The Evolution Sexuality: Survival of a Desire

Sex. Society’s reaction to sexuality and human desire has changed drastically over the past 150 years. Transforming from a naïve mask to a desensitized one, literature’s evolution did not mirror, but rather shaped our views on the permissibility in proper society. First, literature has shaped our culture; second, culture and society have in turn shaped literature as well. From Realism’s close-lipped manner, to Modernism’s quiet display, to Postmodernism’s public exhibition, sexuality and desire remain even present. In Edith Wharton’s Roman Fever, sexual desire is held tightly to the individual, kept neatly out of the eye of the public. In spite of this, it is the proverbial elephant in the room; everyone knows it is there in the midst of proper society, but it is not to be acknowledged. In Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberly and Langston Hughes’ “Jazzonia,” sexuality is placed easily before the public, but not flaunted; it is subtle, but not hidden. There is an ease about its presence in the literature. Sexuality is free to simply exist wherever it may be, both in and out of the public eye, but it is not forced. In Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, sexuality is held high, and even made a spectacle. Nearly every moment is flooded with sexuality and desire, so much that there is ne’er a moment for anything else. The Realist would be appalled to read the Postmodernist, just as the Postmodernist reads the Realist and thinks it archaic. This clear progression is most often viewed as liberation of human sexuality. While it may appear to transform from fear of the body and inherent sexuality, to the freedom and liberation of it; one must question: has literature changed from bondage to freedom, only to evolve into another sort of bondage?
Edith Wharton, in her short story, Roman Fever, approached the subject of sexual desire rather boldly for literature at the time, yet vividly and accurately depicted both literature and culture’s interaction with the subject at the time. The customs of late 19th and early 20th century society was that of feigned ignorance and naivety, as was literature. Any works that addressed or approached the general subject matter painted them as either pure and virtuous or as sinful and immoral. Other literary beliefs were also shaped by this suppression of sexuality; the most prominent one probably being the belief that humans are constantly in conflict, selfish, and animalistic in nature. While these views were commonly held in literature, culture still demanded proper members of society to keep these traits under control and out of sight. If literature addressed sexuality in the most nature all senses, acknowledging one of humans’ most basic desires and needs, it would essentially be accepting this depravity, not rising above it. Freedom believed to only apply to small instances, for in the larger, more public aspects of life and society, one is bound by tradition and must still adhere to the social customs. Sexual desire was strictly not acknowledged in proper society, so what one did behind in secret must stay secret. Realist literature, while indeed addressing contemporary issues, did not necessarily give way to humanity’s most basic instincts and desires. Instead, it most often nodded a head, and then went on with what was proper and acceptable in society, acknowledging, but still sweeping it under the rug.
Wharton directly reflected the literary and cultural values of the Realist period in Roman Fever. The rivalry between Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley has gone on for around 20 years when the story begins. Twenty years of bondage simply to adhere to what the current society deemed acceptable. This unspoken rivalry is guised behind a mask of proper behavior and romantic justice. The sheer fact that Mrs. Slade has known that Mrs. Ansley was in love with her husband, Delphin Slade, when they were young, but did not confront her about it until just now goes to show the suppression of inherent human sexuality. Mrs. Slade does not believe anything physical went on between the two, yet she holds on to this hatred for two decades. The belief that humans are basically selfish is also interwoven throughout the story, as Mrs. Slade thinks to herself, “I must make an effort not to hate her.” (Wharton 236) Then later, she tells Mrs. Ansley to her face, “I hated you, I hated you.” to which Mrs. Ansley responds, knowingly, “you’ve always gone on hating me.” (238) These displays of selfishness, derived from the mutual sexual desire of one man, shows the literary belief that humans are inherently selfish. Mrs. Ansley’s final statement, “I had Barbara,” is filled with deeper meaning, alluding to selfishness, sexual conquest, and freedom in the smaller aspects of life. Indeed, while culture deemed that sexuality should not be spoken of openly, it was still there, guarded as it was.
The Modernist view of sexual desire is that of freedom. Human sexuality is free to simply exist in literature. It is not forced nor suppressed. This comes from the Modernist belief in authenticity, thus a more authentic, balanced manifestation of sexual desire in literature. Sexuality in both Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and Langston Hughes’ “Jazzonia” is not overwhelming, as it is in much literature of the Postmodern era, neither is it suppressed as in Realist literature. Instead, it is mention casually, and with ease. Often, in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, Pound references sexual relationships, such as Ulysses’ Penelope and Shappo, but does not speak explicitly of any sexual acts. (Pound 293-294) Hughes casually references “A dancing girl whose eyes are bold / Lifts high a dress of silken gold.” (Hughes 317) These images would have been strictly forbidden in earlier literary periods for being too sexual, but Modern authors and their readers took in theses images, saw their vivid imagery, but did not obsesses over their somewhat sexual nature. Hughes continues, “Were Eve’s eyes / In the first garden / Just a bit too bold?” (317) Any type of sexual reference to the Bible would have horrified earlier periods’ readers, but the Modern author and reader had very little if any use for God and religion. These types of inherent sexuality were accepted as part of the new normal, the fragmented self. Sexuality was more prominent because of humans’ fragmented selves, trying to hold on to any pieces of our selves that make us feel something; anything that is real.
Modernist literature really began this strong belief in the deeply fragmented self. While it searched for answers to this problem, it found only more fragments. This did not dissuade the search for a whole self, however. Instead, many modern authors, such as Pound, found that meaning and wholeness in unconventional places. These places would be the open acknowledgement of sexuality, among others. Unlike the Realist and Postmodern periods, Modernism would find balance in its approach to sexual desire; keeping it rather dormant in public, but not suppressing it either. Hughes would write “Was Cleopatra gorgeous / In a gown of gold?” (317) and Pound would exclaim, “Christ follows Dionysus, / Phallic and ambrosial” (294). These images are sacrilegious and sexual, exemplifying the literary period’s beliefs in sexual freedom, and the needlessness of religion. Modernism would be much freer than any other literary period, accepting all, but being dependant only on the self and the search to become whole. Emphasis for answers would not be placed on any one aspect of existence; instead it would welcome all these pieces as equally fragmented parts of the whole being.
Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, the ideals of Postmodernism are exemplified to a tee. Sexual desire is neither something to be feared nor of which to be ashamed. Sexuality is in everything, saturating nearly every thought and conversation in some way. This has much to do with the move from the Modernists’ authenticity to that of inauthenticity; that is, Postmodernism traded in the real thing for a cheap replica. This preoccupation with sex and desire, along with the near absence of love reiterates the period’s focus on imitation, instead of something real. The reason for these replicas and imitations are because the Postmodernist believes there is no real original, only more cheap imitations. Perhaps this is the basis for Postmodernism’s preoccupation with sexual desire. There is nothing real, no truth, no divinity, so literature must look to the one thing that makes us feel the most; that which is supposed to be the most pleasurable act in existence. Also, Postmodernism’s deeper questions of the existence of morality and divinity play into the complete lack of sexual discretion. Lincoln and Booth’s father would bring Lincoln along on his trysts, even letting him watch sometimes. This may sound like atrocious behavior, but if morality does not exist in Postmodern literature, then there is no standard on which to gauge this behavior, and no judgment can be passed about it. The view of sexual desire is that of sex as merely a conquest, even when Booth recounts his times with Grace, the woman he supposedly loves, as more about whether or not she made him wear a condom than anything else.
The Postmodern author such as Parks exchanged depth and meaning for surface and style. Booth places more importance on sex than on communication, such as why their parents separated; “Theyd stopped talking to each other. Theyd stopped screwing eachother.” (Parks 73) Booth and Lincoln proudly bear their sexuality, sexual desires, and histories for any and all to see. Rampant sexual desire is not only allowed, it is expected for normality. When Lincoln is considered a “NoCount HasBeen LostCause” he is also sexually undesirable, but when he goes back throwing the cards, he immediately has “3 of them sweethearts in thuh restroom on [his] dick all at once.” (87-88) Sexual desire is held in the spectrum with success, whereas it once was considered to be synonymous with failure and sin.
Postmodernism focuses on randomness, inexplicability, stream of consciousness, and indeterminacy of language. Parks’ style of writing and sexual stream of consciousness narratives classically exhibits these characteristics of the literary period. Lincoln and Booth jump from hustling cards, to sleeping with the other’s ex-wife or girlfriend, to memories of childhood and their parents seamlessly with just a few lines of text. This mental hopping from one subject to another implies the Postmodern belief in a deeply fragmented self. Society then cultivates this fragmented self with sexuality and desire to construct a semblance of a whole person. Booth finds refuge from his fatherly-inflicted fragmented self through “fuck books” and doing “it without a rubber.” (43-45) Lincoln would find it in throwing the cards, which are most often reference in the same manner as Booth’s conquests, implying a sense of sexual fulfillment through hustling. They have become slaves to their sexual desires. They cannot think or do anything without coming back to the subject. They have gone beyond sexual freedom to a place where sexual fulfillment is as necessary as air or water. Postmodernism has traded in real sexual freedom for a cheap imitation that looks and acts like freedom, but has really placed it back in bondage.
Literature is and always has been constantly growing and evolving, shaping the minds of society as it grows. Sexuality has been present in the minds and lives of humanity since the dawn of time. Society’s response to the presence of sexuality has changed a great deal. Just as literature has had a profound effect on the culture’s views and ideas about things key elements as God, nature, and time; it has also dramatically effected the views and beliefs towards sexuality and desire. Naturally, just as their presence has remained constant throughout history, so have humans’ urges, regardless of the current cultural view. All the while the prominence and placement of sexuality in both literature and society has constantly evolved and changed as time has progressed. Each step may appear sudden and broad at first glance, but they have each been a gradual movement, taking place over a 35-50 year time span. However, just because a literary period is current does not mean that it is necessarily good or healthy. Literature has progressed from bondage from fear, to sexual liberation, to bondage from obsession. Yet, through every belief, reaction, and standard, and moral code, sexual desire remains constantly in and around humanity. Realism suppressed it, Modernism embraced it, and Postmodernism flaunted it; still, it has not changed or gone away. Literature’s fascination with sex has constantly made it more prominent in culture, regardless of what each period believed its proper placement to be.

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Works Cited

Hughes, Langston. “Jazzonia.” Shaheen, Aaron. The Pearson Custom Library of American Literature. Boston: Pearson Custom Printing, 2008. 317.

Parks, Suzan-Lori. Topdog/Underdog. New York: Dramatists Play Service, Inc., 2002.

Pound, Ezra. “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” Shaheen, Aaron. The Pearson Custom Library of American Literature. Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2008. 292-296.

Wharton, Edith. “Roman Fever.” Shaheen, Aaron. The Pearson Custom Library of American Literature. Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2008. 230-240.

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~ by Mary Christa on December 5, 2008.

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