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Books -- February 1997

De Sade's Daughters

In the new erotic writing by women, sex is a cruel, even murderous business, and men, for the most part, are brutes

by Lee Siegel


De Sade's Daughter? THREE posthumous cheers for the honorable John M. Woolsey, the district-court judge who decided that James Joyce's Ulysses was not pornographic esoterica but fit reading matter for Americans. Interestingly, Woolsey rested his argument for lifting the ban on Ulysses on an idea that Joyce himself had archly toyed with in the pages of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. There Stephen Daedalus makes the distinction between what he calls "kinetic" and "static" art. The former, he declares, is "improper" art that excites desire or loathing; the latter, genuine art that holds the imagination in contemplative thrall by depicting "the most satisfying relations of the sensible." Ulysses, Judge Woolsey opined, did not amount to a call for lustful action but led to mere meditative pleasure. Joyce's novel was, Woolsey concluded, a "sincere and honest book," a "very powerful commentary on the inner lives of men and women."

Woolsey's judgment leads me to risk a further distinction: erotic writing preserves the inner lives -- the individuality -- of men and women; pornography obliterates them. The erotic encompasses the arc of desire from its beginning to its fulfillment. It traces the individual's slow, turbulent detachment from social life through the allure and the dissolution of the social and psychological nuances that make up individuality.

Pornography, however, consists of the reduction of identity to the generic consequences of desire. As counterintuitive as it may sound, pornography hypersocializes sex the way authoritarian regimes hypersocialize the community -- into monotonous rituals unfolding along inexorable lines. There is, in fact, nothing secret about pornography. It is the public caricature of a private act.

Disclosing the drama of personality succumbing to desire -- that's been the challenge to modern writers free to describe sex on the page. Perhaps that's why so many chroniclers of sexual passion -- Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Nicholson Baker, and the father of them all, Henry Miller -- depict carnal romping with a comic turn. Something respectable that a character has cultivated and the author esteems -- identity -- hovers on the brink of ignominious oblivion.

I have listed only men as portrayers of sexual passion because until relatively recently male writers held sway in that particular current of the literary mainstream. Not any more. In the past several years, and especially during the past several months, women have consolidated their presence in the genre.

From a recent survey of serious fiction by men and women, it's clear that women have taken the lead in erotic writing. Molly Haskell, in The New York Times Book Review, argued that at least one of these women authors views erotic writing by women as a "response to male writers who have had literary orgasms over the rape and mutilation of women." Haskell was writing about Susanna Moore in a review of Moore's In the Cut, one novel among many in the "growing genre [of] the feminist erotic thriller," as an unsigned brief review in The New Yorker dubbed an offshoot of this trend. A new literary genre is born. However, with few exceptions, critics discuss the most recent women's erotic writing without getting very specific about its erotic elements. A dutiful pat on the back is the usual response. "I truly and immensely admire this novel," George Stade wrote in the Book Review about Laura Kasischke's Suspicious River, "but I am not sure I like it." "A. M. Homes has written a splashy, not particularly likable book," Daphne Merkin wrote, also in the Book Review, about Homes's The End of Alice, which she nevertheless found "powerful and disturbing." If, as Kenneth Burke once said, the measure of literary art is the fullness of response to it, these books have not found their readers.


HOW, then, do many contemporary women novelists imagine the erotic? Their work should be a refreshing change from that of an Upper West Side Fellini like Roth, whose latest fiction seems to be on steroids. Yet, as the quotation from Molly Haskell reflects, women's erotic writing is often justified as a feminist response to a male genre in a male-dominated culture. For the first time in our literature since the 1930s, a social and political ideology is providing the touchstone for literary art.

The introduction to the recently published Penguin Book of Erotic Stories by Women characterizes its subject like this: this collection "does not simply celebrate desire and sex, but shows that many sexual relationships are riddled with complex and difficult issues of power." "Typically," the editors complain, "the man takes control and the woman is put in 'her place,' both physically and metaphorically."

In at least two recently published novels by women, sexual play is portrayed as the equivalent of social positioning. You would think the proverbial glass ceiling had hair on its chest. In Moore's Hollywood-bound noir novel, In the Cut, a New York City detective interrogates Robert Chambers, the real-life "preppie-murderer" who strangled a female acquaintance in Central Park. "'Look, Bobby, this is off the record, I'm your friend, I know what it was like. . . . I know what happened, Bobby: she was sitting on you, her back to you.'" In short, the violence of her sexual aggression naturally led to the violence of his reaction. Several paragraphs later Franny Thorstin, the narrator, is taken by Malloy, her boyfriend and also a Manhattan detective, into his captain's office in the precinct house, where he has anal intercourse with her against the captain's desk. Afterward the narrator stimulates herself while "he talked to me in a low voice, asking me, no, telling me that I had liked it, I had liked what he did to me, I answering yes, yes, I did, until I came. . . ." The sudden juxtaposition of the two scenes makes the author's moral clear: men either selfishly dominate in the sexual act or their egos go murderously crashing through their sanity.

In Louise Erdrich's Tales of Burning Love masculine self-knowledge is elaborately and imaginatively equated with a man's learning to enjoy sexual intercourse on his back. Meeting a woman in a bar on Easter weekend, Jack Mauser, a building contractor, spends hours drinking with her; then the two marry drunkenly on a whim. They prepare to make love in Mauser's car during a blizzard, but the highly intoxicated building contractor fails to achieve an erection and slumps over, depressed. After trying to win back his attention, the woman gives up, gets out of the car, and starts walking into the furious snowstorm. Paralyzed by shame, Mauser does not go after her, and she ends up dying of exhaustion and frostbite in an open field.

So concerned is Mauser with the fate of his phallus and his masculine pride that he lets a woman die -- perhaps the first time in literary history that the male member takes a human life. Mauser's negligence proves to be a curse that perpetually bedevils him, as he marries one woman, trips ineptly over his ego, and then marries another -- four times in all, not including the whirlwind marriage to the woman who expired in the snow.

By the end of the novel Mauser is set for a series of lessons that cause his redemption (a journey that began on that fateful Easter weekend) by breaking his pride. The first is that his business fails and he becomes virtually the indentured employee of another man. The second is that he must come to terms with two of his ex-wives, who have become lovers and are raising his one child together. This involves submitting to commands from one of them, Marlis, as he lies beneath her making love.

The third lesson taught to Mauser, in a García Márquezan touch, has a statue of the Virgin Mary fall on top of him from a great height and press him into the ground on his back ("her hands and shoulders crushed his chest, her kiss bent his neck, her impenetrable skirts nearly unmanned him"). Miraculously, he is unhurt, and he is ready, literally, for the novel's climax, which describes a reconciliation with Eleanor, his second wife, in an old wooden farmhouse. He has now learned how a man should please a woman sexually: with civility. And abstractly. Erdrich uses the most disembodied metaphor I have ever read for making love: he "climb[s] . . . like a man wearing away the stone steps of a cathedral."

Erdrich continues describing Mauser and Eleanor's encounter: "Trust. The scent of oleander. Old wood. My god, he stopped, worried and absurd. 'You could get a splinter.'" Mauser has been a phallocentric brute; now he makes love like a social worker. He has been selfish; now he is selfless. When he finishes, he does so empathetically. "The depth of what he felt about Eleanor broke in upon Jack with such heat that he shuddered, and then melted right through. Tears slid down his cheeks and he began to weep beside this woman, for the other woman" -- the one who died in the snow.

Unlike Moore, Erdrich doesn't describe erotic relations between men and women the way male writers often do. Instead she has Mauser assimilating a woman's pleasure as though he had done so out of respect for women. If Erdrich were not so solemn about it, the scene could be an arch satire of sexual revenge. But she is solemn. She wishes not merely to evoke the world but to reform it. The description of sex between Mauser and Eleanor is full of caring, and an almost clinical carefulness in physical description. Erdrich seems to be trying to rationalize relations between the sexes so that each party's rights are protected in the erotic realm. Like Moore, she has traveled through the imagination's winding tunnel and emerged into a public arena ringing with social debate.

For all their differences, both writers might agree with the Yale professor Carla Kaplan, who in The Erotics of Talk: Women's Writing and Feminist Paradigms writes that "the erotic is itself a communicative medium, empowered to both revitalize social interaction and mark our social 'failure' to provide an 'open forum.'" Or, to quote The Penguin Book of Erotic Stories by Women quoting the prominent and influential French feminist Luce Irigaray: "'The female body is not to remain the object of men's discourse or their various arts but [to] become the object of a female subjectivity experiencing and identifying itself.'"


YET what this imperative amounts to is that these women writers almost never describe the physical sensations of a woman getting sexual pleasure from or giving sexual pleasure to a man. What they describe is the social significance of a sexual encounter between a woman and a man.

In Suspicious River, Leila, the narrator, trades sex for money with countless men throughout the novel. The act of prostitution is removed from any social context, while sexual relations between men and women are described exclusively against a background of the historical oppression of women. Leila scoffs at the suggestion that she sells her sexual favors for money.

The clock on the wall seemed to snap its cold hand forward each time he said money. . . .

It's what anyone would think I was doing this for.

But the money was nothing.

Leila's mother, sexually manipulated and eventually murdered by her brother-in-law, had also turned to prostitution, but her reasons for having done so are just as vague. Kasischke has Leila symbolically suffering the fate of all women as it has been handed down through the generations. This despite the fact that Leila does not need the money, and that her private and particular motive for selling herself remains obscure -- her motive, in fact, belongs to history but not to her. A degrading and humiliating experience becomes a convenient literary conceit, a solipsism to which the project of "a female subjectivity experiencing and identifying itself" perhaps inevitably leads. That self-absorption makes possible the narrator's description of her own murder at the end of the novel -- a conclusion that throws into doubt, to put it mildly, the entire novel's credibility.

Whatever is "transgressive" in these encounters ultimately disappears into such bland issues of power: the issue of control, the realm of plaintiffs and defendants. By the end of In the Cut sexual encounters between the sexes also come down to one sex being wronged by the other. So it's appropriate that in this novel, too, the narrator describes her own murder at the story's conclusion. It's a way simultaneously to expose the femicidal nature of "male discourse" and to vindicate "female subjectivity." That it's unbelievable is beside the point.

The act of female subjectivity identifying itself reaches its peak -- or its nadir -- in Homes's The End of Alice, a novel taken right out of a graduate seminar on post-structuralism, with unmistakable overtones of The Silence of the Lambs. For Homes, the Howard Stern of contemporary women writers ("She slips the scab into her mouth. He shudders. She is eating him"), we live amid an infinite regression of power, where everybody is abusing somebody else. We are all deviants, and a belief in normalcy wreaks the cruelest perversions of all. The chronicle of an imprisoned child molester and murderer who spins fantasies over letters he gets from a teenage girl living in the affluent suburbs who is obsessed with him, The End of Alice describes sex with an almost puritanical revulsion. "I am interested in the coupling that throughout history has propagated the human race," the protagonist says. In this novel coupling is always bad -- always hurtful, always selfish, always punitive. And the novel's interminable list of victims is epitomized by the murder of a young girl. "What makes a man become a murderer?" the nameless prisoner asks. "A girl."

For Homes, Moore, and Kasischke, it's as if the power men have to give women pleasure is unconscionable. Their ensuing vision is of a world where desire is divorced from tenderness, a world where there are no people but only -- as Lenin ruthlessly defined politics -- "who-whom." Embarrassed as I am to do so, I quote these excerpts as a public service.

I [pull] out just in time to leave my squirt, my hot sealing wax splashed over her lips, gracing her face. When she wakes, she will think it is heavy drool; she has slobbered or seized in her artificial sleep. [The End of Alice]

He hit me again, leaning into it more deeply this time, taking a step toward me as if he were pitching a baseball game. . . . It took him a long time, a lot of scrambling, to get my skirt up and himself between my legs, and after he did, he kept one hand pressed at my neck the whole time, one on my wrist. . . . It didn't hurt at all, though I supposed from the look on his face that he was hoping it would. [Suspicious River]

"Shut up!" he say. "You wide as the Mississippi," he howled, slapping her ass, "don't tell me a little bit of dick hurt you heifer. Git usta it." He laffed. "You is usta it." [Push]

I include Push, by Sapphire, because its sexual brutality doesn't differ much from the way sexual relations are portrayed in the other novels, with the exception of Tales of Burning Love, which seeks to re-educate its male character rather than indict him. This shared view of sex as brutality is troubling, because Push is the almost unbearably violent chronicle of a sixteen-year-old black girl caught in an inner-city living hell. Yet whether they are set in downtown Manhattan's chic, kinky ravines, as depicted by Moore, in Kasischke's small midwestern town, or in Homes's tony northeastern suburb, these stories take place in a tranquil peacetime America whose emotional life and sexual life resemble scenes of war.


WILLIAM James's famous "stubborn, irreducible facts" are not half so disheartening as these brute, irreducible fictions. But perhaps our situation is not all that dire. Ideology can hunt but it can't cook, so literary feminism, like every other ism, ends up eating its own premises raw. Its emphasis on the social dimension of sexual "interaction" has the paradoxical effect of ignoring social reality.

It is unlikely that failure in business and subservience to another male, as in Mauser's case, would improve a man's emotional or sexual relations with women. It is not only unlikely but downright impossible that Moore's heroine, an adjunct instructor at New York University who teaches one course in remedial writing, could afford to live, as she does, in one of the exorbitantly priced townhouses that ring Washington Square Park. And in Kasischke's Suspicious River we are asked to believe that the small-town prostitute who is the novel's narrator has a sophisticated, highly polished, and controlled command of the language -- all while she is being beaten, raped, degraded, and abused.

I was high, like a white moth caught in a gust of wind. . . . I was too precious, too delicate and bright-winged now, too much sweetness in me, like a wedding dress on a laundry line, that moth landing in a swaying ocean of lace -- or a clear plastic bag of sleep, opened, sparkling in the breeze.

If some of these authors seem blind to social life, others are acutely sensitive to its commercial aspect. In Sapphire's Push, a gritty, semiliterate novel praised almost without exception for its unsparing realism, the sixteen-year-old first-person narrator, Precious, describes how she has been raped by her father night after night, beaten by him, and forced to bear two of his children. (I wonder if Sapphire would respond to Homes's vision of the deviant affluent suburbs with outrage or a feeling of vindication. I wonder if Homes would respond to Sapphire's inner city with envy or a sense of disappointment.) Understandably, experience has made her bitter, and her autobiography is full of "honkys," "spics," and other ethnic and racial slurs.

Strangely, though, her teacher's Jewishness never becomes an object of her rage. Mrs. Lichenstein is an "asshole," a "hoe," and a "white bitch from school," but the narrator never mentions her ethnic or religious origins. Not only that, but the narrator's mother, who is so monstrously overweight that she almost never leaves the apartment, who allows her husband to repeatedly rape and sodomize her child, who pummels and sexually abuses her daughter herself, can nevertheless turn the occasional nice moral distinction: "My muver say Farrakhan OK but he done gone too far." So much for unsparing realism. And to top everything off, one of the novel's two epigraphs is from . . . the Talmud.


WHAT is the result when these authors return to the intimate realm from the social arena -- when they move closer to real life and portray women not as passive victims of male sexuality but as powerful and aggressive sexual beings themselves? Pauline, the concupiscent party girl in In the Cut, gets decapitated by the male killer. Leila gets excited by the man who hit and raped her (she finds her husband repellently weak), and eventually his male partner stabs her to death. Alice, the child molester's twelve-year-old victim in Homes's novel, portrayed by Homes as a lascivious nymphet, flirts with him and he rapes her and then stabs her to death. Franny Thorstin, who like Kasischke's Leila finds powerless and unappealing the one man who doesn't threaten her, handcuffs Malloy to a chair ("I feel like a girl," he says) toward the end of In the Cut. (In Tales of Burning Love, Marlis ties Mauser to a bed and waxes his hair and glues on red stiletto heels.) Malloy has always turned her on, all the more when she begins to suspect that he's the killer, and she climbs onto his lap and forces him to make love to her. Afterward she runs into the real killer, who drags her off to a deserted place and . . . stabs her to death.

A century ago it was as much a social as a literary convention for male novelists to punish their adulterous heroines by killing them off at the end of the novel: Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Effi Briest. Now many women characters who follow their instincts suffer similar fates, but at the hands of newly empowered women novelists writing in a social and political atmosphere of newly empowered women. Thus do seductive social imperatives ruin the reputation of art.

Public caricatures of private acts, monotonous rituals unfolding along inexorable lines. Judge Woolsey would never have allowed such depredations against the inner life.

Illustration by Polly Becker


Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 1997; De Sade's Daughters; Volume 279, No. 2; pages 97-102.

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