Of Paradigms and Promiscuity

On January 8, 2010, in Entertainment, Society, by Stephen Marsh

I’ve recently read an extremely interesting essay from last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review discussing the relationship between the male authors of the 70s tradition (Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, and one of my personal favorites, John Updike) and their modern counterparts (such as Benjamin Kunkel and David Foster Wallace, among others) when it comes to their attitudes towards sex. I’m a sucker for literary criticism of this sort so I loved it, but it does deal with interesting questions about how we deal with sex in modern society and how our literature and culture interact with one another.

The main jist of the article (it’s comparatively long for a Book Review essay, but it’s only four pages) is that modern authors are conscious of themselves in such a way that they’re uncomfortable dealing with sex in a meaningful way. A paragraph on the fourth page explains well:

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 un toward. 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. These are writers in love with irony, with the literary possibility of self-consciousness so extreme it almost precludes the minimal abandon necessary for the sexual act itself, and in direct rebellion against the Roth, Updike and Bellow their college girlfriends denounced. (Recounting one such denunciation, David Foster Wallace says a friend called Updike “just a penis with a thesaurus”).

I’m sympathetic to this argument. The act of sex and how we interact with it tells us, perhaps better than any other literary symbol, the things we value as people and of our natures. Take Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, for instance. Sex is detached and fleeting; the scenes are extremely graphic but have a strange hollowness to them. Therefore, human interaction and sociability are meaningless in the face of impending death, which, coupled with the omnipresent, mocking threat of death by V-2 rocket, is one of the major threads of the book . The sex in Updike’s Rabbit, Run has a strange aesthetic frailty juxtaposed with its lurid description, but always with an emphasis on the sheer humanity of the act. Therefore, stable society is contrary to the human experience, again, a major thread of the book. The sex is not a focus in and of itself, but rather, it reveals more major themes and more major parts of the philosophy built and advanced by the book.

The funny thing with all these scenes is that they’re almost never entirely repulsive. There’s something attractive even in the most lurid and graphic descriptions of sexual activity in this literature, something that speaks to our condition as people. In literature, it invokes almost spiritual understanding and is almost always anti-consumerist (you have to understand and enjoy the other person for their own sake, which flies in the face of wealth-based material satisfaction). It’s intensely personal, and be it passionate or empty, rapturous or violent, it’s very deep and  extremely human in a way that our modern, homogenized culture can’t quite process. It’s interesting — for all the work feminists have done, modern culture does have a very conservative tinge to it, where, as Roiphe notes at the end of her essay, fluidity and carnal, individual discovery “[have] disappeared into the Starbucks lattes and minivans of our current suburbs, and our towns and cities are more solid, our marriages safer”. Certainly I’m not the best person to make judgments about the course of the feminist movement, but I don’t think the death of male sexuality a la Roth and Updike should be what it attempts to accomplish. Sex is a major part of human experience and it does say a lot about how the rest of our society operates, and we lose something when we try to marginalize it such that the only way we can deal with it is not with the intellectual understanding of high literature, but only with the triviality and shame common to pornography.

So, the questions I find interesting here are these: what’s the role of sex when we think about society? What relationship do literature and society have in shaping one another? Do Updike, Roth and their contemporaries still have something to offer us?



5 Responses to Of Paradigms and Promiscuity

  1. Sandy Zhu says:

    quote from the book review: It means that we are simply witnessing the flowering of a new narcissism: boys too busy gazing at themselves in the mirror to think much about girls, boys lost in the beautiful vanity of “I was warm and wanted her to be warm,” or the noble purity of being just a tiny bit repelled by the crude advances of the desiring world.

    i’m not quite getting this. does the author mean that the new writers are too self-conscious (due to lack of confidence) to even enjoy the most basic pleasure? or do they feel guilty about admitting that they enjoy it, because it is too basic?

  2. What she appears to be getting at is not that they enjoy it, but rather that they’re afraid, too self-conscious, or otherwise unwilling to adopt a strong sexuality. So, their characters reflect this — they view sex as something blasé and primitive and refuse to accept it or engage in any meaningful way with it (for an example, think of any of the male characters in Twilight, and especially Edward’s vegetarianism in opposition to standard vampiric blood-symbolism; the entire theme of Twilight is essentially this self-involved, “too-cool-for-sexuality” narcissism built as a rejection of the old themes of vampire literature, which were unabashedly sexual). For these characters, they’re uncomfortable with sex, so they mock it.

  3. Mascalzona says:

    “Certainly I’m not the best person to make judgments about the course of the feminist movement, but I don’t think the death of male sexuality a la Roth and Updike should be what it attempts to accomplish.”

    I wasn’t aware Roth and Updike were feminists, BUT…

    I agree whole-heartedly with you here. Feminism has never been quite able to wrap its head around the whole sex thing; hence an early sort of political lesbianism that didn’t condone the ‘power structure of the top-bottom hierarchy’. Eh, politically correct donut bumping – so /awkward/ for all involved, I imagine. Contrived, too.

    Then after sexual positivism came on the scene, it was all about the woman /taking control/ of her own sexuality and I guess being wild ‘n’ free in college. Free love, gag. Explore your sexuality in a positive way, etc. Don’t let nefarious social forces repress your inner uhm Babylonian harlot! ;-]

    Despite all the random shtuff it does about female sexuality, feminism returns to the same ol’ same ol’ misandristic rape-panic / “men only want one thing” portrayal of male sexuality. Unfortunately, it also portrays heterosexuality as highly unpleasant – full o’ statutory rape and other such misfortunes [see: Vagina Monologues].

  4. Mascalzona says:

    Twilight’s rejection of sexuality is because Steph Meyer is a Mormon, not due to a ‘new sexuality paradigm’.

    I’d argue that we aren’t rejecting sexuality as a whole, actually. It’s more like, the vilification of male sexuality and exaltation of female sexuality. [both results of feminism]. Men are seen as ‘lust-crazed pigs’, whereas female sexuality is more ‘comfortable’/'easy to play off’, probably because a woman = the object of desire in modern Western society. [cf. how young beardless boys were the object of desire in Gk society. Disgusting over-generalization, so correct me if ur a classics person, plz].

    Every diva who has ever become popular has done it riding on a wave **sex** and outrage. Not sure if Lady GaGa is a reincarnation of Madonna or if she’s even better at selling the sex thing. Sex has always been an in thing, mostly for women who want to make it big. Male sexuality is becoming more and more shameful/immoral, seems to me…what with rape/female=victim ideologies on college campuses, etc.

    If anything, we’re still sluttier than ever these days, though.
    [Most eggcellent book I recommend called Unhooked. http://www.amazon.com/Unhooked-Young-Women-Pursue-Delay/dp/1594489386

    They already tried the whole 'embrace sexuality free love thing' in the 60s/70s and then AIDs came along. That's probably why we're slutty today but with an attitude of alienation/disillusionment [described in "Unhooked"].

  5. Marian says:

    There’s a difference between less sexuality and different sexuality. Stephen, you write in the most abstract terms of “fluidity and carnal, individual discovery” of a sort in which “you have to understand and enjoy the other person for their own sake.” I agree, absolutely, that more positive examples of healthy, reciprocal relationships in “high culture” would help the goals of modern feminism as I perceive it.

    But you must recognize that the Book Review article isn’t talking about this kind of sexuality. The author seems to regret a change in the kind of sex represented more than a change in amount. The late, lamented “display of male aggression,” the lost opportunities “for a character to feel himself, even fleetingly, a conquering hero,” these don’t sound to me like the positive understandings of the human condition you’re looking for. Rather, they equate male sexuality directly with aggression. I have my frustrations with some of the ways in which female sexuality is publicly celebrated, but the basic goal of reframing sex from “something men want and women unwillingly give” to “something mutually beneficial” is pretty worthwhile, no?

    As for Twilight, if I’ve understood correctly, Edward stops himself from biting Bella and from sleeping with her not because he’s too cool but because either one (the distinction is left ambiguous) will KILL HER. If anything could reify the model of male sexuality as harmful to women more than sex-as-conquest narratives, it would be that.

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