Not THAT kind of sex. Literature-classroom sex, the wordy two-dimensional substitute for the real thing.
Although I’m firmly committed to the law of chastity, I don’t think I’m a prude. I think it’s possible and at times necessary to discuss sex publicly and that it can and should be done with both maturity and candor. For example, I don’t think youth or adults are well served by chastity lessons that consist mostly of the vague injunction “Don’t do it.” And of course, sex really _is_ part of literature. I once taught a literature class at BYU and noticed halfway through the semester that in one way or another it had come up in every single text (Montaigne, Shakespeare, Goethe, Marx, Ibsen…) we had studied. I finally threw up my hands and facetiously told the class that the chance to read about sex is the whole reason to major in literature instead of math.
But just how much sex do we need to find? In some academic contexts it comes to seem relentless, and also adolescent. And Boaz begat Obed, and Obed begat Jesse (tee-hee…sex in the Bible!) Between-the-lines lesbian encounters in Jane Austen (ha, ha…sex in the most virginal classics!). Phallic symbols in John Donne’s religious poetry (what an erotically charged blasphemous juxtaposition!). At some point just by neglecting a text’s esthetic, historical, sociological, religious, and linguistic features, we’re pornographizing it, and at its worst, the method starts to reduce all texts to pop-up fig leaves. Pull and titter.
If I became this obsessed with eating (an arguably more central human activity than sex), majored in literature and gastronomy studies, could not stop finding hidden digestive processes in literature to the exclusion of every other feature, and talked incessantly about liberating the suppressed polymorphous desires of my own esophagus, I would rightly be referred for psychological help. The name for this kind of obsessive attachment is a fetish. Collectively, as a culture, we have a sex fetish. Seeing sex to the exclusion of all else relentlessly strips it of the complex human context that makes it meaningful in the first place. It reduces sex to porn. The problem isn’t just sexual excess; it’s sex as mere titillation. Bereft of any meaningful connections to the rest of life, sex becomes a series of mechanical postures, a porn manual.
It’s always been a minority of critics who read sex this intensively (and they certainly have given the newspapers exciting things to report about the MLA convention!) I’m also happy to say that from what I can see, excessively sexualized interpretation has already passed its heyday. Maybe all interpretive approaches become more interesting once the initial flurry surrounding them has died down, and we can see what’s worth salvaging.
In the meantime, I’m bored. Oh, Mr. Literature Professor, can we talk about something else, please?
- 7 February 2006