Review of The Literary Companion to Sex


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DOING IT BY THE BOOK

A Review of The Literary Companion to Sex

Collected by Fiona Pitt-Kethley

New York: Random House

Review Copyright © 1991 by William A. Henkin

Originally published in Spectator

 

 

When I was 11 or 12 years old I walked into the kitchen one day to find my mother reading a book that was all covered in tinfoil. When she stepped out of the room for a minute I quickly peeled back the metal jacket and saw on the paper cover beneath it a very soft-focus picture of a naked woman.

The book was The Fifty-Minute Hour, a "collection of True Psychoanalytic Tales," written by Robert Lindner in the 1950s when his profession of psychiatry was still seen as radical. Lindner, author of Rebel Without a Cause and other books, was a radical, relatively speaking. Outspoken in his belief that psycho-social adjustment to a maladjusted society was dangerous as well as stupid, he suggested that the problem with the psychoanalysis of his day was that it commended just such an adjustment rather than promoting the dignity of self-realization.

This was subversive stuff for a suburban housewife to read while Joe McCarthy was still alive – no wonder if my mother hid it! (We actually lived in a city no one would confuse with suburbia today, but in the "Leave-It-to-Beaver" Eisenhower years our part of Detroit was as full as any suburb of modest brick and frame houses, green lawns, big trees, kids, dogs – and, it seems, under the censorious cover of the era's kitchen wrap, nekkid pitchers.)

But it wasn't the philosophical or psychological contents of Lindner's book my mother was hiding: it was that nude, presumably descending her own internal staircase. Remember (or imagine, depending on your age): Lady Chatterly's Lover had not yet been published in the United States and when it was, a few years later, it was introduced by a long essay written by a well-established literary critic testifying to its merit, and by a letter from a second prominent critic, poet, and playwright testifying to the value of the first critic's introduction as well as condemning Bowdlerization of Lawrence's novel. Playboy, only a few years old, was at the forefront of the American sexual revolution, and for most Americans who got to Paris a naughty visit to the Follies was still excitingly scandalous.

Why, then, did a 1950s U.S. popular book publisher use an image of a naked woman on the cover of a collection of psychiatric cases? Was it because psychotherapy was still assumed to be all about repressed sexual urges? Was it because at that time erotica was associated with radical intellectual thought? Was it because Lindner's liberal philosophy was overshadowed for prurient readers by unbridled sex in his paragraphs? Or was it simply because sex sells?

 

Any of these possibilities may underlie the publication of a very different collection, The Literary Companion to Sex, which is composed of more than 400 pages of what adolescents used to call the good parts, culled from nearly 150 sources over 18 months during which British author and journalist Fiona Pitt-Kethley read, she claims, "nothing but sex literature."

By "sex literature" the collector does not mean what most people think of as literary pornography, soft- or hard-core: there's no Peyton Place here, no Valley of the Dolls – and no Harriet Marwood, Governess, no Story of O, no Mother Truckers, no Macho Sluts either. You can read the whole volume with both hands. Still, though much of it is pretty high-fallutin', there's plenty of entertainment in these pages.

For example, since Pitt-Kethley has done a lot of homework for her readers, you may now save yourself the trouble of poring over the Bible to find the two paragraphs in which Lot offers his virgin daughters to the Sodomites rather than let his neighbors harass the angels he has sheltered overnight. If you want to know why your drama professor referred to Aristophanes's Lysistrata as a feminist play, here are 30 lines that will probably get you through your final exam. And you no longer have to search through the glory that was Rome for its famous ancient randiness, since Pitt-Kethley includes a handful of readings from Ovid, Catullus, Petronius, Seutonius, Juvenal, Martial, Apuleius, and Virgil.

Not just from the ancients, but also from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Restoration and right up through our own belovèd Twentieth Century, The Literary Companion to Sex is like a peep-show with 150 windows providing a voyeur's tiny view of the way the literati have written about sex. Most of the thoughts as recorded in this book concern relations between men and women, but gay men are represented here and there writing about gay male sex, and a couple of lesbian writers contribute on gay female sex. Sex, after all, is sex. As Adaios of Macedon suggested to his fellows several thousand years ago,

 

If you should see a handsome man, strike while the iron is hot –

Speak your mind, grab him by the balls, and above all, do not

Tell him, "I'd like to be your brother and I reverence you" –

Or modesty will close the way for what you want to do.

 

Of course, people are not peoples' only sex objects. The famous Anonymous, when a contemporary of Adaios's, spoke in a clyster's (a dildo's) voice in "On a Clyster":

 

I, only, am allowed to fuck a wife,

Quite openly, at her own mate's request.

I mount young lads, those in the prime of life,

Old men, maids – at their grieving parents' behest....

 

The Literary Companion to Sex naturally contains many selections most literature professors would consider obvious for this sort of anthology, including some pages from each of Rabelais, The Arabian Nights, Boccaccio's Decameron, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and Zola's Nana, a few poems John Donne wrote before he became a minister ("Madam that flea that Crept between your brests / I envied, that there he should make his rest...."), slices from such relevant Renaissance dramas as 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, Andrew Marvell's contribution to freshman lit courses "To His Coy Mistress," and some of Shakespeare's poetry as well as a cutting from one of his lesser-known plays. Other selections are delightfully surprising, such as the Angel's response to Adam's query about how celestial beings make love, from Milton's Paradise Lost, and a description of Dionysus's and Ariadne's erotic dance, from Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy.

Pitt-Kethley organized her book by time period, and notes that themes emerged transcending the bounds of creed or nationality.

 

The writers of the ancient world, in the main, proved to be the most open and unashamed about sex....

The Middle Ages and the Renaissance, although bawdy, were overshadowed by religion and doom.... The fate in hell of the adulteress in Gesta Romanorum provides a memorably kinky image of tortured womankind that must have provided good masturbation material for pious monks everywhere....

By the time we reach the seventeenth century, dildoes, and jokes about them, are big news, as are venereal diseases. The Restoration and the eighteenth century provide a period of frankness similar to that of the ancient world. It's probably the easiest period in which to find good sex writing.... By the nineteenth century, classicists couldn't afford to be even half as frank as the originals. Victorian translation is responsible for giving us a deeply distorted view of Latin and Greek literature and the individuals who wrote it.

.... Literature became schizophrenic during Victoria's reign. Sex didn't happen in the official literature, but it happened nonstop – to an unrealistic extent – in The Pearl and other underground writing. Kinkiness was in. It was the great period for fetishism and sadomasochism. At the same time, censorship was paramount.

 

But if you're not a literateur, and if you don't have a bent for erotic time travel, it's the twentieth century that is most likely to engage you here, whether you prefer old standards or new efforts that build fresh notions upon old motions.

 

For instance, a modern Anonymous contributes a raunchy ballad called "Eskimo Nell," about a woman who killed a pair of famous studs by out-fucking them when 40 whores couldn't do the job.

 

When a man grows old and his balls grow cold,

And the end of his knob turns blue,

When it's bent in the middle like a one-string fiddle,

He can tell you a yarn or two....

Well, Deadeye Dick and Mexico Pete

Had been hunting in Dead Man's Creek,

And they'd had no luck in the way of a fuck

For nigh on half a week;

Just a moose or two, or a caribou,

Or a reindeer or a doe....

Now Deadeye Dick was breathing quick,

With lecherous snorts and grunts.

As forty arses were bared to view,

To say nothing of forty cunts....

It was Eskimo Nell who broke the spell

In accents calm and cool,

"You cunt-struck shrimp of a Yankee pimp,

D'you call that thing a tool?

If this here town can't wear that down,"

She sneered to the squirming whores,

"There's one little cunt that will do the stunt,

That's Eskimo Nell's, not yours"....

 

Our century provides a couple of slick bestiality pieces, too. One is classic but plain, from Guillaume Apollinaire:

 

She masturbated me but would not let me touch her. Then she called her dog, a beautiful Great Dane, and rubbed his tool for a moment. When his pointed prick was erect, she made the dog mount her, ordering me to help the beast. His tongue was lolling out and he was panting with lust.

My suffering was so intense that I fainted as I climaxed. When I came to, Florence was calling me urgently. The dog's penis, once it had penetrated, refused to come out again....

 

But among my favorites in this volume is a chapter called "Fur and Skin" by Jonathan Meades, told from the vantage of a dog trained to act in skin flicks:

 

Aniseed is inseparably linked in my mind to the bodies of fallen women. It is the madeleine that evokes a Magdelene. I know what you're thinking: dirty dog, flashy talk. I can get flashier still. I can do it in French. If you do it in French it's poetry. "C'est la medeleine qui voque une Madeleine." Good, eh? .... Pat me then.

Anyway, my Magdalene – that's what they were, you could tell because they all had their jars of ointment. And, no, it wasn't feet they anointed. But otherwise they were the very picture of that whore in her pre-eminent state....

 

Oh, woof.

After sliding through one of Philip Roth's interminable masturbation scenes, from Portnoy's Complaint, then zipping along the limp dick problem Erica Jong faced in Fear of Flying, and whizzing past the in-your-face pissoir sex from Joe Orton's diaries, once more I found myself drawn – as I first was in adolescence, soon after I disrobed the cover of my mother's book – to the oh!-so-innocent celebration of sex that made generations of young would-be poets think that e.e. cummings spelled his last name that way on purpose, too.

 

she being Brand

-new; and you

know consequently a

little stiff i was

careful of her and(having

thoroughly oiled the universal

joint tested the gas felt of

her radiator made sure her springs were O.

K.)i went right to it flooded-the-carburator cranked her

up,slipped the

clutch (and then somehow got into reverse she

kicked what

the hell)next

minute i was back in neutral tried and

again slo-wly; bare,ly nudg. ing(my

lev-er Right-

oh and her gears being in

A 1 shape passed

from low through

second-in-to-high like

greasedlightning)just as we turned the corner of Divinity

avenue i touched the accelerator and give

her the juice,good

(it

was the first ride and believe i we was

happy to see how nice she acted right up to

the last minute coming back down by the Public

Gardens i slammed on

the

intrnalexpanding

&

externalcontracting

brakes Bothatonce and

brought allofher tremB

-ling

to a:dead.

stand-

Still).

 

God, I'm a sucker for sentiment.

But I passed right over that arch-sentimentalist, Henry Miller, when I discovered a selection by Wendy Perriam from her novel, The Fifty-Minute Hour. Although there is no notice in Pitt-Kethley's book about the Lindner work from which Perriam borrowed her title, the subject of the selection would have fit quite nicely under the first book's cover. To quote Pitt-Kethley quoting Perriam,

 

The pious Catholic housewife Mary makes her first attempt at masturbation, which she decides to do as a penance, making it as painful as possible, and expressing her horror at the new world of vibrators and sex-toys she has just discovered. She offers up the pain to her psychoanalyst John-Paul, but gradually pain changes to ecstasy, and she climaxes to the throbbing pumping imagery of the Steam Museum which she has recently visited with her sons.

 

Is the Steam Museum the altar upon which all pious Catholic housewives make sacrifices to their therapists? No wonder shrinks take breaks between clients.

Few female authors are represented in this volume, which Pitt-Kethley says is not her fault: few women wrote about sex till very recently, and those that did, like Sappho, often had their work destroyed by men in the name of some male deity like Jaweh, Allah, or Christ. Some women, like Anais Nin, wrote porn specifically for men.

But randy and funny as this book often is, it is not only male-dominated and heterosexually vanilla in its orientation: its selections are also heavily Euro-centric, which includes, of course, the literature of white America.

To some extent it's churlish of me to quibble about Pitt-Kethley's selections: an anthology is always a personal thing. But leaving women of all persuasion, homosexual men, funk, and fetishists apart for whatever set of reasons – which cuts down on your fundamental erotica by some wide margin – I know there's more hot sex in Hindu literature than just a couple pages from the Vatsyayana, more Chinese erotica than eight pages from one of Wang Shih-Chen's novels, and lots of other – sometimes very famous – erotica from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. I would guess there's plenty in aboriginal cultures too, since sex is everywhere, and everywhere of interest to us humans who are always in heat.

So I fault the book for not being what, perhaps, it never set out to be, and to some extent I fault it as well for not being what it does set out to be "Every book and every poem has its orgasm or high point," Pitt-Kethley writes; "what I have tried to do is collect together all these orgasams to make one long orgiastic read."

Well, is this one long orgiastic read? I think not. But it is delightful, yes; and instructive, certainly; and also very helpful to have on the shelf in a time and place dominated by bigots who want to turn the clock back to a time that never was, imagining that the world will suck up to them if it becomes at last a place where no one fucks and no one sucks and no one even thinks of sex.

Come to ponder, that's enough justification for this book right there: it's a reminder that people have always thought about sex, written about sex, and done sex, and that the only thing that finally seems to stop us all is not censorship but death.

 

 

 


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