An enormous yes

The Birth of Pleasure: a new map of love

Carol Gilligan <em>Chatto & Windus, 253pp, £18.99</em>

How about this for sheer pleasure: "With my new orange bike really big orange bike leaving the camp site going faster and faster along the river on the pavement but there down by the river warm but the wind cold blowing in my face my hair behind faster & faster no fear pedalling with power my body's power."

It sounds as if it were written by a boy, but it is by a girl who was one of Carol Gilligan's subjects. It is driven, artless and absolute both as a piece of writing and as an experience, and contains all the elements of pleasure: the breaking of bounds, blossoming potency, unselfconsciousness and unthinking sensual delight.

We do make it hard to give and receive pleasure, so it ought to be a good subject, especially in the context of love. Many of us don't quite trust it. Is it something we deserve? Will it make us feel horribly guilty? Is it the done thing to offer it to someone else? Even in this secular and self-indulgent age, it begins to sound like a piece of contraband or a dirty secret.

Any new map to love is welcome at a time when one of the bestselling books about relationships promotes the view that men and women are from different planets. Unfortunately, Gilligan locates herself on the optimistic threshold of the sexual revolution and insists, unconvincingly, that it is soon to be won. Plenty has changed, but not enough.

Carol Gilligan is a professor of gender studies at Harvard and a psychotherapist, so one might expect some cutting-edge thinking, especially in a book with an opening chapter entitled "A Radical Geography of Love". Although sharing insights into how we seek and deny pleasurable relationships, Gilligan largely surveys known territory, and manages to make pleasure sound rather bland.

Whatever it is, pleasure has got badly lost and it is women's loss that Gilligan concentrates on. She acknowledges that she is still "listening to women's voices within a cultural acoustic that distorts their experience" and that "neither men nor women felt authentic". What she does not address is the relation of this culture of concealment to the gender revolution that she has such hopes for. We know what we ought to do and think and be, but can't quite measure up. So the traditional forms of repression she discusses end up being reinforced by theories of so-called liberation. We cut ourselves off and in so doing cut off our capacity for pleasure.

For a book intending to lead us forward, it does a lot of looking back - at the Oresteia, Adam and Eve, and The Scarlet Letter. These well-known maps only reinforce the ground that Gilligan claims is shifting. She is particularly interested in the myth of Cupid and Psyche as "a way out of the Oedipus tragedy" - that is, a break with patriarchy - but also admits: "If this is a timeless myth about love and the soul, then we are all in trouble."

Pleasure goes underground just at the point when sexuality is becoming overt. Girls give up exuberance and boys become more guarded. Both divide and dissociate themselves. Gilligan's interviews and workshops with teenage girls illustrate this well: "I saw girls beginning not to know what they knew." Seeing women as the transformational force (and so letting men off the hook), Gilligan does not pay as much attention to teenage boys, who have recently become subjects of such concern.

Instead, she concentrates on boys of around five to seven, the age at which they become less open and when, she notes, their fathers become more reserved and manly with them. The most striking thing about these sessions is the knowingness of the boys. They run around with suspiciously weapon-like bits of Lego, and when quizzed, they turn them sideways and explain that they are cameras. What does this say about concealment in a so-called enlightened environment?

In her therapeutic sessions, Gilligan pays attention to voice. Unfortunately, her own tone is just that which women learn to adopt - soft, empathetic and conciliatory. Her arguments suffer from informality and the book from a lack of structure. It is circular, repetitive, self-limiting and contains as much bad literature as good.

There are issues raised here that ought to have been clarified or pursued. Recent studies show that the adolescent brain is still in the throes of neurological construction. What role does this have in the divided/dissociated self? If "love erodes patriarchy", why do patriarchal models of love persist? Gilligan talks of the "renaissance of women's voices in the late 20th century". When was the first birth? The verb "to please", from which we get "pleasure" (le plaisir), opens the debate beyond the self. What does it mean to give pleasure?

The best expression I know of the absolute and surprising experience that pleasure ought to be is from Philip Larkin: "On me your voice falls as they say love should,/Like an enormous yes . . . " The only real "enormous yes" in the book is that of the girl on the orange bike. I envy her because, although Carol Gilligan is confident that "We have the map. We know the way", I can't seem to see it.