Sex and Fiction

The flow of the bottle led me to Jacques Barzun’s essay “Venus at Large: Sexuality and the Limits of Literature.” I was looking for a way to bolster my smudged pontifications on political mumbo-jumbo over a Manhattan on the porch and instead found Barzun’s sober judgment on an earler topic.

Discuss or not, it would be interesting to reconcile, a la the Catholic imagination, the following two quotes:

The student of literature is instinctively loath to set theoretical limits to the art he studies, and so, surely does the writer feel about he art he practices – unless he is a mere follower of convention. But in recognizing this axiomatic freedom, it is one thing to say that sexuality, like any other human power, deserves limitless literary expression; it is quite another to say that literature should find room for ever more detailed descriptions of the sex act. ….At first, then, sexuality, and, later, sex are literary devices to restore respect for instinct, to tap a source of power which can at once abate the disease of extreme self-consciousness and counteract the stupefying effect of the world of machines. For sex is in a curious way the most and the least personal of man’s activities. Used in the novel, it could rebuild the whole man and show his oneness with all men. Again, if literature was to criticize life and lead the revolt against convention, it needed a new element that was indeed elemental and yet was instantly felt as intimate and defining. That element was the sexual, and since in art what is novel in conception requires a striking embodiment, sexuality was bound to move steadily toward an ultimate form in the sex scene.” – Jacques Barzun, etc.

And our Grand Dame of the Grotesque in her 1957 essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer”:

“Part of the complexity of the problem for the Catholic fiction writer will be the presence of grace as it appears in nature, and what matters for him is that his faith not become detached from his dramatic sense and from his vision of what-is. No one in these days, however, would seem more anxious to have it become detached than those Catholics who demand that the writer limit, on the natural level, what he allows himself to see.”

Run, Rabbit, run!


  1. Thanks JOB.


    Now that Naomi Wolf has located the female soul in the vagina, there’s no question about the sex scene being an intrinsic part of literature in order to KNOW our characters.

    I’m joking a bit.

    I don’t think the above quotes need reconciling. I think they’re in agreement, mainly because I don’t think O Conner’s quote is an endorsement of being a fly on the wall in every literary bedroom. The author needs to see everything, but that certainly doesn’t mean he needs to tell it.

    • Angelico Nguyen, Esq., OP says

      ‘Know’ is my old favorite euphemism.

    • You may be right – but I’m still wondering what the check – internal or otherwise – might be on the writer who claims a Catholic sensibility and yet wants to describe certain acts, situations, etc.

      If you haven’t, you ought to read Ron Hansen’s latest novel – “A Surge of Guilty Passion.” It seems to posit that that fly is more integral than one might think.

      At any rate, I’m still wondering why or whether prudence/chastity/modesty “demand that the writer limit, on the natural level, what he allows himself to see.”

      Or am I looking at this bass ackwards?


      • You’re not looking at it backwards. In fact, I think about a year ago on this very blog, I was arguing the opposite point with Lickona. Only we were talking about movies or something and whether or not beauty can save the world–and I was thinking that maybe beauty wouldn’t, but rather Truth would, even really ugly truths, or grotesquely explicit truths, if they really were integral to plot and ultimately served some redemptive purpose.

        I’m really not decided on the issue–except that I know Updike crossed a line in Rabbit run–where the sex was neither true, nor beautiful, nor did it serve any redemptive purpose–and even if it was seen by the fly, the fly should have shut up about it. I don’t even think prudence, chastity or modesty had anything to do with it, but rather good taste, and the disappointing failure of the author’s aesthetic filter.

        I’ll put the new Hansen on my list.

        Though as I think more about the subject–it’s worth considering that the absence of the explicit sex scene really didn’t detract from what we consider the “great” novels written prior to Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Even sex-heavy novels–Anna Karenina, for instance–lays on about the effects of illicit passion, but barely shows the passion itself. And when it does (it’s as an axe murderer hacking his victim to death that Vronsky takes Anna for the first time) it’s more symbolic than sensual.

  3. Quin Finnegan says

    Yep. Good stuff, JOB, thanks for posting.

  4. Matthew Lickona says

    File under “it’s not what you show it’s how you show it”?

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