Publisher: AK Press
Released: August 22, 2023
We have so much more to learn about (the author of) The Joy of Sex!. This biography covers it all: the life of a young poet, pacifism, anarchist activism, academic life, the 60s counterculture, starting over in California, The Joy of Sex, aging and death.
Polymath is the first biography of one of the most remarkable and wide-ranging intellectuals of the second half of the twentieth century. Alex Comfort was a British poet, novelist, biologist, cultural critic, activist, and anarchist, and the author of the international bestseller, The Joy of Sex. He played a vital role in making gerontology (the study of aging) a viable branch of modern science, energizing the direct-action movement for nuclear disarmament, revitalizing anarchism as a political philosophy in the post-World War II decades, and persuading twelve million readers of his most popular book to banish guilt and anxiety from sex in favor of pleasure and closer human understanding.
The Joy of Sex spent eleven weeks atop the NYT bestseller list—and seventy-two weeks in the top five. But the book took on a life of its own as a couple generations of youth and adults used The Joy of Sex as a tool to understand pleasure outside the realm of guilt and shame and opened the doors to a healthier sexual culture.
Comfort liked to say that everything he did was part of "one big project": to bring about a new consciousness, grounded in science, of the importance of personal responsibility in human relationships, including the obligation to disobey when authority was being exercised abusively. Polymath traces the intersection in Comfort's life and work between biology and literature, anarchism and humanism, sex and sociality, and how his writings, research, and activism continue to shed critical light on the moral and political choices we make today. Laursen's book relates the event-filled life of a brilliant and complex figure, including his victory over a possibly career-ending disability, his tumultuous second marriage, his struggles with the scientific establishment, and the fascinating story of the making of The Joy of Sex. It will be vital reading for anyone who wants to understand how the personal became political and the political became personal in the last one hundred years.
Praise for Polymath:
"This marvelous study captures the life and work of one of the most fascinating, if little understood, anarchist writers in the twentieth century. The word 'libertarian' has been ruined by right-wing libertarians, and 'anarchist' has been damaged as well. But Alex Comfort, true to the antiwar tradition needed now more than ever, carried forward the struggle from literary to sexology, brilliantly, courageously, and memorably. I hope this meticulous and lucid biography gets the wide attention that it deserves." —Paul Buhle, founder/editor of Radical America, editor of nonfiction graphic novels
"Whilst Joy of Sex is widely known, far less is known of its author Dr Alex Comfort. Eric Laursen’s biography offers a comprehensive, sympathetic, and insightful book which allows us to at last understand Alex Comfort and the inspirations behind his work." —Susan Quilliam, co-author of The Joy Of Sex (2008)
"Polymath is a captivating, illuminating, and penetrating account of Alex Comfort’s life and work. Eric Laursen brilliantly captures the ambience of Comfort’s times to reveal the inventiveness of his thinking and explain his interventions. His impressive research does not shy away from Comfort’s intellectual accomplishments. It underlines the consistency of Comfort’s creative application of anarchist principles and his optimistic view of anarchism as a path to liberation and community." —Ruth Kinna, author of The Government of No One
"Alex Comfort was an extraordinary type of public intellectual—a medical doctor and anarchist activist whose protean scope and accomplishments encompassed the fields of biology, sociology, psychiatry, geriatrics and sexology as well as the writing of poetry, drama, and fiction. Drawing on extensive archival research as well as more specialized studies of Comfort, Eric Laursen’s remarkable biography is the first synthetic study to consider the full range of Comfort’s achievements, and to reveal the fundamental role of anarchism as the ethical core guiding every aspect of Comfort’s personal and professional development." —Mark Antliff, Mary Grace Wilson Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Duke University, and author of Sculptors Against the State: Anarchism and the Anglo-European Avant-Garde
Eric Laursen is an independent journalist, historian, and activist. He is the author of The People’s Pension, The Duty to Stand Aside, and The Operating System. His work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including In These Times, The Nation, and The Arkansas Review. He lives in Buckland, Massachusetts.