It was Milan Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion that first disturbed me, in the real sense of being unsettled. It took me out of a place I knew and loved into a place of unknowing, and I sensed that somehow my ignorance was being exploited. It is a lovely book, quite easy to fall into, but I was taken out of it when the two main characters sit naked on the floor, leaning against the wall, the light coming from a sleepy fireplace. I jolted into consciousness. I stared, bewildered. I saw that they were naked, and then I saw something forbidden, something I did not want to see. I saw them have sex.
This, for me, was a problem. It came largely from a tradition I grew up in, which taught that you were only to see one person naked, your spouse. To see anyone else, even if it was not pornographic, was nonetheless disloyal. A wandering eye ushers in comparisons, expectations, and unfaithful desires—things that should have no part in the marriage bed. Depictions of sex in literature might inject others into those thoughts that should only be of your spouse. In the imagination, the borders of art and reality are permeable. Sex is attractive, and incorrigible, so it’s best that you be attracted to one person in that respect, not others, not even fictional others. I was taught that sex was set apart, sacred.
I thought of sex as holy.
And so I questioned my professor. Should she have given us the book to read? Should the author have written that scene, albeit small? The professor replied that Ondaatje, a veteran novelist, knew what he was doing. The scene was for the sake of the art he was creating. It was necessary to develop the characters; it was precisely what the art demanded. I nodded, but wrestled ad nauseam in my mind if the scene was actually worth it.
This disturbance resurfaced when recently I read Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. It’s the story of a modern family of three kids, a manipulative mother, and a father with Parkinson’s who try (or try not) to get together for Christmas. In the first hundred or so pages, we follow Chip, the middle child of Enid and Alfred Lambert. Chip is consciously and repetitively self-destructive, so much that I wanted to turn away from what seemed like unnecessary, childish acts. Hadn’t he heard of moderation or prudence? Had he one disciplined or admirable bone? We read about Chip’s ogling obsession, which is perhaps linked to his insatiable sexual appetite. We see Chip having sex with his girlfriend, and with the boss’s wife, and even with one of his students. When his French pornographic VHS gets put in the dishwasher, he takes it back out, “in case he needed it later.”
It was a challenge. While I could appreciate innuendo, maybe one or two scenes, the sexual catalogue of The Corrections was exhaustive. While other characters are more reserved, hesitant, restrained, or repressed than Chip, they share with him the eventual surrender toward what they do not want to become. After reading about some of these other characters, I almost wished to go back to Chip. I read about the loss of virginity, the verge of marital rape, sex between unmarried and married women. I had seizures of conscience. I put the book down for weeks. There are scenes I want to forget. Near the middle of the story, we follow Denise, the daughter of Enid and Alfred, up into her room, with an old, war-veteran co-worker. First he loves her, then he abuses her. Denise hides her stained sheets in the closet.
Somehow, I finished the book. In part, Franzen writes with such brilliance that I couldn’t look away. Every piece was thought out. Every sentence, clause, and word was situated in the whole. The book was artfully, compellingly crafted. Franzen is casual in his prose, but the word-play is wonderful. You misread the book if without laughter. Was it possible that, if Franzen had done this on a literary level, he had also done so with the narrative? Perhaps the story’s explicit content was as intentional as the words.
After some distance between myself and the book, I saw it clearly. And with no little frustration, I realized that I had terribly misread The Corrections. I had stopped Franzen, and myself, with “but is this ethical?” and “do I need to see this?” and “how was that scene really necessary to develop the character?” But these were the wrong questions, or rather they were asked of the wrong thing. Prior to those questions was something larger, which I had not asked, and Franzen had been answering the whole time. It’s best to show it by a parallel.
Consider this scene between Denise and her employer Brian. Brian has come into some money, and is building a restaurant where Denise will be the head-chef. The two take a culinary trip to Europe, which turns from business to something more. Franzen writes:
[Denise] hated [Brian’s wife] Robin for having a husband she could trust. … Two nights before they left [Europe] … He pulled her into his room and kissed her. He’d given no warning of his change of heart. … She was beautifully, avidly adulterous and she knew it. … until there began to swell inside her, hardly noticeable and then suddenly distinct, and then not merely distinct but increasingly painful in its pressure on her peritoneum and eyeballs and arteries and meninges, a body-sized, Robin-faced balloon of wrongness. … She clarified by rolling out of bed and crouching in a corner of the hotel room. She said she couldn’t. … She apologized to him. “No, you’re right,” Brian said. … “I feel terrible. I’ve never done anything like this before.” “See, I have,” she said. … “More than once. And I don’t want to anymore.”
No one in the book wants to do what they’ve been doing anymore; they want their lives corrected. The present is so vicious, and the chance of resolution so incredible, that Franzen seems ruthless with his characters. They are not safe; they will see the worst. (Denise eventually sleeps with Brian’s wife, Robin, and destroys the marriage.) But it is not destruction that moves the book. It’s the characters’ struggle to correct what has been destroyed. And that is a motivation born of virtue, even love.
Consider, now, this parallel from Paradise Lost. This is the scene after Adam decides to take the fruit because of his love for Eve, who has already taken from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil:
[N]ever did thy Beauty since the day
I saw thee first and wedded thee, adorn’d
… so inflamed my sense
With ardor to enjoy thee …
So he said and forbore not glance or toy
Of amorous intent, well understood
Of Eve, whose Eye darted contagious Fire
Her hand he seiz’d, and to a shady bank
He led her nothing loath; Flow’rs were the Couch,
Pansies, and Violets, and Asphodel,
And Hyacinth, Earth’s freshest softest lap.
There they their fill of Love and Love’s disport
Took largely, of their mutual guilt the Seal,
The solace of their sin, till dewy sleep
oppress’d them, weaired with their amorous play.
Soon found their Eyes how op’n’d, and their minds
How dark’n’d; innocence, that as a veil
Had shadow’d them from knowing ill, was gone.
The disturbing aspect of art is not in showing nudity or sex, not violence or obscenity. Those are accouterments. That is why my questions were asked too early. I had not seen the reality to which all these elements point. They depict man as he reacts to his sin. They display man as he surely dies. The question I should have been asking is whether art has the permission, even obligation, to act out the death which approaches us, which we willingly walk, and sometimes run, towards.
And with what more convicting image can art show this than with the primary relationship of marriage atrophied by neglect; the first mandate to procreate becoming shame; the beginning (and continuing) genealogy of mankind made clandestine and suspect; the act by which two become one becoming the very act that splits them in two? It almost becomes essential, whenever the extent of sin, disorder, and in-correction is presented, to begin where man begins. Procreation thus signals at once the beginning of life and a re-instantiation of life’s brokenness. Sex is hope and confusion. Every person—hence every family, every marriage—emerges from that “contagious Fire.” With this knowledge, to write about sex is to write about fallen man. The ethics of showing nakedness now becomes the ethics of showing decay.
The last thing we want to remember is that sin is contemporary. In one sense, it’s easy to read Milton. He wrote hundreds of years ago. He wrote so long ago that the problems he wrote about also seem far off. But we don’t want a living author showing us that the very same thing is still going on. It’s just a sad story, that once upon a time man lost paradise. But there’s an urgency about man still losing it. Franzen was hard to read because he took me out of history and bluntly depicted the incompleteness and incorrectness of the present.
We all long for life, until we discover what life must undergo. At that point, we go through the event of hope, or despair. And we are good to recall Milton’s other work. Franzen has written a modern simulacrum to Milton’s Paradise Lost, but we wait to see if he writes with respect to Milton’s Paradise Regained. And there is a glimpse of this. Chip, the character whose destruction was so disheartening to watch and who, in the political metalepsis of the novel, represents our generation, is the one character whose life in the end actually finds some correction. He finds someone to love. They have kids. It’s the one time in the book that Chip’s love for another is described in terms of what it created, not what it destroyed.