Politics and the Body
This critique of Sex for America: Politically Inspired Erotica edited by Stephen Elliott is a long essay because that is the only way to do justice to a book as important as this one. It is a complex collection of short stories published by Harper Perennial. For those made impatient by length, this anthology is a definite thumbs up. For those who want to know why it is, the answer is neither simple nor brief. Let me say that I don’t always agree with the politics articulated in this book, but in the main I find the authors’ vision compelling if not haunting.
These stories are not charged by any standard ideology. The premises that fire these authors reflect the breadth of our time against the backdrop of art and culture. The stories rise from the deep passion, irony and thought that under-girds good polity. All the writers show genuine intellectual depth. It is revealed through deeply felt, organic insight rather than rhetoric or slogans. Their work resonates with myriad aspects of popular culture from music, comics, tattoo parlors, science fiction, romance novels, pornography, the ‘new’ journalism, and the sleazy Times Square sex shops with their sticky floors before they were made into shilling stations for hard core Disney. We are reminded that real democracy is messy.
At the same time these stories employ imagery evocative of artists such as Lichtenstein and Rauschenberg, or writers like Joe Orton, Kafka, Dick Farina, Margaret Atwood, and Dostoyevsky. Some of these stories sing with the enigmatic pull of Bessie Smith, Tom Waits, or Bob Dylan. They reach that far into the psyche because they explicate sexual behavior as a direct parallel to the way we treat each other as social beings. That juxtaposition is the natural fulcrum of politics. Sex for America is an absolutely unique work of political art, and demonstrates what is so sadly lacking in much of what passes for art now.
As such these stories may represent the first important American fiction of the 21st Century because they are written with the terrible clarity of writers who will allow themselves nothing less than to look at our wounded nation each day with new and open eyes. What they see is mostly a future landscape of betrayal, crime, and depravity brought about by the dominant political philosophy of the last thirty years. Yet they attack their work as writers with deliberately abrasive and deft humor, gritty acceptance, cynical hope, and a sardonic willingness to face the real perversity of modern America: tyranny.
No author here holds themselves as the righteous superior of the America around them. These are not Birkenstock liberals. That is the special power of these stories for they do not excoriate those in power without freely admitting that their characters put these leaders in charge and abetted them by their own indifference and timidity. In that sense, this is a very unforgiving book, and from my point of view, it’s about time. Unlike almost all other American erotica, it is not a retreat from reality but a brutal and imaginative advance into it. It is as hard and relentless as the people who made America what it has become.
All twenty-five stories have strength and strong merit. The quality of the writing varies but the presence of insight does not. Some of the writers are far better masters of style, but none is less than gifted. In some cases you can see that their talent has not yet fully caught up with their complex vision, or that their ideas have not gelled to full resolution. We have a right to expect such clarity from short forms, even if the story must resolve into ambiguity. On the other hand, these writers are tackling a complex task.
Complexity is the touchstone of this collection. The first story by Jerry Stahl, “Li’l Dickens,” is a grimly hilarious confession of a man who is hopelessly drawn to have anal sex with Dick Cheney in the backroom of a rural gun shop. In nauseating detail the narrator describes his arousal over the various aged, sagging parts and dysfunctional peculiarities of the Vice President’s body and mind. He is hypnotized by Cheney’s delusional will to power compared with the unprepossessing facts of who and what the Vice President really is. Cheney here is a Nietzschean monster – a clown version of Reinhard Heydrich -- obsessed with his own mythic destiny and his psychosexual right to control the fate of others. By the end of the story, the narrator is as awed by Cheney’s ‘testosteronic’ magnetism as he is revolted at having ever touched the Vice President with his fingers, much less his cock.
These stories are filled with necessary blood sacrifice, some sexual and some apocalyptic. In the recent film “Pan’s Labyrinth” we saw that once Fascism had taken root in the body politic of Spain, there would be no escape from the suffering of scouring out the disease. Like “Pan’s Labyrinth,” Sex for America shows that aim is not simply achieved. Mr. Elliott’s anthology delicately reminds us to be careful so that in killing a political monster we do not become him. Justice and honor cannot be conveniently set aside in the name of justice and honor. The Second World War led a generation to that elegant and terrible truth. Though we apparently learned nothing from Viet Nam, we may be getting the idea at last in Iraq.
In this book, the two wars in Iraq make clear that innocence, faith, hope, integrity, youth, courage, and honor cannot simply wash away the corrupting power of imperialism. Anthony Swofford’s, “Escape and Evasion” presents us with a gay Marine who is inexplicably compelled to rape other men because he has the skill, the training and the physical power to do so. He is charming, straightforward and even likeable as he recites his crimes with a fatalistic sense of inevitability. He does what he does because he can.
He in no way claims he is a victim, nor does he give the impression that he ever possessed the power to divert his own sexual violence. What he lacks is any awareness of the proportions of his crimes. He does not understand his moral violation of another’s individuality. He has turned his comrades in arms into his toys and targets.
Would he be this person had he not joined the Marines? Who knows? But the nature of war and soldiering certainly enabled him to become what he is. What is the basic political lie here? What we want of soldiers in war is not restored order. That is most particularly the case in wars of conquest. We want enough directed, ferocious anarchy to win. Justice is irrelevant. Those at home -- especially those in power -- deny this by sentimentalizing war. Those doing the fighting know otherwise, or they are the first to die. Victory washes away the victors’ sins.
All of these stories anatomize the growing American tendency toward fascism. Fascism rests on sentimental nationalism bolstered by unreason. That usually takes the form of Dr. Goebbels’s Big Lie, or one of such magnitude and arrogance that it is the hardest to refute. Witness for example, “Mission accomplished.” Fascism favors a glorious, mythic past that must be restored. It calls for heroic sacrifice so that we will ignore the unsatisfactory present. Fascism rides on dark mysteries and rituals that only the select are permitted to understand. Secrecy becomes the heart of national security. The aim of the individual is to be accepted by the few in power. The price of acceptance is intellectual submission, so the system builds on itself.
In Jami Attenberg’s “Victory Garden” we meet a teenage couple who are driven by a post apocalyptic system of bizarre totalitarian legal codes for social and sexual conduct. The background of the story is one of ruin and decay in which the fondest memory of the young, no matter how dimly understood or even remembered, is the gas driven automobile. It is the sacred totem symbolizing life. Like the boys worshipping the rotting pig skull in Lord of the Flies, it is utterly feckless, nihilistic misdirection.
Fascism is either evil because it is mindless, or mindless because it is evil. Either way it makes no difference on the ground. One thing this book makes clear is that fascism does not have to wear its name and bear its runes and sigils to be what it is. It can in fact be quite homespun and banal if not good fodder for comedy a la “Spring Time for Hitler.” Drums and martial threats may enhance Fascism, but it works by embracing unreason as an excuse to control even the most intimate regions of the body. As Beria and Karl Rove always knew, authority gains far more power from under your bed than from the bully pulpit.
Mr. Elliott’s anthology of short stories is a landmark of erotic art. It reveals the organic nature of our government’s erosion of our freedom and our constitution. The free market has replaced the social contract. Competition is virtue while cooperation is suspect. Iconic ideologies (religion, advertising, creationism, globalization, capitalism etc.) are held up as systems of moral ‘truth’ in order to obscure the meaning of truth itself.
The most damaging part of that cycle is self-delusion. “Measure A or B, or Me?” by Alison Tyler is told from the perspective of a politically indifferent wife who wants her local-issues obsessed husband to fuck her. They make a wager -- which she loses (or wins) and he hammers her with iron enthusiasm up the ass. It is a little more than she bargained for but a very lively fuck, and so they make another round of bets to keep on fucking. It is a disarming, playful piece.
However, Mr. Elliott follows it immediately with “The Candidate’s Wife” by James Frey in which a young liberal Capitol Hill staffer cannot resist fucking the wife of a right wing Republican in the reeking men’s room of the staffer’s local tavern. Even when it is clear that they are both in bed with their own personal devils, she will not break it off. She returns to the bar for more screwing to the tune of the urinals. Yet it is she, no matter how driven, who clearly has the upper hand. With each fuck she compromises him by the force of her awareness. Coercion is an easy by-product of her satisfaction. It is a useful bonus. He is rendered a moral cipher, a thing of pure appetite, a consumer.
The two stories together illustrate that innocence is no defense in politics precisely because it is self-delusion. What you don’t know can hurt you, and so not knowing is no excuse. Thus we are all responsible for the way things are. No matter how passive we may be; no matter how naïvely hedonistic, we are all guilty when we allow tyranny to overtake reason and obedience to transcend debate. Eventually, it is the nature of Fascism to demand control of our bodies, our passions, our thoughts and perhaps worst of all our dreams.
These stories make various responses to that demand. Rick Moody’s “Notes on Redevelopment” posits an America that is divided by secessionists between those who want the narrow sexual confines of Christian fundamentalism versus those who seem to be driven to organized debauchery. Both are examples of the price of extremity, which twists the natural impulses of our sexuality into ideological tics and quirks.
Michelle Raymond’s “Milk” presents us with a woman who suckles enemy guerillas in a sweating jungle hut. She is a covert operative of the American government. She is feeding them poison milk from her own breasts, an act that gives her deep sexual satisfaction. In doing so she is also poisoning both them and herself. Her body has become a perverse sexual instrument of foreign policy.
She feels herself ennobled as a vessel of disease. Like Salome in Oskar Panizza’s play “The Council of Love,” her deep erotic appeal has been turned into a source of infection. Her seductive power is based on an emblematic maternalism. Ms. Raymond has created an excruciating take on “Mother, Home, and Apple Pie.” It is a relief that she blows aside some of the fog of sentimental nonsense, because it clears the way to see our lives anew.
In politics as in love and art, we are not the sum of what we have been, or even what we are. We are only and entirely what we can become. Thus we are limited essentially by what we can imagine. Those who glorify war and conquest become masters of empire. Thus those who would fulfill a fictive national destiny find the rule of law an intolerable encumbrance. They plead that only disloyal malcontents object, when the fulfillment of that destiny reaches beyond civilized or humane behavior.
Once tyranny takes control, the easiest course for most of us has been to turn away from the social contract, and -- emulating our masters -- become creatures of dumb appetite. Tyranny uses fear and isolation to produce cringing obedience and a smothering silence. One good way to do that is to harass the free expression of sexuality as the Bush Administration has religiously done. At the same time, they issue tacit permission to those who cooperate to indulge themselves as they like. Those are the methods of gangsters, pimps and insider traders. The individual simply disappears into the system.
Nowhere have I seen that better illustrated than in Nick Flynn’s “A Crystal Formed Entirely of Holes.” The premise of the story is that in some future dystopia, a cure is found for all the ills of the body from cancer to the bits of yourself you just don’t like. They can be literally erased by a crystal composed entirely of holes. The presence of this absence moves from a medical treatment to a mass fetish until the ultimate sexual charge is to be pierced through in so many ways that daylight shines through you. Your allure is the degree to which you are not there. You are no longer a body with various enticing and useful, sensual, fuckable holes. You are at last a hole surrounded by the remnants of your being.
No doubt Mr. Flynn is playing with the current fashion for piercing and hacking at ourselves to create erotic mutilation, Flynn’s story goes well beyond that. His characters engage in erotic worship of their lover’s disappearance, as well as their own. The less they exist, the more they love themselves. Visible corporeal beings have gone out of fashion. What more could a dictator want than a nation of the disappeared? They are still able to work and to breed, but essentially they are phantoms suited only to serve his/her narcissistic fantasies. What the tyrant really loves most is himself and by extension, the absolute imposition of his world view.
In “A Crystal Made Entirely of Holes,” penetration – not orgasm or procreation – becomes the ultimate sexual experience. Thus the most basic thrust is a celebration of annihilation. It is ritualized into inflicting a ceremonial wound, and it can be repeated again and again and again in the presence of your lover’s yielding absence.
In another age, these themes would have been better treated in a novel, but Sex for America makes use of the short story as the medium of delivery for our time. Erotica lends itself to short forms by its intense nature. Beyond that, however, this is a book of coherent but extremely jarring fragments. It presents American society as a horrific downward journey that began with Richard Nixon’s election. An obscene circus emerges populated by lies and distortions, blunders and crimes, until we have become the freak circus clowns dancing around the center ring at the end of Federico Fellinni’s “8 1/2.” A constant diet of unreason and artificial sentiment lead to total disconnection from reality.
It is at that point that we are tempted to say, “Ah, fuck it.” Why not just relax, service your own flesh, and get out of it what you can? Is it even possible to be worse than George W. Bush? Less articulate? More desensitized? Yes, of course it is, but it is hard to imagine. Like the authors of this book, it takes active thought and a fair amount of energy.
They show us that no matter how much you get used to the threats, bullying, terrorism, and constrictions of tyrants, their grip can always get tighter. Unopposed, those in power wrap their hands around the core of our being and slip their fingers into the secret places that make us who and what we are. They penetrate and violate what makes us human. We realize that we are disappearing as surely as our appetites and dreams have been coerced and perverted. We can, however, change the world. You can start by reading Sex for America.