It’s All About Sex …

How to Read Literature Like a Professor - Thomas C. Foster 2003

It’s All About Sex …

THERE’S AN UGLY RUMOR circulating that English professors have dirty minds. It’s not true, of course. We’re no more dirty-minded than society at large, although that may not be of any great comfort. Well, let me assure you that English professors are not innately prurient. It’s just that they can recognize the sexual intentions of writers, who may well have dirty minds. So how did all this smutty thinking find its way into world literature?

Blame it on Freud. He put it there.

More accurately, he found it and showed it to the rest of us. When he published The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900, he unlocked the sexual potential of the subconscious. Tall buildings? Male sexuality. Rolling landscapes? Female sexuality. Stairs? Sexual intercourse. Falling down stairs? Oh my. All of this may be regarded these days as so much hokum in the arena of psychoanalysis, but it’s like gold in terms of literary analysis. Suddenly we discover that sex doesn’t have to look like sex: other objects and activities can stand in for sexual organs and sex acts, which is good, since those organs and acts can only be arranged in so many ways and are not inevitably decorous. So landscapes can have a sexual component. So can bowls. Fires. Seashores. And 1949 Plymouths, one supposes. Virtually anything, if the writer so decides. Oh yes, Freud taught us well. And some of those he taught are writers. Suddenly, as the twentieth century gets rolling, two things are happening. Critics and readers are learning that sexuality may be encoded in their reading, while writers are learning that they can encode sexuality into their writing. Headaches, anyone?

Of course, the twentieth century didn’t invent sexual symbolism. Consider the Grail legends. A knight, usually a very young one whose “manhood” is barely established, sallies forth bearing his lance, which will certainly do until a phallic symbol comes along. The knight becomes the emblem of pure, if untested, maleness in search of a chalice, the Holy Grail, which if you think about it is a symbol of female sexuality as understood once upon a time: the empty vessel, waiting to be filled. And the reason for seeking to bring together the lance and the chalice? Fertility. (Freud gets help here from Jessie L. Weston, Sir James Frazer, and Carl Jung, all of whom explain a great deal about mythic thinking, fertility myths, and archetypes.) Typically the knight rides out from a community that has fallen on hard times. Crops are failing, rains have stopped, livestock and possibly humans are dying or failing to be born, the kingdom is turning into a wasteland. We need to restore fertility and order, says the aging king, too old now to go in search of fertility symbols. Perhaps he can no longer use his lance, so he sends the young man. It isn’t wanton or wild sex, but it’s still sex.

Flash-forward a millennium or so. Hang a left at New York and go to Hollywood. There’s a moment in The Maltese Falcon (1941) when Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade, at night, is leaning over Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy, kissing her by a window, and then the next moment we’re looking at the curtains of the window blowing gently in the morning sunlight. No Sam. No Brigid. Young viewers sometimes don’t notice those curtains, so they want to know what happened between Sam and Brigid. It may seem a small detail, but it matters greatly that we understand so that we see how much Sam Spade’s judgment may be compromised, and how difficult turning her in at the end is going to be. For those who remember a time when the movies not only didn’t show people “doing it,” they also didn’t show people having done it or talking about having done it, those curtains might as well bear the following printed legend: yes, they did. And they enjoyed it. For people of that age, one of the sexiest shots in film consists of waves breaking on a beach. When the director cut to the waves on the beach, somebody was getting lucky. These abstractions were necessary under the Hayes Code, which controlled content in Hollywood films from around 1935 until 1965, more or less, throughout the height of the studio system. The Hayes Code said a lot of different things, but the one we’re interested in was that you could stack bodies like cordwood if they were dead (although usually without blood), but living bodies couldn’t get horizontal together. Husbands and wives were nearly always shown in separate beds. I noticed this once more the other night when I watched Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), where Claude Rains and Ingrid Bergman have twin beds. The man has never been born who, finding himself married to Ingrid Bergman, would assent to sleeping in twin beds. Even an evil Nazi like Claude Rains. But in the movies in 1946, that’s what happened. So film directors resorted to anything they could think of: waves, curtains, campfires, fireworks, you name it. And sometimes the results were dirtier than showing the real thing. At the end of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint find themselves rescued from the face of Mount Rushmore when the good guys kill Martin Landau before he can send our heroes to their deaths. In one of the truly great cuts, Grant, who is struggling to hold Miss Saint on the rock face, is suddenly pulling her up into the sleeping compartment of the train (and referring to her as Mrs. Thornhill); this shot is followed by an equally famous one—the last shot of the film—of the train entering a tunnel. No need to comment on that one.

Okay, you say, but that’s film. What about books?

I barely know where to begin. Let’s try something tame first, Ann Beattie’s story “Janus” (1985). A youngish woman, married but not particularly in love with her husband, has had an affair with another man, the only tangible result of which is a bowl the lover bought for her. The woman, Andrea, comes more and more to identify with the bowl and to obsess over it. She’s a real-estate agent, and she often places the bowl in a prominent place in clients’ houses before she shows them; she gets up at night to check on it and make sure it’s all right; and most tellingly, she will not permit her husband to put his keys in her bowl. Do you see the sexuality embedded in that set of images? How do keys work? Whose keys are they? Where can he not put them? Whose talisman is the bowl he can’t put them in? Consider, for instance, that Hank Williams/George Thorogood classic, “Move It on Over,” and the complaint about his lady changing locks and leaving him with a key that no longer fits. Every American should know enough of the blues to understand exactly what keys and locks signify, and to blush when they’re referred to. That pattern of imagery is just part of the much older tradition identified by Freud/Weston/Frazer/Jung about lances and swords and guns (and keys) as phallic symbols, chalices and grails (and bowls, of course, also) as symbols of female sexual organs. Back to Andrea’s bowl: it really is about sex. Specifically, it’s about her identity as a woman, an individual, and a sexual being, rather than as an extension of a lover or a husband. She fears being merely an auxiliary of some man’s existence, although her autonomy, as symbolized by the bowl, is made problematic by its having been purchased for her by …a man. He only buys it, though, after seeing that she really connects with the bowl, so it really is hers in the end.

To talk about sex in literature almost inevitably leads to discussion of D. H. Lawrence. The great thing about Lawrence, from my point of view, is that you can never go wrong bringing sex into the analysis. Partly because sex had been taboo for so long and therefore was a largely untapped resource for the novelist, he worked tirelessly to explore the subject. His work has plenty of mentions of sexual relations, some oblique, some explicit, and in his last novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), the great forbidden reading-fruit of everyone’s youth, he pushes right past the limits of censorship of his time. The sexiest scene he ever wrote, though, is not a sex scene. It’s wrestling. In Women in Love, the two main male characters wrestle one evening, in language in which the sexual charge is ferocious. They’ve been going on about blood brotherhoods and the closeness of their friendship, so the wrestling is not all that surprising. Lawrence isn’t comfortable making them openly homosexual but he wants a relationship—and a physical expression—that is nearly as close as the love-and-sex relationship between man and woman. Ken Russell certainly understood what the scene was about when he filmed the novel back in 1969; I hadn’t understood it, being too conditioned not to look for anything homoerotic and, I suppose, too insecure as to what that might say about one of my favorite writers. Once I saw the film, though, I went back and reread the scene, and Russell got it right.

My favorite Lawrence story, bar none, is called “The Rocking-Horse Winner” (1932), about a little boy who wants to please his mother. His father is a failure in business and therefore a great disappointment to the materialist mother. The son, Paul, senses the desperation for money in the house, senses his mother’s dissatisfaction, senses the inability of his mother to love him, or anyone, in the face of her own colossal self-absorption. He connects the lack of his mother’s love with the lack of money, then discovers that he can pick the winners of upcoming horse races if he rides his rocking horse to the point of exhaustion. Here’s what Lawrence has to say:

He wanted luck, he wanted it, he wanted it. When the two girls were playing dolls in the nursery, he would sit on his big rocking horse, charging madly into space, with a frenzy that made the little girls peer at him uneasily. Wildly the horse careered, the waving dark hair of the boy tossed, the eyes had a strange glare in them. The girls dared not speak to them…. He knew the horse could take him to where there was luck, if only he forced it…. At last he stopped forcing his horse into the mechanical gallop and slid down.

Say what you will, I think he’s talking about masturbation. When I teach this story, I try to lead the students to this idea without insisting on it. Usually there is one hardy and perceptive soul who gets it and asks, with something between a smirk and a cringe, the question I’m hoping for. One or two others nod, as if they sort of thought that but were afraid to think it through. Thirty-five others look like the ceiling is about to fall.

Is it really?

Let’s look at the pattern that’s set up: child wants to supplant father in his mother’s affections, child desperately wants mother’s approval and love, child engages in highly secretive behavior involving frenetic, rhythmic activity that culminates in transporting loss of consciousness. What does that sound like to you? This is one of the clearest Oedipal situations ever captured in fiction, and for good reason. Lawrence was part of the first generation to read Freud and so, for the first time, to consciously employ Freudian thinking in literature. The notion of sublimation kicks in here, for both character and writer. Obviously, sexual engagement with the mother is not an option, so Lawrence sends the boy, Paul, in search of the luck his mother desires so terribly. The means of his search is sufficiently creepy that it frightens his presexual sisters and causes consternation among the adults, who feel that he’s too big for a rocking horse.

Is it really masturbation? Not literally. That would be icky and not particularly interesting. But symbolically it fulfills the function of masturbation. Think of it as a surrogate for a surrogate for sex. What could be clearer?

Why? Part of the reason for all this disguised sex is that, historically, writers and artists couldn’t make much use of the real thing. Lawrence, for instance, had numerous novels suppressed and undertook a monumental battle with the British censors. Same as in film.

Another reason is that scenes in which sex is coded rather than explicit can work at multiple levels and sometimes be more intense than literal depictions. Those multiple levels have traditionally been to protect innocents. Dickens, who could be very suggestive, was aware that his novels were often read around the family breakfast table, and he wanted to protect children from anything luridly sexual, as well as to provide wives with plausible deniability. With a scene of encoded sex, Mother could pretend not to notice that something untoward was going on while Father was enjoying his private smirk. There’s a scene in Our Mutual Friend (1865) in which the two villains, Mr. Venus and Silas Wegg, are plotting evil. In fact, Silas Wegg is reading some financial news of a very tantalizing nature to the seated Mr. Venus, whose pegleg begins to rise from the floor until, at the moment of greatest excitement, it is pointing straight out in front of him. And then he falls over. Various family members could see this as either slapstick buffoonery or as quite suggestive slapstick buffoonery. In any case, everybody gets a giggle.

Even in our highly permissive age, though, sex often doesn’t appear in its own guise. It is displaced into other areas of experience in much the same way it is in our own lives and our own consciousnesses. Ann Beattie’s character Andrea doesn’t think of her problems as being chiefly sexual or romantic. But they are, as we and her creator can see. So it’s unlikely that her sexual issues will present themselves in terms of sexual organs and acts; much more likely they’ll look like …a bowl and some keys.