This essay is from a 1956 book of essays by Aldous Huxley entitled "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow" (or in the UK, "Adonis and the Alphabet"). It appeared on this web page in one block of text, and to make it more legible, I have inserted paragraphs as I saw fit, with apologies to the late Mr. Huxley.
Every civilization is, among other things, an arrangement for domesticating the passions and setting them to do useful work. The domestication of sex presents a problem whose solution must be attempted on two distinct levels of human experience, the psycho-physiological and the social.
On the social level the relations of the sexes have everywhere been regulated by law, by uncodified custom, by taboo and religious ritual. Hundreds of volumes have been filled with accounts of these regulations, and it is unnecessary to do more than mention them in passing. Our present concern is with the problem of domesticating sex at the source, of civilizing its manifestations in the individual lover.
This is a subject to which, in our Western tradition, we have paid much too little attention. Indeed, it is only in very recent years that, thanks to the declining influence of the Judaeo-Christian ethic, we have been able to discuss it realistically. In the past the problem used to be dealt with in one or other of three equally unsatisfactory ways. Either it was not mentioned at all, with the result that adolescents coming to maturity were left to work out their sexual salvation, unassisted, within the framework of the prevailing, and generally barbarous socio-legal system. Or else it was mentioned -but mentioned on the one hand with obscene delight or obscene disapproval (the tone of the pornographers and the Puritan moralists), or with a vague and all too “spiritual” sentimentality (the tone of the troubadours, Petrarchians and romantic lyrists).
Today we are condemned neither to silence, nor obscenity, nor sentimentality; we are at liberty, at last, to look at the facts and to ask ourselves what, if anything, can be done about them. One of the best ways of discovering what can be done is to look at what has been done. What experiments have been made in this field, and how successful have they been?
I shall begin not at the faraway beginning of everything, among the Trobrianders, for example, or the Tahitians, but rather at the beginning of our own current phase of civilization — in the middle years, that is to say, of the nineteenth century. Victoria had been on the throne for seven years when, in 1844, John Humphrey Noyes published his book, Bible Communism. (It is worth remarking that, for the American public of a hundred years ago, Communism was essentially biblical. It was preached and practiced by men and women who wanted to emulate the earliest Christians. The appeal was not to Marx’s Manifesto — still unpublished when Noyes wrote his book — but to the Acts of the Apostles.)
In the fourth chapter of Bible Communism and again, at greater length, in his Male Continence, written more than twenty years later, Noyes set forth his theories of sex and described the methods employed by himself and his followers for transforming a wild, God-eclipsing passion into a civilized act of worship, a prime cause of crime and misery into a source of individual happiness, social solidarity and good behavior.
“It is held in the world,” Noyes writes in Bible Communism, “that the sexual organs have two distinct functions — viz: the urinary and the propagative. We affirm that they have three — the urinary, the propagative and the amative., i.e.. they are conductors first of the urine, secondly of the semen and thirdly of the social magnetism. . .”
After Mrs. Noyes had come dangerously near to death as the result of repeated miscarriages, Noyes and his wife decided that, henceforth, their sexual relationships should be exclusively amative, not propagative. But how were the specifically human aspects of sex to be detached from the merely biological? Confronted by this question, Robert Dale Owen had advocated coitus interruptus; but Noyes had read his Bible and had no wish to emulate Onan. Nor did he approve of contraceptives — “those tricks,” as he called them, “of the French voluptuaries.”
Instead he advocated Male Continence and what Dr. Stockham was later to call Karezza. With the most exemplary scientific detachment he began by “analyzing the act of sexual intercourse. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. Its beginning and most elementary form is the simple presence of the male organ in the female.” Presence is followed by motion, motion by crisis. But now “suppose the man chooses to enjoy not only the simple presence, but also the reciprocal motion, and yet to stop short of the crisis. . . If you say that this is impossible, I answer that I know it is possible — nay, that it is easy.”
He knew because he himself had done it. “Beginning in 1844, I experimented on the idea” (the idea that the amative function of the sexual organs could be separated from the propagative) “and found that the self-control it required is not difficult; also that my enjoyment was increased; also that my wife’s experience was very satisfactory, which it had never been before; also that we had escaped the horrors and the fear of involuntary propagation.”
Noyes was a born prophet, a missionary in the bone. Having made a great discovery, he felt impelled to bring the good news to others -and to bring it, what was more, in the same package with what he believed to be true Christianity. He preached, he made disciples, he brought them together in a community, first in Vermont and later at Oneida, in upstate New York. “Religion,” he declared, “is the first interest, and sexual morality the second in the great enterprise of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth.” At Oneida the religion was Perfectionist Christianity and the sexual morality was based upon the psycho-physiological practices of Male Continence and the social law of Complex Marriage.
Like all earlier founders of religious communities, Noyes disapproved of exclusive attachments between the members of his group. All were to love all, unpossessively, with a kind of impersonal charity which, at Oneida, included sexual relationships. Hence the establishment, within the community, of Complex Marriage. Noyes did not condemn monogamy; he merely believed that group love was better than exclusive love. “I would not,” he wrote, “set up a distinction of right and wrong between general and special love, except that special love, when false, makes more mischief. I insist that all love, whether general or special, must have its authority in the sanction and the inspiration of the ascending fellowship. All love that is at work in a private corner, away from the general circulation, where there are no series of links connecting it with God, is false love; it rends and devours, instead of making unity, peace and harmony.”
At Oneida there was to be no love in a private corner, no idolatrous and God-eclipsing attachment of one for one, outside the general circulation. Each was married to all; and when any given pair decided (with the advice and permission of the Elders) to consummate their latent nuptials, Male Continence guaranteed that their union should be fruitful only of “social magnetism.” Love was for love’s sake and for God’s, not for offspring.
The Oneida Community endured for thirty years and its members, from all accounts, were excellent citizens, singularly happy and measurably less neurotic than most of their Victorian contemporaries. The women of Oneida had been spared what one of Noyes’s lady correspondents described as “the miseries of Married Life as it is in the World.” The men found their self-denial rewarded by an experience, at once physical and spiritual, that was deeper and richer than that of unrestrained sexuality.
Here is the comment of a young man who had lived in the community and learned the new Art of Love. “This Yankee nation,” he wrote to Noyes, “claims to be a nation of inventors, but this discovery of Male Continence puts you, in my mind, at the head of all inventors.”
And here are Noyes’s own reflections on the psychological, social and religious significance of his discovery. “The practice which we propose will advance civilization and refinement at railroad speed. The self-control, retention of life and advance out of sensualism, which must result from making freedom of love a bounty on the chastening of sensual indulgence, will at once raise the race to new vigor and beauty, moral and physical. And the refining effects of sexual love (which are recognized more or less in the world) will be increased a hundredfold when sexual intercourse becomes a method of ordinary conversation and each becomes married to all.”
Furthermore, “in a society trained in these principles, amative intercourse will have its place among the “fine arts.” Indeed, it will take rank above music, painting, sculpture, etc.; for it combines the charms and benefits of them all. There is as much room for cultivation of taste and skill in this department as in any.” And this is not all. Sexual love is a cognitive act. We speak — or at least we used to speak — of carnal knowledge. This knowledge is of a kind that can be deepened indefinitely. “To a true heart, one that appreciates God, the same woman is an endless mystery. And this necessarily flows from the first admission that God is unfathomable in depths of knowledge and wisdom.” Male Continence transforms the sexual act into a prolonged exchange of “social magnetism”; and this prolonged exchange makes possible an ever deepening knowledge of the mystery of human nature — that mystery which merges ultimately, and becomes one with the mystery of Life itself.
Noyes’s conception of the sexual act (when properly performed) as at once a religious sacrament, a mode of mystical knowledge and a civilizing social discipline has its counterpart in Tantra. In the twenty-seventh chapter of Sir John Woodroffe’s Shakti and Shakta the interested reader will find a brief account of the Tantrik’s sexual ritual, together with a discussion of the philosophy which underlies the practice.
Nothing in natural function is low or impure to the mind which recognizes it as Shakti and the working of Shakti. It is the ignorant and, in a true sense, vulgar mind which regards any natural function as low or coarse. The action in this case is seen in the light of the inner vulgarity of mind. . . Once the reality of the world as grounded in the Absolute is established, the body seems to be less an obstacle to freedom; for it is a form of that selfsame Absolute.”
In Tantra the sexual sacrament borrows the method of Yoga, “not to frustrate, but to regulate enjoyment. Conversely enjoyment produces Yoga by the union of body and spirit. . . Here are made one Yoga which liberates and Bhoga which enchains.” In Hindu philosophy (which is not philosophy in the modern Western sense of the word, but rather the description and tentative explanation of a praxis aimed at the transformation of human consciousness), the relations between body, psyche, spirit and Divine Ground are described in terms of a kind of occult physiology, whose language comes nearer to expressing the unbroken continuity of experience, from the “lowest” to the “highest,” than any hitherto devised in the West. “Coition,” in terms of this occult physiology, “is the union of the Shakti Kundalini, the ‘Inner Woman’ in the lowest centre of the Sadhaka’s body with the Supreme Shiva in the highest centre in the upper Brain. This, the Yogini Tantra says, is the best of all unions for those who are Yati, that is, who have controlled their passions.”
In the West the theory and practice of Tantra were never orthodox, except perhaps during the first centuries of Christianity. At this time it was common for ecclesiastics and pious laymen to have “spiritual wives,” who were called Agapetae, Syneisaktoi or Virgines Subintroductae. Of the precise relationships between these spiritual wives and husbands we know very little; but it seems that, in some cases at least, a kind of Karezza, or bodily union without orgasm, was practiced as a religious exercise, leading to valuable spiritual experiences.
For the most part, Noyes’s predecessors and the Christian equivalents of Tantra must be sought among the heretics — the Gnostics in the first centuries of our era, the Cathars in the early Middle Ages and the Adamites or Brethren and Sisters of the Free Spirit from the later thirteenth century onwards.
In his monograph on The Millennium of Hieronymus Bosch Wilhelm Franger has brought together much interesting material on the Adamites. They practiced, we learn, a modum specialem coeundi, a special form of intercourse, which was identical with Noyes’s Male Continence or the coitus reservatus permitted by Roman Catholic casuists. This kind of sexual intercourse, they declared, was known to Adam before the Fall and was one of the constituents of Paradise. It was a sacramental act of charity and, at the same time, of mystical cognition, and, as such, was called by the Brethren acclivitas– the upward path.
According to Aegidius Cantor, the leader of the Flemish Adamites in the first years of the fifteenth century, “the natural sexual act can take place in such a manner that it is equal in value to a prayer in the sight of God.” A Spanish follower of the Adamite heresy declared, at his trial that “after I had first had intercourse with her [the prophetess, Francisca Hernandez] for some twenty days, I could say that I had learned more wisdom in Valladolid than if I had studied for twenty years in Paris. For not Paris, but only Paradise could teach such wisdom.”
Like Noyes and his followers, the Adamites practiced a form of sexual communism, and practiced it not, as their enemies declared, out of a low taste for orgiastic promiscuity, but because Complex Marriage was a method by which every member of the group could love all the rest with an impartial and almost impersonal charity; could see and nuptially know in each beloved partner the embodiment of the original, unfallen Adam — a godlike son or daughter of God.
Among literary testimonials to Male Continence, perhaps the most elegant is a little poem by Petronius. Long and inevitably disgusting experience had taught this arbiter of the elegancies that there must be something better than debauchery. He found it in physical tenderness and the peace of soul which such tenderness begets.
Foeda est in coitu et brevis voluptas, et taedet Veneris statim peractae. Non ergo ut pecudes libidinosae caeci protinus irruamus illuc; nam languescit amor peritque flamma; sed sic sic sine fine feriati et tecum jaceamus osculantes. Hic nullus labor est ruborque nullus; hoc juvit, juvat et diu juvabit; hoc non deficit, incipitque semper.
Which was Englished by Ben Jonson, as follows:
Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short;
And done, we straight repent us of the sport;
Let us not then rush blindly on unto it, Like lustful beasts that only know to do it;
For lust will languish, and that heat decay. But thus, thus, keeping endless holiday, Let us together closely lie and kiss;
There is no labor, nor no shame in this;
This hath pleased, doth please and long will please;
never Can this decay, but is beginning ever.
And here, from a novelist and poet of a very different kind is a passage that hints at what is revealed by physical tenderness, when it is prolonged by Male Continence into a quasi-mystical experience. “She had sunk to a final rest,” Lawrence writes, near the end of The Plumed Serpent,2 “within a great opened-out cosmos. The universe had opened out to her, new and vast, and she had sunk to the deep bed of pure rest. . . She realized, almost with wonder, the death in her of the Aphrodite of the foam: the seething, frictional, ecstatic Aphrodite. By a swift dark instinct, Cipriano drew away from this in her. When, in their love, it came back on her, the seething electric female ecstasy, which knows such spasms of delirium, he recoiled from her. It was what she used to call her ’satisfaction.’ She had loved Joachim for this, that again, and again, and again he could give her this orgiastic ’satisfaction,’ in spasms that made her cry aloud.
“But Cipriano would not. By a dark and powerful instinct he drew away from her as soon as this desire rose again in her, for the white ecstasy of frictional satisfaction, the throes of Aphrodite of the foam. She could see that, to him, it was repulsive. He just removed himself, dark and unchangeable, away from her. “And she, as she lay, would realize the worthlessness of this foam-effervescence, its strange externality to her. It seemed to come from without, not from within. And succeeding the first moment of disappointment, when this sort of ’satisfaction’ was denied her, came the knowledge that she did not really want it, that it was really nauseous to her.
“And he in his dark, hot silence would bring her back to the new, soft, heavy, hot flow, when she was like a fountain gushing noiseless and with urgent softness from the deeps. There she was open to him soft and hot, yet gushing with a noiseless soft power. And there was no such thing as conscious ’satisfaction.’ What happened was dark and untellable. So different from the beak-like friction of Aphrodite of the foam, the friction which flares out in circles of phosphorescent ecstasy, to the last wild spasm which utters the involuntary cry, like a death-cry, the final love-cry.”
Male Continence is not merely a device for domesticating sexuality and heightening its psychological significance; it is also, as the history of the Oneida Community abundantly proves, a remarkably effective method of birth control. Indeed, under the name of coitus reservatus, it is one of the two methods of birth control approved by the authorities of the Roman Church — the other and more widely publicized method being the restriction of intercourse to the so-called safe periods.
Unfortunately large-scale field experiments in India have shown that, in the kind of society which has the most urgent need of birth control, the safe period method is almost useless. And whereas Noyes, the practical Yankee, devoted much time and thought to the problem of training his followers in Male Continence, the Roman Church has done little or nothing to instruct its youth in the art of coitus reservatus. (How odd it is that while primitive peoples, like the Trobrianders, are careful to teach their children the best ways of domesticating sex, we, the Civilized, stupidly leave ours at the mercy of their wild and dangerous passions!)
Meanwhile, over most of the earth, population is rising faster than available resources. There are more people with less to eat. But when the standard of living goes down, social unrest goes up, and the revolutionary agitator, who has no scruples about making promises which he knows very well he cannot keep, finds golden opportunities. Confronted by the appalling dangers inherent in population increase at present rates, most governments have permitted and one or two have actually encouraged their subjects to make use of contraceptives. But they have done so in the teeth of protests from the Roman Church. By outlawing contraceptives and by advocating instead two methods of birth control, one of which doesn’t work, while the other, effective method is never systematically taught, the prelates of that Church seem to be doing their best to ensure, first, a massive increase in the sum of human misery and, second, the triumph, within a generation or two, of World Communism.
Huxley fans will also enjoy his book "ISLAND," available in its entirety for free.
- 1. Male Continence, sex as a sacrament and coitus as a long-drawn cognitive exchange of “social magnetism” have been discussed in contemporary medical terms by Dr. Rudolf von Urban whose book Sexual Perfection and Marital Happiness is one of the most significant modern contributions to the solution of an age-old problem.
- 2. * By D. H. Lawrence. New York, Knopf, 1926.