- First published in London in 1684, Aristotle’s Masterpiece is “one of the best-selling books ever produced in English on sex and making babies.” Aristotle, at the time, had assumed a role in the popular culture as an ancient sex expert; “his” sex guide reads in parts like the Kama Sutra in cheeky British doggerel, and it’s complete with a woodcut of a woman in dishabille, so teenagers probably masturbated to it. “But the book also provided a solid framework of contemporary knowledge about the basics of pregnancy, childbirth, and infant health, detailing topics such as the signs of pregnancy, how to tell false labor from true, the various positions the baby might present in, et cetera. Not surprisingly, since it was plagiarized from another midwifery book, this information was largely unexceptional.” It makes a cameo in Ulysses.
- “I attend a diplomatic soiree and as I am leaving my pants fall down (Is it desire?) … Cannibals. You were on an island and some black cannibals jumped out and they put you on the grill and poured oil on you. You, so peaceful. They ate you and they reported saying that the meat was hard and had to fatten more.” Santiago Ramón y Cajal discovered the neuron and hypothesized the function of synapses—which was a boon for science and all—but more important, he kept a dream journal, and it is piquant.
- Art has come to valorize depression, clearly, and to see genius in melancholy—but in the culture at large, thanks to pharmacology, depressives are still stigmatized. “Stigmatization and sanctification come with real ethical dangers. On the one hand, there is the danger that hidden in the wish for the elimination of depressive symptoms is a wish for the elimination of other essential attributes of the depressed person … On the other hand there is the danger of taking pleasure in the pain of the melancholic, and of adding the expectation of insight to the already oppressive expectations the melancholic likely has for herself … The language used in both discourses bears a striking resemblance to the language the depressed person uses in her own head.”
- Considered as a text, the Nashville music industry’s collected lyrics have one clear idée fixe: adultery. Even in the twenties, tunes like “The Jealous Sweetheart” and “The Mountaineer’s Courtship” wept over the wayward heart; by the time “Jolene” came around, the style had become an archetype, if not a formula. “Cheating songs have a lot of moving parts. All of them have at least three characters, each of which can be the narrator or the person being addressed … Country music has a somewhat limited palate, and adultery is one its primary colors. ‘To say something fresh and literal is the hardest thing’ … But if you have a mess of variables to slot into your tried-and-true story structure, it gets a little easier.”
- The refined songcraft of one James “Jimmy” Buffett, meanwhile, focuses its talents almost exclusively on epicurean pleasures. “Food and drink are central to the ethos of Jimmy Buffett, and even the most casual fan can rattle off a handful of songs that orbit around seaside eats. There are lesser known gems like 1994’s ‘Fruitcakes’ (Half-baked cookies in the oven / Half-baked people on the bus / There’s a little bit of fruitcake left in everyone of us) and 1970s classic ‘Grapefruit-Juicy Fruit’ (Grapefruit, a bathin’ suit, chew a little Juicy Fruit / Wash away the night).”
But the reason I was telling this story was because I was reminded of that night in St. Petersburg when I saw Annie Baker’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya. Like Vanya and Astrov, I am middle-aged, a drunk, often despondent—perhaps I am having a midlife crisis—and yes, I am an adulterer. (Vanya and Astrov are only would-be adulterers.) At the time I was trying to pick up this Russian waitress—sitting drunk in the snow-covered park, watching a bear dance at the end of a short rope—I was already an adulterer. Two years before, I had left my first wife for my assistant, who worked in my jewelry store. I drank my way into that affair, and I would drink my way through the divorce.
But the sad fact was I did not get to sleep with the Russian waitress. This is what actually happened.
The man with the bear would not leave me alone. Read More
The writer Anne Enright, a native of Ireland, is perhaps best known for her 2007 Booker Prize winning novel The Gathering, a darkly beautiful novel about a family gathering in the wake of a suicide. In The Forgotten Waltz, her fifth novel and her first since winning the Booker, she takes up a seemingly more mundane plot: that of adulterous love. Gina, married to Conor, narrates her affair with Séan—himself married and father to a troubled daughter, Evie—which comes to a head as Ireland’s economy collapses.
It’s an affair whose outcome is known from almost the very first pages, and Enright is not interested in judging Gina or Séan—Gina believes, ultimately, that there is nothing to forgive and, if Enright does not agree with her outright, she makes Gina a sympathetic enough character that it is possible for the reader to do so. The considerable narrative pleasures of this novel lie in Enright’s luminous language, as she sketches Gina’s attempts to figure out what happened and how and why. The author, who has a quick wit and a hearty laugh, as well as a refreshingly no-nonsense attitude, spoke to me recently from the West Coast, where she was on book tour. Read More
Have we abandoned the quest for serious smut?
When I was sixteen, my most literate friend gave me a copy of Couples, John Updike’s 1968 “seductive” celebration of “the post-pill paradise.” (It was the mass-market edition.) Even that snippet of cover copy gave me chills. Sure, the rest of the world had long since realized that there’s more to heaven than birth control. But I was growing up in the Catholic heart of Maryland. This was a primitive, pre-pill prison. You could whisper “Ortho Tri-Cyclen” and every boy on the street would get a boner.
Updike is vaunted as a realist par excellence, a careful chronicler of our suburban mores, but what I found in these pages seemed pretty fantastical to me. Certainly it bore no resemblance to the suburbia I knew. His characters talked about Bertrand Russell, bristled at undercooked lamb, and screwed each other senseless at every possible interval. It called my own world into question. Was this man in the grocery store just shopping, or was he composing a paean to his penis as he browsed, “his balls . . . all velvet, his phallus sheer silver”? Had the man shearing his Japanese maple praised his wife mere minutes ago for her “surprisingly luxuriant pudendum,” kneeling to pleasure her in the crabgrass? Was this couple merely waxing their PT Cruiser together, or was he squirting her with the hose in hopes that “she would take his blood-stuffed prick into the floral surfaces of her mouth”?
I couldn’t say, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. The truest moment of mystification came when I encountered the first of many instances of adultery:
Between the frilled holes her underpants wore a tender honey stain. Between her breasts the sweat was scintillant and salt. He encircled her, fingered and licked her willing slipping tips, the pip within the slit, wisps. Sun and spittle set a cloudy froth on her pubic hair: Piet pictured a kitten learning to drink milk from a saucer.
Color me baffled—blushing, but baffled. “Underpants”? Women wore panties, sure. Women wore thongs, g-strings, boy shorts, maybe garters. But “underpants”? This was a revelation. Verbs like encircling, fingering, licking—these were titillating enough, and for all I knew, this slant-rhyming “slip tip pip slit wisp” business was a good indicator of how it felt: an expressionist’s take on balling another dude’s wife. But the kitten simile I could not abide. Kittens were the paragon of innocence, one of those distracting nouns I’d trot out mentally during pre-calc when summoned to the chalkboard with a tent pole in my pants. To claim that any part of sex had anything to do with kittens, even metaphorical kittens, was ruinous to their deflationary power. This was prose so resolutely sexy that it sucked other, unsexy nouns into its vortex. I read and reread the passage, repulsed and attracted, trying to file it under “like” or “dislike”; I couldn’t. I understood, then, why most people stuck to porn. At least that raises fewer questions than it answers.
Couples is a funny thing, a bodice-ripper with a sense of entitlement. It goes on far too long. To this day, I’m neither old enough nor suburban enough to say for certain if it’s realism or not. Part of me hopes it is—if one is to while away one’s forties in a tiny New England hamlet, one might as well get laid—but the more sensible part of me suspects otherwise.
I understand perfectly why it’s fallen out of fashion. We’re inured against the erotic jolt it once promised. But I wonder why, in the era of radical genre-grafting surgeries, when zombies hijack Jane Austen and vampires haunt our every lowbrow nook and highbrow cranny, we’ve abandoned the quest for serious smut. An undead Mr. Darcy may be good for a chuckle, but has it got staying power? Many decades down the line, will it float around at yard sales and in school lockers, just waiting to blow some sixteen-year-old’s priggish little mind?
Dan Piepenbring is on the editorial staff of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.