly placed by the market at zero. Which is a typically roundabout way of saying that what makes How to Make Love interesting to me is mostly its regurgitation, its being not just outdated but twice outdated and its having become in the process quite a different book while staying exactly the same.

Seeing as the genre is self-help, it must be noted that Morris’ practical advice has mostly to do with what you shouldn’t be doing – that is to say, everything but kissing (no tongues) and some low-level finger-entwining and arm-around-shoulder action. So, to deal with the most obvious: love-making has nothing whatsoever to do with sex, nor with petting, and everything to do with not doing those things. (Until you are married, that is. But at that point, as far as Mr Morris is concerned, you’re on your own.)

The ostensible centrepiece and possibly original main selling point of the book is the detailed description of how to go about planting the first kiss on your soon-to-be-beloved. This long, elaborate scene takes place on a sofa (you would have made sure to have seated the woman between yourself and the armrest, to prevent fleeing) and is prefaced by a truly alarming passage in which the author suggests using the little-known 'Bard defence' against a likely charge of sexual assault:
If she flinches, don't worry. If she flinches and makes an outcry, don't worry. If she flinches, makes an outcry and tries to get up from the sofa, don't worry. Hold her, gently but firmly, and allay her fears with kind, reassuring words. Remember what Shakespeare said about “a woman’s no.”
However if the cries become ‘stentorian’ and she starts to scratch your face, then you should consider getting yourself out of a bad situation, because:
such girls are not to be trifled with... or kissed. It is such as they, in most cases, who still believe the story of the stork which brings babies because of the consequences of a kiss.
(That kissing doesn’t make you pregnant is presumably one of the principal subjects of Sex Facts for Women.) Then, after another couple of pages of preamble, comes a rather memorable 500-word step-by-step, inch-by-inch procedure – which you can peruse on a new page if you so wish – that culminates in the beau swooping gracefully ‘like a seagull’, bringing his lips down firmly onto the lips of the girl who is quivering in his arms. Interestingly enough, there is no matching procedural description of the kiss itself, possibly because Mr Morris wrote a whole book on the topic he’d like you to buy (favourite chapter title: ‘How to kiss girls with different sizes of mouths’), but having the ultimate effect of reducing the act to its iconic image from the cinema, a frozen in time pressing of the lips of sure visual effect but dubious pleasurability.

However of greater interest to me were the passages in How to Make Love designed to help the reader to make a sensible choice of partner. Here I think the advice has a certain timeless quality, and moves into a territory whose boundaries have not been redrawn to the point of no longer being recognisable – which may explain in part the book’s later revival.

The key point to understand is this: love is devoid of either reason or logic, it’s an emotion that takes over the rational faculties in both sexes, and yet somehow
the utmost of care must be taken to be certain that the person with whom we fall in love is the proper person, the sort of person with whom you can expect to live happily the rest of your life.
How you are supposed to strip all the emotion away to make this choice, it is not immediately clear, but I suspect that the author relies on the criteria having been successfully interiorised, through education and the social messages that he has taken care to reinforce, so that the reader will interpret the necessary attributes as beauty to be desired – a beauty that is wrapped in morality and a sense of what is proper. After all, everything in the book is about the right and wrong kind of love and the right and wrong kind of behaviour. And it’s not just the same-sex thing. It would be ‘ludicrous’, Morris declares, for a man to fall in love with a woman who is larger and stronger than he is (hence the comedy in Barney Google and his enormous wife, don’t you know), or of a different social class or level of education.

Then there are the references to health and personal hygiene. When it comes to the latter, the injunction to the woman is peremptory:
Tub yourself continually in hot water and use cold water and soap to cleanse your skin so that it will always be alluring and attractive.
While not mandated to be submerged at all times, men are encouraged to always be ‘fresh looking’. But trumping the romantic tropes once and for all is the observation that the most important thing to look for in a partner is in fact a robust constitution:
Naturally, in choosing a mate, it is imperative that he or she be healthy. The ailing woman is a menace to any love affair. She should be strong enough to do housework, she should be strong enough to bear children, she should be strong enough to do the work necessary toward the building of a home. Again, the same should apply to the man, but even more so, for he is going to be the main support of the future family. Upon him and his strength will rest the job of earning the expenses.
This is what the author had been trying to tell us all along, as politely and with as many quotations from the great poets as he could: that choosing your partner is very much like choosing a horse. Now one could of course opine that romance has always been the most fictional genre of all, and that historically it was only the poor who could afford to couple for what we might nowadays be inclined to call love, but I would rather suggest that what distinguishes the contemporary social discourse is that we wrap the same ideas in different clothing: chiefly the theories of evolutionary science that tell us that men look for women with good child bearing hips, and women see beauty in health and wealth as indicators of a viable provider for their children, as well as more complex messages that equate diet and exercise in both sexes to moral – as opposed to physical – well-being.

So perhaps that’s why How to Make Love made its baffling comeback: because some of its ideas never went away, and there was a sufficient supply of aging uncles or aunts who thought that the new generation could benefit from its sensible advice, plainly told, to justify a reprint. In fact Morris’ book is oddly reminiscent of one of those conversations around the family table when the particular relative holding court is of the type that makes you shudder at the whole notion of genetic inheritance, and on top of that you know damn well that you’ll be lucky to live as long.

Hugh Morris. How to Make Love: The Secret of Wooing and Winning the One you Love. Publisher unknown: 1936 (reprinted 1987).


George D said...

That description of a kiss is positively orgiastic.

I'll return, but in the meantime thank you for enlivening my morning.

Anonymous said...

the little known 'Bard defence'


Tess Simpson said...

Fascinating, but to this Gen Y-er, completely baffling.

Rich L said...

When I were a wee lad, I once stumbled across a copy of 'everything you always wanted to know about sex (but were afraid to ask)'. 25 years later, I'm nearly recovered. I recommend traking a copy down if you want some good raw material for a sequel to this post.


Giovanni Tiso said...

That title for me will forever bring up the image of Gene Wilder sitting on a sidewalk drinking from a bottle of Woolite. I had no idea there was a book!