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?