It started my first day of class, which was last Tuesday, September 3rd. I made it through Foundations of Contemporary Literature just fine. We discussed a few Wordsworth poems and the treatment of nature by the Romantic poets. I used my hour-long break to get carrots, apples, spinach, and avocados from the Moraga Safeway, and then sauntered back for my craft class. (Yes, I sauntered. I may not always saunter to my MFA courses, but for now they delight me.)
Prior to craft, we do a fair amount of reading and then during the class we analyze the readings, identifying the techniques used by the author and speculating at what she might be getting at or what his purpose was in creating the piece. The first piece that we looked at Tuesday evening was George Orwell’s “A Hanging” – a short story/essay written from the perspective of a British Imperial officer as he observes the execution of a criminal in Burma. Then we got to “Love,” one of a collection of short stories by Valerie Martin.
The story begins in a small conference room where a woman (possibly some sort of social worker) is interviewing a client, filling out paper work in order to see if he is eligible for assistance. We don’t get a lot of details about their relationship, aside from the fact that this little white woman has convinced herself that the large black man sitting across the table is quite possibly going to kill her. It’s all in her head, of course, as is the majority of the piece. The story actually opens with a vivid fantasy about the man pulling a knife out of his pocket, grabbing the woman by her hair, and slitting her throat, watching the blood drip down her body. The scenario never happens. In fact, the only action the man ever takes is later in the story when he’s walking out the door and he holds out his arm to catch the woman, who has tripped on the stairs and begun falling toward him.
While analyzing this piece, my classmates and I shared our views on what we thought was happening and what the narrator could be getting at, starting with the first scene.
“I just think it drips with sex,” said a woman sitting next to me, catching my full attention. “Here she is imagining herself lying on the table and there’s all this sexual tension with the knife and this man.”
Oh no, I thought to myself. So it begins.
As it turns out, this particular piece did have a fair amount tension and conflict (black/white, male/female, affluent/poor, large/small), and the reading of some sexual connotations wasn’t totally off base. But when we got to the part where the fall down the stairs was read as a metaphor for an orgasm, that my friends, is when I wondered what I got myself into by applying for an arts degree.
Sex is incredibly powerful. I make no argument against that. And it is something that our culture is absolute obsessed with. I suppose it shouldn’t really surprise me that it permeates the work of writers who are trying to express their deepest feelings and most existential experiences. It always has. Sex is perhaps the one thing that we as human beings can participate in that brings us closest to an inexplicably spiritual experience. At least this is what I am told. I’m also told that sex can be completely meaningless. But I wouldn’t really know. And therein lies another issue.
I’ve never had sex. I was really proud of that up until I graduated from college. And then it didn’t seem to matter any more. Well it did, but then it didn’t. It’s a decision I made a long time ago (not to have sex outside of marriage), and one that I continue to make when need be, but unless it comes up as a topic of conversation, it hasn’t seemed worth mentioning. Sort of like telling someone you’ve never smoked or gotten drunk. Unless that’s a big deal to you it doesn’t bear mentioning just for the sake of making a statement.
I grew up in the church and went to Christian schools and colleges. For most of my life the expectation of my community was that if you ween’t married, then you weren’t having sex. Simple. Now the tables have turned and I find I’m quite the exception, Christian circle or not. A few years ago I was hanging out with one of my friends when she noticed I wasn’t drinking. She jokingly asked if I was pregnant, alluding to the distinct possibility (I did have a serious boyfriend, after all). It was the first time that I realized that this was a general assumption (not that I’m pregnant, but that if I’d dated someone for nearly two years I was probably sleeping with him as well).
Don’t get me wrong. I want to have sex. Sometimes an awful lot. But that just isn’t a part of the lifestyle I lead. And reading about it week after week after week doesn’t make that decision any easier. But it does make me wonder. What would people write about if they didn’t have sex to fall back on? How would they interpret poetry and prose and anything loaded with tension and desire? Is that even possible?
I also wonder if I am completely missing out on some sort of literary “ah-hah” by not participating in this great act of humanity. If I will be a failed writer or a half-blind critic because I am merely playing the part of a liberal artist, when in fact I have more in common with the nuns that teach fifth grade at St. Peter’s Catholic School. I may never know.
But I hope that one day I do find out, and that my husband doesn’t mind if I pull out my poetry and prose and short stories and novels and read to him passages I’ve never truly understood up to that moment.