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No Enthusiasm in Necessity May 8, 2002
 
Prodigal Summer(1) is a post-Henry Miller novel about sex. This occurred to me with some force because of an observation about Henry Miller that kept buzzing around my head:

"Miller was an antilaw writer. He smashed everything to pieces so that there is nothing left. Even sex is smashed. This is especially devastating because it is often in the sexual area of life that men hope to find some kind of meaning when they have abandoned the search elsewhere."(2)

Prodigal Summer offers up a great biological diversity of sex: moth sex, goat sex, human sex. It's all post-Miller sex: smashed, dehumanized, stapled like a bug in a specimen tray, prodded with pins. Poor Miller was at least enamored of "fuck." But here we see humans struggle in a climate thick with sexual urges that are painstakingly cross referenced to pheromones, ovulation, and predation. We see these humans observe the sexuality of moths and even take note of their own sex drives (though often grimly and with a kind of surprise). We see a woman, with what appears to be dismay, ovulate on demand in biological anticipation of a sexual encounter. We observe her confusion as she later attempts to correlate her "sex-urge" with her "marriage" and cannot correlate this disparity with anything similar in the sexuality of moths. Her confusion, we eventually infer, is the bastard child of false premises surrounding the concepts of love and marriage that have grown to become yet another mother of confusion and unhappiness. And so it comes around that the smashed sex is not without law after all, but is rather part and parcel of the current mythos of the western world:

Our existence is nothing but a thin, hard biological line in which the exalted and the vulgar are mortar-and-pestled into the same pseudo-scientific pap.

Of course we must invest this, as Kingsolver does, with an ambiguous spiritual glow so it goes down without giving us cramps. And naturally the huge vagaries of our day-to-day experience become even more confusing when held to this view, so yes, we have to plug up the holes with a leviathan media industry that creates pompous circuses for our angst and certifies for us what men and women are supposed to do in every conceivable situation that promises or threatens sex. And then there are those who have already visioned well beyond the pale of this, and surmised that "men" and "women" are ultimately rather devisive social constructs that accuse more than they explain; certainly they are unscientific constructs in their relation to gender.

It's in this despoiled landscape that Kingsolver finds the high road and leaves few men or women to muddle her muggy and doubtfully "prodigal" summer. We see them now and again in Garnett and Nannie Rawley (when they are not stereotypical rural bible-thumpers) and in the conversations of the many troubled women which are sometimes felt and revealing. Yet these episodes are like the little heads that bob fitfully on the water's surface after a boat has sunk. In the end she relentlessly gives us "humans" and representatives of other zoological categories united by a common necessity to mate. The biological determinism is so thick in these woods that, in spite of the focus on sex, no "fuck" can be found: not because it is vulgar but because it represents a concept alien to Kingsolver's cracker-thin world. Human beings may procreate, but only men and women fuck. "Fuck" is not categorical; it has nothing inevitable about it and whatever demarcations it has are drawn by imagination, caprice, and enthusiasm. This is in sharp contrast to the ways of the real hero of Kingsolver's book, the moth, who cannot eat nor even live except to find a mate, reproduce, and die. The moth is the triumph of necessity.

The word 'love' is certainly odd here. Love is the mother of invention, not necessity, and so it's hard to even think of love in the context of Prodigal Summer but Kingsolver uses the word often. She attributes it to moths and birds more often than to humans and it sounds compelling in a pale and ghostly sort of way. I don't think anyone has ever known a moth well enough to know that it loves. Is Kingsolver making an assertion about the soul life of insects or is this just another woozy example of Ruskin's "pathetic fallacy?" It is indeed the pathetic fallacy but it is carried out systematically, at great length and with deliberation. It's a didactic device similar to the drills teachers resort to when a lesson is counterintuitive and so must be learnt by rote to stick. Kingsolver's lesson is "moth love" and it does begin to stick as we go along because she repeats it often and perhaps we do not think too hard about it. But I have always had a deep suspicion that people who hold up insects for us to emulate do so because they are either strangely fanatical over some bit of behavior they want to mend in the world or are stunted in their development and have never embraced being women or men. Which is it with Kingsolver? On the one hand she would seem to want to mend us by pricking a bubble: her moths tell us that whatever vanity we entertain of ourselves we are still rolling down the same track as the rest of the natural world: our fertility follows the moon, our noses sniff out our sex partners, our bodies track them down, and our sex organs take over from there. We can hate it as Deanna does, be confused by it as Lusa is, or be oblivious to it as most of the rest are. But that's who we really are, that's how all life is, and if a moth knows it why don't we?

The answer is obviously that we do know it. Every woman gets a mild or a walloping dose of the itch. Men usually know what it is to be "hornier than a four-peckered owl." We know this at least as well as any moth. The trouble is, we do un-moth like things when we get this way. We may "mate;" more often we "fuck," but in any case our sexual proclivities are so diverse that nearly all of them have been outlawed at various times and in various places. To make matters even more complicated, we also go to nunneries, take chastity vows, or run in simple fear of the opposite sex. And then there is the mammoth catalog of our sexual dysfunction. Our list of sexual characteristics is twisty and long. In all the animal world, I suspect we find species that exhibit monogamy, or polygamy, or homosexuality, or one night stands with the female left to fend for the offspring. Perhaps even celibacy in the pinch of necessity. But I wonder how many species exhibit all of these traits simultaneously, enthusiastically, along with a multitude more? We may be rolling down the same track as the rest of the natural world, but we are not on the same train.

Our bubble has been pricked to death and it is tiresome to see yet another go at it. We are now firmly in a culture that has neurotically embraced the least common denominator (as if we really knew what that was!) and called it courageous and good. This has led us down the path to the moth. We face this moth and we judge ourselves by our own smug estimation of its simplicity (as if anything in nature can be simple), and then we condemn ourselves. And now we are beyond the moaning and graoning stage of our self condemnation. We must now embrace the moth. Unfortunately, sticking our heads up our hind ends would be easier. We can't embrace what we don't know. We think we embrace the moth, but what we are really embracing is ourselves, or rather our ideas about ourselves, which we always prefer to a reality we can never wholly grasp. This is the absurd, hidden arrogance in our self condemnation: we condemn ourselves so that we may embrace our ideas. We love our ideas and our passions, especially when they involve wresting the world into conformance with them. This is why men and women can reject sex enthusiastically, and not out of necessity. There is no enthusiasm in necessity.

Notes:
(1) Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer, HarperCollins, 2001
(2) Fracis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There,, Intervarsity, 1968

 
   
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