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Posts Tagged ‘Rousseau’

The Secret Sex Lives of Famous People

February 5, 2014 | by

max factor primitif vintage perfume ad model jean patchett 1957

Jean Patchett, in a 1957 Primitif by Max Factor ad.

There are a lot of things I should be reading right now: great books, worthy books, new books, books that, quite frankly, I need to finish for work. But I cannot. Ever since I ran across The Secret Sex Lives of Famous People on my grandparents’ bookshelf, I have been unable to crack anything else.

As the title indicates, this is the best book ever written, and possibly the only book one need own. The table of contents lists such categories as “Late Virginity Losers,” “Outsize Organs,” “Minute Members,” “Orgiasts,” “Interfered with When Young,” “Overrated or Disappointing Lovers,” “Clean and Unclean,” and “Peeping Toms.” As of this writing, I am only as far as August Strindberg (cross-listed as “Mother-Fixated,” “Prodigious Progenitors,” “Sex with Partners Twenty Years (or More) Younger”). But I have every intention of dispatching Zola (“Bigamists,” “Sex Trials and Famous Scandals,” “Erotica”) before the sun sets.

Despite the subject matter, and the red-and-purple 1981-issue cover, the tone of the book is not lurid. It is objective, almost academic. Or at least, the authors make all their declarations with absolute authority. Each entry begins with a biographical sketch; these, in themselves, are worthy of much close attention. Of Somerset Maugham, the authors assert, “In his 92nd year, partially demented, often angry, sometimes euphoric, he died of lung congestion.”

Of course, the sex stuff is still the best. To wit:

Hemingway had several unusual theories about sex. He believed that each man was allotted a certain number of orgasms in his life, and that these had to be carefully spaced out. Another theory was that, if you had sex often enough, you could eat all the strawberries you wanted without contracting hives, even if you were allergic to the fruit.

Rousseau had numerous sexual eccentricities. He had the odd habit of going into raptures over inanimate objects. When living with Madame de Warens, he would wander through her house, kissing the armchair, the bedcurtains, even the floor.

James Joyce, meanwhile, “was a true underwear fetishist, and even carried a pair of doll’s panties in his pocket.”

Lately, my inbox has been flooded with desperate advertisements for inappropriate Valentine’s Day gifts. And if tubs of popcorn and sofa cushions qualify as tokens of love, I feel I may as well throw my hat into the ring and nominate The Secret Sex Lives of Famous People as the sum total of my 2014 gift guide. In this I follow family tradition: last year, my father gave my mother At Your Service, the unspeakably lurid memoir by the cheerful gent who, by his own account, acted as procurer and trick for everyone in Old Hollywood. (My mother talked so often, and so darkly and cryptically, about Charles Loughton’s fetishes that in the end I had to read it myself.) But really, who wouldn’t love it? Paper is ephemeral, flowers fade, diamonds are forever but pricey. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t prefer four whole pages on Mary Baker Eddy’s obsession with “Malicious Animal Magnetism.”

(Well, I suppose a real Joycean might prefer a pair of dolly panties.)

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Round Two

November 14, 2013 | by

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It was Tuesday and Mike Tyson was comparing himself to Machiavelli.

“After you kill the king,” he said, “you cut off his head and you be audacious. You say what you’re going to do to the next king. Speak foully.”

What great writer bears the most resemblance to Mike Tyson? At a talk at the New York Public Library, host Paul Holdengräber compared Tyson to Montaigne, Rousseau, and Orwell, all in the same breath. “Well, uh, that’s pretty profound,” said Tyson, who was there to promote his new memoir, Undisputed Truth. He might have had a different thinker in mind. “I think about Nietzsche a lot,” he writes in the book. Tyson the superman, a former petty criminal from Brownsville, Brooklyn, and the son of, as he put it, two people who “worked in the sex industry,” is by now a thoroughly American symbol. He found riches on the basis of physical strength and sheer willpower, then lost everything by the force of his scarred psyche. He’s currently aiming at the redemptive stage of his career. It isn’t the first time. He is tragic in a Greek kind of way. “I love war,” he told Holdengräber enthusiastically. “I love the players in war. I love the philosophy of war.” And he has the facial tattoos to prove it.

At the library, he walked the audience through the lineage of Frankish kings. He identifies with them because “they came from obscurity” and “I was born in obscurity and I never wanted to go back again.” Tyson is also an admirer of Pepin the Short, the first of the Carolingian rulers, a ruthless suppressor of revolts and the father of Charlemagne. At one point, he likened himself to Ben-Hur.

“Remember Ben-Hur?” Tyson said. “He became a wealthy man. He became a great conqueror for slaves. He became the best celebrity. And, wherever it was, he rescued the general of that ship, and after all that he couldn’t save his family. They put them with the lepers. His sister and his mother. Then he got his family from the lepers. He was a success.” There was a pause. “Look at success with me, myself.” Read More »

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Walking While Reading

May 11, 2012 | by

I’ve been reading a few things lately on the subject of walking, including treatments philosophical (Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker, Thoreau’s “Walking”), narrative (Walser’s The Walk, new from New Directions next month), and poetic (O’Hara’s Lunch Poems and some Wordsworth). I’m thinking of writing an essay on the subject and noting that my list so far consists of only dead men. Can you recommend any writers who are female and/or living who have written about walking?

Rebecca Solnit is female and very much alive. You should start with her Wanderlust: A History of Walking. And if city walking interests you—or the subject of walking with one’s mother—you will want to read Vivian Gornick’s modern classic, Fierce Attachments.

As it happens, I’m in the middle of a brand new book about walking: The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, by Robert MacFarlane. I keep saving it for bed to make it last. The American edition won’t be out until October, but the British edition comes out early next month; if you can possibly wait for it, I would. You will want to read MacFarlane, above all for the wealth of his references, but also for the unabashed, Norsey music of his prose:

I’ve read them all, these old-way wanderers, and often I've encountered versions of the same beguiling idea: that walking such paths might lead you–in Hudson’s phrase–to “slip back out of this modern world.” Repeatedly, these wanderers spoke of the tingle of connection, of walking as seance, of voices heard along the way. Bashō is said to have told a student that while wandering north he often spoke with long-dead poets of the past, including his twelfth-century forbear Saigyo: he therefore came to imagine his travels as conversations between “a ghost and a ghost-to-be.”

With so much to read out there—and more being published all the time—how do you find the time to get through it all?

Please don’t quote my actual name.

Dear “Stefan” (not his actual name),

You’re mixing me up with Kurt Andersen—and I have no idea how he gets through it all. I get through almost none of it. It just sits there on my desk and table and shelves, glowering, until our interns box it up and take it to the Strand.

But the nice thing about books is that they don’t go anywhere. The good ones keep.

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