Note: This post is written with the conviction that many of the sexual practices alluded to leave a lot of misery in their wake, and that that is pretty obvious. If you disagree with what’s written below, do let us know whether you disagree with this assumption.
If you are keen on the NY Times Sunday Book Review section, it is hard this week to miss “The Naked and the Conflicted,” Katie Roiphe’s essay on a change in the way US leading male writers are writing about sex.
Here’s what the big guys were doing in the past:
For Rabbit, as with many Updike characters, sex offers an escape, an alternate life — a reprieve, even, in its finest moments, from mortality… Updike describes adultery as an “imaginative quest.” In “Marry Me,” among other books, he expands on the theme that leaving one marriage for another doesn’t resolve our deeper malaise, but he is interested in the motion, in the fantasy, in the impulse toward renewal… adultery “is a way of giving yourself adventures. Of getting out in the world and seeking knowledge.”
Saul Bellow shared Updike’s interest in sexual adventuring, in a great, splashy, colorful comic-book war between men and women. … Bellow’s novels are populated with dark, voluptuous, generous, maybe foreign Renatas and Ramonas, who are mistresses; and then there are the wives, shrewish, smart, treacherous, angular. …he manages to get across something of his tussle with these big, fleshy, larger-than-life ladies: “Ramona had not learned those erotic monkey-shines in a manual, but in adventure, in confusion, and at times probably with a sinking heart, in brutal and often alien embraces.”
In his disordered, sprawling novels, Mailer takes a hopped-up, quasi-religious view of sex, with flights of D. H. Lawrence-inspired mysticism and a special interest in sodomy…
Mailer’s most controversial obsession is the violence in sex, the urge toward domination in its extreme. A sampling: “I wounded her, I knew it, she thrashed beneath me like a trapped little animal, making not a sound.” “He must subdue her, absorb her, rip her apart and consume her.”
Remember that? It still exists today in all sorts of genres, but not in the work of our leading male literary stars.
The younger writers are so self-conscious, so steeped in a certain kind of liberal education, that their characters can’t condone even their own sexual impulses; they are, in short, too cool for sex. Even the mildest display of male aggression is a sign of being overly hopeful, overly earnest or politically untoward. For a character to feel himself, even fleetingly, a conquering hero is somehow passé. More precisely, for a character to attach too much importance to sex, or aspiration to it, to believe that it might be a force that could change things, and possibly for the better, would be hopelessly retrograde. Passivity, a paralyzed sweetness, a deep ambivalence about sexual appetite, are somehow taken as signs of a complex and admirable inner life.
Of course, you know who shares some responsibility for that. It is – gulp! – feminists. Just think of that when you read David Foster Wallace heap scorn on “the bizarre adolescent idea that getting to have sex with whomever one wants whenever one wants is a cure for ontological despair … ”
Well, actually, that might not be such a bad thing to get over the idea that the enlightened life involves, as it gets put, screwing everything in sight. So what does Roiphe think? She is far too subtle to maintain that feminists have ruined literary sex. Still, she thinks “there is something almost romantic in the old guard’s view of sex: it has a mystery and a power, at least. It makes things happen,” and “there is in these old paperbacks an abiding interest in the sexual connection.” Further, “compared with the new purity, the self-conscious paralysis, the self-regarding ambivalence, … [the] notion of sex as an “imaginative quest” has a certain vanished grandeur.” It doesn’t sound good for the new team.
I would guess that few of us would want to deny what Roiphe terms ” [the] expansiveness, … the bewildering, transporting effects of physical love” Nonetheless, her conclusion question strikes me as exceptionally odd:
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?
WOW! Transportations of love and planes. Genitals and unwieldy, impossible machines.
On the other hand, the early attempts at flying did not wreck havoc in many or most of the lives it touched. And that seems to begin to describe a difference that’s quite important. We could add in that the Wright brothers and others were on a quest that would be fulfilled, but trying to defy death with adultary seems doomed to perpetual failure. Even if we agree there’s a good analogy between the goals, the means and the probability of success are vastly different.
Further, sex for men, as even she notes, tends to have a pretty short life. Perhaps today Rabbit would take viagra, but one would hope that he might also get a sense that soaring through seeking multiple partners leaves one less grand than one could be.
Added: I’m wondering if my reaction would seem less negative if I noted instead of the misery, the fact that the older guys don’t seems to express any concern for – or even interest in – the reactions of their partners, at least as far as what Roiphe quotes. Roiphe does note that feminists have said they were narcissistic, and she maintains that the younger guys are also narcissistic. That may be, but narcissism combined with a recognition of the relevance of one’s partner’s welfare should be counted as a significant advance.