Definitions of Territories: Eroticism

The uses of literature - Italo Calvino 1986

Definitions of Territories: Eroticism

Sex and Laughter

Twentieth Century Studies (Canterbury), no. 2 (1969), under the tide “Considerations on Sex and Laughter” (translated by Guido Almansi). The issue was devoted to “the treatment of sexual themes in the modern novel.” The Italian original later appeared in Il Caffé, July-September 1970.

Sexuality in literature is a language in which what is not said is more important than what is. This principle holds good not only for writers who, for good reasons or bad, tackle sexual themes more or less indirectly, but also for those who invest the entire force of their discourse in them. Even writers whose erotic imagination aspires to pass all bounds often use a language that starts off with the utmost clarity and then passes into a mysterious obscurity precisely at the moments of greatest tension, as if its end result could never be anything but inexpressible. This spiral movement to get around or skim over the inexpressible is shared by writers of the most extreme eroticism, such as Sade and Bataille, and also those writers, such as Henry James, from whose pages sex appears to be strictly banned.

The thick symbolic armor beneath which Eros hides is no other than a system of conscious or unconscious shields that separate desire from the representation of it. From this point of view all literature is erotic, just as all dreams are erotic. In the explicitly erotic writer we may therefore recognize one who uses the symbols of sex to give voice to something else, and this something else, after a series of definitions that tend to take shape in philosophical and religious terms, may in the last instance be redefined as another and ultimate Eros, fundamental, mythical, and unattainable.

Most writers are to be found in areas intermediate between these two extremes. Many of them traditionally approach sex by way of the rules of play, of comedy, or at least of irony. Our present intellectual rigor (especially in France, as a reaction against the traditional French wit) tends to condemn the habit of joking and winking at sexual matters as superficial and conformist. A very just argument, above all when it strikes at the (male) habit of diminishing sex, of degrading it; but it runs the risk of making us forget the profound connection between sex and laughter on the anthropological level. For laughter is also a defense of our human trepidation in the face of the revelation of sex; it is mimetic exorcism to enable us to master the absolute turmoil that sexual relations can cause, by means of the lesser turmoil of laughter. The cheerful state of mind that accompanies talk about sex may therefore be understood not only as impatient anticipation of the hoped-for happiness, but also as a recognition of the boundary that is about to be crossed, of entry into a space that is different, paradoxical, and “sacred.” Or else, simply, as the modesty of words in the face of what is too far beyond words, as against the crude pretension that sublime or serious language might succeed in providing it with an “equivalent.”

What we should establish at this point is whether in this context there is any place for the debunking purpose of a direct, objective, dispassionate representation of sexual relations as facts of life amid all the other facts of life. If this attitude were possible, it would not only occupy a central position, opposed as much to the internal censorship of repression and hypocrisy as to sacred or demonic speculations on Eros, but it would without the least doubt be the victor, clearing the field of all opposition. The literary experience of the last fifty years, however, convinces us that this position remains an intellectual and would-be enlightened pretension. The language of sexuality in fact makes sense only if it is placed at the top of a scale of semantic values. When the musical score needs the highest and the lowest notes, when the canvas requires the most vivid colors: this is when the sign of sex comes into operation. In the world of language, this is the function of the sign of sex: it cannot escape from its privileged position, whether infra-red or ultra-violet; the positive or negative connotation that accompanies the signs of sex in every single literary production determines how values are assigned within the text.

We could say that the axis of values in the literary imagination oscillates between apologia for and vituperation of sexual relations, at the one extreme triumphant exaltation and at the other a descent into the hell of the “anguish of the flesh.” The second attitude is largely dominant in literature today. The most typical representation of sexual relations—I am thinking mostly of American novels of the last few years—is in a key of anticlimax, in which the elements of revulsion and desolation, or grotesqueness and caricature, are so strong as to remind us of the sex-hating tradition of preachers and the monstrous erotic temptations of the saints. But it is only in opposition to the complementary attitude that we can place this predominance of theme today, by studying how the apologia for sex has reached such a pitch of rhetorical hoax as to be scarcely practicable except on the level of the mass media.

Here the argument within the text (any possible text) is no longer enough, and this is the right moment to set the text within the social framework from which it emerges. We live in an age of potential desexualization. The struggle for existence in the big cities is such as to encourage asexuality. Sexual mythology on the massmedia level has the function of compensating, of recovering something we feel is already lost or in grave danger.

It is in this context that we may judge the attributions of value within literary texts. And then a writer who represents sex in grotesque or hellish fashion may be seen as one who is warning us of this extreme situation, or putting us on our guard against the illusion that we might easily regain our lost fullness. Meanwhile, the apologist for sex might be a liar, perpetuating an illusion—someone (and we Italians think at once of D’Annunzio) who uses verbal artifice to conceal the un-livableness of the asexual world into which we are sinking. Or else it might be someone who is completely aware of the loss that threatens us and becomes the preacher of a sexual reawakening (which might well take on the regressive aspects of intellectual mythicizing of the primitive, as in D. H. Lawrence); or someone who attempts to establish a more warmly human relationship with reality by giving the sexual encounter a central place and setting up a scale of values based on the vital expression of every human experience and presence (for Henry Miller, who appears to unite the grotesque and apologetic lines, literature is a method of restoring Eros to existence).

Today the situation is more serious and the remedies must be more extreme. The plastic arts have already faced the problem of establishing erotic communication with the materials and objects of our most humdrum everyday lives. Literature can follow on the same path by inventing a communication of sexual signs on the lowest linguistic level (that of the end of the world in Beckett or the regression of the mass-man in Sanguineti), or by imagining sexual relations that are not anthropomorphic (as I have tried to do by narrating the love affairs of mollusks or unicellular organisms).

I have here mentioned literary experiments carried out in the name of laughter. As I wished to demonstrate, only laughter—systematic mockery, giggles of self-derision, the convulsed grimace—can guarantee that our words match up to the terribleness of living and mark a truly revolutionary mutation in us.