However I had at some point to admit that I also found these same writers: fascinating. This attraction-repulsion required further investigation, preferably in post form. So here goes.
Bellow seemed like a fitting launchpad for said investigation, and I picked up a copy of his renowned 1964 novel Herzog. Both being Jews, I figured Bellow and I could bond over quaint Yiddishisms, having little else in common. Which worked out nicely when his character Moses Herzog reminisced on singing "Ma Tovu" with his brothers as a child. I was humming it all the next day. ("Ma Tovu" is a pleasant song to have in your head, since it means "How Good." Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mish'knotecha Yisrael: How good are thy tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.)
I opened the test case macho novel with apprehension. The plan was to face the erection, hoping I'd know what to do with it. And mostly I did, noting the sense in which the hyperactive male sex drive ought to create a happy situation for us heterosexual women. I suppose the rub lies in our ambivalent role as object of those desires. Desire can beget derision, as I am wont to lecture. And too, horniness may beget creepiness. Reading Bellow was at times like being inside the head of some lecherous great-uncle; I did not want to know what was going on in there.
In the Herzog era, the Mad Men era, there seems to have been some glamorous sexual crackle, and simultaneously the sexes were warring. Usually it seems we get along better nowadays, but sometimes it seems men are stewing in their caves while women appear smugly victorious but are privately unfulfilled.
And I worry that our present era has warped and vilified some of the natural distinctions of gender, and that certain prevailing wisdoms attempt to subdivide relationships into unrealistically tidy, sterile compartments (sex, communication, housework, and so forth), neglecting the pulsating, organic whole that is the ever-tenuous but uniquely magical bond between men and women.* I kept these ruminations to myself, however, until I read a wonderful essay in the book review section of the New York Times.
*Sorry, beloved gays. This one's not about you.
IN HER ESSAY "The Naked and the Conflicted," Katie Roiphe observes that today's male novelists "have repudiated the aggressive virility of their predecessors." Predecessors like Norman Mailer, John Updike, Phillip Roth and Saul Bellow. (Among these Bellow is, incidentally, the most demure, as indicated in the below graphic, which accompanied Roiphe's essay.) She goes on:
The current sexual style is more childlike; innocence is more fashionable than virility, the cuddle preferable to sex...Rather than an interest in conquest or consummation, there is an obsessive fascination with trepidation, and with a convoluted, postfeminist second-guessing.
Of that last she provides an excellent example from Jonathan Franzen in The Corrections: "He could hardly believe she hadn’t minded his attacks on her, all his pushing and pawing and poking. That she didn’t feel like a piece of meat that he’d been using."
Ladies, if we have given guys the impression that their sexual aggression is loathsome, we have failed grievously to communicate. And communication is supposed to be our specialty. Furthermore, if we have given such an impression, that we want our men de-balled, does that not betray a cowardice of our own?
It is fashionable to speak of men being *threatened by strong women,* but what of insecure women feeling threatened by strong men? Mightn't we women be quick to judge a delicious specimen of masculinity as a jerk or a dolt or a cad, similar to the way some men are quick to condemn a dauntingly attractive woman as dumb or bitchy?
Speakinawhich, check out Herzog's flagrantly displayed desire/derision vortex in this passage from the book:
He saw twenty paces away the white soft face and independent look of a woman in a shining black straw hat which held her hair in depth and eyes that even in the signal-dotted obscurity reached him with a force she could never be aware of. Those eyes might be blue, perhaps green, even gray--he would never know. But they were bitch eyes, that was certain. They expressed a sort of female arrogance which had an immediate sexual power over him; he experienced it again that very moment--a round face, the clear gaze of pale bitch eyes, a pair of proud legs. [Emboldenings mine.]Sheesh! What threat can this stranger possibly represent? She's just like sitting on a bench in a train station and he hates her.
I found a possible answer in a description of Herzog's ex-wife, Madeleine. Recalling the beauty of the woman who left him, Herzog is flooded with venomous resentment. "Such beauty," he thinks, "makes men breeders, studs and servants." Stands to reason that Bitch Eyes, likewise, would be a threat to power. A threat to freedom. Bell Biv Devoe said it straighter: "Never trust a big butt and a smile."
Here's another Bellow desire/derision gem, describing a photograph of Madeleine as a child: "In jodhpurs, boots and bowler she had the hauteur of the female child who knows it won't be long before she is nubile and has the power to hurt." I assure you, no twelve year-old girl has ever thought any such thing.
But I appreciate knowing Herzog has these notions. What makes the insidiousness of the contemporary male novelists is their reluctance to be real for fear they'll be caught thinking wrong. This is artistic cowardice, though also understandable. By contrast, in Herzog Bellow ruthlessly exposes the twisted consciousness of an often-despicable character who seems a damn lot like Bellow himself. It reads like plain truth; artless, and thus good art.
Funny thing--Franzen tries to do this, or something akin to it, in The Corrections*: creating a mildly despicable doppelganger with whom the reader must inevitably empathize. But Franzen's Chip comes off wanting to be pitied or sheltered or something. He backhandedly begs absolution, whereas Herzog is (at least in his stream of consciousness narration) guileless. Herzog's not trying to manipulate the reader into secretly liking him; he owns to being half schmuckish and is strong enough not to whiningly finagle your forgiveness. He only asks that his faults be accepted. Who can say no to that.
*I read The Corrections several years ago and did not re-read it for this essay. That was wrong, I know. Just I was loathe to rekindle so odious a relationship. By way of apology, I offer this interesting recent Franzen article.
At any rate, this business of shipping one's self-loathing out into the world in charismatic written package is an excellent trick, one I use often. But I digress from the point, which is: I'd sooner do Saul Bellow than Jonathan Franzen. And the former is dead. (Counterobjectification. Try it.)
I LEARN things from Bellow because he tells the truth, however ugly. I have some idea now how a person of Herzog's ilk, a muddled misogynist mid-century man of ideas thinks. Communication can only be born of honesty, of course. If someone avoids saying in order not to be caught harboring incorrect (politically or otherwise) thoughts, only frustration can result.
But it wasn't only Bellow's honesty that I appreciated. Reading Herzog, I felt a less inhibited version of the attraction to mid-century macho novelists that had formerly evoked feminist shame. Indeed the very things that might make men sexist--strength, dominance, a bit of brutishness--might also make them sexy.
The loins are rarely in accord with the politically correct brain. Trust me. I've read Superhead's memoir. (Sup's writing game can't match Sup's head game.) But I do believe this conflation of sexy and sexist, what we might call the Nigel Tufnel Paradox, can be overcome. It just requires effort on both sides. A male friend once told me it is not easy to find the balance of being a guy. And I believe him. Just as, he kindly added, it is surely not easy to do same as a woman.
In saying such things there is always the fear one's fellow woman will accuse one of letting men off easy, indulging in another pathetic effort to please them. Herein paragraph constitutes my plea for sisterly mercy, so let me reassert that yeah Bellow's sexist. Classically so. Herzog's ideal woman is geishesquely servile, delighted just to please him, bathe him, remove his shoes. And he thinks some mean shit, like, "But this is a female pursuit. This hugging and heartbreak is for women. The occupation of a man is in duty, in use, in civility, in politics in the Aristotelian sense." Ouch! (Resolved to watch PBS News Hour each evening in full. No TMZ.)
And yet Moses Herzog, wandering the existential desert, is also a decent person. And indeed decent people have often been sexists, racists, slaveowners and Nazis. How many must there be today who hate gays? Prejudice is one of those peculiar quirks of humanity.
CHEST-THUMPING authors, like Mailer especially, do also use sex and misogyny the way certain rappers do: to flex a disfigured masculine pride. I distinguish such cheap knocks from genuine expressions of imperfect sentiment. And as Roiphe points out, contemporary male novelists can be sexist too; just their version is "wilier and shrewder and harder to smoke out." Which is kinda worse, for its camouflage. (BTW, if you ever make your girlfriend mad, just drop five stacks on that makeup bag; it worked on my cat.)
My unsolicited advice to male authors: Writing is not macho. Novelists are not rock stars, not boxers. If writing novels threatens your manhood, perhaps prescribe yourself some other activity to restore it rather than jizzing all over the manuscript. Oh, and tell the truth. Even if someone might hate you for it.
To all the ladies worldwide, I say we have to be strong enough to let men have their strength and know we can handle it. They, in turn, have to promise not to be assholes and to treat us with respect. But the respect has to be genuine. As in literally 'look again'--not some blathering bullshit self-congratulatory fake sensitivity. Beware the man who announces his feminism. I never ever tell people who are not white that I'm nonracist.
What do women want? wonders Herzog. "What do they want? They eat green salad and drink human blood." At another point he lists what women around him seem to expect: "nightly erotic gratification, safety, money, insurance, furs, jewelry, cleaning women, drapes, dresses, hats, night clubs, country clubs, automobiles, theater!" But a woman of Herzog's day could easily have made a much longer list of what men then expected from women, including but not limited to: looking pretty, being the cleaning women themselves, rearing young, smoothing down hackles, pleasing in bed, living in suburban traps and resigning themselves to the denigrating attitudes and limited roles of their time.
I presume to speak for all contemporary women in saying we want strength without oppression, sensitivity but not 'paralyzed sweetness,' to be protected and appreciated and understood. And I cannot know but can guess that the men want care without stiflement, independence but not indifference, to be nurtured and appreciated and understood. Tall orders on both sides, but something can probably be worked out.