I recently read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and after completing the novel found myself flipping through some of the extra material in the back. One article is entitled Coming Unstrung: Women, Men, Narrative, and Principles of Pleasure. It begins as follows.
“I would like to begin with the proposition that female orgasm is unnecessary. I am not, of course, saying that it is unnecessary to any particular woman that she experience orgasm or, for that matter, to any particular man that his female partner do so; rather, I mean that women’s orgasm and, by extension, women’s pleasure can be extraneous to that culmination of heterosexual desire which is copulation. Women’s pleasure can take place outside, or independent of, the male sexual economy whose pulsations determine the dominant culture, its repressions, its taboos, and its narratives, as well as the “human sciences” developed to explain them.”
I found myself immediately intrigued. I laid the book down and fixed a glass of orange juice, which is my usual practice when preparing for a difficult mental embarkation. My goal? To figure out what the hell this has to do with the novel.
Shortly thereafter it continues,
“But first, let us return to the question of orgasm. We all know what male orgasm looks like. It is preceded by a visible “awakening, an arousal, the birth of an appetency, ambition, desire or intention.” The male organ registers the intensity of this stimulation, rising to the occasion of its provocation, becoming at once the means of pleasure and culture’s sign of power. This energy, “aroused into expectancy,” takes its course toward “significant discharge” and shrinks into a state of quiescence (or satisfaction) that, minutes before, would have been a sign of impotence. The man must have this genital response before he can participate, which means that something in the time before intercourse must have aroused him. And his participation generally ceases with the ejaculation that signals the end of his arousal. The myth of the afterglow — so often a euphemism for sleep — seems a compensation for the finality he has reached.”
I couldn’t help but imagine two liberal arts professors having this conversation in the breakroom. There’s an older woman, wearing no makeup, never married, dressed plainly, and she’s conversing with an older bearded man, balding, overweight, who replies,
“The archetype of all fiction is the sexual act. In saying this I do not mean merely to remind you of the connection between all art and the erotic in human nature. For what connects fiction — and music – with sex is the fundamental orgastic rhythm of tumescence and detumescence, of tension and resolution, of intensification to the point of climax and consummation. In the sophisticated forms of fiction, as in the sophisticated practice of sex, much of the art consists of delaying climax within the framework of desire in order to prolong the pleasurable act itself.”
And to further labor the metaphor, she rejoins,
“Like the sexual act, the act of fiction is a reciprocal relationship. It takes two. Granted, a writer can write for his own amusement, and a reader can read in the same way [note the finesse with which the male generic is suspended here]; but these are acts of mental masturbation, with all the limitations that are involved in narcissistic gratification of the self . . . . The meaning of the fictional act itself is something like love. The writer, at his best, respects the dignity of the reader.”
At that there’s a long pause, they stare into one another’s eyes, the older woman starts to blush, her eyes go to the floor, there’s some nervous laughter, and the male professor goes to say something but is abruptly interrupted as she stands to her feet and says, “If you’ll excuse me, I need to grade some papers.” She leaves the room, he realizes that he’s lost another chance with the woman he’s loved these past fifteen years, and he sits quietly in silence, tapping his finger on table top, listening to the hum of an old metal fan which is blowing from the counter.
And that concludes another awkward moment taking place within the Humanities department.