Conundrum

By Aram Saroyan

Essay

When I was a junior or senior in high school at Trinity in New York, Paul Krassner published an interview with Norman Mailer in The Realist in which Mailer stated that he thought masturbation had the effect of muting or blunting or otherwise desensitizing one’s sexual compass, so to put it.  I thought this was interesting and provocative, although it fell short of exerting a strong influence on my own habit.  Still, I admired Mailer, and if I couldn’t emulate him I did read him with sincere interest, especially Advertisements for Myself, which contained his heralded sequence “The Time of Her Time,” comprising fifty pages about Sergius O’Shaugnessy’s efforts to give his Jewish girlfriend an orgasm.  The piece has many virtues, comprising an extraordinary character study of the woman in the unlikely refraction of the sexual act, but it’s the least sexy passage of sustained writing about sex that I’ve ever come across.  In a sexier but still lukewarm foray, his novel An American Dream, Mailer’s protagonist, Stephan Rojack, in an existential panic-attack pushes his wife out the window of their Manhattan high-rise and then has sex with the maid.  This also failed to set me on fire.  But I admired Mailer because he had the courage of his convictions and when he wrote about sex, you had the sense that he was on the line personally, for better or worse.

Sex is a difficult subject for heterosexual men to deal with honestly because one has an immediate concern with what one’s wife or girlfriend will think.  It’s now a proven, scientific fact, after all, that men and women are different.  I can’t remember who proved it, but my guess would be Kate Millet.  During the fifties, it seems, there was no consensus on this, and women were involved in emulating what they took to be men’s idea of who they should be without realizing that they themselves might not agree.  That kind of attitude can define an era.  Today we have what appears to be the same thing.  Indeed, the popularity of breast implants seems clear evidence of an only deepening chasm between the sexes, but in truth I sense something quite different from the fifties mind-set here.

A number of women that I’ve encountered who have gone the route of surgical enhancement have done so, I think, in a spirit of self-empowerment rather than as a passive gesture in the direction of Mr. Wonderful.  One senses that these women have clinically assessed the dull proclivities of the male, and carried out the enhancement with the primary idea of victimizing the dummy for his cyclopean obsession with large breasts.  Let me confess that I find breast implants unsexy, and the women behind them, as it were, hard to fathom.  It’s really the equivalent of cutting off your nose to spite your face, or perhaps adding to your nose.  (The equivalent of penile enlargement, perhaps.)  A woman gets big breasts to make a man more stupid than he already is, and the point is—what?  That she has more power over the guy, a bigger moron now in direct proportion to her breasts’ enlargement?  What is the name of the game here—dumb and dumber?

But I wanted to say something about pornography.

Naomi Wolfe’s piece in the New Yorker a few years ago about the lowly position of male porn stars relative to their female counterparts was interesting about the dynamics of a profession in which the product seems directed to the most simplistic notion of the male sensibility, one that even a blockhead porno producer might reconsider.  Is it because men are perceived to be so stupid that they pay male porn stars so poorly relative to their female counterparts?  The porn films I’ve seen lack character, plot, and even the broadest plausibility.  I saw a naked portrait of Ron Jeremy, who is the star of 7,448 pornographic films, and his equipment, Ron’s heavily utilized tool.  You half expected him to be carrying a lunch box.  It was sort of moving.

In the early sixties, while I was briefly attending the University of Chicago, I went to a downtown burlesque show with a couple of classmates.  It was interesting to me for all the usual reasons, but also for an unexpected one.  My classmates favored a relatively lithe girl, one who might have been a plausible girlfriend, perhaps, while the girl who captured my imagination was the sort I’d seen in girlie magazines throughout my adolescence—a heavily endowed Maillol-like goddess who looked to me like paradise on earth.  I got the feeling my buddies dismissed her as bovine, and I didn’t get it.

I want to be honest.  This woman wasn’t someone I could think with equanimity about dating, no more than one would conceive of dating a law of the universe.  My attitude was rather more in the direction of adoration, worship.  This was the female principle incarnate, rather bigger than life, and she filled me with excitement, dread, and awe, all at the same time.  To know that she was a girl of twenty named Karen who was studying to be a chemical engineer would have certainly changed the picture, but I don’t know that it would have improved it, at least for me.

In my experience of girlie-magazines, burlesque and later pornography, aside from sexual arousal, perhaps the primary feeling is a kind of awe at the bounty of our planet and its females.  In one porno film I saw years ago, Lisa De Leeuw, who died in the early 1990s of AIDS, has just been doing it with someone who has gotten off the bed and gone somewhere.  For a moment the camera pulls back and we see this amazing creature lying with her legs slightly apart, so that her wet bush is unashamedly visible hanging a bit over the bed as De Leeuw lies there for a moment just breathing, caught in seeming repose.  That image has stayed with me as a new classic of the earth goddess.

There may be a dimension of fear in what I’m describing, what I’ve called awe.  The manly command one would like to have isn’t much in evidence.  And after all, the best writing about sex I’ve come across is by the master himself, Henry Miller, probably in two well-read sequences in Tropic of Capricorn, but also in several off-the-cuff dalliances with his despised estranged wife in Sexus.  In his sex scenes, Miller’s secret may be his refusal to succumb to any such awe as I’ve described.  In the only female figure in these books who did inspire something of the sort in him, the woman who would become his second wife variously known as Mara and Mona in Sexus, the multiple sex scenes that he records with her fall curiously flat. The problem is that in these scenes Miller is stripped of his otherwise reliable identity as male cocksman, replete with contempt as hard as his aroused member.  Mona is just as strong as he, if perhaps mad into the bargain, but not mad in a way that Miller can patronize and sexually harvest with impervious command.  In contrast to such scenes, while living at home with his repressed but periodically aroused-against-her-will first wife, Miller takes note of their baby-sitter from an upstairs apartment, whom he describes as mentally handicapped:

One night, when she was in the bathroom, after she had been in there a suspiciously long while, she got me to thinking of things.  I decided to take a peep through the key-hole and see for myself what was what.  Lo and behold, if she isn’t standing in front of the mirror stroking and petting her little pussy.  Almost talking to it, she was.  I was so excited I didn’t know what to do first.  I went back into the big room, turned out the lights, and lay there on the couch waiting for her to come out.

The sequence that follows, one of Miller’s great sexual rodeos, depends on the woman being nothing but a sex-crazed complement to the man’s will, grazing at his cock.  And to be sure there’s a realism in that polarization, which can happen in the heat of the moment to two people who know and love each other.  But Miller isn’t good with love, really.  Mona or Mara gets hundreds of pages and we never get a flavor of who she actually might be, as Miller himself may never have, perhaps indicated by the two names, as if half-way through the book her name slipped his mind.  Whereas the ideal sex partner for him, at least in prose, is a woman he feels fundamentally superior to and provides with a good fuck out of pure cocksure male bounty, and perhaps to teach her a lesson about not putting on airs, since he can render her limp in obeisance at will.  No wonder men like to read him.  It’s a reassurance to encounter so intact a male principle in these troubled times.

Some might say such reading by itself is a violation of a woman’s identity.  I’m not sure.  I knew a woman years ago with whom I had a single sexual episode that was as strong as anything I’ve known, and over the years remembered her many times with pleasure.  Then quite recently she called me from New York to say hello again.  I remember her from time to time today, but I know I’m only remembering our youth together.  On a certain level, I suppose you could say I adore this woman, but I can’t imagine spending any real time with her, just as I couldn’t and didn’t, beyond that single night in our youth.  She’s not a companion, that is, but more like an energy principle, a sexual conundrum I encountered for a moment of joy, but once the release occurred, the sexual climax, it seemed to me that there was no reason for us to be together.  Indeed, this may comprise an argument for the value of masturbation—if things don’t really go further than the climax, then maybe the climax should occur without complications.

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ARAM SAROYAN is an internationally known poet, novelist, biographer, memoirist and playwright. His poetry has been widely anthologized and appears in many textbooks. Among the collections of his poetry are ARAM SAROYAN and PAGES (both Random House). His largest collection, DAY AND NIGHT:BOLINAS POEMS, was published by Black Sparrow Press in 1999.

Saroyan's prose books include GENESIS ANGELS: THE SAGA OF LEW WELCH AND THE BEAT GENERATION; LAST RITES, a book about the death of his father, the playwright and short story writer William Saroyan; TRIO: PORTRAIT OF AN INTIMATE FRIENDSHIP; THE ROMANTIC, a novel that was a Los Angeles Times Book Review Critics' Choice selection; a memoir, FRIENDS IN THE WORLD: THE EDUCATION OF A WRITER; and the true crime Literary Guild selection RANCHO MIRAGE: AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY OF MANNERS, MADNESS AND MURDER. Selected essays, STARTING OUT IN THE SIXTIES, appeared in 2001, and ARTISTS IN TROUBLE: NEW STORIES in early 2002.

The recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts poetry awards (one of them for his controversial one-word poem "lighght"). Saroyan is a past president of PEN USA West and was a faculty member of the Masters of Professional Writing Program at USC from 1996 to 2011. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, the painter Gailyn Saroyan.

2 responses to “Conundrum”

  1. “is scheduled for 2005”? how? flashback?

  2. It’s not just what he says but how he says it. Aram is one of our best essayists and there is always a sweet comfort zone in anything he writes that runs soothingly like water, or in this case, sex.

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