Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Writers, sex, and passion ...

Adam Gopnik has a characteristically fine piece about C.S. Lewis (tip of the hat to Arts & Letters Daily). But I do not think it is altogether fine. There is, for instance, this:

Lewis writes about his last school, Malvern, at such length, and with such horror—with far more intensity than he writes even about serving on the Western Front—that it’s clear that the trauma, coming at a time of sexual awakening, was deep and lasting. It seems to have had the usual result: Lewis developed and craved what even his Christian biographer, Jacobs, calls “mildly sadomasochistic fantasies”; in letters to a (homosexual) friend, he named the women he’d like to spank, and for a time signed his private letters “Philomastix”—“whip-lover.”

Interesting enough, perhaps, but Gopnik's next sentence strikes me as rather a stretch: "A bright and sensitive British boy turned by public-school sadism into a warped, morbid, stammering sexual pervert." How do we get from "mildly sadomasochistic fantasies" to "warped, morbid, stammering sexual pervert"? Pornography played a significant role, apparently, in the life of Philip Larkin. So that has to be taken into account in trying to figure the guy out. But there doesn't seem to be much evidence that Lewis was epecially preoccupied with sexual fantasies. Everybody has such, I presume, from time to time, but most people do not obsess over them.

I happen to be one of those people who thinks that, thanks to the pernicious silliness of Dr. Freud, a burden of significance has been placed upon human sexuality -- in its strictly physical manifestation -- that is far greater than it can comfortably bear. I've had my share of sexual adventure -- for which I am quite grateful -- but I really can't say that sex has been much of a determining factor in my life or on my character. Moreover, for all the importance conferred upon it in modern literature, after four decades of book reviewing, I am here to report that it usually doesn't come off very well on the printed page.
The ribald -- Henry Miller at his best -- often comes off quite well. But I can't be the only one who finds Lady Chatterly's Lover risible. And Lawrence is better at describing sex than most.
It isn't sex, in the sense of physical coupling, that makes for great literature; it's passion. There's a wonderful story by A.E. Coppard called "Judith." Here is its opening sentence: "This is the story of a great lady who did a great wrong to a mere man, a man so nearly insignificant and uncouth as to be almost unworthy of the honour." Coppard's is a story of passion. Of course, sex is involved, as it could hardly not be. But the story would not be so grand were it just about sex.
A good example of what I mean can be found in the films of Eric Rohmer, in particular My Night at Maud's and Chloe in the Afternoon. If you're up for swimming against the brackish current of Freudian cliche, rent them.


  1. I always knew you were a rake and a cad, Frank! And, yeah, the writer does seem to take a bit of a leap from Lewis liking a little spanking (which, trust me, really isn't that kinky) to "sexual pervert."

  2. Reminds me of something Richard Burton once said, that his public image was that of a drunk, a rake and cad. "Rather an appealing image, don't you think?" he asked.

  3. Personally, I think Freud gave us a great deal of insight into ourselves ... but I'd be the first to admit that it can be taken to an unwarranted extreme ... and, maybe he did, too, when he said that "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar"

  4. Hi Jeff,
    My objection to Freud is that he is known to have falsified data (see Horace Freeland Judson's The Great Betrayal: Fraud in Science). I also don't think that anybody ever seriously thinks that he suffers from an Oedipus conflict, wanting on some subconscious level to kill one parent and couple with the other. Moreover, he spawned generations of people pondering their childhood in search of reasons to blame their parents for their own failures as adults. Had he chosen any physiological function other than sex by which to explain all human motivation he wouldn't have got to first base. I thought he was over-rated when I first read him at 15 and have seen nothing since that would prompt me to change my mind.