Michael Dirda

A biography of the world's most famous sex manual.

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Sunday, June 1, 2008; Page BW10


The Story of the Kamasutra

By James McConnachie

Metropolitan. 267 pp. $27.50

Years ago, a bunch of us were sitting around drinking when I heard a friend murmur two sentences I have never forgotten. "You know, guys, sex is the greatest thing in the world." He paused and we were all about to nod in agreement. He was, after all, a noted and knowledgeable ladies' man. Unexpectedly, though, he then added, with infinite wistfulness: "But it's just not that great."

There, in that gulf between the reality and the dream, lies the domain of pornography, the sex industry and the masturbatory fantasy -- of Viagra and the midlife crisis. Our Western myths of love are seldom about fulfillment; they are all about yearning. In Plato's Symposium we are told that the gods divided the original ball-like human beings in two, and that we consequently spend our lives searching for the other half who will complete us. So-called romantic love, which first blossomed in 12th-century France, revels in passion delayed, forbidden or otherwise thwarted. Its real theme is desire.

But for the Western imagination, the East has long represented an escape from this pervasive sexual unhappiness. Baudelaire spoke of tropic realms of "luxe, calme et volupté"; Hawaii and Tahiti once beckoned as Edens of innocent voluptuousness. From the 18th century on, the Orient, in general, seemed a perfumed garden, offering the tender attentions of geishas, bare-breasted island girls and pretty boys. Here, amid erotic graciousness, the darkness of sin was unknown. And yet, even this scented, sensual wonderland turned out to have its guide, its bible: The Kamasutra, sometimes subtitled "The Hindu Art of Love."

The title alone summons visions of exceedingly ambitious sexual postures. Yet the real Kamasutra is even more fascinating than its myth. In his "biography" of this Sanskrit classic, James McConnachie starts by exploring the philosophical and historical background of its 3rd-century text. "Kama" is the Sanskrit word for sexual pleasure or delight; a "sutra" is "a scholarly treatise designed to compress knowledge into a series of pithy maxims." The Kamasutra itself is a work of consolidation or reclamation, since its author, Vatsyayana, tells us that he was building on seven earlier treatises about love (all now lost). It was intended "to be a contribution to the great scientific project of the era: the composition of authoritative studies of all aspects of human behaviour and understanding." Other treatises were devoted to dharma -- a word associated with law, justice, duty and principle -- and artha, which covered worldly success.

Under the Gupta dynasty, 3rd-century India developed a highly aesthetic urban culture, and Vatsyayana's intended readers were young men about town, who frequented the theater, practiced the arts and lived playboy lives devoted to pleasure. His treatise (or shastra) is divided into seven "books." In Wendy Doniger and Sudhir Kakar's 2002 translation, these are: General Observations, Sex, Virgins, Wives, Other Men's Wives, Courtesans, and Erotic Esoterica. Full of details from contemporary life, The Kamasutra is highly dramatic and has been likened to an extended play. It also strives to establish sex as a humane activity, a cultivated art that rejects both confining Buddhist morality and unchecked sexual aggression.

In the notorious Book Two, Vatsyayana describes 64 kama-kalas, or ways to make love. Surprisingly, these are not 64 positions, notes McConnachie, "but simply a kind of grand total of the categories into which Vatsyayana divides the different moods and modes of lovemaking. Theorists, Vatsyayana says, divide sex into eight different topics, namely 'embracing, kissing, scratching, biting, the positions, moaning, the woman playing the man's part, and oral sex.' As each of these modes of sex is supposed to have eight different particular manifestations, there are thus sixty-four ways in which a man or woman could be said to be having sex in its broadest sense." But, as McConnachie emphasizes, "the kama-kalas are not just tools for successful love making," they also "lie at the heart of what constitutes an educated man."

Yet because he surveys actual practices, not just ideals, Vatsyayana also depicts far more than gentlemanly behavior, including drugging, rape and kidnapping. He is at his most attractive in noting "procedures of kissing," "types of scratching with the nails," "ways of biting" and the character of the female orgasm (though he never mentions the clitoris). His analytic mind neatly tabulates the differing sizes and shapes of the male and female genitalia, formulates ways to ingratiate oneself with young girls or married women, and even categorizes the varieties of ecstatic moan: "As a major part of moaning, she may use, according to her imagination, the cries of the dove, cuckoo, green pigeon, parrot, bee, nightingale, goose, duck and partridge." Clearly, Vatsyayana must have been something of an amateur ornithologist, and one with a very good ear for birdsong.

McConnachie reminds us that the original text of The Kamasutra wasn't enhanced by illustrations, and only in modern times have editions used Indian temple sculpture or Persian-style miniatures to depict innumerable and unlikely interlacements. Similarly, the original Kamasutra has nothing to do with the practices of Tantrism -- the latter's religious adepts performed their sex-magic without feeling desire. The book does, however, briefly allude to male homosexual practices and closes by offering unlikely recipes for restoring sexual vigor, ensuring fidelity or ending an affair.

By the 16th century, The Kamasutra had been largely forgotten in India (and partly replaced by later sex manuals such as the Ananga Ranga). We owe the classic's modern revival to Richard Burton, the 19th-century explorer, translator of The Arabian Nights and outspoken proponent of sexual freedom. McConnachie's middle chapters briefly chronicle Burton's daring life, his friendships with Victorian connoisseurs of erotica and the gradual rediscovery of ancient Sanskrit literature. While Burton is traditionally given as the translator of the groundbreaking 1883 edition of The Kama Sutra (so spelled), the actual work was done by his friend Foster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot and two Indian scholars, Bhagvanlal Indraji and Shivaram Parshuram Bhide. Burton did some polishing and added a few notes, but he was mainly the driving force for bringing the book into print (under the auspices of the private Kama Shastra Society). About sex, he emphasized in a letter to a friend, "it is the standard book."

The last chapters of The Book of Love bring the story up-to-date, without stinting on the entertaining pen portraits and anecdotes. One would like to know more about The Kamasutra's notorious French translator, the homosexual Hindu convert Alain Daniélou (whose equally complex brother, a Roman Catholic cardinal, I once studied in graduate school: Jean Daniélou composed a multi-volume treatise on medieval techniques of biblical exegesis -- and died in a brothel). McConnachie also reflects on India's contemporary Puritanism, discusses the trademarking of the word "Kamasutra" as shorthand for sexual acrobatics (in particular by Alex Comfort in The Joy of Sex), and concludes with a survey of recent scholarship on the Sanskrit classic. Not least, he even recommends some novels based on Vatsyayana's book, in particular Lee Siegel's Love in a Dead Language, in which an American scholar falls disastrously in love with a young woman named Lalita Gupta.

McConnachie has written an altogether first-rate work of intellectual history for ordinary readers. Throughout he reminds us that The Kamasutra is a repository of both ancient Indian culture and of modern sexual daydreams (most of the postures being either uncomfortable or impossible). In the end, though, The Kamasutra itself recognizes that the ultimate transports lie beyond the teachings of art: "When the wheel of sexual ecstasy is in full motion,/there is no textbook at all, and no order." ·

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.

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