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Exquisite Masochism: On Sex and the Novel

This essay is taken from the preface of Exquisite Masochism, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. 

How do novelists describe sex and still maintain a respectable distance from pornography? As a formal plotting technique, marriage offers respectable cover for the secretive impulses of sex. As readers, we no longer have to worry about what will happen to a character once she marries; we know what she’s in for on her wedding night. Likewise, waves, oceans, blooms, and illuminations mark the sexual act within the respectable novel and allow a writer to refer to sexual action without realistically describing the act itself. Descriptive haze lets a reader experience sex’s capacity to dislocate personal experience. It alerts us to the fact of sex’s occurrence, and it absolves the writer of a particular kind of obscenity, one that comes of naming things as they are. More than this, though, fuzzy metaphor locates the description of sex as internal to a character. By describing a sexual act as a bloom or a wave, an author is not describing something in the external world. Instead, she is focusing on the internal register of sexual act — on orgasm and its felt experience, on seduction and its bodily effects. Metaphor, in other words, provides protection for writing about the internal experience of sex.

In the 19th and early-20th centuries, writers began to challenge metaphor’s reign in the novelistic depiction of sex. English novelists took to new strategies — drawn in part from the threats posed to embedded, domestic Englishness by cosmopolitan, financial power — to hint at sexual impropriety, perversion, and danger. Novels by authors like Emily Brontë , Anthony Trollope, Thomas Hardy, and modernist outlier D.H. Lawrence reimagined the marriage plot as sex found clearer and clearer representation in its pages, in states that, paradoxically, fell on the periphery of marriage: engagement, adultery, and widowhood. These novelists forged a representational shift in the ways books described sex, from descriptive hermeneutics to descriptive clarity — from the description of Tess Durbeyfield’s “mobile, peony mouth” to Connie Chatterley’s blossom-covered pudendum.

A specific kind of erotic scene is repeated, in different ways, across some of the central works of Victorian fiction: these are scenes of “exquisite masochism.” Such scenes feature powerful women and submissive men, often take place in highly aestheticized environments, and work as vehicles for the respectable novel’s sexual content. They stop or dislocate progress in romantic developments by taking genital sex off the representational table in favor of masochistic embraces: they are squeaky wheels in the marriage plot. These are highly charged scenes — scenes of sustained stasis, where plot and character drop out, description thickens, and a glance, gesture, or object takes on heightened relational significance. And recognizing these moments as scenes — in novels across the long 19th century — helps us see how the novel understands sex. These scenes take place across a wide variety of novels: consider the volatile tableaux inaugurated by characters as varied in their powers as the imperious Edith Dombey in Dombey and Son, the attractive, but mercenary, Rosamond Vincy in Middlemarch, and the voracious Lucy Westerna in Dracula. Despite their differences, these characters have one thing in common: they persistently disturb the de-sexualizing, companionable impulses traditionally thought to be central to the conventional marriage plot, and they do so by orchestrating scenes that depend upon their heightened sexual allure.

A long history of Foucauldian criticism has found sex where it didn’t appear to be represented; I am interested in reading nongenital sex as central to Victorian erotic life. Withholding sex, in the Victorian novel, is a perverse way of having it. In a novelistic milieu where illegitimacy or adultery can be the motives for serious tragedy, a fully developed sexual life presents a frightening threat. By describing erotic life in ways that avoid depicting sexual intercourse in favor of nongenital tension or intensity, novelists can render the frisson of sexual desire without the attendant plot risks. Novelists harness potentially disruptive elements — like sexual desire, sexual power reversals, and illegitimate pleasure — and put them to work in the service of, not just as a challenge to, marriage ideology. These novels often demonstrate an investment in the sexual power of characters, but they also keep these characters from any explicitly sexual connections that would muck up their novels’ respectably plotted, core marriages. Instead of presenting characters with a single frightening consequence to illicit sex — a baby or a disease — exquisite masochism disperses physicality throughout the scene, minimizing sex’s risk while accentuating its thrill.

There are a number of ways to recognize these scenes: primarily, they lie at the intersection of novel form and aesthetics. Often, they are filled with “exquisite” things, objects carefully chosen, painstakingly refined and delicate. These objects, and their relationships to the bodies and other objects around them, are precisely drawn — there’s a sensory scaffold that holds the whole thing together. Such scenes feel like vignettes, staged and managed for the consumption of a viewer (for the reader? the characters? a little of both?). The “staged” feeling comes, in part, from the sense that plot and action cease in these moments, freezing characters in statuesque attitudes, giving the reader an impression of a tableau vivant rendered in prose. Additionally, characters may be described as seeming like living statues, frozen in an attitude — static but humming with pulsing life beneath their inviolate exteriors. In a single novel, a scene like this might stand out and might trouble or resist interpretation: What is this passage doing here? But, by noticing the ways such moments appear in multiple novels across a wide historical period, one begins to see how they work as a type of scene, as a group of like scenes. And these scenes, taken together, demonstrate how, even before its clear representation on the page, the description of masochistic sex — that is, a description of an action that might not seem like sex at all — is essential to 19th-century plots about love and marriage.

A character’s feelings, too, can be “exquisite,” with a narrator, or the character herself, describing pleasure and pain mingling into a new, unsettling sensation. This experience often tips the character into an experience of fulsomeness — exquisite feelings are also intense, keen, potent, overpowering. These descriptions suggest that a character’s available sensorium is shut down, obliterated by the force of the experience she is having. In other words, “exquisite” scenes are a way of presenting passion’s power in novel form. But “exquisite” things and feelings aren’t necessarily salutary or good. Instead, they are finely wrought, and the intensity smuggled into the minute attention to detail in such scenes reflects the asymptotic relationship to pain that they depict.

To understand the elements of the masochistic scene, consider one of the strangest moments in a very strange novel, when Wuthering Heights’s observant servant, Nelly Dean, comes upon Heathcliff, staring, it seems, at Catherine the Elder’s ghost:

Now, I perceived he was not looking at the wall; for when I regarded him alone, it seemed exactly that he gazed at something within two yards’ distance. And whatever it was, it communicated, apparently, both pleasure and pain in exquisite extremes: at least the anguished, yet raptured, expression of his countenance suggested that idea. The fancied object was not fixed, either: his eyes pursued it with unwearied diligence, and, even in speaking to me, were never weaned away. I vainly reminded him of his protracted abstinence from food: if he stirred to touch anything in compliance with my entreaties, if he stretched his hand out to get a piece of bread, his fingers clenched before they reached it, and remained on the table, forgetful of their aim.

Jettison for a moment the question at the heart of this brief passage (does Heathcliff see the dead woman’s ghost?) and focus instead on the physical scene it describes. Nelly perceives (or thinks she perceives) Heathcliff’s horror written on his face. But Nelly sees something other than horror there: rapture. Rapture and anguish, in equal portions, freeze Heathcliff in his attitude, staring at someone who may or may not be there, chilling his body so intensely that even a grasp for food fails. “Pleasure and pain in exquisite extremes” — here, the author describes a man moving — his hands “clench,” rigid, before they reach food — toward a starving death. Brontë’s inclusion of “exquisite” imagines there might be some kind of aesthetic satisfaction — or consummation — in Heathcliff’s experience. In all of its meanings, “exquisite” develops precision and cultivation so extremely that they can tip from pleasure into pain, from beauty into fastidiousness into horror.

Pain and pleasure: they are two feelings that, in mundane experience, seem thoroughly opposed. But when Brontë modifies them with this crucial word — “exquisite” — they mean something a bit different, something that confuses the senses because pleasure and pain blend into something new, something a little closer to erotic sensation.

“Exquisiteness” forges a connection between the realms of aesthetics and the realms of sensation, connecting the keenness of precise description to a different kind of keenness, the needling, sharp remnant of a discomfiting sensory experience. It implicitly connects taste and display to erotic desire. The confluence of these intense feelings — in precisely these words and in words quite similar to these — is one of ways the Victorian novel manifests sex and desire in its pages. In a number of key British novels, in a number of central scenes, these two opposed feelings occur at once, and, when they do, they create tension, excitement, and confusion in the characters that experience them. These twinned feelings appear in scenes across a wide variety of novels.

The novel used these scenes to work through ideas about the relationship between aesthetics and romance, and the relationship between romance and social life, and, further, to formally navigate the sex scene before modernism made it explicit. By alloying “exquisite pleasure” with “exquisite pain,” novelists found a new way to symbolize sex on the page. Joined together into an “exquisite masochism” — a pleasure that comes from pain, a pain that comes from pleasure — such scenes show how the novel demonstrated sex’s dislocating and thrilling effects, even without clearly representing sex itself.

The masochistic scenes at the center of this discussion rely on tightly ordered, almost scripted, interactions. Thus, they stand out from their surrounding texts with remarkable clarity. We can read them and not mistake them for descriptions of an ocean or a flower. These are scenes about people, and about their bodily interactions. Further, the zone of sexual experience these scenes describe is quite different from that described merely metaphorically. Once we notice the way masochism makes the sex scene obvious and once we see these scenes as reproduced over many novels, the contours of sex’s relation to the novel’s wider project becomes sharper. Exquisite masochism gives us access to the social effects of sex on novel form. I’m not suggesting that all intense scenes are masochistic, nor am I claiming that masochistic scenes alone can be described in scenic terms. Instead, exquisite masochism gives us a clear way to see spatial or aesthetic descriptions as signs of erotic connection. There’s often something inchoate in these scenes — an atmosphere, a feeling — scenes that don’t seem to contribute directly to plot or character development, scenes that appear to block or evade interpretation — what happens, for instance, when we read Heathcliff’s embraces with Catherine the Elder as sex scenes rather than just as signs of sex that happens off stage? But this approach develops one way of thinking about a much broader question in novel criticism: How do novelists represent vital worlds, and what things — what places, bodies, and plots — give those worlds their life?

Anita Brookner, Queen of the Damned

Was Anita Brookner a vampire? She died last month at age 87, the author of two dozen novels, from A Start in Life (published in the United States as The Debut) to Strangers. Her author photo remained unchanged over the three decades she was publishing her novels, like a vampire’s might. In it she looks pale, ladylike, alert, carefully coiffed — hard to pin down in terms of age or date. Her teeth aren’t showing, the better to nip the unsuspecting reader.

Brookner’s novels are inhabited by middle-class types, solitary and stoic. As some readers have noted, nothing much happens in these books; people go to the shop, they return to their quiet flats, they eat a little, they make tea, they think. Sometimes they visit the hairdresser or a museum. Sometimes someone dies, and there’s a quiet funeral. Conversations are economical and frequently unemotional. Sadness puffs around like a gas. But these are men and women holding white-knuckled to the ledge above “the abyss that waits for all of us,” as a character puts it in Latecomers. Below the placid surfaces lie exile, adultery, unrequited love, loss, amorphous fear, and dread. Nobody does depression quite so elegantly. Buffeted and baffled by life, her characters’ strength is in their stasis.

Like one of her white-knuckled heroes, at first look Brookner may seem static as well. Her novels were produced at regular intervals — slim and attractive, with nary a word out of place. In them all excess is gross, whether verbal or sentimental or gastronomic. In Dolly, the title character inspires repulsion in the narrator, Jane, with her flesh and her open sexual need. Jane watches in half-horrified fascination as Dolly, like several other Brookner creations, runs away with the story, the freak who doesn’t fit easily into Jane’s tiny, tidy world.

Brookner harbored some fondness for her freaks; it’s not easy to find what publishers call “comparables” for Brookner, either. When her masterpiece Hotel du Lac, a novel about an Englishwoman recovering in Switzerland from an affair, won the 1984 Booker Prize against 10-1 odds, some puzzlement ensued. Who was this writer, and how should she be categorized? In Look at Me, Frances, a solitary researcher half-hoping for friendship, tells us, “problems of human behaviour still continue to baffle us, but at least in the Library we have them properly filed.”

The sometimes cursory Frances might file Brookner with early-20th-century novelists. Like the Edwardians, Brookner’s characters are privately concerned with class and sex and money, whether or not they admit it. Their childhoods revolve in their heads. Like E.M. Forster’s people, hers are trying to work out how to connect. Like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsay, they tell life to “stand still here,” even as it rushes past them. Like T.S. Eliot, they look hard at time: how to fill it, how to get more of it, how to find their way back to a lost, foggy, genteel era. Like Samuel Beckett’s men, they wait.

But it’s a mistake to see Brookner as a throwback from an earlier age. Look again, and you’ll see the way Brookner quietly muscles Modernist themes beyond their limits. Her characters aren’t sure they want to “only connect,” or to wait for life to turn up. Like any good vampire, Brookner feeds on her literary antecedents, picking their bones; she uses them to build her own structures, subtly questioning the tropes of the psychological novel of yesteryear. She one-ups Woolf’s and James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness, showing us minds at war with their owners: In Look at Me, lonely Frances — feeling her life paling before that of a powerfully attractive couple — observes “somewhere, intruding helplessly and to no avail into my consciousness, the anger of the underdog, plotting bloody revolution, plotting revenge.” Rather than submerging us inside consciousness à la Mrs. Dalloway or Ulysses, Brookner is always outside her people, just at their backs — an intruder tuning us into their thoughts at a slight remove, whether in first- or third-person narration. She can see them, but they can’t see her. Uneasy but unaware they’re being observed, they reveal themselves fully.

As the intruder draws near, Brookner’s wit reveals itself. She appears to observe her troubled characters from neutral territory, all the while inviting us to see the claustrophobic patterns they’ve woven of their own lives. Like petit-point embroidery, the details are hypnotic, the product of intensely focused skill. (The physical details shine, too; Brookner was a professor of art history as well as a novelist, and it shows. Her interiors and clothing and features are always finely described.) Brookner’s characters are aesthetes who often turn to museums and galleries for help, though she reminds us in Making Things Better that “art [is] indifferent to whatever requirements [we] might bring to the matter.” But Brookner’s own highly-wrought art isn’t quite indifferent to us. Read closely enough, and you’ll feel it watching you, too.

If you’re not alert, you can miss these elements of Brookner’s work. And if you’re not alert, she doesn’t want you as a reader. There’s a velvet ruthlessness to Brookner: Keep up, she seems to say, while she slips into French for a page, or discusses paintings you feel you ought to know. But the flip side of ruthlessness is trust. She trusts her readers to know what she means. Occasionally we can feel her eyes flick towards us, the same way she looks at her characters: You see, don’t you? We end up wanting to please her, a very neat trick on a novelist’s part.

We on Team Brookner also end up trusting her entirely. You mainline her books one after the other, infected by her intense sensibility before you realize it. You can fall drowsily into her closed worlds and curl up in them. Remain vigilant and you’ll recognize her power, though it will still wind up seducing you. Bram Stoker described his Dracula as having “a mighty brain, a leaning beyond compare, and a heart that knew no fear and no remorse.” Brookner’s friend Julian Barnes wrote that she was not at all one of her lonely heroines, despite what male critics have decided: “She was witty, glitteringly intelligent, reserved, and unknowable beyond the point she herself had already decided upon.” In her deft hands, Brookner’s characters face oblivion as bravely as they can; our task is face their author just as bravely, baring our necks.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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