Book; Counter-book 1: Man Stuff

The idea here, my own contrivance that may or may not play out with any success, is to discuss two books with opposite (or vastly differing) takes on--or approaches to--a singular topic. Because I'm an impatient person, a person incapable of keeping secrets, or not buying a thoughtful gift for someone I just met (which often works to my detriment) we're going to *pun intended* blow the load right away. This Book; Counter-book is about men, penises and what they can represent. In this corner, wearing the blue and white trunks, with the wild hair and unkempt moustache: Kurt Vonnegut and "Welcome To The Monkey House." And in this corner, wearing wool pants, with thick white beard: Ernest Hemingway and The Sun Also Rises.

Now, we'd like a good, clean Book; Counter-book, gentlemen. And Hemingway, let's not take your frustrations about the Bukowski thing on Kurt here... Okay, gloves up. Let's go!

Vonnegut's short story "Welcome To The Monkey House" tells of a dystopian future, where overcrowding has led to encouraged suicide (where Futurama nods with suicide booths in may episodes) and a population forced by its government to take pills that numb everyone from the waist down, thus removing the pleasure of sex, and preventing additional procreation. The suicide parlors of the story are run by beautiful, young virgin women who painlessly end lives, and implicitly (Vonnegut is amazing at the this satire) sexualize death.

Now, Vonnegut's genius taps into the French: la petite mort... meaning directly "the little death," but meaning by translation "orgasm." Sex is already inherently mortal and demonstrative of the finiteness of the body, Vonnegut simply hits the right notes giving us a society where the death comes but the sex never does... life is about no little deaths, just one final big one.

Onto the scene strolls Billy The Poet, our anti-hero. He's one of the few "nothing heads," people who refuse to take their numbing medication, and he's also notorious for traveling to suicide parlors and devirginizing the hostesses. He is an individual sexual being in a sexless world, and his noble (?) quest to restore a bit of the pleasure of humanity to the world, by convincing women to become "nothing heads" via essentially rape-seduction. I invite discussion in the comments because the morality of the character is the high question of the story, but for this Book; Counter-book I'm addressing his sexuality. Billy The Poet is an outcast due to his sexuality. Sex is his weapon, but also his singular identity. Without sex he would have no function. Billy does not have the luxury (at least in his mind) of love entangled in his encounters. He's a terrorist, and the actions he takes are only to awaken the lost, rather than gain friendships/lovers. Essentially, Vonnegut lauds the power of sexuality as subversive, rather than a societal norm or construct. For this story, sex is the equivalent unregistered hand gun (pun intended again).

The Counter-book, The Sun Also Rises, centers on Jake Barnes. Jake is a WWI veteran whose injuries have left him physically impotent. He holds deep love in the book for Lady Bret Ashley, but despite her requisite feelings they will never be together because he could never have her. Instead, Jake merely shepherds his many friends, and is Bret's crying shoulder when each of her romantic interludes goes awry. This is captured exceptionally during the group's trip to bull fights... where Jake describes the way the steers (bulls who have castrated... yep) calm the bulls as they enter the stadium.

Jake is the steer (for obvious reasons) to Bret's, Robert Cohn's, Michael's and Bill's bulls. Each friend is energetic, sexual, emotional, and evocative. Jake remains a quiet, emotional-centered/reserved foil. He negotiates Bret's love life, dissuades and tries to guide Cohn. He is a silencer of Mike's drunken spouting, and friend to Bill... but Jake is always there, if only on the outside. He's separated due to his sexuality. And for Hemingway, his masculinity, his strength and his value are lessened by his impotence. Jake is alien to society for the opposite reason than Billy The Poet. Jake lacks sexuality. Jake wants to maintain relationships and take lovers, but he is not allowed them because of his physical situation. Sex for Hemingway is still a gun, but it's one every man should carry loaded. Since Jake doesn't have the ability to assert his manhood, he has to observe the one woman he loves most entering relationships with his friends, idols and confidants. For Jake, love terrorizes him, and sex is an impossible key to happiness.

Given the differences in timeline, setting, and style between Vonnegut and Hemingway it is impossible to ignore that they were men with opposing viewpoints. Sex meant different things in 1968 than it did in the 1920s. Masculinity was defined differently. But that's the question these books as mutually... how does sexuality define a human, how does it define a man? Sexuality means power and the ability to assert it for both characters. The power to subvert. The power to control love. The power to dictate to others and determine one's own destiny. Where these characters, and their authors differ is in the status society affords based on sexuality. Is it morally (legally) good or bad? Can we boil it down to that?

1 comment: