What we talk about when we talk about sex

by Jess

Katie Roiphe attempts, in her New York Times piece regarding the Great Male Novelists of the last century — by which she means Mailer, Roth, and Updike — to answer the question, “How is it possible that Philip Roth’s sex scenes are still enraging us?”

She says, “Roth’s explicit passages walk a fine, difficult line between darkness, humor and lust, and somehow the male hero emerges from all the comic clauses breathless, glorified. … Part of the suspense of a Roth passage, the tautness, the brilliance, the bravado in the sentences themselves, the high-wire performance of his prose, is how infuriating and ugly and vain he can be without losing his readers (and then every now and then he actually goes ahead and loses them).”

She admires Updike’s ability “to be frank and aestheticizing all at once, to do poetry and whorehouse.”

As for Mailer, it is all part of his “existentialism, his singular, loopy philosophy, that violence is good, natural and healthy, and it is this in his sex scenes that provokes. As in many of Mailer’s ventures, like his famous campaign for mayor of New York, it’s not entirely clear how much he means it and how much is for fun, for the virile show.”

Roiphe says, “It would be too simple to call the explicit interludes of this new literature pornographic, as pornography has one purpose: to arouse. These passages are after several things at once — sadness, titillation, beauty, fear, comedy, disappointment, aspiration. The writers were interested in showing not just the triumphs of sexual conquest, but also its loneliness, its failures of connection.”

I agree that one of the primary functions of sex in literature, aside from revealing character, is to show failures of connection, which I think is a great turn of phrase.  But Amanda Marcotte from Slate’s DoubleX disagrees with Roiphe on the pornography issue and makes some salient points about the vast differences in cultural sexuality in 2010 vs sexuality circa 1960.  Marcotte says:

… if a male writer nowadays wants to write a story about bullying and dismissing women as eroticism, he has to contend with the fact that porn does so harder, longer, faster, and with an often alarming brutality. The male writers she quotes mostly seem to be contending with this reality; they don’t even need to directly reference porn to grapple with the way that it creates a comical distance between sex as it’s actually experienced and sex as our culture collectively imagines it. …

I find simple-minded Roiphe’s assumption that characters like Alexander Portnoy or Rabbit Angstrom are straightforward celebrations of what she appears to think is the only legitimate expression of male sexuality. … It’s hard to care much about Rabbit Angstrom when we have his modern form, Jon Gosselin, running around in Ed Hardy shirts with the babysitter on his arm. Maybe a great writer could complicate Gosselin as a character for us, but right now, most of us are too busy laughing at him to care.

I think part of the problem, as Marcotte points out and as David Foster Wallace excellently describes in his essay on Updike’s Toward the End of Time, is that these authors didn’t (or don’t) realize their own absurdity.  Wallace calls them not the Great Male Novelists but the Great Male Narcissists.  Wallace says the main problem with the narrator of the novel is that he “persists in the bizarre adolescent idea that getting to have sex with whomever one wants whenever one wants is a cure for ontological despair. And so, it appears, does Mr. Updike — he makes it plain that he views the narrator’s impotence as catastrophic, as the ultimate symbol of death itself.”  Wallace contends that these characters are sex-obsessed, which is a far thing different from being sexually liberated.

Roiphe derides the new generation of writers who have rejected the heavy-handed sexuality of their forebears, writers like Michael Chabon, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Franzen, Benjamin Kunkel.  Roiphe says, “Passivity, a paralyzed sweetness, a deep ambivalence about sexual appetite, are somehow taken as signs of a complex and admirable inner life. These are writers in love with irony, with the literary possibility of self-consciousness so extreme it almost precludes the minimal abandon necessary for the sexual act itself, and in direct rebellion against the Roth, Updike and Bellow their college girlfriends denounced.”

I don’t understand why it can’t be both — and Marcotte touches on this point as well — why literary figures can’t be complex enough to have raging sexual appetites about which they are self-conscious and ambivalent.  Marcotte says the GMNs don’t resonate anymore because the world has changed; feminism, the ubiquituousness of pornography, changing gender roles, etcetera, etcetera, have all caused us to view sex through different lenses than we did forty or fifty years ago.  Sex isn’t static.

Roiphe asks plaintively: “Why don’t we look at these older writers, who want to defeat death with sex, with the same fondness as we do the inventors of the first, failed airplanes, who stood on the tarmac with their unwieldy, impossible machines, and looked up at the sky?”  Maybe it’s a question of motives.  Maybe it’s just that, as Wallace says of Updike’s narrator, “it never once occurs to him that the reason he’s so unhappy is that he’s an asshole.”

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