Bad Teacher: Cameron Diaz as Monster Lite

Bad Teacher is not going to save anybody’s life.  Cameron Diaz as our very bad teacher is mostly a tiny monster. She tells kids they suck, she steals from the school car wash, and she strangely comes up with the idea to rub poison ivy on another teacher’s apple.  And this is extreme stuff for us American audiences. For all the gross-out humor of Bridesmaids, we still don’t like to see our lady protagonists getting ethically nasty.  I think of what the Brit version of Bad Teacher would be and get simultaneously high, and a case of the hives.  It would be rough. A funny, wickeder version of Notes on a Scandal.

At it’s best, Bad Teacher is a takedown of the Teach for America squeak and bounce, with a healthy knock to the mishmash of generic hoopla we expect of the “nurturing” professions.   At one point, Diaz’s Craigslist roommate comes home to find her eating a corn dog. “I thought you were going out with all the other nurses,” he says. “I’m not a nurse,” she says. “I thought you were a nurse.” More of this, please.

The trope of Diaz not nurturing her students ultimately becomes stale. She beats them, she smokes up in the school parking lot, and that was fun, but I was hoping for darker.  I was hoping this would lean more towards Bad Santa, if we were going to be badding up at all.  This might also be because I have been stuffing my eyeballs with Nighty Night lately, which has perhaps fucked up my expectation of what bad truly is. This is also the first movie I have seen with an extended dryhumping scene.

Two key markers are becoming standby shorthand for a lady movie where the ladies are “real people.” The first is that she has to eat something with a high caloric content without glamour or lust. She has to eat in the way that people do when they are alone.  Think Annie and her cupcake in Bridesmaids. In Bad Teacher, Diaz and her cheeseburger get some strange scene time as she drives to seduce a school district wonk.  Is it narratively important that she eats a cheeseburger on her mild drive? No. Is it funny to watch a fit Diaz eat a cheeseburger? If you think eating cheeseburgers are funny.  It was a strange way to spend 4 seconds, but it was so memorable. The earlier mentioned corn dog had a similar effect. I can’t tell if it’s because we’re unused to seeing women blandly eat without it being a large statement (she’s healthy cuz she eats! Cute because she doesn’t hide her appetite!) or so typical (woman laughing alone with salad). Women are either supposed to have orgasms when they eat cupcakes, or cry in the bathroom about it. Here, they just eat, and, you know, drive.

No orgasms, either. The other marker is the very bad sex scene, usually one that is good for the guy and atrocious for the gal.  Again, anything with Annie and John Hamm in Bridesmaids, and Justin Timberlake’s dedicated dryhumpery here.  The joke usually lands on the stupid, offensive, completely selfish things the men say during sex, while the women are slightly winking at the audience as they contort and romp. They’re with us, telepathing “this guy is a real piece of work,” as they wait for him to finally come. Both scenes are used to announce that the dude is not part of the happy ending for our protagonists.  Neither woman tells off the dude or quits the very bad sex even though he is not listening to her, or worse, tells her to stop talking. The good news is the audience aligns with the woman’s experience in the exchange, even if it assumes that putting up with mid-coitus bullshit is normsville. By making fun of the man’s blindness to his partner, we all actually see and listen to the lady character’s experience.

As a tangent, can you imagine this same dynamic for a great sex scene? In both these movies, the good sex is skipped over, either as a fade out or as an untold part of the story. This might be more because bad sex is easy to define, while good sex is ridiculously specific, especially for women, and thus harder to write.  In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, where the bad sex was all very funny and very much from a male POV (the woman who kept saying ‘Hi,’ etc.) but the good sex was downright cliche’ (looking into each other’s eyes, meaning). 

The idea of seeing a good sex scene between Diaz and Jason Segel, her other love interest, is a little bit iffy. How do you keep us aligned in the woman’s experience without making it an over the top ode to a woman’s pleasure? And bad sex keeps the story focused on the protagonist, whereas good sex realigns the audience with the couple. And, the nitty gritty of bad sex is funny. The grit of good sex, is just, well, blushy. We already assume women are blushy.  In these movies where the lady protagonists are trying to claim all three dimensions they have to disregard and work against the already well-mapped soft spots of traditional femininity.  Thus, the dryhumping.

As for Bad Teacher, it’s a mildly good excuse to sit in the dark. One thing it does well is skew dialogue into natural conversation. Characters often say the obvious thing, but in a real and unpackaged way. When Diaz gives helpful dating advice that leads to two men hitting on her sidekick (Phyllis from the Office), Segal says “Wow, that worked superfast.” It could be flat, but it twists enough that when he says it, it lands as a real sentence in the world.  Also, Segel and Diaz seem to have a real chemistry, and while the plot gets stupid, and there are lots of loose ends, it doesn’t become a carnival like Spring Breakdown. I think that means we might be getting somewhere.

Yours,

CF

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How Bunuel Could Rewrite “Belle de Jour” For Modern Audiences

Dear CF,

I watched “Belle de Jour” (Bunuel’s 1967 film starring Catherine Deneuve) last night for the first time. It’s badly dated. I haven’t encountered that problem before—part of the pleasure of an old film is experimentally wrenching your psyche into the perspective that made the  movie and its attempted project possible. Here, though, the exercise defeats me. The movie depends on Freudian approaches to repressed sexuality that no longer titillate or shock—they’re structures so embedded in our contemporary narrative of female sexuality that shows like Desperate Housewives tacitly assume them.

It’s pretty clear that the auteur of Un Chien Andalou—which I need to watch, but which I know for its iconic eye-slicing and surrealism—is partly interested in scandalizing the bourgeois sensibilities of the viewing public (and perhaps in lampooning the banality of a housewife’s sexual fantasies), but the results are, if not vanilla, then butter pecan. The initial discomfort of the protagonist’s experiment in prostitution (her first john gets a little rough with her) gives way to work in a safe and vaguely glamorous brothel (complete with a classy, rational, female pimp who steals every scene) that, far from being degrading, is civilized, congenial, and often comedic. Much of what happens in Anais’ apartment is farcical, although Mr. Millicent is convinced—and has mostly convinced me—that the encounter with the Asian man is supposed to read as extremely degrading.

The farce would be delightful if the movie took pleasure in its comedy, which it usually doesn’t, focused as it is on the protagonist’s psychodrama. Deneuve’s Severine is icy and inexpressive in a glassy, uncompelling sort of way. Picture Gwyneth Paltrow’s character in The Royal Tannenbaums, only less self-possessed and  interesting. Paltrow’s character wore her disaffection better, but is a useful model for how we’re supposed to understand Severine, who bears an unfortunate resemblance to Heidi Montag. It struck me, as I watched, that this is another way in which the modern viewer is inured to Bunuel’s experiments  in Belle de Jour. Severine should track as aristocratic and elegant. Husson lusts after her because of her “virtue,” but also because she is half of a smart Parisian couple. She is expensive. And her complex, such as it is, is that she gets off on the whiteness of her skin and status and the secret mud that’s slung at it.

Sadly for the modern viewer, invited to be complicit in this delectable marring of the pure, the purity (such as it is) doesn’t register—we can’t have the aesthetic experience Bunuel planned for us. More on this in a minute.

First I want to talk about Severine’s fantasies, which are the focus of the movie and which deserve a little time. I want to focus on them because her visual appearance is hugely important to how those fantasies play out. Her sexual imagination, as the movie configures it, is 100% visual, not sensual. The fantasies—particularly the first and most violent one—actually focus not on her own sensations but on the spectacle of herself. She’s always visually present in her dreams (which is weird, and unacknowledged as weird), and what turns her on is primarily color: reds and whites and browns, the visuals of her humiliated self.

It’s important that she doesn’t bleed in the initial sequence (admirable restraint on Bunuel’s part—the viewer is tricked into wanting the spectacle of bright blood on white skin against the bleakness of the trees and woods). It’s important, too, that in the last fantasy, before her husband’s maiming, she has blood on her face. (I don’t know whether we’re supposed to read this as a growing appetite for sadomasochism or an acknowledgment of the dangers of her practice.)

By the end of the movie the stagecoach she and her husband started the film in reappears, this time empty. She isn’t in the carriage anymore—she’s inside her house, and she’s visually unimportant. Given that the movie started inside one of her fantasies, and focused on the redness of her wardrobe, it’s worth considering where the frame breaks off. What does this shift mean? Do we end on another of her episodic fantasies, properly domesticated, or have we been inside a mega-fantasy all along?

I vote for the latter. This is one of the very few stories that would actually be better if it ended with that bete noire of creative writing workshops the world over: “And then she woke up!” It would save the film from the sin it’s trying desperately to avoid: a conventional ending. And it’s there: the unkindest reading would say Severine  gets punished and put in her place by the end.  She’s a wife, and a bad wife, and a bad, insatiably lustful wife who will never be sexually fulfilled. What better hell? What grimmer cautionary tale?

If it’s all a dream, there’s more latitude and more interest. Her punishment at the end is still an unblooded one—her suffering isn’t physically felt, despite the emphasis on the body—and in that sense it can either be read as the ultimate fulfillment of her masochistic cravings, which are meant (I think) to be understood as unblooded and cowardly. Some critics suggest that she’s revealed at the end, when things get messy, to be merely bourgeois, retreating from the dangers of her position as soon as her reality is threatened. It could telegraph a development in her own psyche, a move away from spectacle and toward some other mode of experience. More interestingly, it would suggest that the entire film, an expressly visual medium, has been a transcript of her imaginative journey, the corollary being that her experience and ours has been identical. To which I say: interesting!

But, given that her appearance is all-important, and to a large extent the engine that fuels Severine’s erotic investment in her own degradation, I want to return to my earlier point: we have to talk about her looks. Everything about Severine’s appearance, from her hairstyle to her makeup to the shade of blonde to the shiny plastic trenchcoat—everything, in other words, that should register (according to the film’s terms) as rarefied exclusivity and “virtue”—is Heidi Montag’s idea of classy.

However ethereal Severine must have been in her time, now hers is an available, reproducible, generic beauty that’s luxurious in the sense that Montag is luxurious—monetarily expensive, but the easily manufactured product of plastic surgeons and expensive stripperwear, and therefore  tasteless and (in the classist, Frenchest way) cheap. Deneuve’s few moments of animation (as when, for example, she nuzzles up to the Asian man, smiling and kissing him) should read as shocking breakthroughs; instead—and I suspect this is because of how the accidents of her character read now—they feel tired and professional, no more free than anything else she does. Bunuel may have thought a blonde woman doing that to a fat Asian man was an innovation in sadomasochism, but then, he hadn’t been trained to the surrealist, grotesque horror that is  Bunnies fondling Hugh Hefner as normal.

We’re not shocked by beautiful women servicing ugly, repulsive men, so the visual mechanics of Severine’s psychodrama fail. These days, Google will run ads for men looking for “sugar babies” without blinking a surrealistically sliced eye. It has, however, labeled ads for dating services for older women searching for younger men “pornographic,” If Bunuel were to remake Belle de Jour now, he would need  to reverse the roles—have a young, handsome, happily married man start servicing fat older women.  That might shock us.

Fondly,

M

African Condom Ad: (Is THAT What They Say About Umbrellas?)

This ad for Trust condoms, in which an umbrella becomes an unlikely prop, is one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in advertising. I am flabbered. I am gasted. I am gasterflabbed. It manages to be neo-Victorian, woman-friendly, surreal, empowering for everybody concerned, funny, safe, and unbelievably graphic.

Some info: The Trust condom campaign is, from what I gather, marketed by Popular Services International. From their website:

PSI/Kenya was founded in 1990 to socially market condoms and has since expanded to include programs for malaria, reproductive health, HIV/AIDs and child survival. More than 230 employees and nearly 60 temporary staff members work to improve health conditions for Kenyans in seven out of the eight provinces. PSI has built a network of more than 5,000 commercial partners that help enable low-income and vulnerable Kenyans to lead healthier lives.

The name “Trust” seems to derive from the claim that many young couples who did use condoms stopped three months or so into the relationship as a way of demonstrating trust. (Something like what the horrified media says teens do with sexting.) I’m wary of that urban legendish account, but hey, the name’s smart regardless. Compared to our Trojans and Magnums it’s downright friendly.

Why Women Don’t Make Top Ten Lists: Prose on Prose

Dear CF,

Laura Miller’s article on Publishers Weekly’s top ten list led me to Francine Prose’s article, “Scent of a Woman’s Ink,” which was published in Harper’s Magazine in 1998.  It’s not available to nonsubscribers but it’s a formidable piece and relevant still, though it’s equally interesting to think about the ways in which some things have changed. I want to rescue it from the archives and reproduce some parts of it here for consideration as we pound our way through the month of November. My summaries are in brackets and italics.

[Prose notes that all in all, sales are up for women writers and there are more women readers than men. Taking the broad view, all’s well.]

“So only a few paranoids (readers with a genuine interest in good writing by either gender) may feel that the literary playing field is still off by a few degrees. Who else would even notice that in this past year–which saw the publication of important books by Deborah Eisenberg, Mary Gaitskill, Lydia Davis, and Diane Johnson–most of the book-award contests had the aura of literary High Noons, publicized shoot-outs among the guys: Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, and Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain, a sort of Civil War Platoon? Of course, not even the most curmudgeonly feminist believes that accolades or sales should be handed out in a strict fifty-fifty split, or that equal-opportunity concessions should be made to vile novels by women. But some of us can’t help noting how comparatively rarely stories by women seem to appear in the few major magazines that publish fiction, how rarely fiction by women is reviewed in serious literary journals, and how rarely work by women dominates short lists and year-end ten-best lists.”

[Prose meditates on why this might be:]

“How to explain this disparity? Is fiction by women really worse? Perhaps we simply haven’t learned how to read what women write ? Diane Johnson–herself a novelist of enormous range, elegance, wit, and energy–observes that male readers at least “have not learned to make a connection between the images, metaphors, and situations employed by women (house, garden, madness), and universal experience, although women, trained from childhood to read books by people of both sexes, know the metaphorical significance of the battlefield, the sailing ship, the voyage, and so on.” Perhaps the problem is that women writers tell us things we don’t want to hear–especially not from women. Or is the difficulty, fundamentally, that all readers (male and female, for it must be pointed out that many editors, critics, and prize-committee members are women) approach works by men and women with different expectations? It’s not at all clear what it means to write “like a man” or “like a woman,” but perhaps it’s still taken for granted, often unconsciously and thus insidiously, that men write like men and women like women–or at least that they should. And perhaps it’s assumed that women writers will not write anything important—anything truly serious or necessary, revelatory or wise.”

[While many little boys staunchly refuse to read stories about girls and will own up to their reasons for doing so, it’s difficult, of course, to find any adults writing on the subject. The assumption that women writers might have less to contribute to great literature than men seems to tacitly exist but is rarely articulated. Luckily, there’s always Norman Mailer:]

“If Norman Mailer didn’t exist, we might have had to invent the man who could utter, in Advertisements for Myself, history’s most heartfelt, expansive confession of gynobibliophobia:

I have a terrible confession to make—I have nothing to say about any of the talented women who write today. Out of what is no doubt a fault in me, I do not seem able to read them. Indeed I doubt if there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale. At the risk of making a dozen devoted enemies for life, I can only say that the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquille in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn. Since I’ve never been able to read Virginia Woolf, and am some. rimes willing to believe that it can conceivably be my fault, this verdict may be taken fairly as the twisted tongue of a soured taste, at least by those readers who do not share with me the ground of departure–that a good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls.”

“Few critics have so boldly advanced this testicular definition of talent. More often, a male writer’s true opinion must be extracted from the terms he uses to describe his female colleagues, from Walpole’s calling Mary Wollstonecraft a ‘hyena in petticoats’ to Southey’s dismissing the enraged Charlotte Bronte as a daydreamer. In our century, Edmund Wilson complained that ‘this continual complaining and having to be comforted is one of the most annoying traits of women writers….’ More recently, a piece by Bernard Bergonzi in The New York Review of Books began, ‘Women novelists, we have learned to assume, like to keep their focus narrow,’ and in an essay on Katherine Anne Porter, Theodore Solotaroff referred to Porter’s ‘bitchiness’ and ‘relentless cattiness,’ terms used, perhaps too rarely, to scold mean-spirited male writers.

But why should we trouble ourselves about unfeeling, brutish critics when we have gallant defenders like Theodore Roethke, who in 1961 praised Louise Bogan’s poetry by reassuring readers that she is not a typical female poet, handicapped by ‘lack of range–in subject matter, in emotional tone–and lack of a sense of humor…. the embroidering of trivial themes; a concern with the mere surfaces of life . . . hiding from the real agonies of the spirit; refusing to face up to what existence is; Iyric or religious posturing; running between the boudoir and the altar, stamping a tiny foot against God….’

[Speculating that Mailer’s “balls” refer to ambition and scope, here is Prose on the critical reception of Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead in 1991, which weighs in at 750 pages and which I haven’t read, though now I will:]

“From the horror that greeted Silko’s book, published in 1991, one might have concluded that she herself was plotting insurrection or confessing to all the bloody crimes committed in her novel. How upset reviewers were by this ‘very angry author’ seething with ‘half-digested revulsion,’ by her inability to create ‘a single likable, or even bearable, character,’ her ‘bad judgement and inadequate craft,’ the ‘nonexistent plot,’ and, worst of all, her ’emphatic view of sex as dirty, together with a ceaseless focus on the male sex organ, suggest[ing] that more than the novel itself needs remedial help.’

“In USA Today, Alan Ryan lamented that Silko’s book had neither plot nor characters. The normally astute Paul West had similar troubles, which he shared with his L.A. Times readers: ‘I found myself peering back, wondering who was who, only to remember fragments that, while vivid and energetic, didn’t help me in my belated quest for a family tree…. Silko does not interest herself much in psychology, in the unsaid word, the thought uncompleted, the murmur lost.’ The San Francisco Chronicle critic, praising the novel, makes this unintentionally hilarious understatement of the scope of its achievement: ‘At more than 750 pages, Almanac of the Dead is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious novels ever written by an American Indian.’ And Charles Larson concludes his Washington Post review by saying, ‘So many stories have been crammed into Almanac of the Dead it’s often impossible to know when to take Silko seriously.’

“Readers unfamiliar with the novel will have to take my word for it–or that of the few critics who, like Alan Cheuse, recognized the novel as ‘a book that must be dealt with’–that one can follow the story line. Anyway, what’s at issue here is not the dismal spectacle of bad reviews happening to good books but rather the rarity with which major male writers are criticized in the same terms as women. No one seems to be counting David Foster Wallace’s characters, or complaining that DeLillo’s Underworld has too many subplots, or faulting the male authors of doorstop novels for an insufficient interest in psychology. When Thomas Pynchon’s plots spin off into the ozone, we’re quite ready to consider the chance that it’s an intentional part of his method and not the feeble mistake of what Paul West, in his review of Silko, called the ‘shattered mind of an atavist.'”

[Throughout the essay, Prose provides several passages of writing and asks us to identify the gender of the writer. Her point is usually that the qualities ascribed to “female writing” are equally present in the prose male writers. But the most effective example, in my opinion, is the one that troubles this premise of interchangeability:]

“But despite the Skinnerian system of rewards and punishments to which they are subjected, women writers seem to be getting tougher in their insistence on saying the last things men (and even women) want to hear–unwelcome observations about everything from our national attitudes to our self-delusions. Although guys such as Nicholson Baker get the credit for smudging the line between high lit and soft core, women have been increasingly open on the subject of sex, and specifically on the difference between the bedroom and the wet dream. Here, then, one final pair of quotes, on the theme of how power and control shift under the most intense and intimate pressures:

I was dealing, it seemed, with some kind of masochist, or bully, or combination…. To me belonged, as big as a thumb held up to the eye, her pallid moistened body with its thousand jigales and many membranous apertures. … I love the passive position, the silken heavy sway above me of pendulous breasts, the tent of female hair formed when her Olmec face lowered majestically to mine, the earnest and increasingly self-absorbed grind of an ass too big for my hands. Being our second time, it took longer, giving me ample opportunity to keep moaning her name. “Ann Ann! God, Ann. Oh Ann, Ann. Annnn”–the “n”s, the “a.” She took it in stride by now, making no comment; she had slept with enough men to know we’re all, one way or another, kinky.

She unzipped his pants. “Stop,” he said. “Wait.” . . . This was not what he had in mind, but to refuse would make him seem somehow less virile than she. Queasily, he stripped off her clothes and put their bodies in a viable position. He fastened his teeth on her breast and bit her…. He could tell that she was trying to like being bitten, but that she did not. He gnawed her breast. She screamed sharply. They screwed. They broke apart and regarded each other warily…. He realized what had been disturbing him about her. With other women whom he had been with in similar situations, he had experienced a relaxing sense of emptiness within them that had made it easy for him to get inside them and, once there, smear himself all over their innermost territory until it was no longer theirs but his. His wife did not have this empty quality, yet the gracious way in which she emptied herself for him made her submission, as far as it went, all the more poignant. This exasperating girl, on the other hand, contained a tangible somethingness that she not only refused to expunge, but that seemed to willfully expand itself so that he banged into it with every attempt to invade her.

“No one will be fooled this time. The author of the first passage is inarguably a man, since women rarely think of the female body in terms of its ‘many membranous apertures.’ And few women, I imagine, define ‘kinky’ widely enough to include a male taking the bottom position and engaging in some spontaneous, if not exactly erotic, verbalization. The second passage goes a bit further. A breast is bitten, it’s not clear who is calling the shots, and the male character has a truly nasty moment of realization about the nature of sex. This realization so closely resembles female paranoia about male sexuality that we may suspect the writer is a woman. But that hardly matters, since in its extreme acuity it attains a shocking verisimilitude. We recognize the man’s perception not only as true of a few men, or of many men on a few occasions, but as a truth we have always known or suspected and have never before seen, quite so crisply and boldly, in print.

The author of the first passage is John Updike, known for his lyrical-ribald, celebratory, and honest depictions of sex. The second is Mary Gaitskill, a gifted younger writer who, one can’t help noticing, is rarely invited to give her opinion on quite the range of subjects that the media routinely solicits from John Updike. Indeed, Updike is considered a pillar of our literary culture, whereas Gaitskill–whose talent is widely admired–is perceived as slightly transgressive, even slightly nutty, on the subject of sex.

As should be clear by now from the passages and reviews quoted above, fiction by women is still being read differently, with the usual prejudices and preconceptions. Male writers are rarely criticized for their anger; Philip Roth is beloved for his rage, and rightly so. Few reviewers warn Robert Stone against mucking about in parts of the world where CIA operatives masquerade as businessmen. No one dares propose that William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice is in many ways as kitschy, manipulative, and inauthentic a historical novel as, say, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. And, with its forays into the maudlin, it’s hard to believe that A Fan’s Notes by Ms. Frederika Exley would be called, by a Newsday reviewer, ‘the best novel written in the English language since The Great Gatsby.'”

Prose suggests that good writing manages to transcend the accident of gender; I don’t know if that’s quite true, nor do I think people are as forgiving of Styron (for example) as she thinks. But her main point stands: I think it is the case that when a man with a way with words produces a convoluted mess with literary and transcendent aspects, it’s greeted with an assumption of readerly inadequacy. The mess is intentional and artful unless strenuously shown to be otherwise. The burden of proof is on the reader. The converse is true for women, for whom stridency and expansiveness (firecrackerness, too) are undesirably marked qualities. Not bad in themselves, but noticed and questioned. The fact that Beloved tops the Best American Novels list the NYT published some years ago only proves my point. Morrison’s book is a mess that only pretends to be messy: it’s actually obsessively neat, neat to the point of compulsiveness. Every symbol, every apparently stray word, every unpunctuation is part of an overdetermined attempt to create the illusion of mess while betraying an absolute and frankly (to me, anyway) exhausting penchant for authorial control.  Not surprising: the burden of proof is on Morrison: she needed to be able and ready to show her work.

One of the most interesting things about writing a novel (as opposed to a short story) and writing it so quickly is that one has a rather Pynchonian or Silkoian right to mess. And mess is fun. I’m taking the month to write it.

Fondly,

M

Respect the Cock

Dear CF,

I learned yesterday that in my city one can legally own no more than 12 chickens. This puzzled me. Why 12? At first I thought it might have to do with egg packaging—grocery stores do tend to sell chicken thighs and breasts in packages of six or twelve. Maybe we’ve just internalized the base-12 principle when it comes to birds.

Wrong. Today I discovered why. It has to do with chicken family values, which consist—according to William Harvey, my scientist du jour—of exactly one rooster and, ideally, ten hens. (I know that’s only 11. I imagine city planning officials saw fit to permit a spare.)

William Harvey is justly famous for accurately describing the double circulation of the blood in his “Anatomical Disquisition on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals.” It’s a rousing story of perseverance and smarts overcoming ignorance and odds. We can rejoice that after a lifetime of bitter struggle (and friendship with Hobbes, which amount to the same thing), he watched his discovery gain public acceptance.

He’s less known for his treatise on animal reproduction, a tome called “On Generation” that offers a detailed and sometimes lyrical examination of the sex lives of (mainly) chickens.

Why chickens? you ask. Harvey thought you might:

Among male animals there is none that is more active or more haughty and erect, or that has stronger powers of digestion than the cock, which turns the larger portion of his food into semen; hence it is that he requires many wives—ten or even a dozen [you see? The city officials compromised.] … Now those males that are so vigorously constituted as to serve several females are larger and handsomer, and in the matter of spirit and arms excel their females in a far greater degree than the males of those that live attached to a single female.

In case you aren’t convinced (warning, graphic imagery ahead):

The cock, therefore, as he is gayer in his plumage, better armed, more courageous and pugnacious, so is he replete with semen, and so apt for repeated intercourse, that unless he have a number of wives he distresses them by his frequent assaults; he not only invites but compels them to his pleasure, and leaping upon them at inconvenient and improper seasons, (even when they are engaged in the business of incubation) and wearing off the feathers from their backs, he truly does them an injury.

If you can get past the ick of that bit, I ask you to imagine the methodology involved in investigating the following in his capacity as natural philosopher-cum-poultry pornographer:

It is certain that the cock in coition emits his “geniture,” commonly called semen, from his sexual parts, although he has no penis, as I maintain; because his testes and long and ample vas deferentia are full of this fluid. But whether it issues in jets, with a kind of spiritous briskness and repeatedly as in the hotter viviparous animals, or not, I have not been able to ascertain.

Not having perfected the art of chicken-pleasing, Harvey nonetheless movingly describes the hen’s sexual experience: Read more of this post

Girltalk and Boytalk

I like Roseanne because it gives both genders enough rope to believably hang themselves. The NY Times ran a depressing article yesterday on sexless marriages. Here’s how Roseanne deals with the problems of bad sex and no sex in marriage. Jackie’s Fred “gets in the elevator but won’t go down” post-baby, Roseanne is pregnant and not in the mood, so Dan tries sucking on her toes. Mark won’t put out for Becky. What happens when Roseanne gets involved:

Fondly,

M

Crooked Piece of Man. Or, Odd Saint: Sir Thomas Browne

Sir Thomas Browne was born in 1605 in London’s Cheapside. He went to Oxford, became an apprentice-physician, but stayed invested in religion and what it meant to be a religious practitioner of the healing arts. He ponders—often thoughtfully and sanely—his own temptation to follow typically “Catholic” conventions, like kneeling or removing his cap in church, praying for the dead, etc. He believes in witches and has quite lovely things to say about friendship and teaching. I feel I should mention too that his Religio Medici is the book Harriet Vane pulls out of Peter’s pocket and peruses while he sleeps after their day of punting.

I give you a few utterly unfair highlights from the Religio Medici that deal with (among other things) marriage and Saturn’s return.

On Sex:

The whole world was made for man, but the twelfth part of man for woman. Man is the whole world and the breath of God, women the rib and crooked piece of man. I could be content that we might procreate like trees, without conjunction, or that there were any way to perpetuate the world without this trivial and vulgar way of coition. It is the foolishest act a wise man commits in all his life, nor is there anything that will more deject his cooled imagination when he shall consider what an odd and unworthy piece of folly he hath committed.

On Marriage:

I was never yet once, and commend their resolution who never marry twice; not that I disallow of second marriage, as neither in all cases of polygamy which, considering some times and the unequal number of both sexes may be also necessary.

On Turning Thirty:

Some divines count Adam thirty years old at his creation because they suppose him created in the perfect age and stature of man.

Earlier: If there be any truth in astrology, I may outlive a jubilee; as yet I have not seen one revolution of Saturn, nor hath my pulse beat thirty years…

And Finally:

Then shall appear the fertility of Adam and the magic of that sperm that hath dilated into so many millions.

Again, this is admittedly the cruel Bartlett’s version of Browne. I’ll have kinder things to say about him later.

Fondly,

Millicent

The Body and The Mind

Dear Millicent,

Forgive me as I continue talking about the divine Ms. Sayers and her great character, the divine Ms. Vane.  I was reading a section that hit on a conversation we have had at least once or twice.  You and I have discussed the magic of our younger and less boy-ridden days, where our mind sucked up the majority of our time.   In college, all of my passion (all of it–except that which was spent on obsessing about music and movies) was pitched towards my work and books.  I didn’t know it yet.  It was only when it wasn’t all pitched there anymore, when credit cards and kissing became realities, that I noticed my work had fallen off.  I blamed it for a long time on stupid sex (and credit cards were their own song (tawdry) of innocence and experience).  I always think of Tom Robbins quote from Even Cowgirls Get The Blues that “all magic requires purity.”  This book was read at the height of my sharpened, celibate powers. I agreed.   I assumed my virginity was linked to my force as a scholar and go-getter.  This seems ridiculous, and yet, even now, a part of me believes it.  I did feel magical then.   Now I offer that the virginity part takes on little of it, but the passion, the compression of desire that demands the articulation of form,  has now been allowed to become a mist instead of a laser beam.    I also don’t hunger as much for sad songs sung by lonely raspy-voiced men.  I sleep better,  too.  But I miss it.  In ways, I think I might be muffins where I used to be magic.

Harriet has been there.

In the melodious silence [she is out on a walk, early morning, Oxford], something came back to her that had lain dumb and dead ever since the old, innocent undergraduate days.  The singing voice, stifled long ago by the pressure of the struggle for existence, and throttled into dumbness by that queer, unhappy contact with physical passion, began to stammer out a few uncertain notes.  Great golden phrases, rising from nothing and leading to nothing swam up out of her dreaming mind like the huge, sluggish carp in the cool waters of Mercury (243).

She goes on to write some verses that come from an inner voice that she trusts, “once more in her own place,”  and finds that

she had got her mood on paper–and this is the release that all writers, even the feeblest, seek for as men seek love; and, having found it, they doze off happily into dreams and trouble their hearts no further (244).

This made me feel better about things.  If such an apt description could have been written in 1936 by Sayers, then it offers proof that the struggle is real, and hearty, and never quite gone.

Meaning, it’s still there.  Which may explain the situation you and our mutual friend recently discussed: the enhanced productivity that occurs when in the midst of an unrequited crush?

Yours,

CF

No Means Yes

Thought this might enrich our approach to the Funny Girl “date rape” question, dear CF. Judy’s playing with fire here, pushing the No Means Yes trope for all its worth. My inclination, re: Funny Girl, is to say (insert Judy’s molasses-sweet voice here) no, no, no no no. But then, I’ve had my “nos” respected whenever I’ve used them. I might be too ready to dismiss a sensitive issue and chalk this and Funny Girl’s iteration of date-sex transactions up to the time.  (Then again, I don’t think Barbra ever actually says the word either… she just flutters in excitement and extreme discomfort.)

It’s never occurred to me—at the critical juncture—to use No this way. The date rape issue has taught me a formidable respect for the word. I’ll take Yes over No any day, except, maybe, when Judy sings it. I admit I find this almost perversely sexy. Is that weird? Maybe I just need a safe word.

I’d hoped to find the version of her singing it at Carnegie Hall—it’s breathtaking. But this is good too.

Sex: Now We Know

In response to your lovely observations on how, when it comes to sex, we really sort of always knew. Or else we still have absolutely no idea.