New York

WHEN Virginia Woolf wrote that the modern era began with the death of Edward VII - "On or about December 1910, human character changed" - Vanessa Bell begged to differ. She dated the transformation to an evening two years earlier, when Lytton Strachey noticed a stain on her skirt and asked: "Semen?" From that moment on, she said: "Sex permeated our conversation."

Well, we are certainly deep into the modern age now. But it turns out, even as the entire nation pores over Kenneth Starr's narrative about sex and the presidential semen, that Americans are not so modern after all. Or at least, thank God, we have not morphed into a nation of Frenchmen.

When news of Monica broke in January, the most telling poll reported that while the majority of Americans said they didn't much care what had happened between the President and the intern, the same majority said they thought other Americans did. People did not want to appear more provincial, less modern, than their neighbours. But when the Democratic Senator Joseph Leiberman took to the Senate floor and pronounced the President's behaviour "immoral", "disgraceful", "harmful" and deserving of "public rebuke", it was suddenly safe to admit that it had bothered us all along. In a single weekend the slow burn of public disgust that had begun with the President's own defiant speech on 17 August turned into a bonfire.

For the first time, incumbent congressmen running for re-election in November began airing ads last week saying things like "personal conduct and integrity does matter" - a message that would have been deemed old- fashioned or even negative two weeks ago. Internet chat boards contained such postings as: "Impeach the un-American prick, he was a phoney from the beginning". Words like "privacy" and "consenting adults" are no longer bandied about. The highly respected Senator Robert Byrd said that if Clinton wanted privacy he should have headed to the third-floor living quarters (not very practical under the circumstances). "The Oval Office," he intoned, "is the people's office."

A FEW diehards still cling to the French model. In the wake of criticism about Clinton's initial "apology" to the nation, Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard professor and er contributor, pronounced the 17 August speech, like a bottle of fine wine, "subtle and sophisticated". But even the most cynical of his colleagues in Manhattan couldn't agree on that last week. "That is absurd. That is egregious," said Erroll McDonald, editor-in-chief of Pantheon Books, who has taken to referring to the Oval Office as the "oral office".

Andre Leon Talley, the style guru and journalist, said: "That speech? That speech? Lord have mercy on this nation. What were we watching, some kind of sitcom president? It just goes to show you the country is going down the drain." In a show of unusual sensitivity to denizens of the country beyond the city, Talley asked: "Can you imagine the farmers in the Midwest, the people out there who make ten dollars an hour and three of it goes to the government? Can you imagine the anger and resentment they must feel? We need to get that man out of the White House and let him get his blow jobs elsewhere."

THE NEWS organisations here have been too squeamish in the past to deal with the kind of lascivious stuff the report contains. In London, three weeks ago, I first learnt of one sexual interlude involving Monica and a cigar. I read about it in the papers; I got plenty of commentary about it from one of my cab drivers ("I'll bet all those heads of state Clinton gave cigars to are washing their mouths out with soap"). The American papers never carried the item. Last week, Time magazine made an oblique reference by positing that Americans are sick of "dirty jokes about cigars".

It may be hard to predict how the press will handle things, but a glance at The Clinton Syndrome: The President and the Self-Destructive Nature of Sexual Addiction provides a clue as to what the President will do. In his new book, Jerome Levin, a psychotherapist, says that the only time the President has a "cohesive identity" is when he is "people-pleasing or engaging in sexually addictive behavior". He also identifies Clinton as a pathological narcissist.

It is an opinion that is easy to buy, since, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the symptoms of narcissism include reacting to criticism with rage, taking advantage of others to achieve one's own ends, a grandiose sense of self-importance, a sense of entitlement, and a need for constant attention and admiration.

We have already seen all that but the DSM goes on to say that when a narcissist feels pushed, he may undergo a period of "brief reactive psychosis" which can last from two hours to a month. The symptoms the world should now be watching for are: peculiar postures, outlandish dress, speech that includes inarticulate gibberish or repetition of nonsensical phrases, silly answers to factual questions, disorientation and impairment in recent memory.

On Friday morning Clinton spoke to religious leaders. He said he'd been up all night praying. He said he had sinned. He said he had a broken spirit and a strong heart (which the book he referred to as "my Bible" had told him was the only way to receive real redemption). He said he was sorry about lying to everybody and he was even sorry for Monica and her family. He said: "Turn us around, O Lord, and bring us back toward you." He said he had instructed his lawyers to "mount a vigorous defence". He quoted from a passage "a Jewish friend" gave him: "Leaves are beginning to turn from green to red, birds are turning once more toward the south, animals are storing food for the winter". Brief reactive psychosis may have already set in.