Comfort, Alex, 1920-2000

Alex Comfort
Alex Comfort

A short biography of British doctor, anarchist and author of the Joy of Sex, Alex Comfort.

Submitted by Steven. on September 27, 2003

Alex Comfort (February 10, 1920 - March 26, 2000) was a British physician, anarchist, poet, novelist, anti-nuke activist, sexologist, etc...

A psychiatry lecturer at Stanford, Comfort was most famous for writing the many-times bestselling book, The Joy of Sex.

A member of the anti-nuclear Committee of 100, he regularly broke into evening newscasts of the BBC to denounce nuclear weapons and the "pathology of power."

Comfort is on record as having rather despised his sex books, for all they had made him so amazingly rich, and wanting to be remembered for his poetry, politics, novels and science. Yet, in a sense, he is so remembered by those millions of readers.

The Joy of Sex is often anarchic — frequently poetic and sometimes funny Alex Comfort's first book, The Silver River, an account of a voyage to Argentina and Senegal, was published in 1938, when he was still a pupil at Highgate School, the son of an LCC education officer.
From there, he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, to read natural sciences. He had a dazzling academic career — and, until his early 30s, a dazzling literary career.

His fictional debut came in 1941 with No Such Liberty, written while he was at Cambridge. The Power House, a long and acclaimed third novel, appeared in 1944. On This Side Nothing, probably Comfort's best novel, followed in 1949. There were also several books of verse. Art And Social Responsibility (1946), was his first collection of articles.

His lifelong pacifism dated from his schooldays; during the second world war, he was, he said, "an aggressive anti-militarist". It came to a head in the campaign against the indiscriminate bombing of Germany. Pacifism led to anarchism, for he came to believe that pacifism rested "solely upon the historical theory of anarchism".

The finest single statement of Comfort's anarchism is Peace And Disobedience (1946), one of the many pamphlets he wrote for Peace News and the Peace Pledge Union (and reprinted in 1994 in Against Power And Death). But his classic contribution to anarchist thought is Authority And Delinquency In The Modern State (1950), a remarkable application of the findings of psychiatry and social psychology to contemporary politics .

The 1950s saw his main effort concentrated on the biology of ageing. After the volume of poetry, And All But He Departed (1951), there was nothing until Haste To The Wedding (1962). After A Giant's Strength (1952) no novel appeared until Come Out to Play (1961). A second collection of articles, Darwin And The Naked Lady, was not published till 1962.

There followed a transitional decade for Comfort. Barbarism And Sexual Freedom (1948) had been the starting point for Sexual Behaviour In Society (1950), which was revised as Sex In Society (1963). Then, in 1962, came a formative experience, when he visited India. A translation from the Sanskrit of the erotological mediaeval classic, The Koka Shastra, resulted in 1964. In the 1970s, came Comfort's own manuals on sex.

In 1973, he moved to the Center For The Study of Democratic Institutions at Santa Barbara, California. The center soon folded, but he remained on the west coast, in a series of medical and academic posts. In 1985, he retired to England.

Comfort had written several works of scientific popularisation in the 1960s, but later books, such as I And That: Notes On The Biology of Religion (1979) and Reality And Empathy: Physics, Mind, And Science In The 21st Century (1984), were a good deal more abstruse. After the 1960s, he published another three novels, but only two collections of poetry. He was now a household name, but as something he always denied being: a sexologist.

David Hall writes:
Towards the end of the 1950s, gerontology could hardly be called a well-defined or highly- respected discipline. The Club For Ageing, founded in 1947, had split into two, and it was to be nearly 30 years before clinicians and biologists found it possible to collaborate convincingly again. There was, however, a small group farsighted enough to realise that this dichotomy could only detract from the development of age research. One of this group was Comfort.
His early medical career enabled him to bring a clinician's point of view to his research, acknowledging that the ultimate aim of age research must be the interpretation of the ageing process to the human subject. On the other hand, he had an insatiable curiosity, which, on his arrival in the physiology department at the London Hospital Medical School, and later in the zoology department of University College, encouraged him to study age phenomena from whatever source appropriate data could be obtained. This led him to examine ageing processes in both wild and captive populations of fish and other animals.

He also realised that other people's studies could often be employed to good effect. For instance, he found it possible to use information from horse breeders' stud books to explain genetic factors associated with ageing. This biological research led to the publication of The Biology Of Senescence (1961), to be followed by Ageing: The Biology Of Senescence (1964). And one of the milestones of popular gerontology in the 1960s was a television interview featuring Comfort and the "red" dean of Canterbury, Hewlett Johnson.

I began to appreciate the way Alex could explain the growing points of age research when, in the late 1960s, we were both officers of the British Society for Research on Ageing, in which he played an important role. It was about this time that he became a popular presenter at international meetings. These lectures were characterised by such a degree of optimism about the future development of gerontology - and the possible enhancement of lifespan - as to make some of his more conservative colleagues cringe. Thus, in Washington, in 1969, he suggested that, within 20 years, human life span might extend to 120 years.

Throughout Comfort's career, it was his ability to be deeply and simultaneously engaged in a variety of fields which characterised his activities. Such activities were not always scientific or literary. I attended a scientific meeting with him in Czechoslovakia, during the 1968 Prague spring, where he surprised his hosts at a social evening by singing a socialist ditty extolling the work ethic. He informed us he had attempted to teach it to Bertrand Russell when they were both on remand following a CND protest.

That Alex packed such a variety of activities into one life is truly remarkable. Whatever the assessment of the value of his research, and of his non-scientific studies, from the standpoint of the 21st century, he will be remembered as someone who left an indelible mark on the one that preceded it.

"You have only to speak for once -- they will melt like the dust:
you have only to spit in their faces -- they will go
howling like devils to swindle somebody else
but if you choose to obey, we shall not blame you
for every lesson is new. We will make room for you
in the cold hall were every cause is just.
Perhaps you'll go with us to frosty windows
putting the same choice as the years go round
or sit debating 'When will they disobey?'
wrapped in our coats against the imaprtial cold."
All this I think the buried me would say,
clutching their white ribs & their rusted helmets
nationless bones, under the still ground."

-Alex Comfort, excerpt from The Soldiers



12 years 9 months ago

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Submitted by Auld-bod on September 3, 2011

If you can find it, read Alex Comfort’s ‘The Anxiety Makers’, Panther/Thomas Nelson, 1968. It’s very good informative book, a history of sexual repression, and I thought superior to his more famous, ‘Joy of Sex’.