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Today in Literature*

 

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely
The pangs of despised love…

 The book is called “50 Shades of Grey” written by TV executive E.L. James and it’s apparently leaving quite a dust in its wake. It’s being kicked about as the latest political football in the culture wars and has raised as many eyebrows for who’s reading it as for its content. A genre of erotic literature, it is attracting women of all sorts because it’s heroine, Anastasia Steel, is drawn sympethetically. A young women in search of love – and finding Christian Grey (I’m not making these names up!), a powerful young executive with a penchant for whips and chains.

First there were “mommy bloggers” and now, thanks to 50 Shades, there’s “mommy porn.” I pray that never the twain shall meet.

But the books – there’s a trilogy of them – while clearly meant to draw a new line in the sand for sexual politics are also a barometer of our culture’s loss of creature, of mystery and of manners.  This loss is nowhere clearer than in the cultural saturation of pornography. The more sexual “freedom” we gain the more we lose any sense of ritual’s place in relations between the sexes. The prevailing – and often conflicting – concerns for equality, individuality and pleasure not only prevent courtship from occurring and have bottomed out relations between the sexes to the lowest, rawest and most explicit denominators: flesh and fornitication. These same forces have rendered men as boys incapable of courting women and likewise leaves women lonely and desperate for some sort of courtship ritual. I am reminded of what Mary Eberstadt, quoting Roger Scruton, recently pointed out in her excellent work “Adam and Eve after the Pill” (a review of which will be arriving anon):

“…Roger Scruton has put the paradox about men and pornography memorably, ‘This, it seems to me, is the real risk attached to pornography. those who become addicted to this risk-free form of sex run a risk fo another and greater kind. They risk the loss of love, in a world whre only love brings happiness.” 

But reversing course on this matter is a bit like trying to stop an ocean liner on a dime.

Enter E.L. James, whose BDSM themes do nothing more than reinforce the fact that porn is here to stay – but with this difference, that unlike the conventional [sic] hard core pornography, BDSM requires that participants, as Wikipedia notes (I dare not look anywhere else for the info – and even Wiki’s got some rather disquieting images to accompany its text), take on “complementary, but unequal roles, thus the idea of consent of both the partners becomes essential.” Thus, the BDSM relationship serves as a bad imitation of the traditional courting ritual between the sexes.

 I haven’t read the trilogy and don’t intend to, but Carolyn Moynihan over at Crisis has stared into the abyss long enough for us (although it’s not clear whether she made it through the entire trilogy herself) and come back with much to tell about James’ literary efforts.    She complains, rightfully so, that the explicit nature of the material eclipses any literary effort invovled.

“The problem for those of us who wouldn’t touch this stuff with a barge-pole — let alone download it onto our iPad — is its popularity,” Moynihan writes. “It has been dubbed ‘mommy porn’ because it is allegedly being devoured by ‘mainstream’ and ‘suburban’ women over 30 and not just by young urbanites. It even has its academic apologists. Two of them writing on the CNN website invoke ‘the novel’s compelling relevance’ and suggest that its ‘abundant references to classic literature unlock a subtler commentary [than its fan-fiction origins suggest] on enduring obstacles to women’s individual freedom and rights.’ The classic references include Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

Perhaps the popularity could also be a sign of the culture attempting to address the fact that because manchilds are not quite connecting with women, James’ readers see Ana Street as the spokeswoman for all those lonely women looking for a romantic connection at any cost. The disconnect between men and women, as Eberstadt points out in her book, is precisely due to the prevalence of porn – one of several rotten fruit, she says, of our sexual mores’ upset apple cart. “…[I]t is surely the sexual revolution that is the prime mover,” she writes, of sexual immaturity among men and a disparing attitude toward romance by women. “This seems so for two reasons,” Eberstadt continues. “First, it has led to an atrophying of the protective instinct in many men – because many have nothing to protect. The powerful majority desire for recreative rather than procreative  sex has led not only to a marriage dearth, but also to a birth dearth; as the old saying correctly goes, ‘Adults don’t make babies; babies make adults.'”

So what, then, is James trying to provide women in her stories? Again, Moynihan is helpful here in peering through the keyhole to the goings on in Christian Gray’s world. While Moynihan proposes that the popularity of the trilogy can be attributed to “the herd mentality among an entertainment and titillation focused public that sends people stampeding after the latest daring foray into forbidden subjects, whether blasphemy or bondage,” she dismisses the proposal that the work has a literary pedigree.

“Frankly, I think James has a cheek to even mention Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre and Tess in the context of an SM relationship, whose object is depraved sensual pleasure,” she writes. “Whatever male ‘power’ they contended with in their very different ways, they were women of moral sensitivity who aspired to married love and, to a woman, would have been revolted by the Shades of Grey conceit.”

True enough. But consider: Could it be that James’ work is attempting to flesh out (pun intended) the grammar of that “moral sensitivity” which Bennet, Eyre and Tess possessed and were guided in large part by? Fleshing out, in fact, in a way that your average Harlequin romance or other bodice rippers cannot?  As I’ll discuss in a bit, the BDSM comes with its own social norms and mores – and could it be that James – consciously or otherwise – has tapped into that deep well in women which desires to see that same sort of “moral sensitivity” – even if it’s not quite in keeping with the tastes of the Regency or Early or Late Victorian England.

But you can’t give what you don’t have – especially if you already gave away what you wish you had again. So there’s no question that we can see the BDSM culture as even a pale reflection of true society any more than a vampire can expect to see anything but the mirror when he looks into it.  Indeed, thanks to the Sexual Revolution, the social norms in 18th-19th century England were vastly different from what we have today. But if BDSM is not society then neither is much of what passes for culture today true culture, a point Eberstadt makes in her book:

“Ubiquitously, it seems, those who were once husbands and fathers and providers have traded in their ties and insurance cards for video games and baseball hats worn backwards. It is a message that the popular culture also broadcasts nonstop – from vehicles for women like Sex in the City and The View to those popular among men, including such commercially successful examples as the Jackass franchise, the Spike channel, and just about every comedy about idiot males to issue from Hollywood in recent memory.”

Which brings us back to the question of what makes Ana Steele such an atrractive heroine for women? To answer that, let us look at her motivations. Again, not having read the work, I can only speculate. But it seems that Eberstadt might have the answer in her analysis of the Sexual Revolution’s marvellous failure to produce anything but monsters such as Christian Gray. Moynihan states that if women are eating up the Gray trilogy, it is a sign that things have come to a bad pass indeed for women in America.  “The pornification of sex,” she points out, “if it has truly captured the imagination of wives and mothers, is a path to personal and social oblivion.”

And yet, as Eberstadt notes, the Sexual Revolution has rendered American society fertile ground for just such a view of sex. ‘Today’s revolution against traditional marriage amounts to two charges made repeatedly, almost always by women and with many echoes elsewhere in contemporary sources: first, that the combined pressures of motherhood and marriage and breadwinning are just too much to bear; and second, that many of today’s marriages – that is to say, marriages made among enlightened, older, educated, sophisticated popele – are sexual deserts” (Emphasis mine).

Doesn’t it seem that Christian Gray redresses both these charges in his “Red Room of Pain” – by enabling Ana to give her self exclusively to Gray with plenty of sex, even meaningful and playful sex  – in a context where roles and ends are clearly defined?

Furthermore, Eberstadt declares the war of the sexes over and the winner is – no one.

“There are no more sexes, only lists of chores that one gender unit mysteriously does better than the other” and in a more literal sense “because contemporary man, many comtemporary women charge, has lost interest in sex” (Emphasis mine).

Christian Gray takes the mystery out of the gender confusion by showing a fervid – some would say excessive – interest in sex. Perhaps I am saying nothing more than this – that it is easy to see why the female imagination might be ensnared by James’ work. But I would like to push it a step further and recall two other fictions, one classic (it is at least recognized as canonical) and one which is a modern cult-classic. I am speaking of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and Brett Easton-Ellis’ American Psycho. 

It is the central thesis of E. Michael Jones’ book  Monsters from the Id: The Rise of Horror in Fiction and Film that the cause for the rise in horror as a major genre of literature and film has been the undermining of natural law in the individual and in society. The book – perhaps the best written on the subject – is rife with examples. Does culture condone abortion and pornography? We have a film which helps us work through this horror: Alien. Has modern thought rationalized what is evil into what is good – such as adultery and incest? We have a story for that too: Frankenstein. Is society feeling a bit queasy about sexual libertinism? Let’s look at Dracula and make sense of it, shall we? In each case, the monster created is an avenger out to unmask, wittingly or not, the unnatural and depraved state of society while at the same time hinting at some sort of – dare I say it? – korrektiv.

Jones does a good job especially of documenting Mary Shelly’s troubled relationship with her lust-crazed husband Percy Bythe Shelly (not to mention her batty mother, an Ur-Gloria Steinem who believed in polyandry inter alia). It’s too bad he had not taken up Easton-Elllis’ work in his book. Whereas Frankenstein channels the myth of Prometheus to reveal the depths of human depravity – science eaten by its own “quest for fire” – in Easton-Ellis’ 1991 novel (I never saw the film) the anti-hero and possible psychopath Patrick Bateman attempts to rip the mask off the excesses, as he saw it, of Yuppiedom in the 1980s through an overlay of Dante’s Hell. Although the correspondences are somewhat vague, and the ending anything but conclusive, it is clear that the rank abuse and objectification, whether real or imagined, is meant to touch the nerve that lies raw just below the consumer instinct and says, This stuff is just stuff. Is this all there is?

Here’s what the author had to say about his work: “[Bateman] was crazy the same way [I was]. He did not come out of me sitting down and wanting to write a grand sweeping indictment of yuppie culture. It initiated because my own isolation and alienation at a point in my life. I was living like Patrick Bateman. I was slipping into a consumerist kind of void that was supposed to give me confidence and make me feel good about myself but just made me feel worse and worse and worse about myself. That is where the tension of “American Psycho” came from.”

Bateman’s story is an attempt to get a handle on the male “consumer” – and the novel is flawed, I think, for trying too hard to convey this notion through the depravities that Bateman visits on his female victims. I imagine the same sort of excess destroys the literary pretensions of 50 Shades as well. Nonetheless all those men who have turned in their credentials to manhood and fatherhood for unlimited access to the Spike Channel and the Spice Channel are in some sense represented by Mr. Bateman (it’s even hiding there in his name – get it?).

Is it too much of a leap of logic to assume that Ana Steel could be the female response to the Patrick Bateman’s in the world? (Her first name, by the way, means “resurrection.”)

Moynihan in her essay on 50 Shades of Gray and Eberstadt in her chapter on porn in Adam and Eve both conclude on a hopeful note.

For Moynihan, it’s a matter of numbers.

“But, so what if a few million women read the sick fantasies of a television executive?” she asks. “There are roughly 3.5 billion women in the world, and when the erotica boom has finally spent itself there will be more than enough of them still with their wits and dignity to carry on the work of love and civilisation that women in particular are equipped to do.”

Likewise, Eberstadt also places hope in hope – although one that possesses a more theological framework.

“‘Where sin increased,’ as Paul’s Letter to the Romans has it, ‘grace aboundeth all the more’ (5:20),” she writes. “The record of what pornography has wrought shows that kind of abundance too, though it may not yet be an issue of academic study…Look at energy fuleing all those atttempts to repair the damage done – the turns to counseling, therapists, priests, pastors and other working in these awful trenches to help the addicted get their real lives back.”

It remains to be seen, however, whether this hope will translate into the sort of cultural crucible necessary to cure women of their loneliness and men of their immaturity. But in the meantime, we should understand that just as Patrick Bateman will be written into the contemporary literary canon as the Everyman of today, so too, Ana Steel will remain a barometer of exactly how lonely women are – and how the abuses of the Sexual Revolution have borne fruit.

In the book of Genesis, God made man and woman and saw that it was good. Adam and Eve, I’d like you to meet Patrick Bateman and Ana Steel. They’re pikers, of course, in the sin department, but since they’re your children and the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree, I think they’re worth paying attention to – if only to learn how to work out own redemption – perhaps even with whips and chains.  

*I just can’t bring myself to steal Mr. Lickona’s excellent signature feature. But being a writer, I have no problem appropriating.