Monday, August 16, 2010

Keep your pants on!, Or, Mr. O'Hara regrets to inform you that he'll be late for lunch.

I fear that Friday’s post on swearing may have dragged my mind temporarily to the gutter, for, on reading the following passage in Geoffrey Wolff’s biography of John O’Hara, The Art of Burning Bridges, my first thought was that I had to share it with you folks:
Eventually [John] McClain was shocked by his roommate, when he returned home from the Sun with a young woman to pick up O’Hara for a lunch date. Having forgotten the engagement, O’Hara greeted the couple wearing his underpants, instructed them to wait while he concluded an ongoing chore, and, without closing the door to his bedroom, wrapped up a performance--theatrically strident--of lovemaking. He had partners aplenty, and each was destined to learn from O’Hara the names and preferences of the others. Such narratives, even more than the knowledge of his promiscuity and his frequent contagions of the clap, tempered the devotion of the women he pursued during the McClain period.
Now, to each his own, but if you were to show up for a lunch date to find such a performance underway, would you not count it as a de facto cancellation of the date? And therefore not wait it out? How excruciatingly uncomfortable those minutes must have been . . .

Which reminds me of a line from the oral biography of George Plimpton, George, Being George. In the middle of a batch of accounts of Plimpton’s--and, apparently, everyone’s--freewheeling sex life in the early 1970s, his friend Fayette Hickock says,
When I think about George going to orgies,, I think of him not as leering with his tongue dangling out, but just as George as George. Like, okay, wow, let’s see where this is going to take us.
Elsewhere in the book, Gay Talese describes 1970s America as “the most sexually permissive place in the history of the world,” which, by what feels like an almost medieval association of opposites, makes me think of Adam Thirlwell’s discussion in The Delighted States of an anthology of Laurence Sterne’s writing called The Beauties of Sterne that was published in 1782, after Sterne’s death:
The writer of the “Preface” to The Beauties of Sterne expressed sadness that the “chaste lovers of literature” had been “deprived” of the possible “pleasure and instruction” to be derived from the works of Laurence Sterne--since they could not risk encountering the “obscenity which taints the writing of Sterne”: “his Sentimental Journey, in some degree, escaped the general censure, though that is not entirely free of the fault complained of.” The purpose of The Beauties of Sterne was therefore to give the reader an expurgated version of the works of Laurence Sterne. But this is not an easy task, to expurgate the work of Laurence Sterne--because it is not easy, turning an unserious novel into a serious extract.
That said, much of what offended in Sterne in 1782, while still entertaining, looks relatively mild these days--and what is more fun in Sterne, anyway, is his more subtly sexual matter, much of which, Thirlwell points out, escaped the censor:
Sterne was exploiting the fact that sexual vocabulary does not quite exist; it mimes the ordinary vocabulary of sexuality. A person can talk about sex while pretending to talk about niceness. A person can talk about sex without ever mentioning sex: the point of flirting is its utilitarian benefit, is that it allows for deniability.
Much, much more fun than O’Hara’s boorishness, no? The martini as opposed to the Jager Bomb, in a sense.

To close, a poem from a man who would not have stinted at Jager Bombs--so long as there was quantity--any more than he balked at public lewdness: Lord Rochester. Here, however, he drops his vulgarities in favor of a flirtatious subtlety, as he attempts to put over a not-particularly-convincing denial of unfaithfulness:
Love and Life

All my past life is mine no more;
The flying hours are gone,
Lie transitory dreams given o’er,
Whose images are kept in store
By memory alone.

The time that is to come is not;
How can it then be mine?
The present moment’s all my lot;
And that, as far as it is got,
Phillis, is only thine.

Then talk not of inconstancy,
False hearts, and broken vows;
If I by miracle can be
This live-long minute true to thee,
‘Tis all that Heaven allows.
In other words, as Shaggy once said, “It wasn’t me.”

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