The Natural Philosophy of Love
The Natural Philosophy of Love is an exploration of the prodigious sexual mores of Nature’s creations. Translated with a postscript by Ezra Pound, Remy de Gourmont’s “essay on sexual instinct” surveys the entire animal kingdom, describing the hermaphroditism of oysters, the cannibalistic amours of spiders, and many more curious natural phenomena. Blending zoology, poetry, and philosophy, the author’s subversive erudition casts a dubious glance at anthropocentric morality, finding “there is no lewdness which has not its normal type in nature.”
“As you read M. de Gourmont’s work it is not any particular phrase, poem, or essay that holds you, so much as a continuing sense of intelligence, of a limpid, active intelligence in the mind of the writer.” —Ezra Pound
- The Subject of an Idea
- The Aim of Life
- Scale of Sexes
- Sexual Dimorphism (I)
- Sexual Dimorphism (II)
- Sexual Dimorphism (III)
- Sexual Dimorphism and Feminism
- The Mechanism of Love (I)
- The Mechanism of Love (II)
- The Mechanism of Love (III)
- The Mechanism of Love (IV)
- The Mechanism of Love (V)
- The Mechanism of Love (VI)
- The Sexual Parade
- Love Among Social Animals
- The Question of Aberrations
- Tyranny of the Nervous System
Chapter 1: The Subject of an Idea
Love’s general psychology.—Love according to natural laws.—Sexual selection.—Man’s place in Nature.—Identity of human and animal psychology.—The animal nature of love.
This book, which is only an essay, because its subject matter is so immense, represents, nevertheless, an ambition: one wanted to enlarge the general psychology of love, starting it in the very beginning of male and female activity, and giving man’s sexual life its place in the one plan of universal sexuality.
Certain moralists have, undeniably, pretended to talk about “love in relation to natural causes,” but they were profoundly ignorant of these natural causes: thus Sénancour, whose book, blotted though it be with ideology, remains the boldest work on a subject so essential that nothing can drag it to triviality. If Sénancour had been acquainted with the science of his time, if he had only read Réaumur and Bonnet, Buffon and Lamarck; if he had been able to merge the two ideas, man and animal into one, he, being a man without insurmountable prejudices, might have produced a still readable book. The moment would have been favorable. People were beginning to have some exact knowledge of animals’ habits. Bonnet had proved the startling relationships of animal and vegetable reproduction; the essential principle of physiology had been found; the science of life was brief enough to be clear; one might have ventured a theory as to the psychological unity of the animal series.
Such a work would have prevented numerous follies in the century then beginning. One would have become accustomed to consider human love as one form of numberless forms, and not perhaps, the most remarkable of the lot, a form which clothes the universal instinct of reproduction; and its apparent anomalies would have found a normal explanation amid Nature’s extravagance. Darwin arrived, inaugurated a useful system, but his views were too systematized, his aim too explanatory and his scale of creatures with man at the summit, as the culmination of universal effort, is of a too theologic simplicity. Man is not the culmination of nature, he is in Nature, he is one of the unities of life, that is all. He is the product of a partial, not of total evolution; the branch whereon he blossoms, parts like a thousand other branches from a common trunk. Moreover, Darwin, truckling to the religiose pudibundery of his race, has almost wholly neglected the actual facte of sex; this makes his theory of sexual selection, as the principle of change, incomprehensible. But even if he had taken account of the real mechanism of love, his conclusions, possibly more logical, would still have been inexact, foi if sexual selection has any aim it can be but conservation Fecundation is the reintegration of differentiated elements into a unique element, a perpetual return to the unity.
It is not particularly interesting to consider human acts as the fruits of evolution, for upon animal branches as clearly separate as those of insect and mammifer one finds sexual acts and social customs sensibly analogous, if not identical in many points.
If insects and mammifers have any common ancestor, save the primordial jelly, there must indeed have been very different potentialities in its amorphous contours to lead it here into being bee and there into being giraffe. An evolution leading to such diverse results has interest only as a metaphysical idea, psychology can get from it next to nothing of value.
We must chuck the old ladder whose rungs the evolutionists ascended with such difficulty. We will imagine, metaphorically, a center of life, with multiple lives diverging from it; having passed the unicellular phase, we will take no count of hypothetic subordinations. One does not wish to deny, one wishes rather not to deny, either general or particular evolutions, but the genealogies are too uncertain and the thread which unites them too often broken: what, for example, is the origin of birds, organisms which seem at once a progress and a retrogression from the mammifer? On reflection, one will consider the different love-mechanisms of all the dioicians as parallel and contemporary.
Man will then find himself in his proper and rather indistinct place in the crowd, beside the monkeys, rodents and bats. Psychologically, one must quite often compare him with insects, marvelous flowering of the life force. And what clarity from the process, lights showering in from all corners. Feminine coquetry, the flight before the male, the return, the game of yes and no, the uncertain attitude seeming at once cruel and amorous, and not peculiar to the female human? Not at all. Célimène is of all species, and heteroclite above all; she is both mole and spider, she is sparrow and cantharide, she is cricket and adder. A celebrated author in a play called, I think, La Fille Sauvage, represents feminine love as aggressive. An error. The female attacked by the male thinks always of retreat, she never, never attacks, save in certain species which appear to be very ancient and which have persisted to our time only by prodigies of equilibrium. Even there one must make reserves, for when one sees the female aggressive, it is perhaps at the second or fourth phase of the game, not at the beginning. The female sleeps until the male arouses her, then she gives in, plays, or takes flight. The virgin’s reserve before man is but a very moderate bashfulness if compared with the pell-mell flight of a young mole intacta.
This is but one fact of a thousand. There is not one way of instinctive man with a maid which is not findable in one or other animal species; this is perfectly comprehensible seeing that man is an animal, submitted to the essential instincts which govern all animality; there being everywhere the same matter animate with the same desire: to live, to perpetuate life. Man’s superiority is in the immense diversity of his aptitudes. Animals are confined to one series of gestures, always the same ones, man varies his mimicry without limit; but the target is the same, and the result is the same, copulation, fecundation and eggs.
Belief in liberty has been born from the diversity of human aptitude, from man’s power to reach the necessary termination of his activity by different routes, or to dodge this termination and suicide in himself the species whose future he bears. It, this liberty, is an illusion difficult not to have, an idea which one must shed if one wants to think in a manner not wholly irrational, but it is recompensingly certain that the multiplicity of possible activities is almost an equivalent of this liberty. Doubtless the strongest motive always wins, but today’s stronger is tomorrow’s weaker, hence a variety of human gaits feigning liberty, and practically resulting therein. Free will is only the faculty of being guided successively by a great number of different motives. When choice is possible, liberty begins, even though the chosen act is rigorously determined and when there is no possibility of avoiding it. Animals have a smaller liberty, restricted in proportion as their aptitudes are more limited; but when life begins liberty begins. The distinction, from this viewpoint, between man and animal is quantitative, and not qualitative. One must not be gulled by the scholastic distinction between instinct and intelligence; man is as full of instincts as the insect most visibly instinctive; he obeys them by methods more diverse, that is all there is to it.
If it is clear that man is an animal, it is also clear that he is a very complex one. One finds in him most of the aptitudes which are distributed one by one among beasts. There is hardly one of his habits, of his virtues, of his vices (to use the conventional terms) which can not be found either in an insect, a bird or a mammifer: monogamy, adultery, the “consequences”; polygamy, polyandry, lasciviousness, laziness, activity, cruelty, courage, devotion, any of these are common to animals, but each as the quality of an whole species. In the state of differentiation to which superior and cultivated human species have attained, each individual forms surely a separate variety determined by what is called, abstractly, “the character.” This individual differentiation, very marked in mankind, is less marked in other animal species. Yet we note quite distinct characters in dogs, in horses and even in birds of the same race. It is quite probable that all bees have not the same character, since, for example, they are not all equally prompt to use their stings in analogous circumstances. Even there the difference between man and his brothers-in-life and in sensibility is but a difference of degree.
“Solidarity” is but an empty ideology if one limit it to human species. There is no abyss between man and animal; the two domains are separated by a tiny rivulet which a baby could step over. We are animals, we live on animals, and animals live on us. We both have and are parasites. We are predatory, and we are the living prey of the predatory. And when we follow the love act, it is truly, in the idiom of theologians, more bestiarum. Love is profoundly animal; therein is its beauty.
(End of excerpt from The Natural Philosophy of Love)
This Antipodes edition is a republication of the work first published by Boni and Liveright, New York, in 1922. Originally published in French under the title Physique de l’amour in 1904. The original text has been slightly altered to reflect modern spelling and usage.
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