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Satanic Seduction; Dufus Casanovas

January 20, 2012 | by

Dear The Paris Review,

Last week’s question on the topic of books you should read when young got me thinking: Can you provide a warning, or cautionary note, to attach to any books that may prove to be catastrophic when read at too young an age?

Thank you for your help.

All the best,
Daniel Davies

Fifteen years ago the late Roger Shattuck published a long attack on the writings of the Marquis de Sade, arguing that they were overrated as art and dangerous as pornography, especially to young readers. Being a young reader, I sneered at the time. But for all I know Shattuck was right. Kids are mean enough as it is, and too apt to treat each other like crash-test dummies, even without some lunatic marquis egging them on. I might also keep Larry Clark’s books on a high shelf. Drugs are sexy, sure, but the kids don’t need to know that. I sometimes wonder if I should have read Kafka Was the Rage in high school or the memoirs of Andy Warhol, or Edie, or quite so much Martin Amis. I’m not sure The Changing Light at Sandover was such a good idea, either. (Better precious than semiprecious, James Merrill liked to say—but surely there are limits.)

Do teenage boys still need to be warned off Kerouac? A friend of mine, currently in the second grade, has memorized The Complete Calvin and Hobbes and is in the habit of quoting it at length. It seems to me that this could turn into a problem. I remember the poet Peter Taylor complaining that he was taught To the Lighthouse in high school, when he was too young to know what was going on, or even to know that he didn’t know. Maybe the best you can do is to read once in boredom and incomprehension, then go back in protosenility and read everything again.

I am juggling lovers, which is no easy task. What are, in your opinion, the great literary love triangles? Which books will guide me in my complicated amorous pursuits?

Here at The Paris Review, we are of the Liz Lemon school: the word lovers bums us out unless it comes between “meat” and “pizza.” Anyway, how could we choose a favorite triangle? Pretty much every great novel contains one. That said, I’d probably vote for the ur-triangle of Satan, Adam, and Eve in Paradise Lost. In Book Four, Satan stands there and watches Adam and Eve having paradisical sex, until he can’t stand it anymore and turns away—like Warhol, running out of the room during a porn shoot: “I'm going to have an organza!” (See “cautionary note,” above.) That’s when Satan cooks up the plan to seduce Eve and ruin things in Eden.

What’s great about the passage—what makes Satan Satan—is the argument that he’s going to do all of this for Adam and Eve’s own good:

... Aside the Devil turnd
For envie, yet with jealous leer maligne
Ey'd them askance, and to himself thus plaind [i.e. complained].

Sight hateful, sight tormenting! thus these two
Imparadis't in one anothers arms
The happier Eden, shall enjoy thir fill
Of bliss on bliss, while I to Hell am thrust,
Where neither joy nor love, but fierce desire,
Among our other torments not the least,
Still unfulfill'd with pain of longing pines;
Yet let me not forget what I have gain'd
From thir own mouths; all is not theirs it seems:
One fatal Tree there stands of Knowledge call'd,
Forbidden them to taste: Knowledge forbidd'n?
Suspicious, reasonless. Why should thir Lord
Envie them that? can it be sin to know,
Can it be death? and do they onely stand
By Ignorance, is that thir happie state,
The proof of thir obedience and thir faith?
O fair foundation laid whereon to build
Thir ruine! Hence I will excite thir minds
With more desire to know, and to reject
Envious commands, invented with designe
To keep them low whom knowledge might exalt
Equal with Gods ...

If you ask me, that comes pretty close to a triangulator’s credo. Who in a bad mood hasn’t suspected that so-called happy couples “stand/By ignorance”? And who hasn’t been seduced by “more desire to know, and to reject / Envious commands”?

I’m an idolator of beauty and have trouble falling for any gal not possessing physical charms. Is Wilde right when he says, “Those who go beneath the surface do so at their own peril”? Is the visible world really the mystery, or should I search instead for that amorphous personality everyone goes on about?

Dear Idolator,

Your question reminds me of the song “Medias Negras,” by the Madrileño bard Joaquín Sabina (a song dramatized in a surprising number of homemade videos), about a ladies’ man who “thinks he’s Steve McQueen” and who “has no religion / besides a woman’s body.” One rainy evening he sees a blonde at a crosswalk, wearing a miniskirt and “using her handbag to bullfight with a bus.” Overlooking this clear sign of a strong personality, the dufus Casanova lights her cigarette, buys her a drink, and takes her home, they spend the night together, then she vanishes. In Sabina’s words, “she stole my wallet and my computer / but worse, she stole my heart.”

You catch my drift.

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  1. Emma | January 20, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    Reading “Lolita” at 13 can also be pretty confusing.

  2. Doug | January 21, 2012 at 1:49 am

    Reading Jim Brown’s autobiography at 12 taught me a great deal about cocain and threesomes, and football – i’m not sure i would’ve gotten as much from it at 13

  3. Robert Hagedorn | January 21, 2012 at 6:26 pm

    Adam and Eve? Challenge yourself. Google First Scandal.

  4. annie | January 21, 2012 at 8:25 pm

    I read Portnoy’s Complaint when about 14. Probably would have been a bit scandalized anyway, since I tend toward the prudish… but what really made it alarming was the fact that my parents gave it to me to read.

  5. Amanda | January 23, 2012 at 4:10 am

    Knowledge is essential we can not hide things from our children in hopes of protecting them when in fact what we are doing is leaving them unarmed when the real world comes knocking. Great literature exposes you to a world which otherwise you may have not known. Instead of thinking as this exposure as encouragement to experiment why not think of it as an opportunity to live vicariously and still learn the lessons others have so painstakingly come to. I have learned much from Hunter S and never did half as many drugs I hope my daughter will learn from them too. Also Kerouac has far more value than Sade but that is purely my opinion. As for a triangle Sidney Carton, Lucie Manette and Fernand Mondego from The Count Of Monte Cristo. It shows how far we will go into self loathing, and destruction to bring forth vengeance and ultimately forgiveness and enlightenment. We will renounce anything as humans in the name of love.

  6. Chris Flynn | January 24, 2012 at 4:30 am

    The only books my non-reading parents had in the house were A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, both of which I read around 7 years of age. For years after, the sight of a crucifix dangling around a girl’s neck caused me considerable anxiety, though I do still love Eeyore.

  7. Lorin Stein | January 24, 2012 at 9:08 am

    THE EXORCIST! still, to this day, the only book that ever made me *jump* in terror. (I was twenty-seven.)

    Emma, I gather LOLITA is confusing for 13-year-old boys too.

  8. Emma | January 26, 2012 at 11:45 am

    I’ve never been able to shake the term “pubic floss”, for some reason.

  9. Syra | January 28, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    I read Jane Eyre, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Great Expectations as part of my curriculum. A fairly depressing, bleak lot. The ‘inevitable tragedy’ aspect loomed large over my unconscious for a long while.

  10. CAROLINE | February 24, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    I read “Lolita” on my own as a freshman at Wellesley (17 or 18?) and even that was a shock. I was a strong lassie and survived – but HH’s description of college girls – “there are few physiques I loathe more than the heavy low-slung pelvis, thick calves and deplorable complexion of the average co-ed” – I couldn’t shake either. Then again, my head’s stuffed w/so many choice bits from the book. Emma’s ‘pubic floss’ – talk about al dente! One more thing, somehow, Nabokov manages to provide us w/a description of female genitalia (“…delta…”) near the end of the book, in ‘Coalmont’, that is not cringe worthy, actually, I think, beautiful. Quite a coup.

  11. CAROLINE | February 26, 2012 at 11:04 am

    RIP, Dmitri! He loved Whitney Houston, believe it or not, funny timing.

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