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Lapham's Quarterly - Eros: Volume II, Number…
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Lapham's Quarterly - Eros: Volume II, Number 1, Winter 2009

by Lewis H. Lapham

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It's not easy to write a book on sex that doesn't slip into the banality of pornography one one extreme, or deadened academic sterility on the other. Between the poles is that hard to define area, what the Greeks called "Eros", and this volume perhaps goes as far as any into that territory. It's both tasteful but titillating, enlightening but enjoyable. And in a few cases deeply profound.

Some of the usual suspects are here: an excerpt from Gusatave Flaubert's Madame Bovary about a romp in a carriage around Paris "sealed tighter than a tomb and tossing like a ship." Edith Wharton writes one of the hottest passages this side of 1919 from Beatrice Palmato, "that strong, fiery muscle that they used, in their old joke, to call his third hand." Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch makes a dark appearance in From Venus in Furs, forever immortalized as the namesake of 'masochism'. And of course Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita has an excerpt, along with an essay by Francine Prose in retrospect, suggesting that despite the distastefulness of pedophilia, the book transcends the subject matter and leads to a greater sense of compassion.

Popular culture sources are more prevalent in this issue including the lyrics from the 1944 song "Baby, It's Cold Outside" ("I really can't stay"), which is an excellent coda to Anatole Broyard's excerpt on the awkwardness of courtship in the 1940's.The 1967 movie The Graduate makes an appearance, how good it is in print "Get away from that door. Let me out!" Another movie transcript excerpt that transfers well to reading is from 1959's North By Northwest, "What do you recommend? /The brook trout. A little "trouty", but quite good."

Classical sources are many. Lucian's Dialogues of Courtesans (150AD) describes a mother outing her daughter, describing her future horror in such classical grace, "shall I have to sleep with the ugly one's too? Of course you will dear." Lucretius in On the Nature of Things (58BC) is an angry but poetic rant against the double standard. It begins "Men are blinded by their appetites / And grant their loves ones graces they don't have". Petronius from the Satyricon (61AD) describes his illicit seduction of a friends son, but the tables soon turn, "Don't you want to do it again?". Procopius in The Secret History gives the famous account of the harlot Theodora who seduced Justinian the Great. Her epic scale libido changed history as described by William Rosen in the "What If..?" essay. The Karma Sutra excerpt on how women get rid of men is funny, and frighting when reflected on ones self.

Contemporary authors include Phillip Roth, who describes his younger adventures of self discovery, "half my waking life spent locked behind my bathroom door, firing my wad down the toilet". Junot Diaz (who recently won the Pulitzer) has a novelistic 2-page story called "Alma" (2007) about the incontinent sex life of a teenage Dominican and his girlfriend with "an ass that could drag the moon out of orbit."

Simone de Beauvoir's passage from The Second Sex (1949) is profound. If there was ever an explanation of what women (and men) really want, this would be it. These two pages really opened my eyes, it was the right thing at the right time. Although Beauvoir writes non-fiction, what she is saying is fully realized in living color in Flannery O'Conner's short story "Good Country People" (1955). The two make a perfect pair.

--Review by Stephen Balbach, via CoolReading (c) 2008 cc-by-nd ( )
  Stbalbach | Jan 11, 2009 |
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