A list of the 100 sexiest men ever is preposterous. And I'm not on it

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The Independent Culture
Establishing my intellectual magnanimity beyond all question by attending another man's lecture the other day, I found myself privy to a conversation I would rather have not heard. The lecturer was the cognitive neuroscientist Steven Pinker, the conversationalists were two women somewhere between the age of 17 and 45 (they all look the same to me now), and the subject of their conversation was Professor's Pinker's sexiness - ie, was he or wasn't he?

I had gone prepared to hear women marvelling at the size of Professor Pinker's brain, the enormity of his contribution to post-Chomsky cognitive neuroscience, his thrust and fluency as an orator-explicator, but sexiness I was not ready for. And it upset me, I am not ashamed to admit that. In fact I am ashamed to admit that, but this is a column which values candour above all else, therefore admit it I must. Hearing Professor Pinker described as sexy - for that was the upshot of the women's deliberations: sexy, yes, bloody sexy, if you must know - put a dent the size of a large crater on the surface of that turbulent planet I call My Peace of Mind. Because while I am not competing with the Professor in the field of cognitive neuroscience, I am of course competing with him in the field of being sexy.

What you must understand, before you start jumping to conclusions, is that this has been a bad year for me as far as recognition of my achievements in the field of being sexy is concerned. It is still only recently that I discovered I had been excluded from Company magazine's list of The 100 Sexiest Men Ever. True, the cover did caution readers to be ready for surprises, but I never thought they'd go so far, in the name of novelty and headline-grabbing, as to leave me out altogether.

Stupid concept, anyway. Sexiest men ever. Says who? And how would they know? Sexiest men currently in circulation I could almost buy, though even that presents complications given the age at which sexiness is now thought to show itself in men, and the lead time for a magazine like Company - go to print with your 100 sexiest in March and by May the world's kindergartens have spat out another 50. But sexiest ever...!

Tell me how you judge John Milton's sexiness from a distance of 300 years? Or Aristotle's from a distance of 3,000? Carbon dating might be able to settle the provenance of a Tudor banana skin to within a fortnight of someone's having peeled it, but a methodology for testing sexiness in the moribund has yet to be discovered. Besides which, tastes change. Consider those tiny penises on statues of ancient Greek athletes. Someone must have found those ideally sexy once. In our time, however, Spandex has changed the way we look at things. Sexy then is not sexy now; but equally the idea that someone with David Beckham's diction could one day be thought sexually provocative would surely have come as a surprise to the medieval monks of Lindisfarne.

No more to say on the subject. A list of the 100 sexiest men ever is preposterous in conception, narrow in focus, and necessarily incomplete. It shouldn't therefore have mattered that I wasn't on it. But it did.

On ethical and intellectual principle I used always to deny all knowledge of the word sexy. "Sexy!" I'd explode, the moment someone started on the sexiness of a sexy new version of Macbeth. "Sexy! Is that meant to be a term of approbation? Are we making value judgements here?" Even as a boy I refused to pin anything that might have been construed as sexy on my wall. A black and white reproduction of a portrait of George Eliot - that was what I woke to every morning. A mind. I grew up looking at pictures of a mind. Several minds, if you want to know. George Eliot, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte - only I had to take Charlotte Bronte down when one of my schoolfriends said, "Who's she? She's sexy."

But I am older and sadder now. I know what I am not above. Two women get hot for a visiting psycholinguist and my evening's shot to pieces. Fine. In this I am not to be distinguished from any other man crawling between heaven and earth. Let's say it and have done with: not Chomsky himself, not Roman Jakobson, not the great Ferdinand de Saussure - go on, name a grammarian, any grammarian - would have felt a smidgen less jealous of Pinker as sex object than I did. This is neither difficult nor dignified to explain. We are all specialists now. What is it to me if some generative phonologist Johnny is loaded with all the wealth, honours and felicity the modern world can bestow? I am not a generative phonolgist. We novelists and semioticians can carve the material universe up between us, happy in our freedom from envious curiosity. You do science, we do art. We matter, you don't. Enjoy. See you in another life. But allude if only in passing to the success any single one of us enjoys smuggling the thought of sex into the minds of women between the age of 17 and 45, and we are back in the old gladiatorial arena, stripped down to our basics.

It must be that we men don't trust our specialisms after all. At the last we would rather be thought sexy than win a Nobel Prize. Except in so far as winning a Nobel Prize is sexy.

Pathetic, really. But then I have it on good authority that women find pathetic sexy.

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