Tired of playing my own confessor, I began to experiment with the mentality of Catholicism, wondering if its libidinal opportunities were any less curtailed than those of our Puritan heritage. In cultures where the Protestant mentality dominates, one never participates fully in one's own sins due to an emphasis on self-reliance, which comes down to carrying one's confessor on one's back, as if it were a stunted, judgmental Siamese twin, constantly interpreting, punishing, and curtailing each act at the very moment it is executed. Our culture values the questionable virtues of forthrightness and immediacy, which makes us confess to sins at the moment we commit them, rather than displacing confession into the future, where it is less likely to interfere with each moment's sensory possibilities and each moment's good manners. Inversely, Catholic cultures-- or at least their Latin incarnations-- offer complicated loopholes for pleasure, stringent as their official prohibition of libido may be.
Catholic sensibility makes it as plausible to indulge in sin as it is to thoroughly denounce sin during the moment of confession. This necessitates a complicated relationship between surface and depth. Rituals, images, forms of courtesy, fashions, furnishings, and other surface elements serve a social function by maintaining the status quo and leave one's inner life personal, original, inviolable, and quite different from what shows. The Catholic sensibility values politeness as well as a romantic sense of individualism. Its outer shell serves as a safe, acceptable screen for sensual projections and as a bulwark against the id-ridden turmoil trapped underneath. Protestant sensibility, on the other hand, calls for an impeccable match between the surface and what's underneath. Any contradiction between the two levels is considered dishonest. Hence, the startling sight of a Dutch town at night with the parlor window brightly lit and no curtains to conceal one from one's neighbors. And the equally startling image (at least to a Protestant) of a sumptuous villa owned by an Italian Communist devoted to a revolution of the working class.
Free-thinkers consider the northern European Protestant countries-- Holland, Denmark, and Germany-- to be models of sexual liberation, places where legal prostitution, homosexual rights, and early age of consent give the appearance of an evolved, even futuristic progressivism. Their liberal sex laws are based on a rational demystification of the sexual act and sexual desire. According to this pragmatic ideology, all that is to be feared from the sex act are those aspects that can be quantified-- venereal disease, incidences of rape or bias. These problems are considered controllable by laws and public health policies, and one would think that such methods would create a sexual paradise; but whenever I visit these countries, I have the feeling that categorizing sex as an act that can be apprehended by reason becomes a kind of reductionism that isolates sex's primitive libidinal components and ends up as a kind of repression.
The submission of sexual desire to the rational are what sexual liberation or gender liberation movements, such as feminism and gay lib, offer. Consequently, such movements have generated much more interest in England and the Germanic countries where Protestant sensibility dominates than they have in the Catholic countries. In France, despite essential ideals of democracy and equality, the mysticism of desire, its rituals, and obfuscations, is of utmost importance. French arousal depends traditionally upon the romanticized or the abject. In my hundreds of visits to French saunas, parks, bedrooms, or pissoirs in the seventies and eighties, I observed French eroticism gathered at two intense sexual poles, with very little continuum in between. These are (1) the tender and the precious, full of caresses and endearments, and (2)the brutal and macho, full of conquest and contempt. In France I found none of the intermediary athleticism of American sex, the endless round of soiling and clean-up I experienced in German sex, or the arch class-aware sex I experienced with the British.
Finding Catholicism sexy, sensual, or even sensory today is very much at odds with the liberal definition of freedom of appetite. Christianity has been identified as a principle villain in the war against birth control, promiscuity, homosexuality, and other aspects of sexual indulgence. However, such official policies only describe the surface, neglecting to admit the conditions of arousal that support good orgasms. In many cases arousal depends upon those barriers set up to prevent or defame it. That's what made the Italian sex comedy films of the sixties and seventies so enticing.
Several years ago I was hired by the French magazine Actuel to write a long article on the sexual underground of San Francisco. For the part on the new female bisexual community, I described a woman-run sex shop, specializing in dildoes and vibrators, called Good Vibrations. It had been described to me as a bastion of liberated feminist sexuality, a pornographic space that had managed to escape both the exploitation of the sex industry and the guilt- ridden judgments of Puritanism. In fact, Good Vibrations was sex subject to rationality and to public health measures. Instead of the harsh lights, packaged porno, and sullen male clerks characteristic of the traditional American sex shop, I found a clean, airy, but far from erotic, atmosphere-- a cross between a conservative lingerie shop and a progressive birth control clinic. The saleswomen seemed cool and intellectual and were devoted to public information. With great efficiency they patiently explained the features of each sex device to mostly female but some male clients who had come to be fitted for a dildo, harness, or vibrator. There was a forbidding plethora of bondage toys and erotic books and videos as well, but they seemed strangely out of place without the venal smell of cheap disinfectant or raincoated men lurking in corners. In fact, despite the bright lights and open technical talk, there was a clinical tenseness that bordered on the grim in Good Vibrations' attempts to take the subversion and inequality out of sex.
This store was in strange contrast to another liberated space for dealing with sex that I visited in Paris. I had come to this city in 1995 at the invitation of a publicist when my novel was published in French. I was to be filmed visiting a swingers club called Chez Denise with a talk show host known for his decadent forays into the seamy side of Parisian night life. Chez Denise was essentially a disco, but it had private rooms where one could have sex and swap mates as well as women who worked for the establishment by wandering across the dance floor, masturbating some of the men through open zippers.
What startled me about Chez Denise were the relaxed grins on everyone's faces; it felt more like being at an office Christmas party than at an X-rated sex club. Chez Denise was a discreet bourgeois hangout, but this does not mean that it was also tense or furtive. Indeed, Denise herself, pouring me a glass of Veuve Clicquot, described the atmosphere of her club as "la fete."
I consider Denise's cheerful leers another example of the Catholic capacity to suspend judgment during the duration of the pleasure experience, regardless of how it might have to be judged later. Her establishment was in strict contrast to the Times Square places that I was used to, where sexual transgression was acted out as sordid and even morbid. However, Denise's atmosphere of bourgeois frivolity ended at her doorstep. When the video of me and my talk show host dancing with sex workers was shown for an informal grouping of my publishers' employees, faces clotted with chagrin and the Catholic recrimination about loose morals took over. Everyone was embarrassed for me. In the Catholic tradition of displacement, visiting the club had been a light-hearted celebration, but viewing what I had done with others later was a dreary inquisition.
In the Catholic model, the same sex act is good at one moment and bad at another. Contrarily, the attempt to control sex over time, so that it always has the same value, as in the liberated Protestant model, can reach absurd and ironic proportions. Often such control accomplishes the opposite of what it sets out to do. This is illustrated by the comparison of two sex-obsessed writers from different cultures: French novelist Pierre Guyotat, who writes within a Catholic context, and American feminist essayist Andrea Dworkin, who writes within the context of Puritan America.
Pierre Guyotat has been called the last "poete maudit" in France, that country's last "accursed poet." He first came to prominence in France in 1967 with his novel Tomb for 500,000 Soldiers, a minimalist recant of lurid sexual and violent atrocities set in the French Algerian War. His next book Eden, Eden, Eden, made up of endless, uninterrupted descriptions of sexual brutalities, some involving children, was censored by the French government for 11 years. A later book, Prostitution, is a homosexual collage of Arabic, French, German, and Black "deviant language," or, to use one of the author's terms, a "linguistic minority." All the elements have been welded by elliptical spellings and phonetic distortions into a flow of glutinous consistency. They contain triple and even quadruple puns on often obscene words.
Guyuotat sees his books not as sexual but as political and writerly. His texts are a flaunting of sex as power in the voices of the powerless. And rather than a prudent levitation of the indicated minorities to a respectability they are assumed to deserve, as would happen in a Protestant-inspired text, the literate writer is mercilessly sacrificed to their appetites. However, complete license in Guyotat works to deaden sexual excitation. In this sense, his texts are moral, an attempt to drive home the point of the dulled inhumanity inherent in monotonous sexual practice.
Andrea Dworkin claims to accomplish what Guyotat really does. Her book Pornography: Men Possessing Women is a dense and feminist political tract on pornography as power that strangely complements Guyotat's texts. Part of her writing, like Guyotat's, is an endless drone of repetitive sexuality, which she says is calculated to arouse our disgust and stimulate our understanding of all pornography as oppressive to women. Her book is also a minimalist text, constructed from only two major devices that follow each other repeatedly. Device 1 recounts the plots of pornographic books and films in lurid detail or gives detailed staccato descriptions of pornographic photography. Device 2 provides an exhaustive, narrow political analysis of the pornographic description coming before, using the same monotonous, relentless style that was used to recount the pornography. In another culture, the obsessive rhythms of this text, in which the material being attacked and the attack itself are spit out with the same driving beat, would cause the book to be looked upon as a monumentally perverse achievement, such as that of Guyotat's texts, which are both an indictment and a celebration of sexual repetition. But whereas Guyotat's texts may be cathartic, Dworkin's are constructed like aversion therapy. One is aroused by the detailed pornography, then brutally sermonized into numbness about its evils. Just below the simple wavelike pattern of the text one feels a frantic, repetitive affirmation in the very denial of those unspeakable acts the author feels compelled to contemplate. The book numbs like highly charged pornography-- repetitive, ceaseless fantasies and memories of abuse playing at suicidal volume.
Dworkin's and Guyotat's texts are typically Western in that they depend upon the tension between pleasure's affirmation and a disgust about pleasure. This simple dichotomy between sex and guilt about sex may not exist in the East. A two-month stay in Japan in the late seventies and about 50 sexual encounters there led me to review Ruth Benedict's The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, which is a sociological survey and analysis of the basic components of traditional Japanese culture. Her book makes a distinction between shame, which is fear of other's reprobation for an act, and guilt, which is an internalized sense of wrong- doing. Shame is superego: a feeling of what one's parents, leaders, or communities might think or do if they knew. Guilt is more deeply internalized superego, a feeling of wrong-doing even when one is alone and without reference to outsiders.
Benedict felt that the Japanese have shame but not guilt, and my sexual experiences seemed to confirm her hypothesis. Well-bred Japanese young men whom I cruised in subways or on the street colored with embarrassment as they gave in to their attraction and finally made contact. One would have thought they were wracked with guilt about sex or about homosexuality. But once we were inside with the screens drawn, many displayed an easy sexual openness that contrasted with their public behavior in a way that would have classified them as schizophrenic to the uncomprehending Westerner. Never in my life have I seen such unfettered appetite, such relaxed orality. Libidinal controls in Japan were public only. They had to do with behaving inappropriately and losing face. But they were not internalized restraints, like those of Judeo-Christian guilt.
A word remains to be said about the relationship between sex and art. Although sexual energy may be a component of art, art cannot participate fully in committed eroticism. Art can be arousing, but beyond a certain point it acts to impede the transporting process of sex away from self-consciousness. Attempts to aestheticize pornography almost always interfere with the animalistic build-up of eroticism. Again, this is not to say that some art can't be sexy but only to say that "artistic sex" is inhibited sex. The Protestant mentality of self-consciousness and self- confession concerning the libidinal act is proof, in my opinion, that one can't think about anything else but pleasure while pleasure is happening. One can instead, and perhaps should, portray and analyze the act later, at the writing table or in the confessional.
Nevertheless, some experiences of eroticism may be so overwhelming and threatening that an aesthetic framework is needed to speak about them. The contemporary novella Journal de Lucien N. by Gabrielle Wittkop is a highly aestheticized description of the pleasures of necrophilia that comes out as realistic-sounding at the same time that it creates a post-pre-Raphaelite aesthetic:
Two unrolled tufts of hair frame her face,
descending to the collar of her blouse, which is
raised to the armpits, revealing a stomach of the
same bluish-white color one sees in certain kinds
of fine china. The mound of Venus, flat and
smooth, glistens a little under the lamp, as it if
were covered in a thin film of sweat.
I spread the thighs to get a better view of
the vulva, thin as a scar, hidden within the lips,
transparent and mauve. But still, I must wait,
because-- for now, at least -- the body is still a
bit too rigid, too tense. I must wait until the
heat in the room begins to soften her flesh like
melting wax. This little girl is worth the wait.
She is truly a beautiful corpse.*
Perhaps, again, a Catholic model for the equation between sex and art is what's needed. In fact, the exaggerated sensual imagery of some good Catholic writing, such as J.-K. Huysmans hagiography Saint Lydwine of Schiedam, has the same annihilating drive as good pornography. So overwhelmed is the reader by the fantastic hallucinations of this early fifteenth century Dutch Saint as described by Huysmans, so fatal and perverse are her illnesses and sufferings, that the most cynical nonbeliever is carried away in a sensory torrent that suspends thought in favor of fantasy.
If trade-offs are necessary, I am, then, in favor of the Catholic model. This harkens back to the old European idea of specialization and service. Forsaking American self- reliance, I'm calling for the establishment of professional services that displace one's activities in time and space: going to a hairdresser to do one's hair, a restaurant for one's meals, and a confessor to hear one's sins. Why should we assume we must take care of everything ourselves? To this old-fashioned idea of service, I append a more contemporary attitude that is currently sweeping though our culture. And that is the idea of credit. Why pay for any enjoyment at the time of its partaking when we can always pay an albeit steeper price later?
Copyright Bruce Benderson 1996. All rights, including electronic, reserved.