Archive for the ‘sex’ Category
From Michael Hofmann’s rather brilliant piece on Kundera in the new LRB (paywalled, I think). Here, he’s talking about Kundera’s characters and sex.
Kundera has an old – and I would say, a dated – trust in sex. Sex as the expression of or the stand-in for or the earthly (or heavenly) representative of personality or inner life. […] Whoever they are, sex tests them and keeps the score. Do they use rude words or not? Do they prefer darkness or do they like to leave the lights on? Do they shut their eyes or keep them open? Are they thinking of the person they’re with, or of someone else? Kundera is touchingly interested and trusting in what he finds out: they are about the only stage directions you get in his books. Where other observers might contend our species is at its most generic in bed, and any differences we might display there are either faddish or not interesting, that, for example, the way we like to shop is altogether more expressive and revelatory, Kundera takes another view. He deserves the label ‘erotic politician’ more than Jim Morrison ever did.
I’m in the very early stages of trying to write something about the representation of sex in contemporary (and relatively contemporary) novels. One question that I’m asking myself – and asking the works that I will talk about – is a relatively obvious one: how has the representation of sex changed since the arrival of ubiquitous internet pornography. I’m hoping that the answer isn’t as obvious as the question. But Hofmann’s paragraph above expresses perfectly part of what I am thinking – the part that we have left behind.
We no longer believe, or at least have begun to doubt, that sex is personally-revelatory, a pathway to the demonstration of some sort of personal (or interpersonal) quiddity. Perhaps pornography has something to do with this – what at first can seem intriguingly distinct comes to seem something else entirely when it dawns on you that there are hundreds of thousands of these totally unique things. (Every snowflake is different, yes, but the fact that there are so goddamned many of them, each a unique shape of their own, might start to make you wonder whether it matters that each one is different. That is to say, difference become less and less interesting the more that you realise everyone is different, but in an utterly random, meaningless way.)
Fiction, since its modern prose forms arose, has always been tantalised by sex. The romance suppresses it in sublimating it (or maybe it’s the other way around). But maybe now, with everything all out in the open, or at least nearly everything, fiction faces a bit of a problem. And instead of Kundera’s epiphanically-revelatory sexuality, we have the grim grinding of Houellebecq’s (and other’s) characters – grinding aimed at a sort of transcendence, still, but we can’t help but know that the joke, as it was on Emma Bovary, is always on them.
I’m fascinated by the new iPhone 4 promotional video, its juxtaposing of scenes of quietly utopian everyday life with shots of the human-free robotic production of the phones. What’s especially fascinating is the chaismus at play: wholesomely septic family life under neoliberalism, with its romping, drooling toddlers and hotel comforters that at least look clean, takes place at a distance. Dad’s in Hong Kong or Milwaukee, mom’s at home taking endless videos of the scrambling kid. They have family time via videophone – perhaps dad’s been away for a long time, christ perhaps they conceived the kid via some other newly released app that “will change everything, all over again.”
On the other hand, what is it – according to the logic of the video – that permits this touchless familial intimacy at a distance? An entire factory full incessantly and with inhuman precision machines that seem to be, well, copulating these devices into existence. All that clockwork contact, pressing and insertion. One sequence even seems to involve something of a moneyshot, the climactic interest of which at least in part is the strangeness of seeing a tiny bauble of goo amidst all this stainless steel sterility.
Static visions of yesterday’s Crate and Barrel lifestyle, Californian, with the single child and a job that shows dad the world, are subtended not simply by the magical products on offer at the Apple Store, but the laborless labor of the machines, fucking all day and night to bring us our A4 chips and Retina displays, our 18 month contracts with AT&T or O2 and our business trips to pay them out.
If it were a different age of criticism, back in the time of queering and general erotic teaseout, maybe I’d write a paper on masturbation and the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.
Sex is, afterall, all over the text, even if it’s generally woven underneath the fold euphemistically. There’s of course the description of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” as well as the location of the origin of the form in “emotion recollected in tranquility.” One goes out into the world to see things, one comes home a bit agitated, one recollects the moment of agitation and its source, and the “powerful feelings” overflow out onto the page. Further, there’s the moment where, despite Wordsworth’s argument that the poet isn’t different from other men in kind but rather only degree (whatever ordinary men are, he’s just that, only moreso), he additionally possesses
a disposition to be affected more than other men by absent things as if they were present; an ability of conjuring up in himself passions, which are indeed far from being the same as those produced by real events, yet (especially in those parts of the general sympathy which are pleasing and delightful) do more nearly resemble the passions produced by real events, than any thing which, from the motions of their own minds merely, other men are accustomed to feel in themselves; whence, and from practice, he has acquired a greater readiness and power in expressing what he thinks and feels, and especially those thoughts and feelings which, by his own choice, or from the structure of his own mind, arise in him without immediate external excitement.
Just to parse this quickly: what the poet comes up with isn’t quite the Real Thing, but it’s a lot more like the Real Thing than normal people are apt to come up with “without immediate external excitement.” Absent things as if present, right? Back at home, “in tranquility.” Got it.
But there’s something else to this, something almost fully manifest in that passage, but which comes out much more clearly later on. Sex is referenced directly only once, in the course of Wordsworth’s defense of his decision to write in meter rather than prose.
The only point that it is presented directly is this one, part of the defence of his decision to write in meter rather than prose that comes toward the end of the Preface. He’s talking here about the pleasure inheritent in metrically-arranged language.
If I had undertaken a systematic defence of the theory upon which these poems are written, it would have been my duty to develope the various causes upon which the pleasure received from metrical language depends. Among the chief of these causes is to be reckoned a principle which must be well known to those who have made any of the Arts the object of accurate reflection; I mean the pleasure which the mind derives from the perception of similitude in dissimilitude. This principle is the great spring of the activity of our minds, and their chief feeder. From this principle the direction of the sexual appetite, and all the passions connected with it take their origin: It is the life of our ordinary conversation; and upon the accuracy with which similitude in dissimilitude, and dissimilitude in similitude are perceived, depend our taste and our moral feelings. It would not have been a useless employment to have applied this principle to the consideration of metre, and to have shewn that metre is hence enabled to afford much pleasure, and to have pointed out in what manner that pleasure is produced. But my limits will not permit me to enter upon this subject, and I must content myself with a general summary.
So he’s not got time or space to go into it here…. But he’s speculating that meter has something to do with the play of similitude and dissimilitude that defines not only poetry but sexual desire… as well as the linguistic materialization of sociality, i.e. discourse, itself. Great little crackle of panic there at the end of the paragraph, dodging the conjunction he’s come up with here but doesn’t and/or won’t tease out, and it makes sense that he retreats from here back into the full enunciation of the emotion in tranquility / overflow of powerful feelings bit.
Now, I don’t have time either (not because I’m panicked, I don’t think, nor because I’m rushing off to masturbate or anything – it’s just time for bed, and I have to get up early) but if I were to write my paper on Wordsworth, the Preface, and Masturbation, I’d go long with the idea that what we have here is a negotiation, conducted simultaneously in aesthetic and tacticly sexual but also social terms about what this new form of lyrical poetry is going to be about, ultimately. Further, he doesn’t here specify how similarity and dissimilarity work for either poetic pleasure or sexual desire: does he mean, when it comes to the latter, that you like girls because they’re like boys only not… or is it something even more interesting, something like a phenotypical notion of attraction. You like her because she looks like others, only in her own way.
The object of poetry, if I had time, if I had time, might in the “Preface” end up related to something in between the generic images that you temporally make solely your own when you have sex by and with yourself and the everyone else that you love in your particular beloved.
We’re treading toward the whatever here, in more than one sense. Sorry that you’re my notebook. But he’s up to something interesting here that’s not entirely unlike the sort of stuff that drew me to the book that gave this blog its name. More soon, as always!
I’m not an Ian McEwan fan. Look, he writes very elegantly. And Saturday is an excellent teaching text (in large part because you get to show students something fairly subtle about the Iraq War, rationalization, and a particularly novelistic form of lying…) His politics are… not very good… And he is one very clear case where the bad politics make for aesthetic failure. You’re really not supposed to be able to label a properly written novel symptomatic this quickly, but there’s no other word for what Saturday is. But that’s another post.
But I am reading On Chesil Beach right now, for some reason or another. Might have something more substantive to say about it soon. But for now I wanted to share something quite excellent with you. The situation is, basically, that a young man and a young woman have just been married and are spending their honeymoon night at an inn on the Dorset coast. Both are virgins. He is tremendously excited to get laid for the first time; she is absolutely revolted by the thought of sex. They’re about to get it on for the first time, and he’s totally misreading her panic reaction as an erotic swoon:
He was thrilled by the light touch of her hands, not so very far from his groin, and by the compliance of her lovely body enfolded in his arms and the passionate sound of her breathing rapidly through her nostrils. It brought him to a point of unfamiliar ecstasy, cold and sharp and just below the ribs, the way her tongue gently enveloped his and he pushed against it. Perhaps he could persuade her one day soon – perhaps this evening, and she might need no persuading – to take his cock into her soft and beautiful mouth. But that was a thought he needed to scramble away from as fast as he could, for he was in real danger of arriving too soon. He could feel it already beginning, tipping him toward disgrace. Just in time, he thought of the news, of the face of the prime minister, Harold Macmillan, tall, stooping, walruslike, a war hero, an old buffer – he was everything that was not sex, and ideal for the purpose. Trade gap, pay pause, resale price maintenance. Some cursed him for giving away the empire, but there was no choice really, with these winds of change blowing through Africa. No one would have taken that same message from a Labour man. And he had just sacked a third of his cabinet in the “night of the long knives.” That took some nerve. Mac the Knife, was one headline, Macbeth! was another. Serious-minded people complained he was burying the nation in an avalanche of TVs, cars, supermarkets and other junk. He let the people have what they wanted. Bread and circuses. A new nation, and now he wanted us to join Europe, and who could say for sure that he was wrong?
Now if you’ve read your Barthes, maybe you know where I’m going with this. Always awkward to do the groundwork of social contextualization when you’re doing your histoire d’amour. But here, the relationship is literalized: the social detail, political factuality, the newspapery stuff is what the novel, like the novel’s protagonist here, tells itself so that it does not come too quickly.
(About the title of this post. Avert your eyes if you’d like to maintain an image of me as a sexless demiurge tapping away at posts morning noon and night. OK. In the USA, the shorthand version of this practice as delivered in popular culture usually takes the form of “thinking of a ballplayer.” Which is very, you know, heteronormative and homosocial and all. But that’s not my point. It went around as a mini-trope when I was an adolescent and was sensitive to such information. But when it went around tv and movies during my adolescence, it usually went around as a practice of middle-aged men, middle-aged men who could remember a different era of baseball than I could. Usually, they “thought about” Mickey Mantle. Every once in awhile, Joe DiMaggio if they were a bit older. And so, any time I’ve been tempted to, erm, try the technique out myself, my mind’s eye fills up with sepia toned portraits of players I never watched, Mantle, DiMaggio. The idea is, I guess, is that the practice take you back to the innocent b/w tv years of childhood, when matters like coming too quickly – or coming at all – were not yet on the table. But when you get blocked this way, and are instead delivered to a strange screen-image nostalgia rut and rude citationality, everything gets all askew, you grow pensive and kind of meta, and, well, I won’t go into details, but you know. It’s not the best place to be when you really are where you want to be.
But it’s OK. Next time, for sure, I will think about Harold Macmillan, whoever he was. Sure to work, especially since no image, sepia or otherwise, erm, comes to mind….)
So, for all that Don Juan is driven by carnal desires, or perhaps precisely because of this, he has been a philosopher’s favourite. Kierkegaard devoted much of Either/Or to an evaluation of the opera, excusing himself with the declaration that music does not exist in the moral domain. Michel Foucault, in his History of Sexuality, took perhaps the most radical line of all: Juan represented “the individual driven, in spite of himself, by the sombre madness of sex. Underneath the libertine, the pervert … We shall leave it to psychoanalysts to speculate whether he was homosexual, narcissistic, or impotent.” (To which one might well ask: “Come again?”)
Moral philosopher Bernard Williams asked whether the Don was “fleeing from exhaustion and inner emptiness … or, according to George Sand and Flaubert, engaged in a despairing hunt for a genuine encounter with another person.”