Essay: Dirty Secrets – Sexuality and Love in ‘The First Bad Man’, ‘I Love Dick’ and ‘A Room of One’s Own’

My sister wrote this essay for an entrance exam.  I loved it, and so stole it to record here.


The protagonist of Miranda July’s novel, The First Bad Man – Cheryl Glickman – is, quite frankly, weird.  Viewing her from a readerly distance – her solitariness, her eccentricities, her need for order and control in the smallest detail of her domestic life (at odds with her haplessness and what seems to be only the most tenuous hold on order in the larger sense) – one cannot help but conclude that if we knew her we wouldn’t feel her to be “normal”.  The fact that she is, and becomes through the unlikeliest of love stories, horrifyingly relatable is at the heart of the book’s humanity.

Cheryl is loner with a rich fantasy life.  She indulges in sexual obsessions with unavailable men:

Phillip was with them.  ‘Greetings’ said Carl.  Phillip was wearing a gorgeous wine-colored sweater.  My breath thinned.  I always had to resist the urge to go to him like a wife, as if we’d already been a couple for a hundred thousand lifetimes.” (July, 2015, p.12)

She harbours a lifelong belief that “her child” exists and is embodied through babies unrelated to her:

“He cooed like a mournful dove and smiled up at me with the warmth of total recognition.  I keep getting born to the wrong people, he said.  I nodded regretfully.  I know.” (July, 2015, p.13). 

She enters a pseudo-sexual, physically aggressive, relationship with a young woman:

She could see I’d gotten all geared up – a forty-three-year-old woman in a blouse, ready to brawl” (July, 2015, p.57)

With whom she later has a sexual relationship of sorts, and with whom she also co-parents a child who is not biologically hers.

Cheryl is outside of most of our experience of normality but she is, in her proneness to self-delusion, her inconsistency, her odd peccadillos, her capacity for her sense of order to be overpowered by her experience of love (both sexual and parental), nonetheless, like us.  July leaves us in no doubt that we are expected to reach just that conclusion: that this odd person, Cheryl, is a version of us, and Cheryl, at several points in the narrative, directly draws our attention to that fact:

“It doesn’t have a name – I just call it my system.  Let’s say a person is down in the dumps, or maybe just lazy, and they stop doing the dishes.  Soon the dishes are piled sky-high and is seems impossible to even clean a fork.  So the person starts eating with dirty forks out of dirty dishes and this makes the person feel like a homeless person.  So they stop bathing.  Which makes it hard to leave the house.  The person begins to throw trash anywhere and pee in cups because they’re closer to the bed.  We’ve all been this person, so there is no place for judgment.” (July, 2015, p.21)

Chris Kraus’, I Love Dick performs a similar trick but, based on external markers at least, from the opposite end of the intellectual and social spectrum.  The “fictional” Chris Kraus at centre of the narrative is successful.  She is in a sound marriage with an intellectual man, she is fiercely clever (although too insecure to call herself intellectual), frequently attempting to use her cleverness as a tool of seduction.  She is, generally speaking, good at life.  The story of Chris’ obsession with a man (Dick), created through a single meeting but which becomes a moment that changes her marriage and the direction of her life, is something that she does not do thoughtlessly. Indeed, she analyses, thinks, justifies, and thinks some more about what her feelings and actions really mean.  However, for all of the apparent rationality and intellectualisation, her actions are fundamentally illogical:

“Sylvere [her husband], a European intellectual who teaches Proust, is skilled in the analysis of love’s minutiae.  But how long can anyone continue to analyse a single evening and a 3-minute call … Chris has turned into a jumpy bundle of emotions, sexually aroused for the first time in seven years … Do married couples usually collaborate on billets doux?  If Sylvere and Chris were not so militantly opposed to psychoanalysis, they might’ve seen this as a turning point.” (Kraus, 2006, p.25)

Chris, to the average reader, is also outside of the majority of our experiences: in the glamour and intellectual rigor of her life; in her career as an experimental film-maker and in her relationship (Chris’ husband is complicit, at least at first, in his wife’s pursuit of another man).  But she is, in her ability to project what she wants to see in the object of her desire, in her proneness to obsession, in her illogical actions, in her capacity for her sense to be overpowered by her experience of love, nonetheless, like us.

“Dear Dick, I guess it’s been a case of infatuation.  Funny I haven’t thought to use that word before.  You are the fourth and a half person … I’ve been infatuated with since living with Sylvere.  Mostly this infatuation-energy is about wanting to know someone.” (Kraus, 2006, p.54)

While July and Kraus’ novels are very different from one another, what they have in common is that they are both love stories outside of the conventional spectrum that we understand to be “love” and sexual expression.  It could be argued that the success of each is the extent to which they allow the reader to explore their own sense that they too exist outside of normality, and in doing so, exposing our ultimate dirty secret: that we, despite external appearances, probably fear that we are inclined to craziness in respect of love and sex.  As the philosopher, Alain de Botton has written:

“It is rare to get through this life without feeling …. That we are somehow a bit odd about sex.  It is an area in which most of us have a painful impression, in our heart of hearts, that we are quite unusual.” (de Botton, 2012, p.3)


Virginia Woolf’s, A Room of One’s Own is a manifesto, a call for freedom from the (self-imposed) prison that love and sex can be at times; a freedom from the all-consuming obsessions of the likes of Cheryl and Chris.  Woolf expresses this through the promotion of asexuality.  Unlikely as it might appear on first reading, both July and Krauss can be seen as successors of Woolf.  The Bloomsbury Group, and Woolf’s beliefs purport that gender, or at least the expression of traditionally gendered interactions between the sexes, was something retrograde, and that asexual relationships were the utopian ideal to be aspired to:

“… they were all marvellously capable of love, … lust in their world was a joyful emotion, … jealousy and Domination were remarkably sparse.” (Heilbrun quoted by Showalter in Eagleton p25)

This vision of androgyny was intended to be understood as a freeing concept, a way of avoiding the traditional shackles of contemporary womanhood in a society which did not understand or allow the real female voice a place in art or serious literature:  

“Within this milieu, we are to understand, Virginia Woolf was free to develop both sides of her nature, both male and female, and to create the appropriate kind of novel for the expression of her androgynous vision.” (Showalter in Eagleton, p.25) 

However, the concept was, ultimately, neither a solution nor truly liberating, but a logical reaction; a manner in which a space for the female voice could be created, a way of trying to create a metaphorical “room” for herself.

“The androgynous mind is, finally, a utopian projection of the ideal artist: calm, stable, unimpeded by consciousness of sex.  Woolf meant it to be a luminous and fulfilling idea; but, like other utopian projections, her vision is inhuman.” (Showalter in Eagleton, pp.30-31)

Furthermore, it necessarily required the denial of the reality of her womanhood, rather than a celebration of it and as such was ultimately a withdrawal from, as much as a confrontation of, hegemonic ideals of gender roles:

“Androgyny was the myth that helped her evade confrontation with her own painful femaleness and enabled her to choke and repress her anger and ambition.” (Showalter in Eagleton, p.25)

It could be argued that Woolf, and particularly her manifesto as expressed in A Room of One’s Own, is a predecessor of both July and Kraus.  Not through drawing parallels with any of Woolf’s characters, or necessarily with her position on androgyny but because, contextually what Woolf was explicitly calling for in A Room of One’s Own, and what she was ultimately attempting to do through her wider writing, was to find a way to express and to draw out something that was at the time unacceptable.

To be more explicit, the path I would chase from Woolf through to July and Kraus is the development of conventional perceptions of female sexuality: from Woolf’s rejection of sexuality as a way to do battle against an era where women were sexually and generally expected to be submissive; via, later the acceptance of women’s expression of sexuality within agreeable parameters – marriage particularly; to mass-market versions of acceptable female sexuality – usually homogenised, hyper-sexuality; to what we see in July and Kraus, which I would argue is the most honest version.  In both novels we see expression of the least attractive – the dirtiest – facets of female, and human, sexual desire.

Woolf attempted to claim space for herself, and her gender, by distancing herself from conventionality which dictated a sexually, intellectually and politically submissive role for women through the means of A Room of One’s Own which, by its very existence metaphorically as well as plainly said, it is okay for you, reader, to want the freedom that I describe, and to acknowledge the desire for freedom at all, because I do and I have done it.

Woolf wrote in a context where it was considered ugly, unattractive, immoral even, for a woman to feel entitled to, let alone demand anything for herself in her own right.  The cry of ‘feminist’ in Woolf’s time, was a term of abuse, a howl of disapproval of perceived rejection of men (rather than rejection of patriarchy).  As Woolf herself points out, the power and attraction that the concept of woman holds for men is not in question, indeed literary versions of women (in contrast to the reality for the vast majority) are hugely varied and often both powerful and bewitching.  What is unacceptable and therefore unattractive is to dare to have an opinion particularly about men:

“Z, most humane, most modest of men, (took) up from book by Rebecca West, and reading a passage in it, exclaimed, ‘the arrant feminist!  She says that men are snobs!’ … it was a protest against some infringement of his power to believe in himself.” (Woolf, 1929, p.30) 

Both Kraus and July claim a similar space, 85 years later, by exploring some ugly, and unattractive, facets of female character and of female desire.  Of course the mode of expression, what sexuality and gendered relationships look, like have moved on immeasurably over the intervening period, along with what women chose to articulate in the novelistic form.  All three books are ultimately working within (and against) the context of a deep societal expectation that women behave “attractively” whatever the popular definition of attractive is at that time.

In, The First Bad Man, the deep discomfort we feel towards Cheryl Glickman with her awkward manner, and the rawness of her (although confused) desire for Clee, is unattractive but nonetheless recognisable.  In I Love Dick, we wince for Chris as she exposes her innermost craziness to both Dick but also more fully to her husband – but who could say they have never been more enchanted by a person than is seemly?

The protests in July and Kraus’ works are less direct, less directly political, less polemic and so far less utopian than Woolf’s concept of androgyny.  They are by dint of their time, more free to be direct about rather than avoiding matters of gender and sex.  Woolf is high-minded and conceptual in her consideration of the impulses behind interactions between the genders, the role of interior female sexual desire doesn’t get considered, but crushed.  One thing that we clearly see though, in the contrasts between the protagonists in Kraus and July’s works, is that high-mindedness doesn’t act as a vaccine (as it’s wasn’t for Woolf herself in her personal life either).  The hyper-conscious, analytical thinking Kraus couldn’t be more different to the stumbling, unquestioning, Cheryl, but as it turns out intellectualisation doesn’t make one immune to craziness in matters of love and sex.

Both July and Kraus’ novels are triumphant because they are more realistic representations.  They are able to be real because they are free; they are free to be real because of the more direct protests of their predecessors like Woolf; they are free to acknowledge sexuality in some of its dark and dirty ways, and us as readers, we are consoled for it.  De Botton again:

“Yet though we cannot expect books to dissolve away our problems, they can still provide opportunities for us to discharge our sadness and discover a communal confirmation of our woes.  Books retain a role in offering us consoling reminders that we are not alone with the humiliating and peculiar difficulties imposed by our unavoidable possession of a sex drive.” (de Botton, 2012, p.9)

 

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