Friday, January 29, 2010

Sex and the novel

“[T]he very sound of the word ‘sex’ with its hissing vulgarity and the ‘ks, ks’ catcall at the end,” Nabokov’s narrator says in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, “seems so inane to me that I cannot help doubting whether there is any real idea behind the word.” Few novelists have treated it as an idea. At best it represents a getaway from ideas. It is, Roth writes in The Human Stain, “the redeeming corruption that de-idealizes the species and keeps us everlastingly mindful of the matter we are.”

What Nabokov and Roth have in common is that both conceive sex as the sex act. Human sexuality for them, and for most novelists, is genital sexuality—“friction and shallow fun,” as Kepesh puts it in The Dying Animal. But this sense of the word sex is no more recent than the turn of the twentieth century, if the OED is to be believed. The earlier meaning (the “distinction between male and female . . . as a social or cultural phenomenon, and its manifestations or consequences”) has been permanently colored by the twentieth-century fascination with friction and fun. When Miss Paynham watches Diana Merion flirting with Percy Dacier in George Meredith’s Diana of the Crossways—one of the illustrative quotations provided by the OED—she sees

a damsel castigatingly pursued by the idea of sex as the direct motive of every act of every person surrounding, her; deductively therefore that a certain form of the impelling passion, mild or terrible, or capricious, or it might be less pardonable, was unceasingly at work among the human couples up to decrepitude.One hundred and twenty-five years later it is almost impossible to read this passage without hearing sex as “sexual desire.” Meredith’s point, if the clotted prose can be thinned a little, seems to be that sexual difference, and the “impelling passion” to bridge or close or preserve or widen it, underlie all human activity.

Before the twentieth century, “sex” referred to what is now called romance, more or less. Once it was uncoupled from flirtation, courtship, seduction, marriage, pregnancy, and children—once it was narrowed to genital strife—it ceased to be an idea and became a scandal. Novelists wrote sex scenes, and the remainder of human sexual experience wasn’t even left to the imagination, because few novelists even imagined it was there. The twentieth-century novel became an either/or. Either it included plenty of sex scenes, or it ignored human sexuality altogether.


scott g.f.bailey said...

I would suggest that Antonia Byatt writes a great deal about sexuality--the social/behavioral differences between the sexes--without fussing much with the sex act. Her novels don't necessarily shy away from the act, but it always seems to be situated within a larger scope of behavior; copulation is neither a target nor a reduction of the idea of sexuality. If you want a reduction of the idea of sexuality in Byatt, one reads her weirdly erotic descriptions of food.

Stephen Tully Dierks said...

wow, i've given you a hard time several times mostly owing to our political differences, but this is a nice post, dg! more writers should explore sex in its fullness, the desire to bridge the gap.