Saturday, January 02, 2010

Katie Roiphe's essay "The Naked and the Conflicted"

Interesting comparison of two literary generations of male American novelists and their depiction of sex. Mailer, Roth, Bellow and Updike versus Benjamin Kunkel, David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon, and Jonathan Franzen.

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.”

Wonderful characterization of lust. Where in poetry can we find an equally uncompromising, two-handed, and intelligent assessment of sex?

Roiphe concludes, on a lyrical flight:

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 al fresco, 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?


Shropshirelad said...
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Shropshirelad said...

I like that comparison using flight. I for one still look at those first literary experimenters with their sexual flying machines fondly. They are both brave and a little crazy.

I think the trouble is that many writers spend too much time looking at their interiors and not enough lab time in the sky. When I was a boy many afternoons culminated with me jumping out of trees flapping my arms. It is a dangerous occupation, but not necessarily a fatal one. I am still here.

Where Roiphe and David Foster Wallace fail is how they conceptualize the technical aspects the onotological problem. Gravity is the enemy one must conquer, not death. Getting off the ground and landing. If you can manage those, you can enjoy many many years of successful writing, sex, and other fanciful flights.

This is why Cupid has wings.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Death is probably very like being grounded, Cupid or no.

Shropshirelad said...

Death is certainly being grounded. I spent more than a few weeks dead (grounded) as a kid, too.

As I thought about my remarks above more while I was out glove shopping this afternoon, my mind wandered back to our talk about Keats and Negative Capability (the other night while we were walking through Washington Square) in relation to the problem of flight.

Powered flight is sustained in the atmosphere by balancing the forces of air pressure on the wings and fuselage, what we call "lift," against the force of gravity. In successful poetry, too, there is a balance of forces that propels the work through time. Time is the atmosphere poetry travels in. Lift is provided by the technical engineering of the poem. I suppose the grave is the equivalent of gravity.

The reason that a poem like Keats's Grecian Urn-- the original foster child of silence and slow time--is able to move forward, seem timeless, is that those human figures in it never quite touch; the ax never falls on the heifer's neck; the garlands never wither. In one sense, the figures are frozen in place, but in another they are continually moving forward, as they have been in Keats's imaginary Urn for almost 200 years.

The trick to sustained poetic flight, I think, lies here: the trade off between the inanimate vitality of vessels like verses and the vaporous evanescence of life. It is that frozen moment, the poignant impossible reaching forward, the almost sexual thrill of it, which keeps the whole thing going. The beauty lies in how we balance the contervailing forces.

Yeats put it best:

A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.