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The Other Appetite: The Literature of Lust

essay from The Oxford American, included in new book Gather at the River

"There are two fundamental urges in nature: the desire to eat and the desire to reproduce one's kind. Which of these two impulses is the stronger depends somewhat on the individual and somewhat on the circumstances surrounding the individual--that is, it is apt to vary with the quality of the food and of the women. There are, Zaner shows, men who would rather eat than reproduce, and there are isolated cases of men who would rather reproduce than eat."

This voice of science is the inestimable E.B. White, writing in Chapter 8 ("Frigidity in Men") of the recently reissued "Is Sex Necessary?", a best-selling parody of contemporary sex studies that White co-authored with James Thurber in 1929. The dry, cool, genteelly sexist tone White achieves here belies the fact that he was not yet 30. Alternating chapters with the older, slightly more worldly and antic Thurber--who also contributed 50 of his indescribable minimalist drawings--White set a gold standard for writing about The Other Appetite that no subsequent American has eclipsed. My own prejudice is that sex is a great prose-destroyer--the more seriously you take it, the harder you try to immolate your inhibitions and pierce the pulsing core of human desire, the sooner you stumble into Silhouette Romance, coarse pornography and unintentional comedy.

Pedestrian prose often suffers from venereal diseases of its own device. For all but the most inspired stylist, sex acts are narrative animals that refuse to be housebroken. Banish them from the parlor, is my honest advice. Observe from a discreet distance and leave the rough bits out in the barnyard from whence they came. Try to name great books that were powerful because (ital) of their sexual content (?) Then quickly name 50 failures that were embarrassing, even disgusting because the sex scenes read as if too much blood has been diverted from a lecherous author's brain.

The foreword to the new HarperCollins edition of "Is Sex Necessary?" was written by John Updike, who loves the book but has not, in his own fiction, always profited from its circumspect example. Thurber and White will be taxed for unbearable lightness by heavy-breathing moderns, now that even "literary" memoirs relate grim sexual relations with animals, family members and electrical appliances. In fact their book satirizes courtship and the war between the sexes, and scarcely sex, per se, at all. The prime example of "Frigidity in men" that White explores in Chapter 8 is "recessive knee"--a wary male's reluctance to maintain casual knee contact with the female, for fear that she may be pursuing an agenda. But for all its facetiousness, antiquated chastity and pre-feminist, pre-Queer Studies sensibility, the book betrays the confusions and insecurities of young men just entering the lists of love, in no less a Babylon than the New York City of the 1920s.

Beneath its mock pomposity and extended goofing (a young man seeking his sex education in the proverbial "gutter" will meet, in the gutters of Cincinnati, a man leading a tame stork with a live baby in its bill), timid truths are lurking--perhaps even in White's sly note on men who would rather eat than mate. In a rather alarming recent book titled "Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt," author Suzi Parker describes Columbia, S.C., as a hotbed of after-hours excess where a local specialty is sex mixers featuring BBWs--Big Beautiful Women, or what a paleo-chauvinist like Thurber might have called "whoppers." But the last time I prowled the streets of Columbia, it was in the entourage of Mississippi's intrepid Foodfather, John T. Edge, and what we were seeking was not the heart of Saturday night but the perfect pimento cheeseburger. If anyone sampled a Whopper that night, it must have been at Burger King.

Parker's is not a book that belongs on a shelf with White and Thurber. She confesses that she grew up on Cosmopolitan and Judith Krantz novels, and it shows. The gutters of Cincinnati offer a more useful sex education than Judith Krantz and Helen Gurley Brown. But give Parker credit for gripping the bull--the Minotaur, the mythic Southern libido--by its very horns. And for talking her way into Stygian sin cellars that you and I wouldn't enter without a pistol and a pit bull.

Expanding on the tradition of Erskine Caldwell, who convinced Yankees of another era that starving sharecroppers coupled like rabid weasels along the highways of Dixie, Parker diagnoses epidemics of satyriasis and nymphomania that consume our every class, race and creed. I don't know how to respond when she calls the South "a surreal bubbling cocktail of unbridled desire," and "the nation's premier sexual hothouse...a place where an adulterous couple will knock it out as a prelude to church and then spend the sermon exchanging knowing looks across the pews." (Surely not Episcopalians?) Or when she celebrates my own Baptist, Bush-loving North Carolina as a mecca for swingers and wife-swappers: "From the top of the state near the Virginia border to the most Southern part that edges South Carolina," Parker writes (most infelicitously), "North Carolina is a hideaway for switching partners."

Surely she means contra-dancing. Parker's South is not my South; her North Carolina is not my North Carolina. Which doesn't mean, of course, that hers do not exist. If a man ends up with a cheeseburger instead of a big girl's room key, it doesn't mean that he's less than a man in full. If some of us put less sex in what we write and prefer less in what we read, it doesn't always follow that our lusts are tepid ones, or that our stories are too tame to tell. Generalization fails dismally when the subject is sexuality--it is the classic case of the blind men and the elephant. One man's Vesuvius is the next man's lava lamp. A consistently true thing about sex in print is that it teaches us more about the writer than about the perpetual mystery of sex. The same is probably true of researchers and counselors, from Alfred Kinsey to Dr. Ruth.

Philosopher Simon Blackburn, author of the current "Lust" volume in the series "The Seven Deadly Sins" (Oxford University Press), rests his attempt to rehabilitate Lust, "the black sheep of the family" of sins, on our firm understanding of its infinite variety. Good sex, the perfect meeting of minds and loins he describes as "Hobbesian unity," is "variably realized"--"That is, as with a conversation, there is no one way of doing it. This is why sex manuals are so dreadful, except for unfortunates who do not have a clue anyway, and need the equivalent of '69 Ways to Have a Conversation'...It is not the movements, but the thought behind them, that matter to lust."

Blackburn, the droll scholar, is a rare self-mocking sex authority who belongs in the distinguished company of Thurber and White. His puns are intentional: "Nobody would be asked to give a lecture on lust until of an age when time and experience have blunted its fierce prick." (As opposed to the jacket copy for Rosemary Daniell's steamy "Confessions of a Female Chauvinist," which praises the author for exploring "the bedrock (ital?) issues defining women in contemporary society.")

"Lust," which I recommend, is even Southern by a modest stretch. Blackburn, an Englishman ("Other nationalities are amazed that we English reproduce at all"), taught at the University of North Carolina during the '90s but has recently repatriated to take a chair at Cambridge. Here in the Swinger State, where sexuality is disputed between disciples of Jerry Falwell, Howard Stern and Andrea Dworkin, Blackburn's urbane and tolerant voice will be sorely missed. His legacy to me is twofold. He rejects all pretense of neutral androgyny and speaks--come what may, like Thurber and White before him--as a heterosexual male. ("For a long time now the discourse of sexuality has belonged to women and to other groups who feel they need to explain or justify themselves, notably gays.") And he acknowledges, with a touch of pride, the defining tradition of Eros in England: "We tend not to make a fuss."

Be not embarrassed by testosterone, nor by restraint. In one essay that attracted unfavorable comment, I confessed that Madonna--who is, or was, essentially a budget burlesque show--aroused me infinitely less than my cherished fantasy of "a Yeats scholar in a demure wool dress, whispering something mildly suggestive in my ear as we pass on the library steps." I added that nothing in Madonna's repertoire would inflame me like a chance to watch Claire Bloom water her delphiniums.

That's my contribution to erotic literature, one that dates me like a bronze plaque on a blackened statue of General Longstreet. I stand by it, and unless you can read between the lines, it's all you'll ever learn about my libido from me.

Is this Victorian? Does it reek of a certain class, or race? Is it Southern? I always believed that a gentleman took the public stance that he had no sex life, would perform poorly if one were offered to him, and expected no improvement unless some woman came to pity him in the extreme. (We were invited, I suppose, to assume the opposite about this sorry celibate, but any hint of boastfulness or aggression was white trash, K Mart and worse.) Naturally this modest gentleman required the same reticence from his women.

The irrepressible Suzi Parker has her own twist on this: "The deal in Dixie is that everybody does it but no one talks about it." Or writes about it, used to be. So how do we deal with the rebel who does (ital) talk about it, like Suzi Parker? The 12th word in Parker's book is "fuck" (and the 13th is "me"). Though every honest man loves a woman with a dirty mind--she's a rare jewel of her gender--a dirty mouth is something else.

Along with the myth of unblemished womanhood, the "pedestalism" White and Thurber lampooned in 1929, the much-violated code of sexual "Omerta" is losing its grip in the modern South--and its most flagrant violators have been women. The stark-nekkid erotic memoir is a genre now, almost a cliche. Parker's in the second or third generation of good old girls who will bare it all for a book contract, or a grudge. Authors like Florence King, Rosemary Daniell and Vicki Covington perform at a much higher literary level than saucy Suzi, but they share her defiant spirit and her contempt for Southern "ladies" who starch their knickers.

Confessional memoir is billed as a natural backlash to centuries of sexual repression, not only the Bible Belt injunction against doing it at all but the maternal interdiction against doing it without a goal and a strategy. The Southern male takes a pounding in these books: Daniell undressed a semi-anonymous James Dickey in "Fatal Flowers," when he was living, then stripped him again in "Confessions of a Female Chauvinist," after he was dead. She even rated him a "3" on a sexual scale of 10. No one felt sorry for the poet, who once prescribed a leather strap and a jar of vaseline for teaching women "the essence and particularities of love." Still, The best mating advice for any young person, male or female, is "Never sleep with a writer"--though of course I've been doing it for 24 years.

Sex will never be dignified, but it can and should be private. It's an embarrassing link to our simian ancestors but also one of our great improvements upon them. Though we share 99.4 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees, our exclusive .006 percent must be responsible for romantic love, idealized marriage, erotic nuance and the hominid novelties we call privacy and dignity. Reality TV, radio shock jocks, Internet pornographers and hog-wild swingers intend to eradicate that small but critical evolutionary advantage as quickly as they can.

It's my tentative belief that these lethal viruses are of Yankee or West Coast origin, and not native to the South. Perhaps when the backlash against the patriarchy has run its course, Southern men and women of a certain perception will find common cause against a toxic culture that anathematizes modesty, subtlety and discretion.

I've been looking for reasons to believe. In New York I took comfort from "And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens," a previously unproduced play by Tennessee Williams. Its heroine is an outrageous drag queen who beneath two layers of concealment--one of mascara, the other of male physiology--is just a sweet girl looking for love. Violence occurs onstage, sex occurs off--not something you can count on, these days, in a New York theater.

Weren't serious Southern writers always, at some level, on the side of sentiment? Few offered their readers more sex per volume than the late, bitterly lamented Larry Brown. Euphemism was heresy to Larry. He believed in rendering violence and the entire spectrum of human ugliness exactly as it appeared to him, without cosmetic surgery. Sex acts recur in his fiction, as they tend to in life. Yet sex is the least graphic of his facts of life; on occasion his lovers even take a sentimental movie fadeout ("Fay," p. 123: "C'mere," she said softly"--Curtain).

Even the most bizarre characters in "The Rabbit Factory," like one-legged Miss Muffett and the murderer Domino--who's ultimately castrated and eaten by lions--are longing not for sexual friction and orgasm but for something finer, deeper ("There had to be more to it than what he and Doreen had done," Domino thinks, as the lion crushes his head. "That was just fucking. He'd had plenty of fucking. That was all animals had. Just making little animals."). They're longing, at last, for that Hobbesian unity--for tenderness.

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