Some future David Riesman or Theodor Adorno will one day try to assess why a trilogy of lite-BDSM erotic novels enjoyed such popularity at this moment in American history. They have been firmly ensconced at the top of best-seller lists for months now — and in the context of post-9/11 US culture, they pose a particular challenge. As this culture of anxiety has affected behavior, consciousness and geopolitical empire-building, it is affecting that deepest and most powerful corner of ourselves, our sexual imagination, as well. And as the culture of post-9/11 anxiety has contributed to a more totalitarian world-state, a unique New Puritanism has also arisen in the West, in which gender preference as a social force has become more and more prone to acceptance and absorption, while a set of restrictive, normative rules defining acceptable and unacceptable sexual behavior among consenting adults is being defended even among more politically radical populations, the growing acceptance of gay marriage and depiction of LGBT couples in the mass media being a case in point. The relationship between this culture of catastrophic anxiety and this New Puritanism has been examined by several dramatists (Howard Barker, Sarah Kane, Wallace Shawn, and Neil LaBute), but still, the strictures of New Puritanism, shared by the administrators and managers of American non-profit stages, keep most of these plays out of American theatres. It also has a bearing on my own conception of erotic tragedy and radical elegance which I will explore further in the months to come.
Toni Bentley takes the occasion of the popularity of the Fifty Shades trilogy to offer an overview of several works of pornographic transgressive fiction (and some non-fiction). To say that Ms. Bentley is politically incorrect may be understating the case:
All that hard-won “equality” between men and women has put a serious dent in many sex lives and the popularity with women of the Fifty Shades trilogy attests — it is a multi-million strong poll — with its 1950’s-style (the heroine ends up married with babies) BDSM nice-n’-lite that women are sick of being side by side. Equality during sex is simply contra naturam. Someone has to go up on the cross and suffer pleasure and someone has to tie her up there and enforce her salvation. Despite the anointment of the ubiquitous “bad girl” in our culture women still want to be the sacrificial saint. There is a reason we all say “MyGodmyGodmyGod!!” a great deal more often than the name of the poor bastard doing all the work down there.
I must say I don’t share some of her tastes in this kind of literature (Victorian spanking novels by the prolific Anonymous were never for me), but she’s got Anais Nin dead to rights in a passage so acerbic that I must quote it here:
A word here about [Henry Miller's] lover Anaïs Nin, so often cited for her own writing about sex: I’ll choose Henry any day for a good ride. The only thing sexy about Nin’s erotic stories is that she wrote them for a dollar a page, like a good little priapic whore. But the edgeless writing stops short in prose that is too “written,” too flowery, too soft-core. Which makes perfect sense when one realizes that her entire persona as a femme fatale living for “art” was a hoax of enormous proportions.
After devouring all her diaries as a teenager she ascended the pedestal as a role model … but when her unexpurgated diary, Incest, was published in 1992 my disappointment became outright resentment at her betrayal. There one reads of her chilling coldness about an abortion, and that she had simply excised from the diaries that were published during her lifetime the inconvenient fact that she had a banker husband who financed her “bohemian” lifestyle: her veils were Hermés not flea market.
But then, when it became clear that she never even had an orgasm (a decent barometer of actual sexual pleasure) with Miller or anyone else until she was 35, I was outraged at her deceit. As Miller later said of her: Only a crazy person lies in their own diary. Oh yes, and then as an adult, she fucked her father (CBRT: cognitive-behavioral-revenge-therapy) just to seal the deal.
Bentley’s essay appeared in the aptly-named Treats magazine over the weekend, you can read it all here. And oh how I wish I could dig up Michael O’Donoghue’s parody of erotic literary styles, “Pornocopia,” published in the very first April 1970 issue of National Lampoon, which would be a worthy follow-up. I still remember his parody of de Sade, which concluded: “The question is not why I whip my furniture, Monsieur, but rather, why doesn’t everybody whip their furniture?”