Lust is a topic about which it is very easy to accuse someone of having had too much to think. Being an inherently and inevitably illogical and rationally evasive subject, it provides mounds of frustration for intellectuals and psychologsts, who, more often than not, seem to be helplessly pounding on the head of a gargantuan behemoth. Lust's reputation, both historic and current, does not help. There is a long tradition in the West of rigid control, of not giving in and becoming a slobbering porn shop denizen. In this sense, lust has become another bad habit, like smoking or gambling, and the term "sexual addiction", with its implied hopes of convalescence, has entered the public discourse. Lust thus has been put on the naughty shelf with the nudie mags and skin flicks. To some extent, because of the inevitable correlations, sex has been put there as well, and, along with religion and politics, it has become the third most important thing that one should not discuss with others in public. Of course we do talk about it nonetheless, because lust has a power to overcome both morality and propriety. Two thousand years of Christian shame have not subverted its powers. Legal restrictions and sodomy laws seem like squealing moralzing rodents next to its lumbering bulk. The West seems incapable of acceptance on an intellectual and moral basis that lust, and what it leads to, is inexplicable from human nature. The only peace seems to come from acceptance, which of course suggests anything but peace (those who have been entangled by lust likely know this). Various reviews of this book promised a saving of lust from intolerant traditions, or what implies an intellectual acceptance of the West's most maligned pleasure. Given that, how could one not pick up and read this tiny book?
This book focuses on lust from a Western perspective. The space limitations (about 130 pages) most likely precluded a detailed discussion of lust from other cultural traditions, which is too bad, because there is a lot to chew on when comparing different cultures' views on the subject. Still, there is a brief mention of eastern thoughts on lust, which only provides a teaser for what could be learned from a more detailed comparison, but that must be left to other books.
Starting off, the author says he is taking a "philosophical stroll in the park" of the subject. That is an accurate assessment. The fifteen chapters each take on a different aspect of the topic. There is a flow of information from one to the other, but it is a casual flow, not an Aristotelian logical analysis based on predicate logic or Venn diagrams. This is a good thing.
Each chapter provides a glimpse into the multifarious worlds that open up when the rusty door of lust is forced from its hinges. For example, how do we know exactly what we desire when we desire something or someone? Is it simply a person's sensual body or is it something less direct, such as revenge, the fulfillment of a past sexual shafting or emotional issue? It's not always clear; there is a discussion on the nature of excess, or "what is too much?" with the inevitable mention of President Clinton (the Monica Lewinsky scandal had a decidedely medieval tone to it). The book deals with technical issues such as this.
Lust from a historical perspective juices many of the book's chapters. Lust has a long history as a deadly sin, and many famous philosophers and Saints have had much to say about it (the author relaxes some of the blame too often put on Saint Augustine alone). The Greeks accepted lust as something endowed in human nature, but something to keep in check. "Nothing in excess" more or less sums up the Greek moral view of lust. Then something happened when Christianity became the dominant Western morality. The "cult of the virgin" took hold, and lust was not something merely to control, but to obliterate altogether; it was tantamount to Satanic influence. The book's at a glance view of this transition is fascinating, but sadly all too brief.
There is optimism here as well. What the author calls a "Hobbesian Unity" (after, of course, Thomas Hobbes) may be one of the aims of lust. Could this salicious thing be pointing us towards unity and romantic love of another human being? Obviously not always, but it's a possibility. What successful relationships don't have even a trace of lust in them? It seems hard to imagine a successful union between people "in love" in which sexual desire plays absolutely no role. There are of course dangers, and the book touches on these as well: objectivity, obsession, dominance, etc. There is a brief glimpse at evolutionary psychology's point of view. In the end, the author has an optimistic tone about lust, but is as unavoidably clueless as the rest of us are on the subject. Not that he claims any special knowledge, but the book will manifest no solutions to lust's power, though it will provide new perspectives and avenues down which further research can be taken. Overall a good read that will leave one deep in thought about one's own issues with the very complicated issue of lust. After all, if you're human, you've likely succumbed to some degree.