Review of Sex and Other Sacred Games

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A Review of SEX AND OTHER SACRED GAMES: Love, Desire, Power, and Possession

by Kim Chernin and Renate Stendahl

New York: Times Books

Review Copyright © 1989 by William A. Henkin

Originally published in Spectator


Three years and 6000 miles after they meet fighting for table space in a Paris café, Alma Runau and Claire Heller stroll down from the aftermath of sunset in the Berkeley hills, headed for Claire's home and what probably maybe at last will possibly be the sexual consummation of their extraordinarily cerebral courtship. Between times they have one brief visit, when Claire appears unannounced and unexpected at Alma's shack in the south of France, and write lengthy letters and diary entries that, like their conversations, are philosophically ruminative on Alma's part and psychologically symbolic on Claire's. This intellectual division reflects classic literary typology, distinguishing the extroverted, aggressive sensibilities of Claire, the American wanderer, from the introverted, repressed sensibilities of the German expatriate, Alma.

The division also reflects the difficulties the two women encounter trying to seduce each other, when one is unwilling and the other unable to simply come right out and make a proposition, or even to stake a claim to her own desires. Though this configuration of problems is known to stimulate passionate acquaintanceships among college sophomores, it translates only with the greatest literary skill into successful fiction. In this hard-working and well-intentioned novel it leaves little room to hope that the protagonists will succeed in any enterprise of love.

The characters debate feminism, women's sexuality, and the places women can, do, and ought to occupy in what still appears to be a male-dominated world. Therefore, a female reader might more readily find grist for her own mill than I found for mine in the erstwhile Socratic dialogues that occupy nearly all the women's time together (mostly written by Ms. Stendahl), and the monologues that pass for letters when they are apart (mostly written by Ms. Chernin).

Men live in this world too, however, and are no less (albeit differently) crippled than women by its imbalances. In a sense, we must rely on women to state their issues clearly without stereotypical rhetoric, and to make their debates cogent. In its attempt to combine political with sexual seduction, this is what the novel fails to do.


"You know what I liked best about Eve?" Alma gave her shoulders a nonchalant stretch. "The sexy three minutes with the young Marilyn Monroe. I liked what was going on between the women – the adoration of each other."

"I remember the admiration...."

"Admiration' – indeed! Apart from that, it's the typical after-war movie with the message: now women, this is enough. You are strong, independent, artistic, etcetera – but you need a man. You aren't real women without a man."

"I see. You think they shouldn't have a man."

"No, Claire Heller, they can have hundreds of men if they like. The correct answer has always been, a fish without a bicycle isn't a real fish!"

After a second of surprise the woman laughed: "What if you made it, a woman without love'?"

"Well, what about it? Couldn't she have a dog, for example?"

"Oh yes, I forgot." The woman smiled her unoffended smile. "Why does a woman need a man if she is in fact a man herself?"

Alma clicked her tongue: "Wrong again. A man is a man is a man – no matter if he has a woman or a bicycle. But a woman's reality is reduced to her love or sex life. Revolting!"

"Reduced to love... Does this go together with charm being exhausting? Could it be that you stick to the old rules? Why not turn them around and declare that a man without love isn't a human being?"

"Men believe they are human beings par excellence, no matter what I declare."

"Why adopt what they believe?"

"It's a world belief – in case you haven't noticed. How can one change that? It's maddening for me... as a feminist!"

"Getting mad is an interesting way of participating in the same belief."

Alma stared at her. "But you have to acknowledge the facts before you can change them! Rage is the basic step of any revolt."

"Maybe. It's a gesture of impotence rather than power, however."

Alma stopped, suddenly unsure what this was all about.


Like Alma, I have to come to grips with my ignorance on this particular, tendentious plane. My reaction a few years back to the all-male movie My Dinner With André was similar in some ways to the response I have to Sex and Other Sacred Games. I wondered then, as I sat in the theatre, why my college pals and I had not been droll enough to film ourselves discovering existentialism and elective affinities in our college dormitories, in our student unions, in our off-campus apartments, in our local bars and coffeehouses. Could we have been rich and famous too? I did not understand what made the critics regard as artistic and important the same post-adolescent debates we had had in college, just because they came from the mouths of guys on screen who had grown to be middle-aged men.

In the generation following mine, I'm sure, college women argued about their places in our society in that same eager spirit of discovery. Likewise, I am certain these debates were vital to their psychological, intellectual, and spiritual growth. And now I wonder what makes them important enough to publish when they come from the pens of middle-aged women.

There is good material in these pages, to be sure. Claire Heller's story about making herself into a whore-as-sex-artist, and the narration of her training as a sacred prostitute in Greece, say a great deal about the poverty of modern inter-gender relations, and how it could be overcome.


She believes, and has practiced the idea that this sacred power of sexual love is missing in the modern world. That it is a revolutionary force. That women know more about it than men, when they allow themselves to surrender to it. Women, she thinks, have the historic task of bringing this ancient power back to the world.


* * *


Is this why men seek women, call it lust? Deeper, there is dread, to wake at midnight, crying in darkness. Those who swagger want to crawl, those who thrust long to creep into. The urge is sadness. What they call instinct, that is the knowledge: he is alone, could die of hunger if she does not touch him.


Similarly, Alma's angry pleas go beyond the quasi-separatist feminism she has left behind.


I like to be able to step out of nature when I choose. Deciding about my own body, giving birth or not, my own living or dying. Deciding how to make the world sap flow by choosing to desire whomever I love.

I am convinced our human destiny is to be in and out of nature. Not split into two gender-halves, men "out," women "in." It's gender impairment on a global scale.

The balance I long for is the constant dynamic between "in" and "out."


The balances these two authors seek as women are the balances I long for too as a man. Perhaps it is because I agree so deeply with them, and with their protagonists, that I wish they'd found a form more suited to their passions than this novel.


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