Gendun Chopel: Putting the Kama Sutra in the shade

Reviewing a new verse translation of Gendun Chopel’s Treatise on Passion for The Spectator, 9 June 2018.

The Tibetan artist and poet Gendun Chopel was born in 1903. He was identified as an incarnate lama, and ordained as a Buddhist monk. In 1934 he renounced his vows, quit Tibet for India, learned Sanskrit and — if his long poem, usually translated as A Treatise on Passion, is to be taken at face value — copulated with every woman who let him.

Twelve years later he returned to Tibet, and was thrown into prison on trumped-up charges. The experience broke him. He died of cirrhosis in 1951, as troops of China’s People’s Liberation Army were marching through the streets of Lhasa.

Chopel’s reputation as the most important Tibetan writer of the 20th century is secure, mostly through his travelogue, Grains of Gold. The Passion Book is very different; it is Chopel’s reply to the kamasastra, a classical genre of sanskrit erotica best known to us through one rather tame work, the Kama Sutra.

If Chopel had wanted to show off to his peers back home he could simply have translated the Kama Sutra —but where would have been the fun in that? The former monk spent four years researching and writing his own spectacularly explicit work of Tibetan kamasastra.

It is impossible not to like Chopel — ‘A monastic friend undoing his way of life,/ A narrow-minded poser losing his facade’ — if only for the sincerity of his effort. At one point he tries to get the skinny on female masturbation: ‘Other than scornful laughs and being hit with fists/ I could not find even one who would give an honest answer.’

Still, he gets it: ‘Since naked flesh and sinew are different,’ he warns his (literate, therefore male) readership, ‘How can a thorn sense what the wound feels?’

Thus, like touching an open wound,
The pleasure and pain of women is intense

Chopel insists that women’s and men’s experiences of sex differ, and that women are not mere sources of male pleasure but full partners in the play of passion. So far, so safe. But let’s not be too quick to tidy up Chopel’s long, dizzying, delirious mess of a poem, which jumps from folk wisdom about how to predict a woman’s future by studying the moles on her face, to a jeremiad against the hypocrisy of the rich and powerful, to evocations of tantric states, to the sexual preferences of women in various regions of India, to sexual positions, to fullblown sexual delirium:

They copulate squatting and they copulate standing;
Intertwined, with head and foot reversed, they copulate.
Hanging the woman in the air
With a rope of silk they copulate.

Chopel’s translators, Donald S Lopez Jr. and Thupten Jinpa — Tibetan and Buddhist scholars, who a few years ago also translated Grains of Gold — have appended a long afterword which goes some way to revealing what is going on here.In the Christian faith, sexual intercourse may lead to hell. The early tradition of Buddhism took a different position: sex is fine, so far as it goes; it’s everything that follows — marriage, home, property, domestic contentment, the pram in the hall — that paves the road to perdition.

This is what inspires Buddhism’s tradition of astounding misogyny. Something has got to stop you from having sex with your own wife — and a famous Mahayana sutra has the solution. Think of her as a demon. An ogre. A hag. As sickness, old age, or death:

As a huge wolf, a huge sea monster, and a huge cat; a black snake, a crocodile, and a demon that causes epilepsy; and as swollen, shrivelled and diseased.

The rise of the tantric tradition altered sexual attitudes to the extent that one was now actually obliged to have intercourse if one ever hoped to achieve buddhahood. But the ideal tantric playmate — a girl of 16 or younger, and ideally low-caste — was still no more than a tool for the enlightenment of an elite male.

Chopel, coming late to the ordinary delights and comforts of sex, was having none of it. Lopez and Jinpa speculate entertainingly about where Chopel sits in the pantheon of such early sexologists as Ellis, Freud and Reich. For sure, he was a believer in sexual liberation: ‘When suitable deeds are prohibited in public,’ he asserts, ‘Unsuitable deeds will be done in private.’

Jeffrey Hopkins translated Chopel’s A Treatise on Passion into prose in 1992 as Tibetan Arts of Love. This is the first effort in verse, and though a clear, scholarly advance, the translators have struggled to render the carefully metered original into lines of even roughly the same number of syllables. You can understand their bind: even in the original Tibetan, there’s still no critical edition. With so much basic scholarship to be done, it would have been pointless if they had simply jazz-handed their way through a loose transliteration.

Their effort captures Chopel’s charm, and that’s the main thing. As Chopel said of the act itself: ‘It may not be a virtue, but how could it be a sin?’

The science of desperate fumbling

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How Sexual Desire Works: The enigmatic urge by Frederick Toates (Cambridge University Press)
Fuckology: Critical essays on John Money’s diagnostic concepts by Lisa Downing, Iain Morland, Nikki Sullivan (University of Chicago Press)

for New Scientist

SEX. It’s one of the few subjects about which we know everything and nothing: a paradox facing all who study it scientifically. Sex doesn’t have to be private, but most sex acts are, so even when shame is put aside, it’s a tricky thing to study. How do you make a science out of more or less desperate fumbling?

To judge by an exhibition on sexology, the first show at a newly refurbished Wellcome Collection in London, researchers were more upbeat in the 20th century.

Take Magnus Hirschfeld, a Jewish radical who collected books, documents and artefacts on sexual behaviour, charted his proclivities in coloured inks, and fought discrimination against homosexuals. His Institute of Sexology, which was ransacked by the Nazis in 1933, gives the name to the Wellcome show.

Then there is Alfred Kinsey, who brought taxonomic skills gained studying gall wasps to the complexities of human sexual behaviour. And in the 1960s and 70s, William Masters and Virginia Johnson observed the sexual responses of anyone for whom they could get ethical approval.

One of the strongest elements of the show looks at Marie Stopes, who was a vigorous advocate of contraception and was opposed to sexual shame.

Today, the British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, set up in 1990, is one of the few globally to gather the broad information that would have fascinated Stopes. Most of today’s cash funds brain-imaging studies or “performance” drugs.

Leaving Wellcome’s quiet, informative show, you would be forgiven for thinking its unblushing researchers have gifted us a profounder understanding of ourselves. On reflection, however, it’s hard to say what their work adds up to.

Is sexology a science, or a series of well-intentioned, evidence-based campaigns? Maybe labelling this messy field as science is helpful, securing funding in an age of austerity. For it is the absence of understanding of our needs and desires that matters, showing up over time in illegal abortions, gay-bashing, sexually transmitted diseases and more.

How Sexual Desire Works is psychologist Frederick Toates’s stab at a proper scientific account. He maps the mess as rigorously as he can, and the book is worth it for its bibliography alone. But sexual desire turns out to be as much about boredom, habit, disgust, rage, self-image, disappointment and the like as it is about desire. How to make a science out of this?

John Money, a New Zealand-born psychologist who died in 2006, applied boundless energy to the problem, creating concepts, with their own neologisms, such as “troopbondance”. In Fuckology (another of his), Lisa Downing and co-authors capture his story ably.

Money was interested in gender identity, and the possibilities for gender reassignment. Depending on what you read, he either tried to eradicate “man” and “woman” as categories, or to link sexuality and gender with a scalpel. After a botched circumcision, David Reimer had gender reassignment surgery at age 2, on Money’s recommendation. His miserable life and suicide in 2004 defined the psychologist’s reputation.

The authors are ironic about Money’s approach to his work: “To admit the potential of being wrong, or to settle for the productive tension of ambiguity, is not a feature of Money’s rhetorical range…”

But Money is in good company. Sexology lures big personalities: Sigmund Freud was its founder, after all. Have these strong egos bequeathed us a science? It’s hard to say. Sex, when push comes to shove, is not for the faint-hearted.

Bedding Heather

The Productions of Time

So I was on this panel about sexuality at EightSquaredCon, paraphrasing a pick-up scene by professional Yorkshireman John Braine and hazing people with the idea that maybe we didn’t invent same-sex attraction last week, and that anyone writing novels or reading them may for the longest time have had a fairly sophisticated take on the subject; one we just can’t see these days, obsessed as we are by labeling everything. And then I read The Productions of Time by John Brunner, an indispensable book if only for its jaw-dropping overuse of the expression “fullblown Les”. As in:

“And me as a fullblown Les,” Heather said. “It’s so frightening, Murray! They said ‘the urge was on her tapes’ and if you hadn’t worried me so much… I’d have been seduced by Ida and then…”
“But it might not have worked, young woman!”
“It would have,” she said obstinately. “There’s a bit of it in all of us — you should know that, as a doctor. I used to get crushes on older girls when I was at school, so it’s probably still in me, just below the surface, waiting for—“
Hysteria on the way, Murray diagnosed, and wondered if he was going to have to slap her face to quiet her.

So that’s my oh-so-sophisticated take on the historiography of sex blown out of the shallows. Though of course Brunner, while capable of writing like a dog and thinking like a dog, was not incapable of irony, and this was published (in 1967) by New American Library, so maybe there’s a sneery transatlantic joke being played here on the cowpokes.

All that remains is to write a cracking outline to go with “Fullblown Les” – a title too po-mo to waste.