Up Yours: Sex and the Invention of the Airplane

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.

21 thoughts on “Up Yours: Sex and the Invention of the Airplane

  1. I’m not clear on precisely how you and Roiphe really disagree (apart from your qualm about the success of the plane analogy, I suppose). I don’t read her essay to claim that the new male novelists represent a turn for the worse; Roiphe acknowledges full well that the Updike and his ilk have been sharply criticized as both misogynistic and passé. All Roiphe is saying is that David Foster Wallace et. al, in spite of their virtues, seem to miss out on something compelling about sex. And on that point I’m inclined to agree with her.

  2. Mailer is an apologist for sexual violence (he stabbed his wife) or violent sex, things which may seem poetic or imaginative in a well-written novel (Mailer writes well), but are banal and destructive in the real world. There’s one of his novels, An American Dream (maybe not the exact title), in which the protagonist murders his wife. The book is not Crime and Punishment, that is, unlike Dostoyevsky, Mailer seems totally unconcerned about what murder signifies in ethical terms. As a matter of fact, if Crime and Punishment is perhaps the most sensitive account of a murder that I’ve read,
    Mailer’s book is one of the most callous ones from a so-called serious writer.

  3. Andy, I’m sorry to say that the spam filter caught your post.

    I’m wondering why you have such a thin reading of this post. Perhaps I wasn’t explicit enough. Roiphe thinks that the sex of the older writers was not just compelling but in some way transporting, with a mystery, power and even grandeur.

    I think that it is a pretty solipsistic transporting, a self-reflexive power, and as such very questionably grand.

    Incidentally, I went through Franzen’s first novel on amazon and searched under “sex.” It’s pretty clear at least some of his characters understand that sex is compelling and makes things happen; however, they also seem often to see that the other person is a complicating factor.

    If feminist writing is responsible for this change, it’s had quite a significant achievement. Mind you, it’s a change in rhetoric, and its unclear the reality is so different. It will take some time to tell.

  4. my first thought– and i still need to go read the article– is that something much, much larger than feminism rose in the past 30 years: AIDS.

    people writing about sex, now, have grown up with different experiences + education. and it’s not romantic.

    as for that plane, it’s just plain phallic. calls to mind Ballard. or Russel Banks’ The Reserve.

  5. I think that’s the point: that Mailer and Bellow don’t see the other person, the sex partner, the woman, as a “complicating factor”. Sex, for them, isn’t a dialogue or a negotiation or give and take. Their sex partners are means, never ends in themselves. They never seem to realize: hey, there’s another person, another consciousness, another subject, looking at me.

  6. Speaking of assumptions, note an a priori element of this argument, that Updike/Mailer/Bellow are good writers. They and their publishers certainly persuaded reviewers and markets of their merits, but even aside from moral questions, they look less and less interesting now. One might regard Roiphe’s piece as an effort by the former literary establishment (very much including the NYT) to recapture attention by asserting its effectiveness as pornography.

  7. RA, in fact I was thinking about AIDS; Elisabeth Reid, who was the first UNDP director on AIDS in developing countries, wrote and spoke quite a bit on how the lack of caring in sex for men was helping spread the disease.

    Amos, I agree; I think the ends-means observation gets it right. I had forgotten, I am sorry to say, how brutal Mailer’s writing was.

    Richard, that’s such an interesting hypothesis. The thought might be that the young need to be taken down some notches. I’m not sure Updike is looking less interesting – tho perhaps the recent praise is coming from his generation.

  8. she just wanted to explain her friend on a subway platform tossing that roth book. (aside: why anyone still reads roth is a better question.)

    the problem with her article is that she decided that the answer to her roth tosser question was the answer to “our” question. unfortunately, she didn’t actually bother to actually ask any questions.

    roiphe’s literary pallet also seems sadly limited. wallace and eggers…? are you joking? not the sort of woman i’d listen to on literature or feminism.

  9. RA: your point might be connected to Richard’s. She’s talking about the literary establishment, particular the white, straight, male, conventionally educated section of it.

  10. JJ, thanks, yes. well, AIDS in Africa is a very different sort of thing than AIDS in the US (that would be my sister’s area of expertise and has led to lots of talks about education, policies, politics, etc), but just looking at literature: the best writers tend to write from experience. you *can’t* have the same experiences today and live to write about them…etc.

    i know that’s too much of a generalization, but things are so radically different it’s hard to even know where to start. and feminism certainly doesn’t seem to be a target, let alone the right target.

    calling it a generation gap and looking at several causes would be more interesting + less nonsensical.

  11. Another aspect of this question is what writers on sexual politics call the transgressive element, important to rebels against bourgeois puritanism, essential to liberation of homosexuality and women’s sexuality, argued by some to increase sexual excitement, but rather vieu jeu now that we all have, alas, a more informed sense of what is really dangerous in a sexually freer world.

  12. “roiphe’s literary pallet also seems sadly limited. wallace and eggers…? are you joking? not the sort of woman i’d listen to on literature or feminism.”

    Reel Aesthete,

    This dismissive attitude is not incredibly helpful. What’s wrong with Wallace and Eggers, and which authors would you have preferred that Roiphe address? As is explained in the article and its accompanying podcast, Roiphe considers Wallace, Eggers and Chabon in particular because these are the authors (1) who seem, in their ambition, to have taken up the mantle of the “great male novelists” formerly held by Updike et. al, and (2) who have responded directly to the view of sex exemplified by their predecessors.

  13. Generally preferring at least around a century between myself and the fiction I read, my acquaintance with most of the authors mentioned in the article is at best cursory. But having been steeped, as Roiphe puts it, in the kind of liberal education she ascribes to the younger writers, I think I’m pretty familiar with their “convoluted, postfeminist second-guessing.”

    However, I’m flabbergasted by David Foster Wallace’s ‘not getting’ Updike’s view of his narrator’s impotence as “catastrophic, as the ultimate symbol of death itself.” Setting aside such well-known contemporary facts as the popularity of Viagra and the widespread anxiety surrounding prostate cancer surgery, isn’t the august antagonism between virility and death a theme which has permeated the arts since time immemorial? How could one, much less a man, not get it?

    If the price of “the new purity, the self-conscious paralysis, the self-regarding ambivalence” is a diminished receptivity to the pathos of that theme on which so much creativity has been lavished throughout the ages, under Roiphe’s characterization, I would sooner reach for the older writers’ works if I had to choose between them, even if they do somehow valorize ravenous domestic conflagrations scattering betrayal and destruction in their wake.

  14. Rob, I just pulled your comment from the spam pile. I’m very surprised it went there; please let us know if more of your comments aren’t getting through.

    I think I agree, though I remember some article by a man discussing Picasso’s similar reaction to his own impotence, and the author thought it was pathetic.

    From the fact that artists care very much about sex and fear the loss of it like they fear the loss of life, I don’t think it follows that that’s the source of their creativity. I do know that older theorists have said that, but I think more recent research suggests it isn’t.

    Relatedly, I’m reading a new book on – The Other Side of Sadness – and it emphasizes how drastically wrong former and fairly a priori views about grief have been. I’m thinking of blogging about it, so perhaps we could discuss it a bit then, if you want.

  15. (I’m not surprised his post wound up in the spam filter. He mentions a certain pharmaceutical by name in it, and the name of that drug can trigger poorly-written spam filters.)

  16. The essay is somewhat interesting for what Roiphe conflates without mention–and it’s worthwhile to point this out here, I think. As someone who has gone through a writing program, Bellow is not typically put in the Big Misogynist camp–my experience is that writers see Bellow’s work as contemporaneous but not part of that scene. I mean, in Roth’s work the women are flat; and when they’re not flat, they’re shrill hags. In Updike’s they are only shrill hags. By the essay’s own admission, these are *people* that Bellow is having sex with (or his stand-ins apparently, according to Roiphe).

    (I haven’t read Mailer, so I can’t comment on that one.)

    More than that, though, I think Roiphe is making up the idea that Chabon, Eggers, et al are the heirs to Roth et al. The basic ontology of the Chabon group is pretty mystifying–how, exactly, are Chabon and Wallace alike as writers? Chabon’s work is interested in using genre forms to explore what are, at heart, traditional western narratives (see: Wonder Boys, Kavalier and Clay, Yiddish Policemen’s Union). Wallace is interested sometimes in fragmented narratives (see: Hideous Men), sometimes in traditional short story forms (Hideous Men, again), sometimes in stories and essays that rely for their movement on voice (Lobster, Curious Hair, Hideous Men), but most of all in the ways that fiction can illuminate deep problems a la (what used to be called) novels of ideas. I would argue that Chabon comes from Chandler, comics, and Chekov; and Wallace comes from WVO Quine and Thomas Mann.

    Franzen is the only one who might be considered an heir to the Big Misogynists (in terms of stylistic influence); possibly one might see Eggers’s journalism as indebted to Mailer’s, but that’s a stretch and Eggers’s fiction is certainly not stylistically indebted to any of them. Roiphe’s essay falls apart because she’s taking one fairly homogenous group (the Big Misogynists) and comparing it to a heterogeous group (the current male writers she mentions). It’s a pretty basic mistake, really…

  17. Thanks so much, Mario, for your comment. It’s a really interesting mistake for Roiphe to make, since it’s just the sort of thing that she herself might label a standard feminist take – that is, putting together an otherwise heterogeneous group on the basis of their gender.

    J-Bro, it’s fascinating to think that people shouldn’t use “viagra” when commenting.

  18. Mario,

    In her description of Wallace, Chabon, Roiphe does not make the assertions of homogeneity or stylistic inheritance from Updike et. al which you attribute to her. (That is not to say that these assertions are illegitimate, though I take it that to really settle this would be quite involved.) All that Roiphe claims Wallace et. al to have in common is that they (1) are young, prominent and ambitious male novelists (as Updike and Roth once were), and that they (2) demonstrate attitudes about sex which are in a way similar and which seem opposed to those of the previous generation. (Neither of these two generalizations seem obviously unreasonable.) Consequently, your discussion of Wallace’s relation to Quine, “essays that rely for their movement on voice,” and so on strikes me as a strange digression. Even if we agree with your claim that Wallace et. al are “heterogenous” while Updike et. al are “homogeneous,” this would not bear on the point which Roiphe is trying to make.

    If you disagree, could you please quote the article?

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