Thursday, 16 October 2014

Something for the poet, something for the lover

Full title: Seducing the Demon. Writing for My Life
Author: Erica Jong
Genre: Nonfiction, memoir
Attributes: 304 pages, hard cover
Publisher: Tarcher (2007)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Writing, booze, sex, drugs, celebrity, and a few more things along the way; this pretty much sums up the whole book I am talking about here. And it would be unfair to expect anything else from a writer who made a name for herself in the 1970s, when she rose to prominence with Fear of Flying, a scandalous (although the word should be read in a positive sense) book about unbridled sexuality.
It would also be unfair to judge this memoir too cheaply, focusing on its themes the wrong way, as is usually easy with sex and drugs and mad writing dipped in thick Bohemian sauce.
That's because Seducing the Demon is, above everything else, a gesture of scandalous honesty (once again, read the adjective positively). It talks about the emancipation it caused in the seventies, but at the same time it asks the significant question: to what extent has that revolution achieved its goals?
"Our daughters cannot even imagine female invisibility. We raised them telling them they could do anything and everything. We told them God might well be female. We told them we wanted them because they were girls. We filled their heads with female goddesses, women poets and women's history. (Dear Goddess, don't make me call it herstory or womyn's history - I may break out in hives.) The point is: We taught them to love themselves."
And this is perhaps where those essential questions demand to be asked, although for the most part Erica Jong gives the impression that the answer has already been given, and that the world already knows that the sexual emancipation has had a positive outcome.
Speaking generally of this book, one may say that one simply needs to take Seducing the Demon as it is. With its demons, with its show-offs ("Dart and I wallowed in luxury at the Cipriani - and damn the cost (all on my tab)"), with its ostentatious groupie-ness ("I have been involved with brilliant poets who liked me to wear tacky underwear"), with its dubious exaggerations ("My father was Seymour. He was handsome and hot. It was hard to think of him as my father."), with its cheap melodramas, but also with its astute, roaring poetry. You can't, for instance, overlook her take on Omar Khhayam, the poet of wine, the champion of love:
"You cannot quote Omar and drink Diet Coke. You cannot quote Omar and drink San Pellegrino. Wine is demanded. Wine is essential. You cannot be in love and not drink wine. Or I can't, anyway."
It all rings so true it's almost encouraging. More wine, please, and more love!

But if you want a central point (a hook from which to hang the entire volume), it must be this: it feels good being Erica Jong and being a celebrity. It comes, as it were, with the job description. This is, it seems, the truth worth theorizing, even when the philosophy produced this way sounds bitter-sweet or perhaps a little regretful.
"Fame seems at first to be a protection against the common lot of humanity. The common lot of humanity is to be a blob that rots. With fame we can outsmart decay and be embalmed for times to come.Of course it's not really us but a version of us, an eviscerated version with all the blood and guts gone. Embalmed for posterity, like Lenin. We'll take it anyway. And thanks. Better to be known for the wrong things than not to be known at all."
Honest in almost everything she says, unashamed of talking about her sexual escapades as if they were some glacé cherries on a heavy-creamed cake, or about her life among the famous as if they were a mere head count at a country fair, Erica Jong would have defeated her whole purpose if she had not said this about fame:
"Famous people complain about fame, but they never want to give it back, myself included."
But she says it. And then she moves on. To passages upon passages discussing the adventure of writing. Fragments in which Jong chooses to speak with the texture of sleek metaphors. Like, for instance, this, where the necessary connection is being made between – what else – but writing and sex:
"Without adultery, is there any novel? Without sex, is there any poetry? Surely sexual energy and creative energy feed each other. Often they feel the same.Sexual energy provokes creativity. Do poets fall in love to write about it, or does love impel creativity?"
It's easy to see how the two connect, right? The energies they share, the intensity that can be equated, the sense of loss of self that's involved in both. In fact, Jong's philosophy relies a lot on the articulation of this loss. At one point, she borrows the concept of "flow" from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which is precisely about the imponderability of one's complete immersion in one's object of adoration/passion. And out of this theory she comes out saying:
"Optimal experience, or the flow state, is characterized by the suspension of the sense of time, the obliteration of self-consciousness and the feeling that we are doing something for its own sake and not for its outcome. This is a perfect description of writing, sex, or sailing, or ballet dancing or painting or musical composition, or... you fill in the blanks. Athletes breaking records are in flow. So are writers writing, dancers dancing, sailors sailing. Immersed in their craft, they find flow - which is its own reward."

Once again, where there's writing there's sex, where there's sex there's writing. The energy, the passion, the performance, the intensity, the flow! Writing like an athlete or writing like a lover, what difference does it really make?