Commentary Magazine


"I'm Sorry, Dear" (cont'd)

To the Editor:

Dr. Leslie H. Farber’s article [“I’m Sorry, Dear,” November 1964] is more than an unusually bold and sensitive discussion about sex in the present age. It is also a profound analysis of the whole dilemma of 20th-century Western man—one of the profoundest I have read in years. Its greatest merit is its spirit of hope. Like Kierkegaardian reflection (to which it seems much indebted), it points to an immediacy after reflection: for men and women with enough courage to surrender the kind of will which divides them from their bodies-made-into-machines and become human again—that is, imperfect but whole.

Emil L. Fackenheim
Dept. of Philosophy
University of Toronto
Toronto, Canada

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To the Editor:

Dr. Farber . . . remarks that over the last sixty years, “sex has lost its viability as a human experience.” He did not perhaps intend such an obvious Goldwaterism, but I sense a nostalgia somewhere. No matter—though one could add that not only sex, but a great deal of other human experience as well does not seem as viable today as it did sixty years ago, before the Nazi debacle, the atom bomb, and even the flowering of his own specialty, psychoanalysis (on which subject he seems to have a wholly admirable ambivalence). Dr. Farber’s prime example, however, Dr. Masters’s Washington University project . . . does not prove his point; in fact, it proves quite the opposite since it is its very viability that he criticizes: that such an experiment is possible!

What Dr. Farber is getting at is of course quite obvious. The more empirical the analysis one applies to an area of human conduct, the more distant and elusive becomes “spontaneity,” that word so beloved by psychologists . . . or “grace,” existentially speaking, that impossible aspiration which does bridge the gap between heaven and earth, or male and female if one is a mere sexologist. Dr. Farber tells us we will not find it in the laboratory, but who would look for it there in the first place? I do not believe in Dr. Masters’s laboratory at all. I think it was invented by Murray Schisgal or Harold Pinter. As a writer, I wish I’d thought of it myself. Which all goes to prove that Nature does imitate Art and Dr. Farber could profit from more contemporary readings than Lawrence.

And where does Dr. Farber himself practice? . . . The laboratory of the psychoanalytic interview is only slightly less sterile than the Washington project. Is the analyst, the unmoved mover, moved? How does he bear up under eight hours of daily recital of missed orgasms, marital disasters, concealed homosexuality, fantastic adulteries—that enormous quanta of human experience which piles up daily, monthly, yearly, on his tape recorder or 4 x 6 filing cards? Is this constant exposure less horrendous than a woman writhing under klieg lights? . . . But Dr. Farber has compassion and humor, already signs of heresy . . . and there is no doubt about it, a really lucid criticism of the quantitative sexual response as embodied in the marriage manuals, etc., is long overdue. . . .

Avoidance of mechanics, however, does not in itself lead to spontaneity in sexual behavior. Does Dr. Farber mean to imply that it does? Those who don’t read sex manuals are not, I would safely say, more spontaneous nor do they lead better sex lives than those who do. Like most analysts, Dr. Farber sees patients everywhere, the female subjects of Dr. Masters’s sex-periments, the two witnessing sexologists. He is guilty (and I really like him for this) of a (no other word for it) obscene curiosity as to these last unknown participants. His description is high comedy. I haven’t touched on Dr. Farber’s main point, that he believes the need for simultaneous orgasm to be wholly unnecessary. It is just not possible to discuss this without ribaldry. . . .

P. C. Richmond
Rome, Italy

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To the Editor:

. . . Even if Dr. Farber cannot bring himself to believe it, the doctrine that holds reproduction to be the sole end and aim of any respectable human mating, and that holds all its other benefits to be at most only derivatively legitimate is, indeed, of religious origin. Theologians recognized in sexual love one of the most dangerous potential menaces to the individual’s pursuit of ascetic and innerworldly goals and they therefore placed it (particularly in the Catholic and Calvinist traditions of Christianity) under very strong ideological controls. Perhaps now, in what has been called the post-Christian era, we will at last accord this love—the love which uplifts and makes glad the hearts of men—its due natural piety. Pseudo-therapeutic doctrines of physical experience are another matter; and of course Dr. Farber is quite right in attacking them.

Pace Dr. Farber, I doubt that women were any happier before what he calls “sexology” than Negroes were before the current struggle for civil rights began. It is hard to imagine that either one was content with . . . the theory that assigned a measurable economic price to a wife and slave and claimed they could be owned like other commodities; and the code that made it nearly impossible for them to realize the virtues of the artist, citizen, or philosopher. That American society has confronted, and to some degree still confronts, women and Negroes with an almost intolerable gap between expectation and reality is bad enough. We needn’t make things worse by investing this oppression with an aura of mystery and thus helping to prolong it.

Dr. Farber’s criticisms of Dr. Masters’s experiments are very telling and he has earned our gratitude by reproducing with humane candor an all-too-typical post-intercourse exchange. But I do not think “I’m Sorry, Dear,” which presents a regressive thesis in a provocative and daring way, is, as some might think, a major contribution to contemporary self-awareness. Instead, it seems to me to confirm Santayana’s sad reflection that the opponents of the ruling orthodoxy often merely invert its errors rather than discovering new truths.

Jacob Taubes
Free University of Berlin
Berlin, West Germany

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To the Editor:

. . . The central issue [of Dr. Farber’s article] is that our society, vulgarizing what it believes to be a scientific position, increasingly dissociates sexual performance from the wholeness of the self. The mass media think the sexual revolution is intercourse without marriage. Dr. Farber’s merit is to warn us that we are well into the next stage: orgasm without relationship. (The very usage shows how far we have come. To say “orgasm without love,” today would draw snickers, for only neophytes or sentimentalists still talk that way. “Relationship” may be jargon but it is many people’s hope for a standard to guide a generation un-worried about syphilis, conception, or social disapproval.) Farber is distressed because he sees sexuality becoming impersonal, even mechanical. . . .

With all the cries about the de-humanization of man in politics, industry, and education, too little has been said until now about the same cancer affecting the most private and personal level of human behavior. Many a modern man has believed he could resist society by retaining an intimate sanctuary of sex and love where his soul might be restored, but no such refuge will be tolerated. . . . The fight for the whole person and the integrity of his nature becomes ever more desperate and important. The existentialist critique of contemporary society retains its prophetic ring but may not go far enough. . . .

Judaism began a religious revolution when, from its earliest days, it acknowledged a God who transcended sexuality without spurning it. Being beyond sex, He could set appropriate standards for its exercise and thus for its sanctification. When sexual intercourse was part of loving one’s wife, having a family, enjoying the Sabbath and serving God in holiness, it was a joyous path to an ennobling goal. Today, when sensation is god and orgasm is revelation, man’s image is radically constricted and his self is less than his genitality. . . .

(Rabbi) Eugene B. Borowitz
New York City

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To the Editor:

The undersigned was born in 1899 in Victorian days, and first read Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams in college in 1915. Now that I have read your article, entitled, I believe, “Move Over, Dear” (with the aid of a dictionary), I have read “everything.” . . .

Louis S. Bing
San Francisco, California

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To the Editor:

I sympathize and in large part agree with Dr. Farber’s sentiments against a purely behavioristic, “basic science” approach. But from this honest gripe against the gods of the laboratory, he has succeeded only in building a demonology all too reminiscent of the fundamentalist response to Darwin. Characteristically, this reactionary posture attempts to rout the scientistic demons on their own territory and in terms comprehensible to them; it attempts to “outscience the scientists” and lands Dr. Farber in Dr. Masters’s camp by the same process that turns the arch-fundamentalist into a living caricature of the Lockean rationalist. The real point is not that scientific inquiry is wrong or that exposure to its findings is harmful, no matter how improbable or recondite they may be. The point is not demonry but idolatry: assigning central significance to what is only marginal or tangential.

A very serious defect in Dr. Farber’s demonophobia is the idyllic fantasy he invokes of sex relations in the good old days of ignorance and legally enforced male supremacy.

No one, to my knowledge, has compiled statistics on the number of persons put to death in a bestially cruel manner for fellatio or cunnilingus in the Middle Ages. Students of the history of capital punishment have, however, observed the inefficacy of even the most hideous punishments as a deterrent to crime. [Hence] we may surmise that many sexual practices that were punishable—including simple fornication—went unpunished in the majority of cases because the penalty was a spur to discretion rather than abstention. The sexual revolution of this century did not occur in a vacuum, and even in its present phase it has not yet reached the level of complete candor. It is disingenuous to assume (the parallel to the racial crisis is striking) that agitators and intruders are solely to blame. . . .

What Dr. Farber calls the change in our experience of our bodies or the sense that “our fleshly home” has become a laboratory where experiment occurs must be seen actually as an experience of freedom, with all that this implies. I hope I am not grossly exaggerating if I say that in very broad terms it may be analogous to the crisis of liberation experienced by inmates of the Nazi concentration camps at the moment of their being released.

Sociological factors such as rapid vertical social mobility, the tempo of urban life, etc., probably have more to do with the relative instability of present-day sexual relationships, marital and otherwise, than have feminism, scientism, or specifically sexual factors. Overemphasis on sex technique is due, I think, to the newness of the situation, and indicates misplacement rather than a wrong choice among mutually exclusive possibilities. . . . Dr. Farber has not come to terms with the fundamental interrelation of love and sexuality. I think evidence can be found that, other factors being equal, a deep commitment to one’s sexual partner enhances and enriches the quality of orgasm when it occurs. May it perhaps also enhance its likelihood or frequency or duration? The gist of Dr. Masters’s work apparently says nothing about this, but precisely because of its “basic science” lovelessness, it says something useful about what happens otherwise; by doing so, it may provide a firmer basis for understanding how love alters the experience and fulfills it. Hence, contrary to what Dr. Farber supposes, full acquaintance with the nature of sex per se may help to reveal the importance of love and the kind of commitment it implies. (Perhaps it is not enough to invoke “love” without also saying “wonder” and “mystery,” for in it we enter a religious dimension that makes the difference between thrill and ecstasy. Sexual technique, like liturgy, does not itself produce the experience but conduces it.)

Dr. Farber’s opening vignette is only a very partial representation of the question. Its truth is limited and his answer even more so. He begins to suggest the basis of better answers and even hints at the larger question, but then the demons deflect his inquiry and make of it an inquisition. We have had quite enough of those. The importance of the female orgasm may not be supreme but it is legitimate. It need be neither the frantic desideratum nor the random accident which he offers as alternatives. As in all things, sex will be at its best when freedom and equality are at an optimum. There are pitfalls along the route, to be sure, but the hallowing of the way is not accomplished by Comstockery, however disguised. We must be free to mature, to dispense with the misguidance of conventional wisdom and moralistic blinders. Finally, we must be free to let conscience and responsibility function and to recognize that the will of God, however we choose to construe it, is not defined by any set of rules, however useful these may be. There is no absolute except God Himself, blessed be He, and the highest form of obedience is love freely given. Beyond the questions so far broached we must be prepared ultimately to ask whether there is indeed any form of human sexual relation (I deliberately do not choose the word “activity”) to which it does not apply. Whether we have to do with orgasm, asceticism, adultery, or any other existential option, this is the perennial question that we have tried to quash by fiat, to the detriment of faith.

William Robert Miller
New York City

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To the Editor:

. . . It makes as much sense to criticize Dr. Masters’s attempts to carry out objective studies of female sexual responses on grounds that sexual activity has a wealth of emotional and interpersonal significance, as to disqualify research on central nervous system physiology because it does scant justice to the writings of Shakespeare and other great products of the human brain; or to condemn investigation of the workings of the human eye because it bears but little relation to the complexity of our experience as we stand before a Rembrandt canvas; or even to forbid study of the mechanism of elimination, an experience, after all, which for some is as full of underlying meanings as sexual activity is for others. . . .

It must be emphasized that the reader, in any case, has no title to pass judgment on the work of Dr. Masters on the basis of the frankly biased and highly flavored account given by Dr. Farber.

I found Dr. Farber’s evaluation of contemporary sexual ills extremely interesting and telling. However, he should not have made a scapegoat of a man who is guilty, as far as we know, of nothing more than being a competent and highly conscientious investigator.

(Dr.) David Savitz
Bethesda, Maryland

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To the Editor:

Dr. Farber is perceptive in pointing out the dialectical link between sexual and political theory and practice. I wonder, however, if he fully understands the political content of some of the tacit premises on which his own arguments rest. He derides, in passing, a sect which worshipped the Serpent in the Garden of Eden; yet his own deepest feeling seems to be nostalgia for a lost Garden of Earthly Delights which men presumably enjoyed before that serpent, Enlightenment, arrived. Students of political thought will recognize this sort of rhetoric at once: it is Reaction’s old sweet song. Since Burke’s time we have grown accustomed to endless laments for the good old days before the masses began making their crass materialist demands for quantitative “satisfaction,” aided by that “pig-philosophy” (as Carlyle called it), Utilitarianism, which affirmed satisfaction as their right. Back then, the “perturbation” of most of mankind was indeed (to use Farber’s words) “unremarkable and certainly bearable,” for men “had not yet been enlightened”; they were quite “content” with their lot, and “would not have it otherwise.” “At this stage” particular rights and satisfactions “had not yet been abstracted and isolated from the totality” of human existence, or “enshrined as the meaning and measure of . . . life.” Notions which men “retained from an older tradition” assured them that ultimate values were “private and unique,” beyond discussion or criticism. Thus peasants grubbing in the fields (as most men were in those days), barely subsisting, could nevertheless celebrate “the mystery of difference, the impact of human contingency,” and could be grateful and happy for such small contingencies as might come their way.

It was only through the intrusion of those whom Burke called “sophisters, economists and calculators,” spreading “the delusive plausibilities of moral politicians” in their wake, that this political “glory of Europe [was] extinguished forever.” It has taken Dr. Farber’s correlative sexual glories somewhat longer to die, and his kaddish may even now be a bit premature. But I wonder, in any case, how many of us really want to join in the mourning. I am just as appalled as Farber is by the crudities of sexual engineering in America today—just as I am appalled by the grubby acquisitiveness and manipulation that pervade so many spheres of American life. But this does not seem to me sufficient reason to yearn for a time when everyone knew and accepted his place, when people made no demands on life because they felt entitled to nothing. It may be pathetically self-destructive, as Farber suggests, to “strive for heaven on earth”; but it would be just as pathetic to revert to a fatalistic indifference to things of this world. If sexual freedom is a dead end for many of us, we must try to think and feel our way out, to work out new ways of living with one another—in particular, we must learn to spike our love and our romantic aspirations with irony and humor. In private as in public life, it does not seem very manly—menschlich, I mean—to escape from freedom entirely, to soothe the flesh by mortifying the spirit, by giving up our sense of possibility. Love may be the greatest of all things, but I doubt whether love can thrive except in a climate of faith and hope.

Marshall Berman
Dept. of Government
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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To the Editor:

Now that COMMENTARY has given us so brilliant an analysis of the science of sexology as Dr. Leslie Farber’s in “I’m Sorry, Dear,” I would strongly urge that you commit the author to a return engagement. Please get him to do a more generalizing article—it is clear how well he could do it—on the literal imagination of our time, the imagination that has lost contact with context and that cannot give a large human perspective to a fact.

Actually our sense of a “fact” can be dehumanized, driven out of its human context, and emerge absurd. There is a fine subject: “What is a ‘fact’?” A culture is on its way to illness when it cannot keep facts in perspective. Sexology is a good example, and I am sure no sensible reader will misunderstand the satire within Dr. Farber’s attack on it. But let him go still further with this kind of analysis.

William F. Lynch, S.J.
St. Peter’s College
Jersey City, New Jersey

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