JOH: Let me begin by asking you to respond to John Boswell’s recent book on the history of Homosexuality from the beginning of the Christian era through the middle ages. As an historian yourself, do you find his methodology valid? To what extent do you think the conclusions he draws contribute to a better understanding of the contemporary homosexual experience?
MF: This is certainly a very important study whose originality is already evident from the way in which it poses the question. Methodologically speaking, the rejection by Boswell of the categorical opposition between homosexual and heterosexual, which plays such a significant role in the way our culture conceives of homosexuality, represents an advance not only in scholarship but in cultural criticism as well. His introduction of the concept of “gay” (in the way he defines it) provides us both with a useful instrument of research and at the same time a better comprehension of how people actually conceive of themselves and their sexual behavior. On the level of investigative results, this methodology has led to the discovery that what has been called the repression of homosexuality does not date back to Christianity properly speaking, but developed within the Christian era at a much later date. In this type of analysis it is important to be aware of the way in which people conceived of their own sexuality. Sexual behavior is not, as is too often assumed, a superimposition of, on the one hand, desires which derive from natural instincts, and, on the other hand, of permissive or restrictive laws which tell us what we should or shouldn’t do. Sexual behavior is more than that. It is also the consciousness one has of what one is doing, what one makes of the experience, and the value one attaches to it. It is in this sense that I think the concept ‘gay’ contributes to a positive (rather than a purely negative) appreciation of the type of consciousness in which affection, love, desire, sexual rapport with people have a positive significance.
JOH: I understand that your own recent work has led you to a study of sexuality as it was experienced in ancient Greece.
MF: Yes, and precisely Boswell’s book has provided me with a guide for what to look for in the meaning people attached to their sexual behavior.
JOH: Does this focus on cultural context and people’s discourse about their sexual behavior reflect a methodological decision to bypass the distinction between innate predisposition to homosexual behavior and social conditioning; or do you have any conviction one way or the other on this issue?
MF: On this question I have absolutely nothing to say. “No comment.”
JOH: Does this mean you think the question is unanswerable, or bogus, or does it simply not interest you?
MF: No, none of these. I just don’t believe in talking about things that go beyond my expertise. It’s not my problem and I don’t like talking about things that are not really the object of my work. On this question I have only an opinion; since it is only an opinion it is without interest.
JOH: But opinions can be interesting, don’t you agree?
MF: Sure, I could offer my opinion, but this would only make sense if everybody and anybody’s opinions were also being consulted. I don’t want to make use of a position of authority while I’m being interviewed to traffic in opinions.
JOH: Fair enough. We’ll shift direction then. Do you think it is legitimate to speak of a class consciousness in connection with homosexuals? Ought homosexuals to be encouraged to think of themselves as a class in the way that unskilled laborers or black people are encouraged to in some countries? How do you envision the political goals of homosexuals as a group?
MF: In answer to the first question, I would say that the homosexual consciousness certainly goes beyond one’s individual experience and includes an awareness of being a member of a particular social group. This is an undeniable fact that dates back to ancient times. Of course, this aspect of their collective consciousness changes over time and varies from place to place. It has, for instance, on different occasions taken the form of membership in a kind of secret society, membership in a cursed race, membership in a segment of humanity at once privileged and persecuted, all kinds of different modes of collective consciousness, just as, incidentally, the consciousness of unskilled laborers has undergone numerous transformations. It is true that more recently certain homosexuals have, following the political model, developed or tried to create a certain class consciousness. My impression is that this hasn’t really been a success, whatever the political consequences it may have had, because homosexuals do not constitute a social class. This is not to say that one can’t imagine a society in which homosexuals would constitute a social class. But in our present economic and social mode of organization I don’t see this coming to pass.
As for the political goals of the homosexual movement, two points can be made. First, there is the question of freedom of sexual choice that must be faced. I say freedom of sexual choice and not freedom of sexual acts because there are sexual acts like rape which should not be permitted whether they involve a man and a woman or two men. I don’t think we should have as our objective some sort of absolute freedom or total liberty of sexual action. However, where freedom of sexual choice is concerned one has to be absolutely intransigent. This includes the liberty of expression of that choice. By this I mean the liberty to manifest that choice or not to manifest it. Now, there has been considerable progress in this area on the level of legislation, certainly progress in the direction of tolerance, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
Second, a homosexual movement could adopt the objective of posing the question of the place in a given society which sexual choice, sexual behavior and the effects of sexual relations between people could have with regard to the individual. These questions are fundamentally obscure. Look, for example, at the confusion and equivocation that surround pornography, or the lack of elucidation which characterizes the question of the legal status which might be attached to the liaison between two people of the same sex. I don’t mean that the legalization of marriage among homosexuals should be an objective; rather, that we are dealing here with a whole series of questions concerning the insertion and recognition—within a legal and social framework—of diverse relations among individuals which must be addressed.
JOH: I take it, then, that your point is that the homosexual movement should not only give itself the goal of enlarging legal permissiveness but should also be asking broader and deeper questions about the strategic roles played by sexual preferences and how they are perceived. Is it your point that the homosexual movement should not stop at liberalizing laws relating to personal sexual choice but should also be provoking society at large to rethink its own presuppositions regarding sexuality? In other words, it isn’t that homosexuals are deviants who should be allowed to practice in peace, but rather that the whole conceptual scheme which categorizes homosexuals as deviants must be dismantled. This throws an interesting light on the question of homosexual educators. In the debate which arose in California, regarding the right of homosexuals to teach primary and secondary school, for example, those who argued against permitting homosexuals to teach were concerned not only with the likelihood of homosexuals constituting a threat to innocence in that they may be prone to seducing their students, but also that they might preach the gospel of homosexuality.
MF: The whole question, you see, has been wrongly formulated. Under no circumstances should the sexual choice of an individual determine the profession he is allowed, or forbidden, to practice. Sexual practices simply fall outside the pertinent factors related to the suitability for a given profession. “Yes,” you might say, “but what if the profession is used by homosexuals to encourage others to become homosexual?”
Well, let me ask you this, do you believe that teachers who for years, for decades, for centuries, explained to children that homosexuality is intolerable; do you believe that the textbooks that purged literature and falsified history in order to exclude various types of sexual behavior, have not caused ravages at least as serious as a homosexual teacher who speaks about homosexuality and who can do no more harm than explain a given reality, a lived experience?
The fact that a teacher is a homosexual can only have electrifying and intense effects on the students to the extent that the rest of society refuses to admit the existence of homosexuality. A homosexual teacher should not present any more of a problem than a bald teacher, a male teacher in an all female school, a female teacher in an all male school, or an Arab teacher in a school in the 16th district in Paris.
As for the problem of a homosexual teacher who actively tries to seduce his students, all I can say is that in all pedagogical situations the possibility of this problem is present; one finds instances of this kind of behavior much more rampant among heterosexual teachers—for no other reason than that there are a lot more heterosexual teachers.
JOH: There is a growing tendency in American intellectual circles, particularly among radical feminists, to distinguish between male and female homosexuality. The basis of this distinction is two-fold. If the term homosexuality is taken to denote not merely a tendency toward affectional relations with members of the same sex but an inclination to find members of the same sex erotically attractive and gratifying, then it is worth insisting on the very different physical things that happen in the one encounter and the other. The second basis for the distinction is that lesbians seem in the main to want from other women what one finds in stable heterosexual relationships: support, affection, long-term commitment, and so on. If this is not the case with male homosexuals, then the difference may be said to be striking, if not fundamental. Do you think the distinction here a useful and viable one? Are there discernible reasons for the differences noted so insistently by many prominent radical feminists?
MF: (Laughs) All I can do is explode with laughter.
JOH: Is the question funny in a way I don’t see, or stupid, or both?
MF: Well, it is certainly not stupid, but I find it very amusing, perhaps for reasons I couldn’t give even if I wanted to. What I will say is that the distinction offered doesn’t seem to me convincing, in terms of what I observe in the behavior of lesbian women. Beyond this, one would have to speak about the different pressures experienced by men and women who are coming out or are trying to make a life for themselves as homosexuals. I don’t think that radical feminists in other countries are likely to see these questions quite in the way you ascribe to such women in American intellectual circles.
JOH: Freud argued in “Psychogenesis of a Case of Hysteria in a Woman” that all homosexuals are liars. We don’t have to take this assertion seriously to ask whether there is not in homosexuality a tendency to dissimulation that might have led Freud to make his statement. If we substitute for the word “lie” such words as metaphor or indirection, may we not be coming closer to the heart of the homosexual style? Or is there any point in speaking of a homosexual style or sensibility? Richard Sennett, for one, has argued that there is no more a homosexual style than there is a heterosexual style. Is this your view as well?
MF: Yes, I don’t think it makes much sense to talk about a homosexual style. Even on the level of nature, the term homosexuality doesn’t have much meaning. I’m reading right now, as a matter of fact, an interesting book which came out recently in the U.S. called Proust and the Art of Loving. The author shows us how difficult it is to give meaning to the proposition ‘Proust was a homosexual.’ It seems to me that it is finally an inadequate category. Inadequate, that is, in that we can’t really classify behavior on the one hand, and the term can’t restore a type of experience on the other. One could perhaps say there is a “gay style” or at least that there is an ongoing attempt to recreate a certain style of existence, a form of existence or art of living, which might be called ‘gay.’
In answer to the question about dissimulation, it is true that, for instance, during the 19th century it was, to a certain degree, necessary to hide one’s homosexuality. But to call homosexuals liars is equivalent to calling the resistors under a military occupation liars. It’s like calling Jews ‘money lenders,’ when it was the only profession they were allowed to practice.
JOH: Nevertheless, it does seem evident, at least on a sociological level, that there are certain characteristics one can discern in the gay style, certain generalizations which (your laughter a moment ago notwithstanding) recall such stereotypifications as promiscuity, anonymity between sexual partners, purely physical relationships, and so on.
MF: Yes, but it’s not quite so simple. In a society like ours where homosexuality is repressed, and severely so, men enjoy a far greater degree of liberty than women. Men are permitted to make love much more often and under less restrictive conditions. Houses of prostitution exist to satisfy their sexual needs. Ironically, this has resulted in a certain permissiveness with regard to sexual practices between men. Sexual desire is considered more intense for men and therefore in greater need of release; so, along with brothels, one saw the emergence of baths where men could meet and have sex with each other. The Roman baths were exactly this, a place for heterosexuals to engage in sexual acts. It wasn’t until the 16th century, I believe, that these baths were closed as places of unacceptable sexual debauchery. Thus even homosexuality benefited from a certain tolerance toward sexual practices, as long as it was limited to a simple physical encounter. And not only did homosexuality benefit from this situation but, by a curious twist—often typical of such strategies—it actually reversed the standards in such a way that homosexuals came to enjoy even more freedom in their physical relations than heterosexuals. The effect has been that homosexuals now have the luxury of knowing that in a certain number of countries—Holland, Denmark, the United States, and even as provincial a country as France—the opportunities for sexual encounters are enormous. There has been, you might say, a great increase in consumption on this level. But this is not necessarily a natural condition of homosexuality, a biological given.
JOH: The American sociologist Philip Rieff, in an essay on Oscar Wilde entitled “The Impossible Culture,” sees Wilde as a forerunner of modern culture. The essay begins with an extensive quotation from the transcript of the trial of Oscar Wilde, and goes on to raise questions about the viability of a culture in which there are no prohibitions, and therefore no sense of vital transgression. Consider, if you will, the following:
“A culture survives the assault of sheer possibility against it only so far as the members of a culture learn, through their membership, how to narrow the range of choices otherwise open.”
“As culture sinks into the psyche and becomes character, what Wilde prized above all else is constrained: individuality. A culture in crisis favors the growth of individuality; deep down things no longer weigh so heavily to slow the surface play of experience. Hypothetically, if a culture could grow to full crisis, then everything would be expressed and nothing would be true.”
“Sociologically, a truth is whatever militates against the human capacity to express everything. Repression is truth.”
Is Rieff’s response to Wilde and to the idea of culture Wilde embodied at all plausible?
MF: I’m not sure I understand Professor Rieff’s remarks. What does he mean, for instance, by “Repression is truth”?
JOH: Actually, I think this idea is similar to claims you make in your own books about truth being the product of a system of exclusions, a network, or episteme, that defines what can and cannot be said.
MF: Well, the important question here, it seems to me, is not whether a culture without restraints is possible or even desirable but whether the system of constraints in which a society functions leaves individuals the liberty to transform the system. Obviously constraints of any kind are going to be intolerable to certain segments of society. The necrophiliac finds it intolerable that graves are not accessible to him. But a system of constraint becomes truly intolerable when the individuals who are affected by it don’t have the means of modifying it. This can happen when such a system becomes intangible as a result of its being considered a moral or religious imperative, or a necessary consequence of medical science. If Rieff means that the restrictions should be clear and well defined, I agree.
JOH: Actually, Rieff would argue that a true culture is one in which the essential truths have been sunk so deep in everyone that there would be no need to articulate them. Clearly, in a society of law, one would need to make explicit a great variety of things that were not to be done, but the main credal assumptions would for the most part remain inaccessible to simple articulation. Part of the thrust of Rieff’s work is directed against the idea that it is desirable to do away with credal assumptions in the name of a perfect liberty, and also the idea that restrictions are by definition what all must aim to clear away.
MF: There is no question that a society without restrictions is inconceivable, but I can only repeat myself in saying that these restrictions have to be within the reach of those affected by them so that they at least have the possibility of altering them. As to credal assumptions, I don’t think that Rieff and I would agree on their value or on their meaning or on the devices by which they are taught.
JOH: You’re no doubt right about that. In any case, we can move now from the legal and sociological spheres to the realm of letters. I would like to ask you to comment on the difference between the erotic as it appears in heterosexual literature and the manner in which sex emerges in homosexual literature. Sexual discourse, as it appears in the great heterosexual novels of our culture—I realize that the designation ‘heterosexual novels’ is itself dubious—is characterized by a certain modesty and discretion that seems to add to the charm of the works. When heterosexual writers treat sex too explicitly it seems to lose some of the mysteriously evocative quality, some of the potency we find in novels like Anna Karenina. The point is made with great cogency in a number of essays by George Steiner, as a matter of fact. In contrast to the practice of the major heterosexual novelists, we have the example of various homosexual writers. I’m thinking for example of Cocteau’s The White Paper, where he succeeds in retaining the poetic enchantment, which heterosexual writers achieve through veiled allusion, while depicting sexual acts in the most graphic terms. Do you think such a difference does exist between these two types of literature, and if so, how would you account for it?
MF: That’s a very interesting question. As I mentioned earlier, over the past few years I have been reading a lot of Latin and Greek texts that describe sexual practices both between men and between men and women; and I’ve been struck by the extreme prudishness of these texts (with certain exceptions, of course). Take an author like Lucien. Here we have an ancient writer who talks about homosexuality but in an almost bashful way. At the end of one of his dialogues, for instance, he evokes a scene where a man approaches a boy, puts his hand on the boy’s knee, slides his hand under his tunic and caresses the boy’s chest; then the hand moves down to the boy’s stomach and suddenly the text stops there. Now I would attribute this prudishness, which generally characterizes homosexual literature in ancient times, to the greater freedom then enjoyed by men in their homosexual practices.
JOH: I see. So the more free and open sexual practice is, the more one can afford to be reticent or oblique in talking about it. This would explain why homosexual literature is more explicit in our culture than heterosexual literature. But I’m still wondering how one could use this explanation to account for the fact that the former manages to achieve the same effect in the imagination of the reader as the latter achieves with the exact opposite tools.
MF: Let me try to answer your question another way. The experience of heterosexuality, at least since the middle ages, has always consisted of two panels: on the one hand, the panel of courtship in which the man seduces the woman; and, on the other hand, the panel of sexual act itself. Now the great heterosexual literature of the west has had to do essentially with the panel of amorous courtship, that is, above all, with that which precedes the sexual act. All the work of intellectual and cultural refinement, all the aesthetic elaboration of the west, were aimed at courtship. This is the reason for the relative poverty of literary, cultural, and aesthetic appreciation of the sexual act as such.
In contrast, the modern homosexual experience has no relation at all to courtship. This was not the case in ancient Greece, however. For the Greeks, courtship between men was more important than between men and women. (Think of Socrates and Alcibiades.) But in western Christian culture homosexuality was banished and therefore had to concentrate all its energy on the act of sex itself. Homosexuals were not allowed to elaborate a system of courtship because the cultural expression necessary for such an elaboration was denied them. The wink on the street, the split-second decision to get it on, the speed with which homosexual relations are consummated: all these are products of an interdiction. So when a homosexual culture and literature began to develop it was natural for it to focus on the most ardent and heated aspect of homosexual relations.
JOH: I’m reminded of Casanova’s famous expression that “the best moment of love is when one is climbing the stairs.” One can hardly imagine a homosexual today making such a remark.
MF: Exactly. Rather, he would say something like: “The best moment of love is when the lover leaves in the taxi.”
JOH: I can’t help thinking that this describes more or less precisely Swann’s relations with Odette in the first volume of Proust’s great novel.
MF: Well, yes, that is true. But though we are speaking there of a relationship between a man and a woman, we should have to take into account in describing it the nature of the imagination that conceived it.
JOH: And we would also then have to take into account the pathological nature of the relationship as Proust himself conceives it.
MF: The question of pathology I would as well omit in this context. I prefer simply to return to the observation with which I began this part of our exchange, namely, that for a homosexual, the best moment of love is likely to be when the lover leaves in the taxi. It is when the act is over and the boy is gone that one begins to dream about the warmth of his body, the quality of his smile, the tone of his voice. It is the recollection rather than the anticipation of the act that assumes a primary importance in homosexual relations. This is why the great homosexual writers of our culture (Cocteau, Genet, Burroughs) can write so elegantly about the sexual act itself, because the homosexual imagination is for the most part concerned with reminiscing about the act rather than anticipating it. And, as I said earlier, this is all due to very concrete and practical considerations and says nothing about the intrinsic nature of homosexuality.
JOH: Do you think this has any bearing on the so-called proliferation of perversions one sees today? I am speaking of phenomena like the S&M scene, golden showers, scatological amusements and the like. We know these practices have existed for some time but they seem much more openly practiced these days.
MF: I would say they are much more widely practiced also.
JOH: Do you think this general phenomenon and the fact that homosexuality is ‘coming out of the closet,’ making public its form of expression, have anything to do with each other?
MF: I would advance the following hypothesis: In a civilization that for centuries considered the essence of the relation between two people to reside in the knowledge of whether one of the two parties was going to surrender to the other, all the interest and curiosity, the cunning and manipulation of people was aimed at getting the other to give in, to go to bed with them. Now when sexual encounters become extremely easy and numerous, as is the case with homosexuality nowadays, complications are only introduced after the fact. In this type of casual encounter it is only after making love that one becomes curious about the other person. Once the sexual act has been consummated you find yourself asking your partner, “By the way, what was your name?”
What you have, then, is a situation where all the energy and imagination, which in the heterosexual relationship were channelled into courtship, now become devoted to intensifying the act of sex itself. A whole new art of sexual practice develops which tries to explore all the internal possibilities of sexual conduct. You find emerging in places like San Francisco and New York what might be called laboratories of sexual experimentation. You might look upon this as the counterpart of the medieval courts where strict rules of proprietary courtship were defined.
It is because the sexual act has become so easy and available to homosexuals that it runs the risk of quickly becoming boring, so that every effort has to be made to innovate and create variations that will enhance the pleasure of the act.
JOH: Yes, but why have these innovations taken the specific form they have? Why the fascination with excretory functions, for instance?
MF: I find the S&M phenomenon in general to be more surprising than that. That is to say, sexual relations are elaborated and developed by and through mythical relations. S&M is not a relationship between him (or her) who suffers and him (or her) who inflicts suffering, but between the master and the one on whom he exercises his mastery. What interests the practitioners of S&M is that the relationship is at the same time regulated and open. It resembles a chess game in the sense that one can win and the other lose. The master can lose in the S&M game if he finds he is unable to respond to the needs and trials of his victim. Conversely, the servant can lose if he fails to meet or can’t stand meeting the challenge thrown at him by the master. This mixture of rules and openness has the effect of intensifying sexual relations by introducing a perpetual novelty, a perpetual tension and a perpetual uncertainty which the simple consummation of the act lacks. The idea is also to make use of every part of the body as a sexual instrument. Actually this is related to the famous phrase “animal triste post coitum.” Since in homosexuality coitus is given immediately the problem becomes “what can be done to guard against the onset of sadness?”
JOH: Would you venture an explanation for the fact that bisexuality among women today seems to be much more readily accepted by men than bisexuality among men?
MF: This probably has to do with the role women play in the imagination of heterosexual men. Women have always been seen by them as their exclusive property. To preserve this image a man had to prevent his woman from having too much contact with other men, so women were restricted to social contact with other women and more tolerance was exercised with regard to the physical rapport between women. By the same token, heterosexual men felt that if they practiced homosexuality with other men this would destroy what they think is their image in the eyes of their women. They think of themselves as existing in the minds of women as master. They think that the idea of their submitting to another man, of being under another man in the act of love, would destroy their image in the eyes of women. Men think that women can only experience pleasure in recognizing men as masters. Even the Greeks had a problem with being the passive partner in a love relationship. For a Greek nobleman to make love to a passive male slave was natural, since the slave was by nature an inferior. But when two Greek men of the same social class made love it was a real problem because neither felt he should humble himself before the other.
Today homosexuals still have this problem. Most homosexuals feel that the passive role is in some way demeaning. S&M has actually helped alleviate this problem somewhat.
JOH: Is it your impression that the cultural forms growing up in the gay community are directed very largely to young people in that community?
MF: I think that is largely the case, though I’m not sure there is much to make of it. Certainly, as a fifty-year old man, when I read certain publications produced by and for gays I find that I am not being taken into account at all, that I don’t belong somehow. This is not something on the basis of which I would criticize such publications, which after all do what their writers and readers are interested in. But I can’t help observing that there is a tendency among articulate gays to think of the major issues and questions of life-style as involving typically people in their twenties.
JOH: I don’t see why this might not constitute the basis of a criticism, not only of particular publications but of gay life generally. MF: I didn’t say that one might not find grounds for criticism, only that I don’t choose to or think it useful.
JOH: Why not consider in this context the worship of the youthful male body as the very center of the standard homosexual fantasy, and go on to speak of the denial of ordinary life processes entailed in this, particularly aging and the decline of desire?
MF: Look, these are not new ideas you’re raising, and you know that. As to the worship of youthful bodies, I’m not convinced that it is peculiar at all to gays or in any way to be regarded as a pathology. And if that is the intention of your question, then I reject it. But I would also remind you that gays are not only involved in life processes, necessarily, but very much aware of them in most cases. Gay publications may not devote as much space as I would like to questions of gay friendship and to the meaning of relationship when there are no established codes or guidelines. But more and more gay people are having to face these questions for themselves. And you know, I think that what most bothers those who are not gay about gayness is the gay life-style, not sex acts themselves.
JOH: Are you referring to such things as gays fondling or caressing one another in public, or their wearing flashy clothing, or adopting clone outfits?
MF: These things are bound to disturb some people. But I was talking about the common fear that gays will develop relationships that are intense and satisfying even though they do not at all conform to the ideas of relationship held by others. It is the prospect that gays will create as yet unforeseen kinds of relationships that many people can not tolerate.
JOH: You are referring, then, to relationships that don’t involve possessiveness or fidelity—to name only two of the common factors that might be denied?
MF: If the relationships to be created are as yet unforeseeable, then we can’t really say that this feature or that feature will be denied. But you can see how, in the military for example, love between men can develop and assert itself in circumstances where only dead habit and rules were supposed to prevail. And it is possible that changes in established routines will occur on a much broader scale as gays learn to express their feelings for one another in more various ways and develop new life-styles not resembling those that have been institutionalized.
JOH: Do you see it as your role to address the gay community especially on matters of general importance such as you have been raising?
MF: I am of course regularly involved in exchanges with other members of the gay community. We talk, we try to find ways of opening ourselves to one another. But I am wary of imposing my own views, or of setting down a plan or program. I don’t want to discourage invention, don’t want gay people to stop feeling that it is up to them to adjust their own relationships by discovering what is appropriate in their situations.
JOH: You don’t think there is some special advice, or a special perspective, that a historian or archaeologist of culture like yourself can offer?
MF: It is always useful to understand the historical contingency of things, to see how and why things got to be as they are. But I am not the only person equipped to show these things, and I want to avoid suggesting that certain developments were necessary or unavoidable. Gays have to work out some of these matters themselves. Of course there are useful things I can contribute, but again, I want to avoid imposing my own scheme or plan.
JOH: Do you think that in general intellectuals are more tolerant towards, or receptive to, different modes of sexual behavior than other people? If so, is this due to a better understanding of human sexuality? If not, how do you think that you and other intellectuals can improve this situation? In what way can the rational discourse on sex best be reoriented?
MF: I think that where tolerance is concerned we allow ourselves a lot of illusions. Take incest, for example. Incest was a popular practice, and I mean by this, widely practiced among the populace, for a very long time. It was towards the end of the 19th century that various social pressures were directed against it. And it is clear that the great interdiction of incest is an invention of the intellectuals.
JOH: Are you referring to figures like Freud and Levi-Strauss or to the class of intellectuals as a whole?
MF: No, I’m not aiming at anyone in particular. I’m simply pointing out that if you look for studies by sociologists or anthropologists of the 19th century on incest you won’t find any. Sure, there were some scattered medical reports and the like, but the practice of incest didn’t really seem to pose a problem at the time.
It is perhaps true that in intellectual circles these things are talked about more openly but that is not necessarily a sign of greater tolerance. Sometimes it means the reverse. I remember ten or fifteen years ago, when I used to socialize within the bourgeois milieu, that it was rare indeed for an evening to go by without some discussion of homosexuality and pederasty—usually even before dessert. But these same people who spoke so openly about these matters were not likely to tolerate their sons being pederasts.
As for prescribing the direction rational discourse on sex should take, I prefer not to legislate such matters. For one thing, the expression ‘intellectual discourse on sex’ is too vague. There are very stupid things said by sociologists, sexologists, psychiatrists, doctors and moralists and there are very intelligent things said by members of those same professions. I don’t think it’s a question of intellectual discourse on sex but a question of asinine discourse and intelligent discourse.
JOH: And I take it that you have lately found a number of works that are moving in the right direction?
MF: More, certainly, than I had any reason to expect I would some years ago. But the situation on the whole is still less than encouraging.