Counterpoint to the sex-plot post: Jenny Diski on The Sexual Life of Catherine M.

It’s intellectually important to acknowledge being wrong and to look for ways you can be wrong and yet very few people do this or do it honestly. I probably don’t do it honestly either, but I will still post a long quote that somewhat contravenes my recent essay “The sex plot: a discussion for novelists and readers:”

the great open space of sexuality permits all the possibilities of abjection, power, narcissism, pleasure-seeking, dour determination, creativity and mechanisation. It would be very hard to devote such a great deal of life and thought, time and effort to it as Millet does without getting it all pretty much confused. Everyday pornography is linear in order to keep a single idea afloat in an ocean of polymorphous potential. Sexuality gets out of hand, it runs rampant with meaning unless you keep to a very firm remit. The sexual story can transform from pumpkin to princess to swan with injured wing and back again in the blink of a thought. It is a nothing, an empty arena, that might be everything. And everything is more than we can cope with. The obsessive, fetishistic, single account that pornography provides is what keeps sexuality within bounds. Here is the danger of writing the sexual life: you lose the boundaries unless you steadfastly restrict yourself to the detail. At times Millet seems to be attempting to do this, but again and again, like a painter who writes explanatory notes over her picture, she tries to explicate, to flesh out the doing with her intellect, and then the sexual life is shown up for the kaleidoscopic and random playground of ideas it is.

That’s from Jenny Diski’s 2002 review of The Sexual Life of Catherine M; if sexuality is “a great open space” that “permits all the possibilities of objection, power, narcissism” and so forth then sex plots really can or should propel a lot of fiction. Diski’s view (I believe she is speaking for herself here and not describing the memoir in question) is not necessarily incompatible with the essay but certainly it feels different, especially with the way she says that “sexuality gets out of hand, it runs rampant with meaning.”

A subject or person or feeling that “runs rampant with meaning” could be one surprisingly complete definition of art, which may also encourage “the kaleidoscopic and random playground of ideas” that nonetheless must be somehow restricted if a work of art is going to take any form at all. Art without some form does not exist, like a platonically perfect work of art that never goes further than conception. Execution is everything.

Still, I’m not sure that sexuality can really get “out of hand” and run “rampant with meaning,” at least in terms of the physical act itself, because there are a limited number of physical acts and, in practical terms, a limited number of partners and configurations. Contrast this with, say, science: there doesn’t appear to be any obvious limits to the things that people want or the weirdness of the present universe. That doesn’t mean that sexuality doesn’t usually interact with other parts of life, but in the modern Western world I’m not sure that sexuality and relationships need to be the primary focus of so many novels.

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