The difficulty of writing about sex (Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook)

Sex. The difficulty of writing about sex, for women, is that sex is best when not thought about, not analysed. Women deliberately choose not to think about technical sex. They get irritable when men talk technically, it’s out of self-preservation: they want to preserve the spontaneous emotion that is essential for their satisfaction.

Sex is essentially emotional for women. How many times has that been written? And yet there’s always a point even with the most perceptive and intelligent man, when a woman looks at him across a gulf: he hasn’t understood; she suddenly feels alone; hastens to forget the moment, because if she doesn’t she would have to think. Julia, myself and Bob sitting in her kitchen gossiping. Bob telling a story about the breakup of a marriage. He says: ‘The trouble was sex. Poor bastard, he’s got a prick the size of a needle.’ Julia: ‘I always thought she didn’t love him.’ Bob, thinking she hadn’t heard”
“heard: ‘No, it’s always worried him stiff, he’s just got a small one.’ Julia: ‘But she never did love him, anyone could see that just by looking at them together.’ Bob, a bit impatient now: ‘It’s not their fault, poor idiots, nature was against the whole thing from the start.’ Julia: ‘Of course it’s her fault. She should never have married him if she didn’t love him.’ Bob, irritated because of her stupidity, begins a long technical explanation, while she looks at me, sighs, smiles, and shrugs. A few minutes later, as he persists, she cuts him off short with a bad-tempered joke, won’t let him go on.

From Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook, which I was inspired to read after this essay by K. Thomas Khanh (aka @proustitute).

I started reading Lessing’s book after finishing Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark. Gray’s novel was published in 1981 nineteen years after The Golden Notebook, but he was writing it for at least three decades before its publication, and the structural features of the two books are similar: both novels self-deconstruct, self-criticize, and rely on fragmentation and juxtaposition to evoke their themes. The themes are fairly different, I suppose, although not really. It’s all sex and death, yes?

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“Five common methods by which sex gains an entrance into literature” (William H. Gass)

So I shall, keeping one in each of my four pockets while one is in my mouth, describe five common methods by which sex gains an entrance into literature . . . as through French doors and jimmied windows thieves break in upon our dreams to rape our women, steal our power tools, and vandalize our dreams. The commonest, of course, is the most brazen: the direct depiction of sexual material— thoughts, acts, wishes; the second involves the use of sexual words of various sorts, and I shall pour one of each vile kind into the appropriate porches of your ears , for pronounc-ing and praising print to the ear is what the decently encouraged eye does happily. The third can be considered, in a sense, the very heart of indirection, and thus the essence of the artist’s art— displacement: the passage of the mind with all its blue elastic ditty bags and airline luggage f r o m steamy sexual scenes and sweaty bodies to bedrooms with their bedsteads, nightstands, water-glasses, manuals of instruction, thence to sheets and pillowcases, hence to dents in these, and creases, stains and other cries of passion which have left their prints , and finally to the painted chalk-white oriental face of amorously handled air and mountains,, lewdly entered lakes. The fourth I shall simply refer to now as the skyblue eye (somewhere, it seems to me, there should be a brief pinch of suspense), and the fifth, well, it’s really what I’m running into all my inks about, so I had better mention it: the use of language like a lover . . . not the language of love, but the love of language, not matter, but meaning, not what the tongue touches, but what it forms, not lips and nipples, but nouns and verbs.

From William H. Gass’s essay-novel On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry.

Lovers in the Library — Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Private Conversation — Felix Vallotton

“A Poem About Writing Brushes and Inkstones” — Zhang Wencheng

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“Did the harebell loose her girdle” — Emily Dickinson

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Wrinkle in the groin (David Barthelme)

Henry walked home with his suit in a plastic bag. He had been washing the buildings. But something was stirring in him, a wrinkle in the groin. He was carrying his bucket too, and his ropes. But the wrinkle in his groin was monstrous. “Now it is necessary to court her, and win her, and put on this clean suit, and cut my various nails, and drink something that will kill the millions of germs in my mouth, and say something flattering, and be witty and bonny, and hale and kinky, and pay her a thousand dollars, all just to ease this wrinkle in the groin. It seems a high price.” Henry let his mind stray to his groin. Then he let his mind stray to her groin. Do girls have groins? The wrinkle was still there. “The remedy of Origen. That is still open to one. That door, at least, has not been shut.”

From Donald Barthelme’s novel Snow White.

 

“Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short” — Petronius

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Coition of a Hemisected Man and Woman — Leonardo da Vinci

“Delight in Disorder” — Robert Herrick

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Slavoj Žižek: “Really, let me tell you something—It’s nice to sleep with a woman”

William Burroughs on Sex, Computers, Mutation

From William S. Burroughs’s 1972 interview with Penthouse magazine.

Fifty Sexy Literary Alternatives to Fifty Shades of Grey

I hate to be anti-book—any book, really, even awful ones—but Fifty Shades of Grey barely qualifies as a book, and it’s utterly dreadful to think that a Twilight knockoff that started as Twilight fanfiction (!) is now sold in bulk across the world when there are so many good books out there—salacious, sexy, erotic books at that. But, like I said, I hate to knock on something when it’s more productive to offer an alternative. So: a list.

This list is subjective, occasionally weird, and hardly complete (feel free to point out what I’ve left off). I’ve only included works that I’ve read in part or in whole. I’m clearly aware that certain stuff like D.H. Lawrence, much of Updike, and infamous classics like Walter’s My Secret Life are not on here—if it’s not on here, I haven’t read any of it. I vouch for everything else.

  1. Song of Songs (Old Testament)
  2. Juliette, Marquis de Sade
  3. Justine, Marquis de Sade
  4. The 120 Days of Sodom, Marquis de Sade
  5. The Pearl, William Lazenby (ed.)
  6. The Story of O, Pauline Réage
  7. Delta of Venus,  Anaïs Nin
  8. Little Birds, Anaïs Nin
  9. Lost Girls, Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie
  10. The Soft Machine, William Burroughs
  11. Story of the Eye, Georges Bataille
  12. The Garden of Eden, Ernest Hemingway
  13. Ada, or Ador, Vladimir Nabokov
  14. Fanny Hill, John Cleland
  15. Poems of Sappho
  16. Crash, J.G. Ballard
  17. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
  18. House of Holes, Nicolson Baker
  19. Blood and Guts in High School, Kathy Acker
  20. Satyricon, Petronius Arbiter
  21. “Penelope”/Molly’s monologue from Ulysses, James Joyce
  22. “Nausicaa” from Ulysses, James Joyce
  23. “Circe” from Ulysses, James Joyce
  24. Boccaccio’s Decameron
  25. Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller
  26. Tropic of Capricorn, Henry Miller
  27. Women, Charles Bukowski
  28. Poems of Catullus
  29. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare
  30. Kama Sutra
  31. Naked Lunch, William Burroughs
  32. The Ways, Caracci and Aretino
  33. Vox, Nicholson Baker
  34. Ars Amatoria, Ovid
  35. A Feast of Snakes, Harry Crews
  36. Casanova’s letters and memoirs 
  37. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales
  38. Snow White, Donald Barthelme
  39. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
  40. Briar Rose, Robert Coover
  41. Frisk, Dennis Cooper
  42. Song of Myself, Walt Whitman
  43. Hotel Iris, Yoko Ogawa
  44. “Wild nights! Wild nights!”, Emily Dickinson
  45. Various selections of Robert Crumb
  46. Dream Story, Arthur Schnitzler
  47. A few choice passages from Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives
  48. Venus in Furs,  Leopold von Sacher-Masoch
  49. The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter
  50. “I started Early – Took my Dog -”, Emily Dickinson

“He Squatted Among the Soft Womansmelling Garments” — A Strange Sex Scene from Faulkner

A strange, gross sex scene from William Faulkner’s  novel Light in August. As a child, the book’s anti-hero,Joe Christmas, an orphan of unclear parentage, sneaks off to suck sweet toothpaste from a tube. There, he surreptitiously witnesses a clandestine meeting between the orphanage’s dietitian and another worker:

In the quiet and empty corridor, during the quiet hour of early afternoon, he was like a shadow, small even for five years, sober and quiet as a shadow. Another in the corridor could not have said just when and where he vanished, into what door, what room. But there was no one else in the corridor at this hour. He knew that. He had been doing this for almost a year, ever since the day when he discovered by accident the toothpaste which the dietitian used.

Once in the room, he went directly on his bare and silent feet to the washstand and found the tube. He was watching the pink worm coil smooth and cool and slow onto his parchmentcolored finger when he heard footsteps in the corridor and then voices just beyond the door. Perhaps he recognised the dietitian’s voice. Anyway, he did not wait to see if they were going to pass the door or not. With the tube in his hand and still silent as a shadow on his bare feet he crossed the room and slipped beneath a cloth curtain which screened off one corner of the room. Here he squatted, among delicate shoes and suspended soft womangarments. Crouching, he heard the dietitian and her companion enter the room.

The dietitian was nothing to him yet, save a mechanical adjunct to eating, food, the diningroom, the ceremony of eating at the wooden forms, coming now and then into his vision without impacting at all except as something of pleasing association and pleasing in herself to look at—young, a little fullbodied, smooth, pink-and-white, making his mind think of the diningroom, making his mouth think of something sweet and sticky to eat, and also pink-colored and surreptitious. On that first day when he discovered the toothpaste in her room he had gone directly there, who had never heard of toothpaste either; as if he already knew that she would possess something of that nature and he would find it. He knew the voice of her companion also: It was that of a young interne from the county hospital who was assistant to the parochial doctor, he too a familiar figure about the house and also not yet an enemy.

He was safe now, behind the curtain. When they went away, he would replace the toothpaste and also leave. So he squatted behind the curtain, hearing without listening to it the woman’s tense whispering voice: “No! No! Not here. Not now. They’ll catch us. Somebody will—No, Charley! Please!” The man’s words he could not understand at all. The voice was lowered too. It had a ruthless sound, as the voices of all men did to him yet, since he was too young yet to escape from the world of women for that brief respite before he escaped back into it to remain until the hour of his death. He heard other sounds which he did know: a scuffing as of feet, the turn, of the key in the door. “No, Charley! Charley, please! Please, Charley!” the woman’s whisper said. He heard other sounds, rustlings, whisperings, not voices. He was not listening; he was just waiting, thinking without particular interest or attention that it was a strange hour to be going to bed. Again the woman’s fainting whisper came through the thin curtain: “I’m scared! Hurry! Hurry!”

He squatted among the soft womansmelling garments and the shoes. He saw by feel alone now the ruined, once cylindrical tube. By taste and not seeing he contemplated the cool invisible worm as it coiled onto his finger and smeared sharp, automatonlike and sweet, into his mouth. By ordinary he would have taken a single mouthful and then replaced the tube and left the room. Even at five, he knew that he must not take more than that. Perhaps it was the animal warning him that more would make him sick; perhaps the human being warning him that if he took more than that, she would miss it. This was the first time he had taken more. By now, hiding and waiting, he had taken a good deal more. By feel he could see the diminishing tube. He began to sweat. Then he found that he had been sweating for some time, that for some time now he had been doing nothing else but sweating. He was not hearing anything at all now. Very likely he would not have heard a gunshot beyond the curtain. He seemed to be turned in upon himself, watching himself sweating, watching himself smear another worm of paste into his mouth which his stomach did not want. Sure enough, it refused to go down. Motionless now, utterly contemplative, he seemed to stoop above himself like a chemist in his laboratory, waiting. He didn’t have to wait long. At once the paste which he had already swallowed lifted inside him, trying to get back out, into the air where it was cool. It was no longer sweet. In the rife, pinkwomansmelling, obscurity behind the curtain he squatted, pinkfoamed, listening to his insides, waiting with astonished fatalism for what was about to happen to him. Then it happened. He said to himself with complete and passive surrender: ‘Well, here I am.’

When the curtain fled back he did not look up. When hands dragged him violently out of his vomit he did not resist. He hung from the hands, limp, looking with slackjawed and glassy idiocy into a face no longer smooth pink-and-white, surrounded now by wild and dishevelled hair whose smooth bands once made him think of candy. “You little rat!” the thin, furious voice hissed; “you little rat! Spying on me! You little nigger bastard!”