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Talking to the Doctor About Sex : ON THE NATURE OF THINGS EROTIC by F. Gonzalez-Crussi (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $16.95; 172 pp.)

March 27, 1988|Brett Singer | Singer is the author of "The Nature of Love: The Modern World" (University of Chicago Press), recently reviewed in these pages

The concept of the erotic is elusive. Philosophers have always found it difficult; writers of fiction regularly present its phenomenology but rarely with much analysis of its components. It both includes and intimates facts about our sexuality, but it involves much more than the merely sexual. It suggests and often approximates ideas about love, but frequently falls short. It is a loose and tantalizing, occasionally titillating, concept and therefore quite suitable for the essayistic writing of Frank Gonzalez-Crussi MD.

The eight essays in this collection range from the implications of there being two sexes to the devices men and women have used throughout history to seduce one another. The chapter titles give an accurate idea of the contents: Eros Ambiguous, or the Obscure Object of Desire; On Male Jealousy; The Remedies of Love; The Divine Marquis (de Sade); Some Views on Women, Past and Present; The Conditions for Seduction, According to an Old Chinese Text; Views on the Erotic; On Secrecy in Love.

Gonzalez-Crussi approaches such topics as a medical man who is also, and in these essays primarily, a witty, well-read dilettante in various literatures--Spanish, French, Latin, even Chinese. In one place he says, in the candid and fluid style that characterizes the entire book: "I have long learned that the personages of fiction are endowed with a more real kind of reality than any granted to flesh-and-blood beings. It no longer bothers me to hear it said that examples drawn from fiction are idle and that a writer's effectiveness is enhanced by quoting instances from so-called real life."

This approach to reality is legitimate, though I should think it might be dismaying to those flesh-and-blood participants in so-called real life who happen to be Gonzalez-Crussi's patients. Of greater relevance to the essays themselves is the fact that Gonzalez-Crussi makes very little attempt to show how his fictional or quasi-fictional "examples" are related to the reality of mankind's erotic being. Each essay does culminate with some general reflections about the world of men and women that the author has known. But in his fascination with anecdotal tidbits of literature and historical gossip, he usually short-changes the defense or development of his own ideas--to say nothing of the ideas of the writers he discusses.

The chapter on the Marquis de Sade is representative. It mainly consists of a vivid though urbane account of events in Sade's life, and it terminates with an interesting suggestion that someone who dares to expose the "wholesale atrocity" which still pervades our social order would be incarcerated in the enlightened and permissive 20th Century just as he was in the 18th. But we are never vouchsafed even a glimpse into Sade's erotic philosophy--his arguments in favor of sexual libertarianism and his repudiation of romantic love in all its varieties.

Where Gonzalez-Crussi does try to organize some of the "views on the erotic," he throws together a hodgepodge from the history of ideas and confuses the erotic with the two extreme conditions known as "eroticism" and "uncontrollable passion." The three are not at all the same. Eroticism is a single-minded dedication to sexual indulgence and amatory conquest.

It is far from being universal. The erotic is a pervasive sensitivity that almost all human beings experience in relation to one another. Passion is an ardent longing or desire for another person. In his meandering manner, Gonzalez-Crussi reveals that he has done some thinking about each of these. But he never seems to recognize that his casual comments may actually blur, rather than help to elucidate, the differences among them. This does not diminish from the pleasure of reading his relaxed and cultivated essays. It does, however, make one wonder about their utility.

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