Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Sex, capitalism and antidepressants

Two writers wrestle with the impossibility of literature in a society that's afraid of the dark.

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By Rick Moody and Mary Gaitskill

Aug. 14, 2000 | Mary Gaitskill, author of the short story collections "Bad Behavior" (1988) and "Because They Wanted To" (1997) and the novel "Two Girls, Fat and Thin" (1991), and I have been corresponding by e-mail for some months on literature, sex and contemporary Western culture. Gaitskill is an incisive and fierce critic of what's deplorable at present, and also a passionate protector of what she thinks might still work for writers and thinkers these days. Perhaps the two of us exemplify the problems at hand, in that this conversation never took place as a conversation; rather, it occurred only in the confines of an e-mail exchange. Yet we're attempting to indicate the possibility that literature and other marginalized discourses might still flourish inside the machine of Western consumer culture. What follows, then, are excerpts from the most recent weeks of our epistolary tête-à-tête.

-- Rick Moody

RM: I want to start with the hypothesis that there is a sociological basis for thinking that one should not be sad. This surely comes from the notion that capitalism can quench our thirst with the application of product. It is un-American to be sad, therefore, or at best, sadness is simply something to be treated with antidepressant meds and otherwise need not be spoken of. However, all the emotions are grand, and if sadness is among them, then I embrace sadness. This also reminds me of a great sentence from Foucault, from his introduction to "Anti-Oedipus": "Do not think that because you are a revolutionary you must be sad." Does sadness, for you, relate to sexuality in any way?

MG: A friend, in an e-mail, quoted from an essay by Robert Warshaw ("The Gangster as Tragic Hero") on this subject of sadness, and he broadened it to include systems other than capitalism: "Modern egalitarian societies ... whether democratic or authoritarian in their political forms, always base themselves on the claim that they are making life happier." And so public displays of unhappiness and failure are seen as disloyal. I'd say, that is, that public displays of unhappiness and failure that are not reducible to supposedly soluble social problems -- to some category like "poverty" or "mental illness" -- are considered disloyal, or at least incomprehensible.

My suspicion is that this is an unavoidable human dilemma, that people will always want to avoid pain, to avoid those who are in pain, and so will be vulnerable to anyone or anything that seems to promise permanent avoidance. At the same time, I think people know that pain is part of our nature, that it cannot be avoided and that it should not be avoided. But capitalism in this country is focused on the idea 1) that life can and should be absolutely beautiful; 2) that beauty can be defined according to an ironclad objective standard; 3) that beauty can be held onto forever if only you do the right things perfectly enough; and 4) that it can be purchased. I don't only mean physical, personal beauty, but that is a good enough example and metaphor. You look at a fashion magazine, or really any glossy magazine, and you see flawlessly beautiful women in fantasy lives of utter beauty and excitement, sometimes mixed in with a little cruelty. It appeals to what I think of as the upper layer, the part of us that wants that perfection so much because it is static; it pretends that life can be captured, controlled by us forever without the endless slippage of organic life, in which we are a mere piece of vegetable matter in a system that is as much about disintegration and decay as anything else -- a system in which our personalities and egos do not matter, let alone whether or not we are pretty.

The fantasy pictures are never-never land, and yet you can feel a certain desperation in the way they deny everything that isn't utterly beautiful, utterly light; paradoxically, the insistence on occupying that realm evokes all the more ungainly, "ugly" things that are being denied. People know there is something wrong with this denial, even if they want to buy into it, so "darkness" asserts itself in increasingly distorted forms, like anorexia, cutting, all kinds of emotional violence. Light and dark become so polarized that it is terrifying, and something like sadness can come to seem grotesque -- and in fact become grotesque, like you see in somebody like [writer] Elizabeth Wurtzel, who I believe is desperately unhappy in part because she has absolutely bought into the idea that she should not be unhappy.

About your question of sexuality and sadness: I think they have a natural connection for everybody, which is why (and I know I'm talking out my ass here) I think people on antidepressants often lose sexual feelings. I don't mean that I think sex is only about sadness; it is obviously about joy and vitality and birth as well. But I think it is our root link to the deepest part of ourselves, the part that goes beyond personality or even human identity. It goes down into a pit we can't see into, and people tend to be scared of what they can't see.

I don't think "sadness" alone is in that pit; I think everything is in it, too much for us, in our human incarnation, to bear -- so that a fully expressed sexuality does have that dark, earthen element that is profoundly sad, at least in human terms. I think it is in part about death, and is what menopausal women sometimes feel, an extraordinary despair that is about the breaking down of procreation and identity -- which is now controllable by hormones so nobody has to feel anything icky. This is a part of sexuality that never shows up in advertisements, that rarely shows up in pop music, but everybody knows it's there. And in our trying, maybe unconsciously, to find it, it gets expressed in some distorted forms...


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