Quivering

That was the tagline for this piece from last summer’s NYT. How could I resist? It’s been sitting on my desktop ever since. Let’s blow the dust off, shall we?

Sex, With Consequences
By RANDY KENNEDY

AT least since Ovid, sex has been the theme music in much of Western literature, played at variable volume in all its many keys: sex as fate, as fun, as tedium and emotional torture, as stand-in for religious devotion and, until not that many decades ago, as the fastest way in fiction to lose honor, home and head.

[As stand-in for religious devotion? I need to read more.]

Lately, though, it seems that a slight virginal breeze has been blowing through the worlds of publishing, theater and Hollywood.

[“Virginal” and “less promiscuous” are not quite the same. But I take the point.]

Ian McEwan’s new novel, “On Chesil Beach,” a best seller in Britain that will be published here this week, spins the coital clock back to 1962, dissecting in almost clinical detail the wedding night of Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting, two English virgins who not only have no idea what they’re doing but cannot even pillow-talk about it, living “in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible,” as the first sentence says.

[No, I didn’t read it. And I’m happy to grant the possibility of an English couple who find themselves unable to communicate with one another about sexual difficulties. But the notion of a young man who makes it all the way to the wedding bed with no idea what he’s doing is a strange one. Boys of a certain age talk about this – fervently. I find it hard to believe that boys of a certain age have not always talked about this.]

In the fall, Tom Perrotta, the author of “Little Children,” which was made into the popular movie last year, will publish “The Abstinence Teacher,” a novel with almost as much heavy breathing as his previous one, but whose plot turns on a suburb’s battles over the chastity of its youth, with conservative Christianity as the backdrop.

[I really do need to read more. I thought Little Children was a smart, smart movie. If Today in Porn had a Hall of Fame, it would have to be in there for its treatment of Kate Winslet’s husband and the way porn worms its way into his life until finally, he winds up caught in his home office, masturbating in front of his computer while wearing a pair of porn-star panties on his face. A brutal scene, but an honest one. Porn works hard to look sexy, but often, all the sexiness is for the sake of a guy in a chair with his pants around his ankles. Which is not sexy.]

Add to this “Spring Awakening,” the dark, unlikely Broadway musical hit about sexual ignorance and repression in late-19th-century Germany, nominated recently for 11 Tony awards, and it means there’s a lot of imaginary non-sex happening. Or at least a lot of waiting and wondering, longing and thinking, before sex happens on more consequential, even fateful, terms than has been the case in fiction or theater for quite a while.

[This is genuinely fascinating, thinks me. Though I’m not sure why McEwan and “Spring Awakening” have to dig into the past for consequential sex – I imagine there’s plenty of consequential sex going on these days, even among people who don’t want to regard it as consequential. But then, to tell that story might come off as moralizing…but then, Perrotta seemed to manage it…]

Many reviewers of Mr. McEwan’s book have noted that to put sex back in its old perch among literature’s most momentous plot elements (alongside truth, money, family, honor and God) the author set his story in 1962. Of course this is the year just before the one that the poet Philip Larkin established sarcastically (but with some reason) in his often-quoted “Annus Mirabilis” as the all-important dividing line:

Sexual intercourse began 
In nineteen sixty-three
 (Which was rather late for me) 
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
 And the Beatles’ first LP.

In Edward and Florence’s world, Mr. McEwan writes: “The Pill was a rumor in the newspapers, a ridiculous promise, another of those tall tales about America.” They move awkwardly and painfully toward consummation in an “era — it would end later in that famous decade — when to be young was a social encumbrance,” one “for which marriage was the beginning of a cure.”

[Wow. I’m not about to argue – I wasn’t there. But I’m always fascinated by the question of how things got to that point, given the decadence of Waugh’s England in novels like Vile Bodies. Heck, even Brideshead was shot through with a weary sophistication about sex.]

There is something quintessentially British in their troubles. (It’s almost laughable, for example, to imagine a French couple in their place, even in 1962.) And of course, sex with consequences didn’t go away with the pill, in life or in novels, even those peopled with sexual-revolution partisans like the ones created by John Cheever, John Updike and Joan Didion. Then came AIDS, which united sex and death in a more real way than the Victorians ever did, providing the playwright Tony Kushner and others with a powerful metaphor.

[Indeed. Cheever and Updike were, to my mind, moral (which is not to say moralistic) writers. They chronicled the mores of the age with clear eyes. They told the truth about the human condition. And so sex had consequences.]

But there is a sense that these recent artistic creations are partly a response, maybe partly unconscious, to the current state of sex in our society, where it can often feel like just another form of the cheap entertainment and distraction that now pushes in from all sides. That impression is fed by proliferating cable channels and the Internet, where the leak of the latest celebrity sex video already seems like a weary ritual, not more much momentous than the latest short-lived reality series.

[Well, hello there. The banality of pleasure? Still, points off for going to “the latest celebrity sex video,” which muddies the waters of this conversation by bringing in questions of the state of celebrity worship in our society. When talking about sex, current society, and the Internet, isn’t the failure to mention porn a case of ignoring the flesh-pink elephant in the room?]

In “The Abstinence Teacher,” Mr. Perrotta pokes a lot of fun at the cadre of Christian hardliners who go after an honest-talking high school sex-ed teacher, Ruth Ramsey. But behind the humor, you can sense the writer’s sympathy with their desire to create more meaning in human relations, even if he disagrees with their methods and ends. And in the person of the abstinence teacher, one JoAnn Marlow — who describes herself as 28, a competitive ballroom dancer who likes Coldplay and riding on her boyfriend’s Harley — he creates a character whose gray constantly peeks out from behind the black-and-white. She has probably had a breast job. But she is a virgin, who tells a student assembly that when she finally has sex, “mark my words, people — it’s going to be soooo good, oh my God, better than you can even imagine.”

[Right. This kind of attitude deserves every bit of satire it gets, and I have little doubt that Perrotta knows whereof he speaks when he depicts it. Marlow’s fantasy is just that – a deluded, even damaging exaggeration, a set-up for a tremendous fall. The truth, I would argue, is more modest: that the very best sex involves delight in the other, and is expressive of a personal union that precedes and lends meaning to the physical joining of bodies. And yes, I know that even that more modest claim is open to satire as it veers dangerously close to the ponderous and overwrought. But it’s not quite as silly as “soooo good.”]

The same yearning to drag sex back into the foreground in a more meaningful way — if only as a great storytelling device, particularly for its comedic value — is also at work in the movies of Judd Apatow, the creator of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and the new “Knocked Up,” about post-pregnancy reality. The movies’ sexual-references-per-line-of-screenplay ratio easily matches that of the “American Pie” series, but the intentions are worlds apart. As the Times film critic A. O. Scott noted of “Knocked Up,” in a rare observation for any comedy: “The film’s ethical sincerity is rarely in doubt.”

[I’d say that ethical sincerity is an underpinning of a great deal of great comedy, but that’s another argument. In the meantime, I think “if only as a great storytelling device” is depressing. Stories aren’t just stories.]

The sociologist Alan Wolfe, who has conducted hundreds of interviews over the last two decades for books about the country’s beliefs and politics, said he saw a reflection in such works of the way people seem to struggle now for a greater sense of societal structure. “They do want to go back to a more conventional sexuality, morality, whatever,” said Mr. Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. “But they do not want to go back to an era of repression. So a kind of muddled, middle position is where it seems to me that most Americans are these days.”

[“Conventional sexuality, morality, whatever” – hilarious. Sad: that “conventional sexuality” has a natural association with “repression” in Wolfe’s mind, such that to embrace one without the other is to end up in a “muddled, middle position.” Of course, he may well be right. It is the job of the fan of conventional sexuality to propose a middle position which is not muddled.]

Mr. McEwan’s novel, set back in that earlier era, uses the period and its stifling mores not for humorous purposes but for ironic ones, it seems, showing us from the vantage point of the present a kind of loss of innocence impossible in fiction set in the here and now — while at the same time reminding us what that “innocence” really meant.

[Oh, hush. “Innocence” is not a polite code word for debilitating embarrassment and repression. Don’t believe me? Sit down and watch a farm porn video with your ten year old son. You will witness his loss of innocence, and it will be something much different than the loss of repression. Or send your virginal 13 year old daughter out on a date with the Senior Lothario. Debilitating embarrassment and repression are real. So is innocence. The one is not the other.]

“There’s always an attraction, I think more for the English novelist than the American, in the opportunities offered by repression: what can’t be said, what won’t be said, what characters can’t even say to themselves,” he said in a recent podcast with The Times Book Review.

[Amen.]

It’s certainly not attractive to everyone, especially those who remember well enough what the era felt like. Jane Smiley’s most recent novel, “Ten Days in the Hills,” is also about sex — a whole lot of it, generally the casual kind, described as graphically as Mr. McEwan’s non-sex is described. She said she felt a different impulse as a novelist in today’s society. She wanted to create a group of contemporary characters for whom sex was not meaningless but also not meaningful in an exaggerated, fetishistic way — just another of the ways humans communicate, trying to say those things that can’t be said.

[Right. We don’t want to make sex meaningful in an exaggerated, fetishistic way. But if a whole lot of the sex is of the casual kind, doesn’t that work against the idea of the sex having much meaning at all? Put another way, isn’t casual sex by definition drained of meaning, at least meaning beyond, “I find you attractive, you find me attractive, let’s take delight and comfort in one another’s bodies”?]

“All the things they do in the book are examples of relating to each other in a more or less loving way,” said Ms. Smiley, 59, born a year after Mr. McEwan. “All of the interactions are equalized.”

“By the time the book was published I’d actually sort of forgotten that there was a lot of sex in it,” she said, laughing. She said she planned to read Mr. McEwan’s book, but added that his was a journey she wanted to take only in fiction: “I wouldn’t go back to 1962 for a hundred million dollars.”

[Fair enough. But would you want to be a teenager today?]

Comments

  1. As much there is a cult of youth, youthful vitality and “age re-defining” potions, I don’t think many of us would want to be teenagers again. And the thought of being a teenager today is exponentially horrifying.

  2. j. christian says

    Put another way, isn’t casual sex by definition drained of meaning, at least meaning beyond, “I find you attractive, you find me attractive, let’s take delight and comfort in one another’s bodies”?

    Well, since I’m not so very far away from the life of profligacy and hedonism, let me play the devil’s advocate to your question.

    Why do you Christians need to find meaning in sex? Can’t you enjoy something without it being meaningful beyond ‘taking delight’ as you say? If I merely ‘take delight’ in my sandwich for lunch today, am I somehow missing its deeper meaning as sustenance?

    What does “meaning” mean, anyway?

    (Sorry if I’m being too snarky; sometimes I like to poke sticks. All in an earnest attempt to hear what others think. After all, these are the kinds of objections I hear all around me.)

  3. Matthew Lickona says

    Never worry about being too snarky.

    That line you quote from me is a response to the claim of the article’s author: that Smiley wants to make sex meaningful somehow. A way that humans try to say those things that can’t be said. So it’s not me who’s trying to imbue sex with meaning in this instance, it’s Smiley. My only point just here is that if Kennedy is right and most of the sex in the novel is casual, then that works against the claim – casual sex doesn’t seem to me to be saying those things that can’t be said.

    As for the larger point: Yes, I’m all for enjoying something without it being meaningful beyond taking delight. I love a good sandwich. I would reply that sex seems to stubbornly resist being treated this way, however. People keep trying to hump like bunnies, taking pleasure and then moving on, but things keep getting complicated. People keep getting hurt, getting attached, getting destroyed, getting involved. Sex stubbornly refuses to be a purely physical function like a bowel movement. There’s more to it than that – I think a clear-eyed look at life shows that. Cheever was no great Christian, but sex still had meaning and consequence in his stories. The Christian has an account of what that “more” involves. You may disagree with that account. But it’s hard to disagree, I think, that some account needs to be given.

    Having said all that, I’m happy to hear arguments to the contrary.

  4. j. christian says

    There’s more to it than that – I think a clear-eyed look at life shows that.

    Very true. I think the counter account would run something like this: “That’s because centuries of religious moralizing have made us this way. Left in our Rousseau state of nature, we never would’ve felt hurt, or attached, or involved, or guilt-ridden by sex. Sex only has the meaning we attach to it, so there really isn’t anything ‘more’ to it than we make of it.”

    (I can think of at least one response to this, but I should probably let it float there for someone else to pick apart.)

  5. Matthew Lickona says

    This strikes me as very similar to what the hippies preaching free love said: “It’s just a matter of getting over your hang-ups, man.” Then they became the Boomers. They rejected the centuries of religious moralizing, and still wound up getting married and complicating sex.

    I would say to the fan of Rousseau: sex, left to its own devices, produces children. (Viz: Women are more interested in sex when fertile.) Human children are more likely to survive and thrive in the presence of two parents. So it’s not surprising that some sort of primal bonding is tied up with sex – it’s advantageous for the species for Dad to stick around.

  6. j. christian says

    …And that was exactly how I would respond to it as well. Of course, someone might point out that the key phrase is “left to its own devices.” Master nature with the Pill and you can begin to strip away all the messiness that comes with children, eh? It’s as simple as that!

    The idea persists that most (if not all) of our morality, including sexual morality, is simply the product of culture. We are born tabula rasa and it takes a lot of societal heavy lifting to get us so repressed that we function like good little citizens. So it’s nice to know that – wait for it – science and reason tell us this hypothesis is probably false. It turns out we DO have a lot of this stuff wired into us from the start, much of it evolutionary in origin, but a “natural” orientation to morality does seem to be present. (Anyway, that’s my little plug for The Moral Sense by James Q. Wilson. If you haven’t read it, he does a nice job of marshaling tons of research in support of this view.)

    /devil’s advocacy (for the day, anyway)

  7. Matthew, J. Christian,

    The remark on Rousseau got me thinking about his own intellectual dishonesty on the point of sex: if left to nature, of course, sex produces chldren. What to do when the children come along?

    Rousseau’s answer?

    Pack them off to the orphanage (check it out – its in his Confessions – and you can get the abbreviated version with all the “good parts” in Paul Johnson’s “Intellectuals”!)

    The Hippy/Boomer’s answer?

    Jan. 22, 1973.

    JOB

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