BOOK REVIEW / A trip round the sexual psyche: 'The Poisoned Embrace: A Brief History of Sexual Pessimism' - Lawrence Osborne: Bloomsbury: 13.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
I'M pessimistic about sex. You're pessimistic about sex. So, I believe, are he and she. Looks like we're on to something here, perhaps the beginnings of a new declension. If so, Lawrence Osborne has every right to be considered as one of our grammarians. He's up there at the head of the class striding back and forth, and giving every little member a thwack with his Quelching cane, should any of us threaten to get overexcited.

In this schematic yet discursive essay, Osborne takes us from the Desert Fathers to the Orgone Box and back again on a round trip of sensual mordancy. He kicks off by pinpointing the moment at which Western culture somewhat mysteriously decided: 'Hey] Two for the price of one: sex and death]' From there on, whether it be the dissection of the vagina or the putative endowment of Old Nick, everything is grist to his eschatological mill.

This is all very well, and Osborne is never less than entertaining. He has wisely eschewed the missionary position commonly adopted by writers on this subject (in which they lay their intellect down on top and then hammer away) for a more insinuating, snaky, Foucaultesque approach. Following this kinky French manual, he has hit upon a coital quadrille for eight archetypal partners. Each section of the book takes its title from one of these, ranging from the virgin and the witch, on through the Jew and the leper to the noble savage, the Don Juan, the Oriental and the androgyne.

The trouble with this is that it is difficult, with such a protean complement, to make out who's having who. There's so much transmogrification going on, what with virgins coming out of serpents and syphilitic Jews being flayed away to reveal stripling hermaphrodites, that the impression is of the collective sexual psyche as a mimetic realm capable of shaping itself to the most extravagant imaginings.

This isn't at all what Osborne wants. He wishes us (like others before him) to see the Christian era as merely another polyp-Gestalt thrown off by the efflorescing body of Eros / Thanatos as it advances, virus-like, through human history. In this he is assisted by a traditional (and one-sided) view of the relationship between Gnosticism and Christianity. On Osborne's reading, Gnosticism is the veritable black rod of sexual history, brutally deflowering whatever chance Western culture ever had of having fun in having sex, leaving us spent and gnawed at by a world-historic case of tristesse.

But Osborne is too honest (and too anecdotal) to let this stand unopposed. Instead, just as the penis can be read as an exteriorisation of the vagina, so, according to him, Christianity itself is the 'outsie' for Gnosticism's lurking 'insie'. What goes around comes around and even the heady sexual optimism of Wilhelm Reich, who viewed the orgasm as a global panacea, a cure for cancer and a solution to war, is unveiled by Osborne as a deracination

of our fundamental corporeal being.

If it sounds as though this book is a victim of its own intellectual fancy- pantsery, that's because at a certain level it is. However, reading it as an assortment of oddments, a wry collection of perspectives on the voracious beast that lies between our legs, The Poisoned Embrace is enthralling and impelling. Particularly fine are Osborne's discussion of sexual demonology and his overview of the corrupt Western ejaculation into the Occident and the New World.

The curious omission of any discussion of the impact of Freud, or of the character of the late-20th-century sexual revolution (and the subsequent reaction to it), can be explained less by Osborne wishing to press everything into conformity with his thesis than by the millennial perspective he has taken. 'Come now,' he always seems to be reminding us, 'sex is miserable enough already, without having to bring the modern age into it.'