«For a literary culture that fears it is on the brink of total annihilation, we are awfully cavalier about the Great Male Novelists of the last century. It has become popular to denounce those authors, and more particularly to deride the sex scenes in their novels. Even the young male writers who, in the scope of their ambition, would appear to be the heirs apparent have repudiated the aggressive virility of their predecessors.
After reading a sex scene in Philip Roth’s latest novel, “The Humbling,” someone I know threw the book into the trash on a subway platform. It was not exactly feminist rage that motivated her. We have internalized the feminist critique pioneered by Kate Millett in “Sexual Politics” so completely that, as one of my students put it, “we can do the math ourselves.” Instead my acquaintance threw the book away on the grounds that the scene was disgusting, dated, redundant. But why, I kept wondering, did she have to throw it out? Did it perhaps retain a little of the provocative fire its author might have hoped for? Dovetailing with this private and admittedly limited anecdote, there is a punitive, vituperative quality in the published reviews that is always revealing of something larger in the culture, something beyond one aging writer’s failure to produce fine enough sentences. All of which is to say: How is it possible that Philip Roth’s sex scenes are still enraging us?
In the early novels of Roth and his cohort there was in their dirty passages a sense of novelty, of news, of breaking out. Throughout the ’60s, with books like “An American Dream,” “Herzog,” “Rabbit, Run,” “Portnoy’s Complaint” and “Couples,” there was a feeling that their authors were reporting from a new frontier of sexual behavior: adultery, anal sex, oral sex, threesomes — all of it had the thrill of the new, or at least of the newly discussed. When “Couples,” John Updike’s tour de force of extramarital wanderlust set in a small New England town called Tarbox, came out in 1968, a Time magazine cover article declared that “the sexual scenes, and the language that accompanies them, are remarkably explicit, even for this new age of total freedom of expression.”
These novelists were writing about the bedrooms of middle-class life with the thrill of the censors at their backs, with the 1960 obscenity trial over “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” fresh in their minds. They would bring their talent, their analytic insights, their keen writerly observation, to the most intimate, most unspeakable moments, and the exhilaration, the mischief, the crackling energy was in the prose. These young writers — Mailer, Roth, Updike — were taking up the X-rated subject matter of John O’Hara and Henry Miller, but with a dash of modern journalism splashed in.
In Philip Roth’s phenomenally successful 1969 novel “Portnoy’s Complaint,” the Jewish hero sleeps his way into mainstream America through the narrow loins of a series of crazy harridans and accommodating lovelies. But are the sex scenes meant to be taken seriously? In “The Counterlife,” Roth’s alter ego, the writer Nathan Zuckerman, calls himself a “sexual satirist,” and in that book and others Roth’s sex scenes do manage to be both comic and dirty at the same time: “The sight of the Zipper King’s daughter sitting on the edge of the bathtub with her legs flung apart, wantonly surrendering all 5 feet 9 inches of herself to a vegetable, was as mysterious and compelling a vision as any Zuckerman had ever seen.”
Roth’s explicit passages walk a fine, difficult line between darkness, humor and lust, and somehow the male hero emerges from all the comic clauses breathless, glorified. There is in these scenes rage, revenge and some garden-variety sexism, but they are — in their force, in their gale winds, in their intelligence — charismatic, a celebration of the virility of their bookish, yet oddly irresistible, protagonists. As the best scenes spool forward, they are maddening, beautiful, eloquent and repugnant all at once. One does not have to like Roth, or Zuckerman, or Portnoy, to admire the intensely narrated spectacle of their sexual adventures. Part of the suspense of a Roth passage, the tautness, the brilliance, the bravado in the sentences themselves, the high-wire performance of his prose, is how infuriating and ugly and vain he can be without losing his readers (and then every now and then he actually goes ahead and loses them).
For Rabbit, as with many Updike characters, sex offers an escape, an alternate life — a reprieve, even, in its finest moments, from mortality. In the Time cover article, 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: it is Rabbit running that he loves. As one of the characters in “Couples” puts it, 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. Moses Herzog, he writes, “will never understand what women want. What do they want? They eat green salad and drink human blood.” 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. While his sex scenes are generally more gentlemanly than those of Roth et al., 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. In “An American Dream,” he describes a woman’s genitals: “It was no graveyard now, no warehouse, no, more like a chapel now, a modest decent place, but its walls were snug, its odor was green, there was a sweetness in the chapel."
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.” It is part of Mailer’s existentialism, his singular, loopy philosophy, that violence is good, natural and healthy, and it is this in his sex scenes that provokes. As in many of Mailer’s ventures, like his famous campaign for mayor of New York, it’s not entirely clear how much he means it and how much is for fun, for the virile show.
It would be too simple to call the explicit interludes of this new literature pornographic, as pornography has one purpose: to arouse. These passages are after several things at once — sadness, titillation, beauty, fear, comedy, disappointment, aspiration. The writers were interested in showing not just the triumphs of sexual conquest, but also its loneliness, its failures of connection. In his unruly defense of sexually explicit male literature in “The Prisoner of Sex,” Mailer wrote: “He has spent his literary life exploring the watershed of sex from that uncharted side which goes by the name of lust and it is an epic work for any man. . . . Lust exhibits all the attributes of junk. It dominates the mind and other habits, it appropriates loyalties, generalizes character, leaches character out, rides on the fuel of almost any emotional gas — whether hatred, affection, curiosity, even the pressures of boredom — yet it is never definable because it can alter to love or be as suddenly sealed from love.”
In the intervening decades, the feminists objected; the public consumed; the novelists themselves were much decorated. And then somewhat to their surprise, the old guard got old. In books like Roth’s “Exit Ghost” and Updike’s “Toward the End of Time,” they began to take up the subject of impotence in various forms. Was it possible that the young literary gods had fallen? Roth wrote in “Zuckerman Unbound”: “Life has its own flippant ideas about how to handle serious fellows like Zuckerman. All you have to do is wait and it teaches you all there is to know about the art of mockery.”
And so we come back to the copy of “The Humbling” in the garbage can on the subway platform. The problem with the sex scenes in Philip Roth’s late work is not that they are pornographic, but that they fail as pornography. One feels that the author’s heart is not in it, that he is just going through the motions; one feels the impatient old master mapping out scenes (dildo, threesome), not writing them. The threesome in “The Humbling” has none of the quirkiness, the energy, the specificity of the threesomes in “Portnoy’s Complaint,” either the one where “the Monkey” eats a banana and gets her name, or the one where they pick up an Italian prostitute who later brings her son, all dressed up in his Sunday best, to see them. In the stripped-down later novels (“Everyman,” “Exit Ghost,” “Indignation”), Roth seems to have dispensed with the detail and idiosyncratic richness of his earlier work. As he writes about old men failing at sex, and raging about failing at sex, we see the old writer failing at writing about sex, which is, of course, a spectacle much more heartbreaking.
At this point, one might be thinking: enter the young men, stage right. But our new batch of young or youngish male novelists are not dreaming up Portnoys or Rabbits. The current sexual style is more childlike; innocence is more fashionable than virility, the cuddle preferable to sex. Prototypical is a scene in Dave Eggers’s road trip novel, “You Shall Know Our Velocity,” where the hero leaves a disco with a woman and she undresses and climbs on top of him, and they just lie there: “Her weight was the ideal weight and I was warm and wanted her to be warm”; or the relationship in Benjamin Kunkel’s “Indecision”: “We were sleeping together brother-sister style and mostly refraining from outright sex.”
repelled or uncomfortable when faced with a sexual situation. In “Infinite Jest,” David Foster Wallace writes: “He had never once had actual intercourse on marijuana. Frankly, the idea repelled him. Two dry mouths bumping at each other, trying to kiss, his self-conscious thoughts twisting around on themselves like a snake on a stick while he bucked and snorted dryly above her.” With another love interest, “his shame at what she might on the other hand perceive as his slimy phallocentric conduct toward her made it easier for him to avoid her, as well.” Gone the familiar swagger, the straightforward artistic reveling in the sexual act itself. In Kunkel’s version: “Maybe I was going to get lucky, something which, I reminded myself, following her up the stairs to our room and giving her ass a good review, wasn’t always a piece of unmixed luck, and shouldn’t automatically be hoped for any more than feared.”
Rather than an interest in conquest or consummation, there is an obsessive fascination with trepidation, and with a convoluted, postfeminist second-guessing. Compare Kunkel’s tentative and guilt-ridden masturbation scene in “Indecision” with Roth’s famous onanistic exuberance with apple cores, liver and candy wrappers in “Portnoy’s Complaint.” Kunkel: “Feeling extremely uncouth, I put my penis away. I might have thrown it away if I could.”
The same crusading feminist critics who objected to Mailer, Bellow, Roth and Updike might be tempted to take this new sensitivity or softness or indifference to sexual adventuring as a sign of progress (Mailer called these critics “the ladies with their fierce ideas.”) But the sexism in the work of the heirs apparent is simply wilier and shrewder and harder to smoke out. What comes to mind is Franzen’s description of one of his female characters in “The Corrections”: “Denise at 32 was still beautiful.” To the esteemed ladies of the movement I would suggest this is not how our great male novelists would write in the feminist utopia.
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. 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”).
This generation of writers is suspicious of what Michael Chabon, in “Wonder Boys,” calls “the artificial hopefulness of sex.” They are good guys, sensitive guys, and if their writing is denuded of a certain carnality, if it lacks a sense of possibility, of expansiveness, of the bewildering, transporting effects of physical love, it is because of a certain cultural shutting down, a deep, almost puritanical disapproval of their literary forebears and the shenanigans they lived through.
In a vitriolic attack on Updike’s “Toward the End of Time,” David Foster Wallace said of the novel’s narrator, Ben Turnbull, that “he persists in the bizarre adolescent idea that getting to have sex with whomever one wants whenever one wants is a cure for ontological despair,” and that Updike himself “makes it plain that he views the narrator’s impotence as catastrophic, as the ultimate symbol of death itself, and he clearly wants us to mourn it as much as Turnbull does. I’m not especially offended by this attitude; I mostly just don’t get it.”
In this same essay, Wallace goes on to attack Updike and, in passing, Roth and Mailer for being narcissists. But does this mean that the new generation of novelists is not narcissistic? I would suspect, narcissism being about as common among male novelists as brown eyes in the general public, that it does not. 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.
After the sweep of the last half-century, our bookshelves look different than they did to the young Kate Millett, drinking her nightly martini in her downtown apartment, shoring up her courage to take great writers to task in “Sexual Politics” for the ways in which their sex scenes demeaned, insulted or oppressed women. These days the revolutionary attitude may be to stop dwelling on the drearier aspects of our more explicit literature. In contrast to their cautious, entangled, ambivalent, endlessly ironic heirs, 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.
Kate Millett might prefer that Norman Mailer have a different taste in sexual position, or that Bellow’s fragrant ladies bear slightly less resemblance to one another, or that Rabbit not sleep with his daughter-in-law the day he comes home from heart surgery, but there is in these old paperbacks an abiding interest in the sexual connection.
Compared with the new purity, the self-conscious paralysis, the self-regarding ambivalence, Updike’s notion of sex as an “imaginative quest” has a certain vanished grandeur. The fluidity of Updike’s Tarbox, with its boozy volleyball games and adulterous couples copulating alfresco, has disappeared into the Starbucks lattes and minivans of our current suburbs, and our towns and cities are more solid, our marriages safer; we have landed upon a more conservative time. Why, then, should we be bothered by our literary lions’ continuing obsession with sex? Why should it threaten our insistent modern cynicism, our stern belief that sex is no cure for what David Foster Wallace called “ontological despair”? 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?»
Saggio di Katie Roiphe pubblicato sul supplemento letterario del New York Times, 31 dicembre 2009
Ripreso dall'inserto Cultura di Repubblica, 4 gennaio 2010