Sophie’s Choice (Modern Library #96)

(This is the fifth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Sheltering Sky)

In Alexandra Styron’s forthcoming book, Reading My Father, she describes liberating a galley of Sophie’s Choice, a presale unit freshly arrived at the family home, at the age of twelve. It was the spring of 1979. Her plan was to read the mint green paperback between classes. She felt it incumbent “to somehow validate the rumors of his greatness.” Young Alexandra discovers that the novel bores the tears out of her. “The difficult vocabulary and historical references kept eluding me,” she writes, “until finally I began to let them sail by, unchallenged.” Further, upon encountering her father’s libidinous passages, she then becomes embarrassed, wincing “at the liberal sprinkling of words like fucking and horny and lust.” (Here’s the full tally according to Amazon’s Look Inside! feature: “fucking” — 29 counts; “horny” — 4 counts; and “lust” — 20 counts. I am also informed that readers in need of steady doses of the mildly profane are likely to find a good deal more “fuck” and “fucking” in Philip Roth’s Zuckerman books. Miles Davis’s autobiography, published a decade after Sophie’s Choice, contains 672 uses of the word “fuck.” I think it’s safe to say that Styron was pushing the “fucking” boundaries no more and no less than any other writer around the time. Perhaps his striking tone says something about his ability to alarm.)

A good thirty-one years later, The Millions‘s Lydia Kiesling posted a Modern Library Revue installment on Sophie’s Choice. Kiesling, fourteen years older than Alexandra Styron when she first read Sophie’s Choice, wrote, “I’m not a prude; I think there should be sex in novels. However, while I’m not certain how it is best achieved on the page, I feel quite certain that ‘mossy cunt’ and ‘undulant swamp’ are not the ideal epithets. I mean, Jesus. Also, it’s just so cheesy — the release of her secrets, the release of his orgasms.” To be fair to Styron, he actually writes about “her moist mossy cunt’s undulant swamp.” Say what you like about Styron, but it takes a rare writer willing to go the distance like this. (Incidentally, “release” gets five counts in Sophie’s Choice according to Amazon and in neither explicit usage that Kiesling claims. In fact, at one point, “release” in the orgasmic context is declared “an odious word” by young Stingo, of whose randiness more anon, in one of his notebooks.) This prompted Emma Barton (not the actress who played Honey Mitchell on EastEnders) to leave a spirited comment in response: “You must have noticed there’s a new generation of us younger feminists coming up who don’t get our panties in such a twist over guys talking about their sexual thoughts, since we’re pretty open about our own sexual thoughts too.”

If Styron’s sexual effrontery is a matter to be settled by the old guard feminists, then we’re in luck. In her essay “Night Thoughts of a Media Watcher,” Gloria Steinem was to offer stronger sentiments. For Steinem, Sophie’s Choice was “like reading a case history by Freud in which he stoutly maintains a woman patient was not really raped by her father as a child, but just made up this story because she had hoped it would happen.” To put it mildly, I don’t think this gets at the complexity that Styron was attempting. But let’s carry on. Shortly after Steinem concedes the possibility that “Styron knew what he was doing,” she writes, “My first hope is that there was no real Sophie, that Styron just made her up completely. Like Freud’s women patients, however, she is just real and believable enough to break your heart; all the more so because she is recorded by someone who describes her but never understands her.” While it is true that Styron has drawn heavily from his personal experience for Stingo (especially for Sophie’s Choice‘s enthralling opening chapter), Steinem’s diagnosis presupposes that Styron wasn’t remarking in some way upon Stingo’s own (and Styron’s own) failure to understand her. Styron alludes to a real-life Sophie in a 1983 interview with Stephen Lewis, but not for the reasons that Steinem imputes:

It summed up the absolute totalitarian nature of this evil, which we really had not seen, certainly in civilized society, since history began to be recorded. It seized me so poignantly that I was compelled to write a book about it. I also connected it with something that had happened to me: I went to Brooklyn, in the late 1940s, and met a young — older than I was, but nonetheless young — woman who had been a survivor of Auschwitz, and who had a tattoo on her arm. Her name was Sophie.

So if absolute evil was Styron’s primary focus, how did we get from 29 uses of “fucking” to nebulous Freudian speculation to bright spirits duking it out in the comments at one of the Web’s best literary sites? Whatever it was that Styron was doing, in 2002, it was enough to get the California-based Norwalk-La Mirada High School District to remove Sophie’s Choice from its libraries after a single complaint. The objection? You guessed it. The sexual content. The ACLU intervened after students protested the distinct possibility that their very own First Amendment rights were being violated. The book was eventually returned to the stacks.

* * *

I think it’s remarkable that a brick-thick book from 1979 has continued to get so many people hot and bothered — especially since most novels written in the last decade don’t possess this power. (One cannot imagine people getting this worked up about Jonathan Franzen in 2043.) But now that I’ve finally read Styron’s masterpiece, I’m bewildered by much of the ballyhoo. The objections over the book’s sexual passages would suggest that all this exists independently from the book’s take on the Holocaust. It is almost as if the book’s opponents are incapable of reconciling the two strands, a grave oversight in light of the book’s presentation of tragic relativism, which I’ll get to in a bit. Of the four objections cited above, only Steinem makes a tenuous connection. And even then, she falls into the cliche of accusing Styron of some psychosexual fantasy — as if every impulse an author sets down involves unzipping the pants of the mind.

To get the hot stuff out of the way first, it cannot be stressed enough that we are dealing with Stingo, a young man who isn’t getting any during the postwar epoch, which comes a few decades before American culture has at long last grasped and permitted the reality of teenagers losing their virginity. As Stingo himself explains:

A lot in this way of bilious remembrance has been written about sex survivors of the fifties, much of it a legitimate lament. But the forties were really far worse, a particularly ghastly time for Eros, shakily bridging as they did the time between the puritanism of our forefathers and the arrival of public pornography. Sex itself was coming out of the closet, but there was universal distress over how to deal with it.

Here is a young man so lonely that we see him, in the book’s extraordinary opening chapter, fantasizing about “the Winston Hunnicutts, this vivid and gregarious young couple,” whom Stingo sees from his window in the rotting University Residence Club on West Eleventh Street. Yes, Stingo offers us extraordinary fantasies about the wife, using romantic language (“My lust was incredible…priapic, ravenous, yet under hair-trigger control”). But it is clear that Stingo’s fantasies also revolve around the Hunnicutts’ “enormous good fortune to inhabit a world populated by writers and poets and critics and other literary types.” To some degree, Styron’s fusion of sex with literary aspirations anticipates Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. And yet because Bolaño’s book carries the heft of multiple testimonies to sustain its illusion and Styron confines his interests to a singular first-person perspective, the former is permitted his posthumous genius while the latter is seen as a late middle-aged creep (also dead, by the way) getting his jollies through a young man’s perspective.

Never mind that Styron has taken care to include excerpts from Stingo’s notebooks, which contain prototypical revelations about Stingo’s life, along with wry commentary after these italicized passages: “I am a little mortified to discover that almost none of the above was apparently written with the faintest trace of irony (I actually was capable of ‘somewhat slightly’!”)”

If such provisos aren’t enough. Stingo, who is very aware of his prose style, is fond of embellishing his life story — even decades later — with seemingly robust, manly sentences. One such sentence reads: “I got up and made my way to the men’s room, weaving slightly, aglow at the edges of my skin with a penumbra of Rheingold, the jolly, astringent beer served at the Maple Court on draught.” Taken out of context, some of the phrasing (“aglow at the edges of my skin with a penumbra”) might be construed as awkward, yet Styron’s “edges of my skin” anticipates how the out-of-practice, out-of-time romantic phrase is no longer used among male writers today. Indeed, in recent years, “edges of my skin” has been used by such highly readable writers as Stephenie Meyer, Alice Sebold (in Lucky, no less), Aimee Bender, Lorrie Moore, and Justine Larbalestier. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a single male writer born after 1970 using such a phrase in contemporary fiction.

Stingo’s revelations serve purposes beyond the ostensibly tawdry. Styron is telegraphing a dying language, revealing modernist modes misconstrued today as overly melodramatic. Yet if they are so over-the-top, why then is Styron so willing to have Stingo explain himself? As Stingo notes late in the book, once he has at long last accomplished his effervescent goal (I have blanked out the name to avoid spoilers):

The varieties of sexual experience are, I suppose, so multifarious that it would be an exaggeration to say that _____ and I did that night everything that it is possible to do. But I’ll swear we came close, and one thing forever imprinted on our brain was our mutual inexhaustibility. I was inexhaustible because I was twenty-two, and a virgin, and was clasping in my arms at long last the goddess of my unending fantasies….For me it was less an initiation than a complete, well-rounded apprenticeship, or more, and _____, my loving instructess, never ceased whispering encouragement into my ear. It was as if through a living tableau, in which I myself was a participant, there were being acted out all the answers to the questions with which I had half maddened myself ever since I began secretly reading marriage manuals and sweated over the pages of Havelock Ellis and other sexual savants.

Speaking as a man who was once twenty-two and sexually frustrated (as nearly every kid at that age is), I can assure all parties that Styron accurately describes what it means to sow one’s young oats.

If Sophie’s Choice were merely an itemization of Stingo’s sexual fantasies, then it would not have rightly earned its place in the Modern Library canon. I haven’t even brought up the indelible Nathan Landau, Sophie’s wildly exuberant and psychologically troubled Jewish paramour. He is inarguably worse than Stingo, prone to rages and boasting about cures for cancer, and abusive of Sophie and Stingo. Yet he shares much of Stingo’s autodidacticism. Indeed, it is Nathan’s curious amalgamation of knowledge (one might very well use the 21st century term “mashup”) that is the allure:

His range was astonishing and I had constantly to remind myself that I was talking to a scientist, a biologist (I kept thinking of a prodigy like Julian Huxley, whose essays I had read in college) — this man who possessed so many literary references and allusions, both classical and modern, and who within the space of an hour could, with no gratuitous strain, weave together Lytton Strachey, Alice in Wonderland, Martin Luther’s early celibacy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the mating habits of the Sumatran orangutan into a little jewel box of a beguiling lecture which facetiously but with a serious overtone explored the intertwined nature of sexual voyeurism and exhibitionism.

What’s especially interesting is how close this self-taught ideal mimics Stingo’s own narrative voice. The key tell here is “the intertwined nature of sexual voyeurism and exhibitionism,” which serves in parallel to Stingo’s own sexual exhibitionism. This is unconsummated for the most part, with even “a remarkably beautiful, sexually liberated, twenty-two-year-old Jewish Madonna lily named Leslie Lapidus” (later revealed to be involved in orgone therapy; Wilhelm Reich, of course, being one of the twentieth century’s great charlatans) just outside his grasp.

* * *

DG Myers has put forth the idea that Sophie’s Choice owes its historical importance not because of its literary quality, but as “a pioneering dissent on the Holocaust.” (While Myers’s 10,000 word essay is well worth reading, especially because Myers offers a very helpful overview of Styron’s developing thoughts on the Holocaust, Myers is curiously prudish about the novel’s sexuality.) I think he is right to observe that Sophie’s Choice is about “the ideological representation of the Holocaust,” with the origins of these thoughts to be found in Styron’s essay, “Auschwitz” (contained in This Quiet Dust). But Myers is wrong to suggest that Styron’s views on Jewish exclusivism — with the non-Jewish Sophie serving as Styron’s ecumenical exemplar — are invalidated by what Myers perceives to be a historical error. Myers cites Styron writing that Sophie “had suffered as much as any Jew,” but there is also this parenthetical (after Stingo has made efforts to reconcile Sophie’s life with George Steiner’s Language and Silence):

(It is surpassingly difficult for many Jews to see beyond the consecrated nature of the Nazis’ genocidal fury, and thus it seems to me less a flaw than a pardonable void in the moving meditation of Steiner, a Jew, that he makes only fleeting reference to the vast multitudes of non-Jews — the myriad Slavs and the Gypsies — who were swallowed up in the apparatus of the camps, perishing just as surely as the Jews, though sometimes only less methodically.)

Here, Styron dares to enter into the tricky realm of genocidal relativism by inclusion. Yet if Styron is going to quibble with Steiner, we must quibble with Styron by his own rules. Stingo has left out the pink triangles, the political prisoners, and numerous other laborers who perished in the camps. If Styron hopes to “sum up the absolute totalitarian nature of this evil,” it is quite possible that no book can truly contain it. On the other hand, when Styron writes of Stingo’s whereabouts on April 1, 1943, he is clearly showing the foolish nature of the comparative enterprise:

I was able to come up with the absurd fact that on that afternoon, as Sophie first set foot on the railroad platform in Auschwitz, it was a lovely spring day in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I was gorging myself on bananas.

Stingo is gorging himself on bananas because he needs three more pounds to meet the minimum weight requirement to join the Marines. And yet, at the time, Stingo

had not heard of Auschwitz, nor of any concentration camp, nor of the mass destruction of the European Jews, nor even much about the Nazis. For me the enemy in that global war was the Japanese, and my ignorance of the anguish hovering like a noxious gray smog over places with names like Auschwitz, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen was complete. But wasn’t this true for most Americans, indeed most human beings who dwelt beyond the perimeter of the Nazi horror?

In condemning Styron for his “historical error,” Myers correctly observes that none of the books and records that Stingo quotes is a firsthand source. And yet while Myers is right to point out that Sophie’s testimony to Stingo “secures the narrative authority of Sophie’s Choice,” he fails to observe that even Styron’s fictional firsthand source is suspect, suggesting that “the novel’s case against the Jewish interpretation of the Holocaust depends upon the claim that Jews are ignorant of the historical reality.” But if Stingo himself starts from a blank slate of ignorance, is not the purported case against predicated on an interpretation built atop gentile ignorance? The details here are as much about the lies and the omissions as they are about what is stated and filtered through Stingo. Of one of Sophie’s accounts, Stingo notes, “Her brief observation on the function of Auschwitz-Birkenau….is basically an accurate one, and she neither exaggerated nor underestimated the nature of her various diseases….Why, then, did she leave out certain elements and details that anyone might reasonably have expected her to include?” Later in the novel, Stingo declares, “Would I not forgive her, she said, now that I saw both the truth and her necessity for telling the lie?” Still later, a highly inebriated Sophie exclaims, “Jews! God, how I hate them! Oh, the lies I have told you, Stingo. Everything I told you about Cracow was a lie. All my childhood, all my life I really hated Jews. They deserved it, this hate, I hate them, dirty Jewish cochons!”

This is distressing and prejudicial language. And it certainly points to one interesting takeaway that Myers promulgates: “The only respect in which [the novel’s Jewish characters] remain Jewish at all is in their exclusivist response to the Holocaust.” But can Stingo as narrator be entirely trusted? Is not Sophie’s anti-Semitic outburst, the fissures widened by self-medicating swigs of rye, not pointing to the inherent ugliness within the Enlightenment liberal position?

Sophie’s Choice is many things, but the thrust here may be more emotional than intellectual. Cannot the Holocaust be both ecumenical, as Styron once proposed, and exclusively Jewish? If one is not Jewish, and one feels deep sadness and great contrition for these tremendous atrocities, then Jewish exclusivity presents no other option other than conversion. Thus, Stingo’s romantic language, tailored for crass sexuality, may very well be upholding the folly buried within.

Since Myers was too timorous to consider this angle, I’m going to suggest that Stingo’s sexual longings represent some wishful reconciliation between Jewish exclusivity and universal understanding. For the gentile denied exclusivity, there is the commingling of guilt with passion, even carnal passion. Yet as Leslie Fiedler observed in his take on Sophie’s Choice, “Even when Stingo manages to participate in the action, he proves incapable of influencing its outcome.” So if Myers believes that Styron “fails to understand the sense in which the Holocaust calls into question the left-liberal distaste for Jewish exclusivism,” it would appear that he did not read the following reflective passage near novel’s end, when Stingo is attempting to balance his youthful journal with his adult self:

Someday I will understand Auschwitz. This was a brave statement but innocently absurd. No one will understand Auschwitz. What I might have set down with more accuracy would have been: Someday I will write about Sophie’s life and death, and thereby help demonstrate how absolute evil is never extinguished from the world. Auschwitz itself remains inexplicable. The most profound statement yet made about Auschwitz was not a statement at all, but a response.

Next: Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net!

(Image: Alfred Eisenstaedt)

The Bat Segundo Show: Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan

Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #296.

Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan are most recently the authors of Beyond Heaving Bosoms. They are also the proprietors of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

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Subjects Discussed; Kathleen Woodwiss’s The Flame and the Flower, the beginnings of original paperback romance, genre respectability, romance’s profitability, the stigma of effeminacy, cozy mysteries, arterial bloodspray, the fallacious anatomical placement of the hymen, spontaneously lactating virgins, whether the pun is intended or not, editorial house style and “the magic hoo hoo,” the wandering vagina, Lilith Saintcrow’s “Half of Humanity is Worth Less Than a Chair,” rapists within romances, Candy Tan’s suggestive hand gestures, marriage and choice, intrusive Mercedes drivers and related invective, the frequency of oral sex within romances, how far sex needs to go in art, porn, anal sex, bukkake, double wangs and double penetration, homunculi, the line between romance and erotica, hypothetical genre fusion, poseur man titty and erotic romance, the “shop and run” approach to romances, embarrassing covers, dashing long-haired heroes and bald badasses, game theory and Sarah and Candy’s reading preferences, Candy’s pirate fixation, the sharp disparity between genuine smelly pirates and the twee McSweeney’s pirates, “the big mis,” John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra, misunderstandings and character flaws, simultaneous organs, romances and Republican presidencies, Cassie Edwards and plagiarism, and encouraging civil disagreement and discourse in the romance community.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

sarahwendellCorrespondent: Science fiction, mystery, YA. These genres are getting respect, particularly in the last decade. And yet romance is still one of those things in which people thumb their noses down. Why do you think this is? Must we always have some place to go for the ghetto? What’s the deal here?

Sarah Wendell: Well, I will point out that romance is actually getting a lot more respect because of the turgid strength of its quarterly earnings. And even though most industries — especially in New York, which is hyper-navel gazing in the financial industry — are experiencing massive losses year to year and quarterly to quarterly, romance is the one erect column in your spreadsheet. And it remains quite strong. So while it doesn’t get a lot of respect from your average cocktail crowd, most financial newspapers are having to pay attention to the strength of romance when you’re looking at it as an investment, or as an indicator of an economy. Which is why I think that Harlequin is chuckling, or befuddled, at the entire economic crisis. Because they were founded during the Depression. I’m sure they’re looking at this, going, “This? This is nothing. Are you kidding? Let me just tell you what it was really like.”

Candy Tan: This is great for business!

Sarah Wendell: I know.

Candy Tan: What the hell? No, I think personally that a lot of the reason why romance novels are the Rodney Dangerfield of genre fiction is the stigma of effeminacy. You know, science fiction. They’re “novels of ideas.” Mysteries have lots of blood and guts. Well, some of them do. The ones that don’t get respect, interestingly enough, tend to be the cozy mysteries. The ones in which there’s a cat solving the goddam murder or whatever the hell. You know, those are the ones: “Oh man, they’re not worth taking seriously.” If I remember correctly, and I might be wrong, because I don’t know mystery as well as I should, the hardboiled mystery were one of the first to exit the ghetto.

Sarah Wendell: As long as there’s arterial bloodspray, you get some respect.

Candy Tan: Or you know…

Sarah Wendell: Spooge, not so much.

Candy Tan: Yeah, there’s definitely a lot more respect for male fantasies versus female fantasies in fiction and you see this over and over again.

Correspondent: If we’re going to talk about arterial bloodspray, I think we should point to the fallacious anatomical scenario involving hymens, which you point out in this book.

Sarah Wendell: At length. At great, great length.

Correspondent: Yeah, at great length.

candytanSarah Wendell: You can tell that this is something that rubbed us the wrong way.

Correspondent: Yes, I got the sense…

Sarah Wendell: And to anyone who’s listening, I want a complete pun count at the end of the podcast. And if we can get an accurate pun number, I’ll totally give away a copy of the book and some beaucoup prize if you can identify how many puns we make in the course of this interview.

Correspondent: But the question is: You have so much attention to detail in historical romance and yet this one thing continues to propagate, continues, I suppose, to not be patched up in quite the way that one would expect.

Sarah Wendell: Good one.

Correspondent: And so what I’m wondering is: Do you think romance readers and romance writers want to fantasize about where the hymen is?

Sarah Wendell: No, I think it’s simple oral history. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. I think that the legend of the misplaced hymen is just something that’s passed down from writer to writer. Much like the historical inaccuracies that plague other parts of the specific historical genre, “Where the hell your hymen is?” is one of them.

Candy Tan: Here’s the thing. I think I’ve spotted the same misplacement of the hymen in other books. Not romance novels. I think I’ve read a couple of horror novels — and maybe it would have made sense if the girl being devirginized were some kind of filthy alien beast. By hymen, you mean vagina dentata. But you don’t. Oh, oh, it’s infected other genres too! How wonderful! Anatomical craziness all the way around.

Sarah Wendell: And that’s not the only anatomical inaccuracy we’ve discovered. There’s a few one off inaccuracies we’ve discovered that are just mind-boggling. Like there’s one Gaelen Foley where the heroine’s a bona-fide virgin. And I mean bona-fide. Not is she like a virgin, but she’s like a princess or some shit? They haven’t even had sex yet. This is the first time they’re kissing in the woods. And he tastes her milk. Because, you know, virgins spontaneously lactate. Like a postpartum woman going into Target and hearing a baby cry. Yeah, same thing.

Candy Tan: It was the most nipple-tacular moment in all historical romance.

BSS #296: Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan (Download MP3)

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The Geeks

ceiling

The geeks in the upstairs apartment moved out. I called them the geeks because I always heard the guy drilling holes into the walls at odd hours — the working theory being that he was constructing some homemade dungeon. I once heard the Nazi theme from Day of Defeat booming through his speakers, the battle sounds rattling through that thin partition between ceiling and floor. The first geek — a dark-haired, t-shirt wearing dude around thirty — was lonely. There were prospective dates, but enough disparate intervals between women for any armchair sleuth to adduce that he never really made it past one or two invites up to the apartment. But I cheered him on. Even if I didn’t really know him aside from quiet acknowledgments in the elevator.

But eventually he got lucky and he found someone who understood him. And I was very happy for him! And she was very loud when they rattled the floorboards, sounding like a soprano just getting warmed up, the two of them going at it with the stamina of ten stallions. And he stopped playing first-person shooters. He was thankfully into first-person plural now, even if it was all quite loud. They always started around one in the morning. And he would laugh long and hard just after he came. And they would sometimes make funny childish sounds together that would reverberate through the partition.

I realize that all this sounds a bit creepy and vaguely invasive. There’s no way to convey the truth of this casual eavesdropping and come away innocent and unscathed. I fully expect some authority for decency or morality to knock on the door if my account should make the rounds. I can only say that I didn’t go out of my way to overhear these things, nor did I spend an unhealthy amount of time dwelling upon all this. But you must understand. It’s a bit difficult to ignore neighbors having sex. And you can’t exactly introduce yourself. Because your neighbors know they’re being quite loud. And you can’t exactly knock on their door with baked cookies and a bottle of scotch and say, “Hi there! I just love the way you fuck your girlfriend, and I thought maybe we might have a mixer!” This is something we never discuss in American culture. But maybe we should. Of course, if you opened up an honest dialogue with your neighbor, any reasonable person would beat the hell out of you or ensure that you spend the rest of your life on some predatory database.

They soon spent a good deal of time together. The nightly thumping became as regular as the gunshots that sometimes stirred us out of bed at three in the morning. And then the sounds stopped. They weren’t always there. Then they were. And then they were moving out to a new love shack. An ugly couch made its way to the first floor. It was initially accompanied by a note, beseeching tenants not to take it. Then the note disappeared. Presumably, the girl geek had talked some decorative sense into the guy geek. It truly was an ugly couch. So ugly and brown that nobody in the building wanted it. The couch was found outside a week later, taking hits from the rain. For all I knew, the geeks had gone at it on that couch. Maybe there was a time in which they had valued the couch. Perhaps this was furniture designed only for lost weekends.

But when the couch was gone, I knew that the geeks were gone for good. That regular libidinous rhythm had permanently disappeared. And I wondered what percussive effects might serve in lieu. Yes, time marches on. People change and move. The geeks may now be tormenting or delighting some other neighbor. But we were the neighbors designated to hear their grunts and moans! No more.

I certainly have regrets about this peripheral “relationship” with my neighbors. Why didn’t I use a decibel meter to get a precise reading of their sounds? I’m fairly confident that they defied a few noise ordinances, and good for them. Why didn’t I find out what the drilling was all about? Why didn’t I use a little know-how myself to spy through the ceiling? We cross into the unethical. And answering these questions would have taken away from some of the mystery.

Thus, I think it’s important for us not to discount the neighbors who fuck each other blue. These geeks, without even knowing it, spawned enigma and curiosity from their downstairs neighbors. And that, I would argue, is a positive achievement for the human race.

Rosebud 2.0

undress.jpgI lean into my computer screen chin on fist, eyes leveled. Before me, a woman lies face down on an unremarkable bed. A man moves the woman’s hands behind her back. The woman waits patiently as he ties her hands together securely but comfortably with a simple rope. His wedding ring gleams as he pushes up her cotton frock and takes his time easing her panties down over her thighs. For the next several minutes, he fondles her. His caresses move from the swells of her buttocks to the folds of her genitals. She undulates and rears up against his hands. His fingers disappear inside her. She exhales pure desire in this otherwise quiet scene. At one point the man clutches the woman’s hand in a silent, tender communication. Then he reaches for something off screen. Shuffling noises ensue. A twisted tube of lubricant and vibrator appear. The play becomes more aggressive, as do the woman’s reactions. She strains to open her legs against the binding panties around her knees and another rope around her ankles.

I swallow hard.

Three quarters of the way through Amateur Bondage Video, I abort my research efforts. A few minutes after that, my jeans are a jumble on the floor and I am smoky-eyed on my own bed, basking in the aftermath.

The perfect pornographic experience? Not entirely. Sure, the end result was enthusiastic enough, but I had to swim through a dangerous ocean of flesh to get here, proving that nothing is easy.

egyptfellatio.jpgPeople often assume that women dislike pornography or that they don’t like it as much as men. That’s an oversimplification. I want to like porn. But professional videos are less concerned with what feels good for a woman and more hard pressed on what is visually arousing for men — fellatio for instance. I’m not knocking it. It’s a wonderful erotic act that men love to watch, but that only gets me so far. On the flip side, pro porn constantly depicts cunnilingus as if it were a lollipop-licking contest with a misplaced emphasis on the visual. I always roll my eyes at that and think: Too bad. If he were doing it right most of the pink stuff wouldn’t be viewable.

And the subtleties: barely audible breathing escalating to a wide-eyed moan, finger strokes that tighten into a desperate clutch, the widening eyes of climax. Ideal porn would show all of this without the ridiculous staging, faux boobs and silly plots involving pool boys and “nurses.” But the professional efforts are all about those things, which is why I gave up on them years ago. One could argue that the actors love the work and the camera, but I doubt Jenna Jameson ever works for free. Pro porn stems from the exchange of money. Successful sex is about the exchange of desire.

So when XTube.com went live nearly two years ago with the option of user-generated adult content, it was a revelation–a naked YouTube, without the snarky comments. The idea seemed flawless: finally, a free-of-charge amateur alternative to the Internet’s bogus claims of 100 percent free XXX! The parade of copycat sites followed — PornoTube, YouPorn, Megarotic. The list gets longer every day. There’s a healthy dose of desire splattered on these sites. The Web 2.0 actors and directors are doing this because they want to and they want me to watch. I’m not paying to attend this soiree. I’ve been invited.

leek.jpgThe initial orgy was a blast. The woman sashaying nude down a busy street with a cigarette in one hand and a swinging purse in the other was so funny that I posted the clip on my blog and titled the entry “Confidence.” I assigned pithy quips to my discoveries and emailed the links. I asked, “Got vichyssoise?” of a huge leek being used as a dildo. “Her lips are sealed” was my commentary on the woman matter-of-factly tying her labia into a knot. These weren’t about arousal, but fun. If the people posting them were doing it to bolster their self-esteems, judging by the hit counts, they had to puff up like peacocks. I might have watched on with bewilderment, but why shouldn’t Super KnotGirl be proud of herself?

Things got cagier when I searched for something to arouse me. I passed over the male-concentric thumbnails that dominate these sites and clicked on images or titles that might have something for 42-year-old housewife and mother in Cleveland, Ohio. My five foot one stature earned Petite Amateur Keeps Fucking a click. It featured the reverse cowgirl position, which showcased the woman’s body beautifully, but her clitoris was a mile away from the action. Even 38 seconds of that was too long — I was out in 10. The thumbnail for Mature Wife And Her Special Friend looked promising with a lush sex toy and lacy stockings, but it went south when a loud radio jock’s voice suddenly plugged an event “sponsored by new Heineken Premium Light, the first light beer worth the name Heineken!”

Ugh.

I hated it when that deer-in-the-headlights thing overcame me during mediocre or bad footage. I’d push the fast forward bar along and think: will he ever take that thing out of her mouth? If he did, but only in order to ejaculate all over her face, it was an emotional pinch for me. Amateur porn is real sex, not someone’s job. I don’t want to be treated that way. How did the woman on the screen feel? I’m not judging her sexual experience, but when it comes to watching sex, I’m selfish. I can’t help but project what I see on the screen onto my own paradigm. Someone else might be doing it, but it’s still all about me. Hence, I quickly found that no matter how graphic and banal the footage, it was almost always complex.

A click here, another over there. My eyes frenetically scanned screen after screen of thumbnails. The search, with all its primal stimuli, became tiresome, even annoying. There was very little that was sexy to me. The endless surfing was the zenith of frustration particularly when I was unsuccessful. Who wants to waste an hour looking at porn that doesn’t turn them on?

I admit there are gems and high-riding waves among the online porn like Amateur Bondage Video. And I love it that 47-year-old Doris from accounting, brought up on the mantra Good Girls Don’t Do Certain Things, can slip into the den and furiously rub off while watching Lonely Housewife Fucking Her Vacuum after a lifetime of guilty curiosity. One big surprise was the relief I felt at finally seeing what other women’s genitals look like and how women touch themselves. Men have been comparison checking ever since the locker room. Board members often have nowhere to hide. Vaginas are different. Unless you’re a gynecologist or a gay woman, you don’t see them. The pink panther stays under wraps until we open it up. Even to view my own, I have to fold up like a pretzel on the bathroom floor with all the lights on and get tricky with a mirror. Playboy is no help. Hefner’s minions either Photoshop out any indication of an orifice or leave a tiny hairless line that peeps, “I’m a very well-behaved little muff.”

Double ugh.

But the online amateurs are fleshy beauties, lush with folds and colors from pink to brown to dusky rose. These are the childbearing workhorses of human sexuality, unapologetic and closed five days a month, thank you very much. They roar, “I am pussy!” and get my unconditional support.

Then there was this: the image of a man buried between a woman’s thighs moved me to click through to Female POV 3. The man was handsome and muscled. The woman was filming the action. “It’s taking too long,” he said as he looked up and revealed his flaccid penis. Next was a failed attempt at intercourse. Then the woman bent over and fingered herself to provide a visual. The man stared into her, his face vulnerable and desperate, his right hand furiously stroking. “The camera and stuff just makes me a little bit nervous,” he said. She urged him to ignore it. Nothing worked. The man collected his clothes from the floor and left. “Hey,” said the woman, whose face remained hidden, “Close the door, please.”

I blinked back tears. I was furious over the woman’s indifference. But at the same time, I waxed protective — even feeling maternal — for the man. Women complain about sexual objectivity all the time. This was the same sort of sexual abuse made worse by the unavoidable evidence, all of which was recorded by that obnoxious little broad’s camera. I wanted to reach into the screen and grab her by the neck, plop her down and say, “Think you’re such hot shit? Don’t forget that all your shaved sweetness did nothing for that man. Everything here failed, including you.”

And that is how XTube, self-billed as “the greatest thing since the orgasm,” managed a total eclipse of my arousal for the rest of the day.

I later realized that the clip was not a failure, but the most evocative footage I’d seen, hands down. It had every right to be online and then some. So it goes when you sail the sea of free online sex. Every adjective applies. It’s funny and sad and sexy and messy and arousing and painful and infuriating and, well, a lot like real sex.

But we’ve been recording real sex forever. What’s different about Porn 2.0? This new porn frontier is thriving because the logistics that heretofore governed adult content are stripped away. To procure the new sex, all I have to do is step into my home office and fire up the Mac, which is miles away from the seedy “Adult” stores on the other side of town. Once online, I’ll find all the amateur footage I want compliments of high-speed Internet and inexpensive digital cameras. The broadcasts come from across the globe.

It can be overwhelming.

The sheer volume and range of content makes me feel as though I am standing with my nose one inch away from a fifty-foot billboard that is glaring and blaring a million different sexual messages. Thus far, Web 2.0’s John Q. Public editor might be dealing aces over at Wikipedia, but not here. In fact, the more he gets his paws into online sex, the more raucous it becomes. After all, honest sex doesn’t come with six-pack abs and good lighting. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the public editors of Wiki have spent the past two years making that world look like a real reference site and making XTube look like real sex.

But do I really want Editor 2.0 to clean this sex up?

I don’t think so. Despite my quibbles, I’m rooting for all this diverse new unbridled sex with all of its imperfect beauty. And even though I don’t drop in that often, I’ll be checking in once in a while to see how things are (ahem) coming along.

Visit the 1/11/08 entry of O’Brien’s blog for pertinent links.