…Except Sex

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

…Except Sex

EVER TRY TO WRITE A SEX SCENE? No, seriously. Tell you what: go try. In the interest of good taste, I’ll request that you limit yourself to members of the same species and for clarity that you limit yourself to a mere pair of participants, but aside from that, no restrictions. Let ’em do whatever you want. Then when you come back, in a day, in a week, in a month, you’ll have found out what most writers already know: describing two human beings engaging in the most intimate of shared acts is very nearly the least rewarding enterprise a writer can undertake.

Don’t feel bad. You never had a chance. What are your options? The possible circumstances that lead two people to sexual congress are virtually limitless, but the act itself? How many options do you have? You can describe the business clinically as if it were a do-it-yourself manual—insert tab A into slot B—but there are not that many tabs or slots, whether you use the Anglo-Saxon names or their Latinate alternatives. Frankly there just isn’t that much variety, with or without the Reddi-Wip, and besides, it’s been written in the mass of pornography ad nauseam. You can opt for the soft-core approach, describing parts and movements in a haze of breathy metaphors and heroic adverbs: he achingly stroked her quivering skiff as it rode the waves of her desire, etc. This second sort is hard to write without seeming (a) quaint, (b) squeamish, (c) hugely embarrassed, (d) inept. To tell the truth, most writing that deals directly with sex makes you wish for the good old days of the billowing curtain and the gently lapping waves.

I honestly believe that if D. H. Lawrence could see the sorry state of sex scenes that developed within a generation of his death, he would retract Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The truth is that most of the time when writers deal with sex, they avoid writing about the act itself. There are a lot of scenes that jump from the first button being undone to a postcoital cigarette (metaphorically, that is) or that cut from the unbuttoning to another scene entirely. The further truth is that even when they write about sex, they’re really writing about something else.

Drives you crazy, doesn’t it? When they’re writing about other things, they really mean sex, and when they write about sex, they really mean something else. If they write about sex and mean strictly sex, we have a word for that. Pornography.

In the Victorian age, sex was nearly impossible to find in polite literature, due to rigid censorship both official and self-imposed. Not surprisingly, there was plenty of impolite literature. The era was unsurpassed in its production of pornography. Maybe it was that mountain of dirty writing that used up all the possibilities of writing about sex.

Even in the modernist period, though, there were limits. Hemingway was restricted in his use of curse words. Joyce’s Ulysses was censored, banned, and confiscated in both the United Kingdom and the United States, in part for its sexual references (lots of sex thought, even if the only sex act shown in it is onanistic). Constance Chatterley and her lover, Mellors, really broke ground in plainly shown and plainspoken sex, although the novel’s obscenity trial, effectively ending censorship in the United States, did not take place until 1959.

Strangely, with less than a century of sexual writing as standard practice, there is almost nothing left but cliché.

There’s a very famous sex scene in John Fowles’s French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) between the two main characters, Charles and Sarah. In fact, it’s the only sex scene in the novel, which is odd, given the extent to which the novel is about love and sex. Our lovers enter her bedroom in a seedy hotel, he carrying her from the sitting room because she has sprained her ankle. He lays her on the bed and joins her amid frenetic shifting and removal of clothing, which, this book being set in Victorian times, is considerable. Soon the deed is done and he lies spent beside her, at which point the narrator points out that “precisely ninety seconds” have elapsed since he walked from her to look into the bedroom. In that time he walked back, picked her up, carried her to the bed, fumbled and groped, and consummated their love. Now there are several possible constructions we can put on this particular description of the act of love. Perhaps Fowles wants to address, for reasons unknown, the shortcomings of Victorian males in the ardor department. Perhaps he wants to ridicule his poor hero. Perhaps he wants to make some point about male sexual inadequacy or the fallibility of desire. Perhaps he wants to accentuate the comic or ironic incongruity between the brevity of the sexual act and its consequences. Of the first of these, why bother? Besides, he admits in a famous essay on the crafting of the novel that he really has no knowledge of nineteenth-century lovemaking, and in depicting sex between a Victorian man and woman what he’s really writing is “science fiction.” Of the second, it seems needlessly cruel, particularly when we’ve recently seen Charles in the arms of a young prostitute, where, rather than making love, he vomits into a pillow. Must he always be beset with performance issues? Of the third, sixty thousand words seems rather a lot with which to surround a tiny treatise on male sexuality. Of the fourth possibility, we know that incongruities, comic or otherwise, fascinate the novelist.

Let’s consider another possibility, though. Charles has traveled from Lyme Regis, in the southwest, to London, where he has met with his future father-in-law, Mr. Freeman. Charles is horrified at the ill-judged marriage he has brought upon himself, complete with an offer of a job in business (anathema to a Victorian gentleman). He sees that he does not love the woman he is engaged to nor the conformity which she and her father, as members of the rising middle class, covet. He seems to be on a tether between the poles of his restricted future, with Mr. Freeman and the horrors of a life in commerce at one end in London, and his fiancée, Ernestina, at the other in Lyme Regis. Charles has come back through Exeter, where the seedy hotel is located, in full-panic flight. Sarah, the “fallen” woman (although we find out she probably is not), represents both the forbidden fruit, always tempting, and the way out of the marital disaster that he envisions awaiting him. His fascination with Sarah, which has been building throughout the novel, is a fascination with the unconventional aspects of himself, as well as with the possibilities of freedom and individual autonomy she represents. Sarah is the future, the twentieth century, for which Charles may not be ready. He carries not a woman but an entire constellation of possibilities into the bedroom. What chance does his sexual performance have?

For the most part, even our sexiest writing doesn’t have all that much sex in it. Okay, except Henry Miller’s novels, which really do have that much sex in them, and it’s pretty much about the sex. But even with Miller, the sex is on one level symbolic action claiming for the individual freedom from convention and for the writer freedom from censorship. He’s celebrating the removal of restrictions and writing hot sex.

But look at Miller’s sometime pal Lawrence Durrell. (What is it about people named Lawrence and sex, anyway?) His Alexandria Quartet—the novels Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea (1957—60)—is chiefly about the forces of politics and history and the impossibility of the individual escaping those forces, although it registers in readers’ minds as heavily slanted toward the sexual. A lot of sex talk, of reports of sex, and of scenes taking place immediately before or immediately after sex. I would maintain this is not from trepidation on the writer’s part (it’s hard to find any evidence of Durrell being inhibited about much of anything) but from his sense that in novels so overheated by passion, the sexiest thing he can do is show everything but the lovemaking itself. Moreover, the sex that occurs is invariably tied up with something else: cover for espionage, personal sacrifice, psychological neediness, desire for power over someone else. He presents virtually no sexual encounters that can be described as healthy, robust meetings of lovers. Sex in Alexandria is really pretty creepy when all’s said and done. And it’s all done.

Two of the most notorious novels of that same period of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962) and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1958) are famous for bad sex. Not bad as in unsatisfactory; bad as in evil. The protagonist of Burgess’s novel is a fifteen-year-old leader of a gang whose specialties are theft with violence, violence without theft, and rape, to which he refers as “the old in-out in-out.” The rapes we “see” do in fact take place in the narrative, but they are strangely distanced from us. For one thing, as many potential readers already know, Alex narrates in a patois he calls Nadsat, a mix of English and slang words, many of them of Slavic origin. The effect of this linguistic mode is to describe things in such alien ways that the acts themselves seem alien as well. For another thing, Alex is so interested in his own delight at stage-managing the violence and rape, and in the terror and cries of the victims, that he almost neglects the sexual particulars. His most straightforward narration of a sexual scene is when he picks up two prepubescent girls; even then, he’s more interested in their cries of pain and outrage than in the activity occasioning them. Beyond that, Burgess is interested in depravity, not prurience. He’s writing a novel of ideas with an attractive/revolting main character, so his chief concern is not to make the sex and violence interesting, but to make Alex sufficiently revolting—and he succeeds admirably. Some would say too well.

Lolita is a slightly different case. Nabokov has to make his middle-aged protagonist, Humbert Humbert, depraved, certainly, but part of the revulsion we feel at his interest in his underage stepdaughter Lolita lies in the way our sympathy is co-opted by this monster narrating the story. He’s so charming we are nearly taken in, but then he reminds us what he is doing to this young girl and we’re outraged again. Nabokov being Nabokov, though, there’s a kind of “gotcha!” in it: we’re disgusted by Humbert, but sufficiently fascinated to keep reading. The sex, then, like the narrative, is a kind of linguistic-philosophical game that ensnares us and implicates us in the crimes we would officially denounce. Nor is there that much sex in the novel. Only a small amount of pederasty is even remotely tolerable. Much of the novel’s notoriety, actually, beyond the fact that it has any pederasty, lies in its triple-X imitators. The word “Lolita” almost immediately became a staple in titles of a certain kind of pornographic film: Teenage Lolitas, Wanton Teenage Lolitas, Really Wanton Teenage Lolitas, titles like that. Really original dirty-movie titles. There, presumably, the sex is strictly about sex.

What’s that? You think it’s just a guy thing?

Definitely not. Djuna Barnes, a contemporary of Lawrence and Joyce, investigates the world of sexual desire, fulfillment, and frustration in her dark classic, Nightwood (1937). The poet Mina Loy could have made T. S. Eliot faint. Modern women writers—as diverse as Anaïs Nin, Doris Lessing, Joyce Carol Oates, Iris Murdoch, and Edna O’Brien—ever since have investigated ways of writing about sex. I suspect O’Brien holds the distinction of having more books banned in Ireland than any other Irish novelist. Sex in her books nearly always takes on a political cast as characters explore their sexuality while at the same time throwing off the restrictions of a conservative, repressed, religious society. O’Brien’s writing about sex is really writing about liberation, or sometimes the failure of liberation; it’s religious or political or artistic subversion.

The queen of sexual subversiveness, though, must be the late Angela Carter. Like O’Brien, Carter can write a very convincing sex scene. And also like her, she almost never lets it be only about sex. Carter nearly always intends to upset the patriarchal apple cart. To call her writing women’s liberation is to largely miss her point; Carter attempts to discover paths by which women can attain the standing in the world that male-dominated society has largely denied them, and in so doing she would liberate all of us, men and women alike. In her world, sex can be wildly disruptive. In her last novel, Wise Children, when the main character and narrator, Dora Chance, engages in sex, the aim is usually self-expression or exertion of control over her life. As a woman and a minor entertainer, she has comparatively little control, and as an illegitimate orphan whose father refuses to recognize her and her twin, Nora, she has even less. Taking some form of control once in a while therefore becomes all the more essential. She “borrows” Nora’s boyfriend for her sexual initiation (he’s none the wiser). Later she makes love to the boy of her dreams at a party during which her father’s mansion burns to cinders. And finally, as a septuagenarian, she makes love to her hundred-year-old uncle, again while a very considerable shock is being delivered to her father, who is her uncle’s twin. I’m not sure I can decode all the things that scene means, but I’m pretty sure it is not primarily about sex. Or aesthetics. If nothing else, it is a radical assertion of the life force. It can also be attacked from almost every angle on the psychological and sexual-political compasses. Also, right after their lovemaking, her uncle makes his twin nieces mothers for the first time, presenting them with orphaned twins, grand-nephew and -niece. In Carter’s experience, human parthenogenesis remains somewhere in the future, so sex is still required to produce babies. Even symbolically.

Now here’s the thing about that: you’re going to figure it out. You don’t need me to tell you that this scene involving sex among the very old means something. Moreover, your guess is as good as mine when it comes to what it means. Maybe better. The image of these two elderly people making violent (the downstairs chandelier sways alarmingly) love in the bed of their father/brother is so rich with possibilities that you almost can’t go wrong, and perhaps no one can extract all its possibilities. So go for it.

That’s generally true. You just know that these scenes mean something more than what’s going on in them. It’s true in life as well, where sex can be pleasure, sacrifice, submission, rebellion, resignation, supplication, domination, enlightenment, the whole works. Just the other day a student mentioned a sex scene in a novel. “What’s up with that?” she asked. “It has to be about something else. It’s just so weird and creepy that it has to be about something else. Does it mean …” And then she told us exactly what it meant. All I could add was that it’s not only true of weird sex. Sometimes even good literary sex is about something else.

Oh, right. You can’t really write about modern literary sex and skip over it, can you? Here’s the thing. Lawrence didn’t approve of strong language in private life and was almost prudish in some ways on the subject of promiscuity. Yet very near the end of his life, only in his early forties and dying of tuberculosis, he pens this outrageously frank, open novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, about love and sex between members of two very different classes, between a peer’s wife and her husband’s gamekeeper, a man who uses all the Anglo-Saxon words for body parts and functions. Lawrence knows he won’t write many more novels, he’s coughing up his lungs, and he’s pouring his life into this dirty story that’s so far beyond anything he’s already written—and had censored—that he knows, even if he pretends not to, that this thing will never have a wide readership in his lifetime. So now it’s my turn.

What’s up with that?