I told students that by language I implied a standardized system of signs that serves to express a wide range of meanings and that by sex—not sexuality but sex—I implied intercourse, that is, sexual intercourse. Sex, then, has its own grammar. Could we analyze that grammar together?
For starters, I asked why, when referring to the act of having sex, we say to make love? Do we really make love? Is love always a feature of sex? Might it also be absent from it?
Some years ago, in a series of conversations I had with translator Verónica Albin compiled in the volume Love and Language (Yale, 2007), I reflected on this absence. I told the class that in order to have a healthy, mature Socratic conversation, we needed to go beyond shame. For the grammar of sex is obfuscated by our view that sex is sinful, that its pleasure shall not go unpunished. In order to reflect on the degrees of human intimacy, from kissing to pornography, it is paramount to be comfortable with that discomfort, to be ready to talk openly about pleasure.
My diverse class has about 50 students coming from all walks of life in terms of ethnicity, geography, and economic background. For this section of the syllabus, they read the Kama Sutra, the ancient Sanskrit text by Vātsyāyana, and watched the controversial 1976 French-Japanese film In the Realm of the Senses by Nagisa Oshima, about the obsessive affair by the prostitute Sada Abe with a Tokyo hotel owner whom she ends up castrating. I made sure to alert them of its overly explicit content and stressed that watching it was strictly optional; I assume only about half the class sat through it. Indeed, the movie is disturbing to such a degree that, while rewatching it, I myself turned around a few times. But that, it seems to me, is its mission: to explore the limits of sex, not only as a language but as something more: an obsession, an addiction.
Among other things, the students also pondered Genesis 1 and 2, Romeo and Juliet, and Susan Sontag’s essay “The Pornographic Imagination.” The critical inquiry I use allowed us to center on the fact that in Western civilization, sex is done privately, behind closed doors, and reflected on the fact that the Judeo-Christian God mortifies Adam and Eve for performing it. The Bible doesn’t even refer to the actual sex explicitly; instead, it uses metaphor and other oblique literary strategies.
The consensus in the class was that, in spite of the hippies’ anti-establishment revolution of the 1960s, sex remains forbidden, thus its allure. It’s human nature to be attracted to what is forbidden. Students emphasized the easygoing approach on college campuses now, where casual sex is a form of currency.
When analyzing in depth Romeo’s naïveté and Juliet’s intellectual side (in particular, Act II, Scene 2), I was struck—even mesmerized—by the general conviction that Shakespeare’s play, for today’s youth, looks like a satire, even though it is built as a tragedy. How else to understand, a handful of students argued, the vulnerability of the two lovers and their verbal back-and-forth, which verges on melodrama? Satire, really?
The discussion on pornography was equally revealing. It wasn’t always obvious to me that the class knew how to differentiate between eroticism and pornography, which, as I see it, might be a symptom of how the current generation erases borders of intimacy. I asked: What kind of role does pornography play in an open society such as ours? How to distinguish between eroticism and pornography? Is pornography only a dimension of representation? Can one lead a pornographic life, too? Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 147″ describes love as an illness. Is pornography also an illness? If so, what are its cures?
In her essay “The Pornographic Imagination,” Sontag depicts us all as too prudish to appreciate pornographic artifacts like Story of O, the 1954 novel by Pauline Réage aka Anne Desclos. But this novel is tame in comparison to In the Realm of the Senses. (Sontag talks about it in her Rolling Stone interview, although we didn’t consider those comments in class.) Frankly, I myself don’t think this film, shown in art houses throughout the United States and elsewhere around the globe (it is still banned in Japan in its uncensored length), is pornographic. One student described what he saw as undignified, excessive. I asked him if there can be art in indignity.
After 20 minutes, the audience forgets the couple is making love 95 percent of the time. Our senses have been numbed, which means we’re now finally equipped to study the grammar of sex. The consensus was that any definition of eroticism must include desire, whereas pornography must exclude it, for it is done automatically, out of sheer mechanics. Students argued that the sex, orgasm in particular, is always theatrical—a performance—and it creates a degree of separation between our minds and our bodies, that is, a structure of mirrors whereby we see ourselves seeing that the lover sees us and vice versa.
One of them suggested that the Kama Sutra, a manual of sexual positions recommended for an array of social types, is a bestseller in Western civilization because it is foreign, it comes from another civilization: an invitation to explore the grammar of sex in exotic terms. Except that that grammar isn’t exotic per se; we force that conception because of our suffocating puritanism.
Of course, talking about sex to a bunch of 18- to 22-year-olds has its limitations. It is also a way to keep track on how our cultural mores change.
Addendum to my post of March 5, “Auto-Corrected”: A few days ago, I was part of a three-way email conversation with two colleagues, both women, one an editor at Norton, the other a professor at UCLA. They had been pondering some scheduling issue and wanted my response, but I was busy all day delivering a series of lectures in a studio. Finally having time to reply, I meant to send a message that said, “Sorry, I’ve been taping all day.” Except that my dyslexic device (or I myself?), instead of taping, wrote raping. I didn’t realize it until one of them asked, “Ilan, did you mean taping?” and, within minutes, the other wondered, “I thought you meant rapping.” I was embarrassed. Maybe I should have written napping.
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