In psychology and religion, the individual’s experience of sex is of key importance in shaping the personality. Whether it be the loss of virginity, the acceptance of homosexuality, or the cultivation of a fetish, erotic experience creates a window that looks upon the writer’s mind and upon the writer’s culture. Eroticism in literature may unlock or loosen the bonds of guilt and shame. The erotic experience of another may allow the individual to see that he or she is not alone and that fantasies once thought to be perverse are in fact shared by many. Furthermore, the nature of fantasies, particularly if they are frowned upon by the culture, may reveal a hidden prejudice toward a group or lifestyle.
Among academics, the overwritten and clichéd passages of pulp fiction are not part of the literary canon. Pulp fiction, named for the cheap quality of the paper on which it is printed, is deemed to be too obvious in its intent to be classified as literature. Its aim is only to arouse readers, leaving them comfortably stationary within their own prejudices, understanding, and views. Pulp fiction does not attempt higher levels of artistry in writing, which, although it too might arouse readers, also challenges their notions of erotic experience. Indeed, perhaps the only safe generalization that can be made about erotic experience is that it is incredibly varied. Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises (1926), for example, explores male bonding and the competition among males for females. At the center of the novel is the narrator Jake Barnes, an alcoholic who is impotent spiritually and physically. Ironically, the courage he displays in the war, which causes his wound, creates his failure in the bedroom, becoming a commentary on men’s enslavement to their own pride and to the bodies of women. Miller, on the other hand, in Tropic of Capricorn, sees the crippling agent as that of Puritanism, which he indicts for its demonization of sex. In Puritanism’s place, Miller substitutes a manic celebration of the body, making it glorious in all its imperfection.
Another aspect of identity and eroticism in literature lies in the treatment of homosexuality. In Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), for example, homosexual love is seen as a threat to the male ego, challenging the athletic, macho man’s sense of himself and leading to alcoholism and suicide. Burroughs’ cult novel, Naked Lunch, however, celebrates homosexuality. The novel also...
What emerges from a survey of erotic literature is, more than surprise at dissimiliarities of sexual practices, a sense of the vast likenesses: heartbreak, disappointment, happiness, and bliss. Erotic experience is a modern quest, whether it is a gay man cruising leather bars or a woman cruising upscale singles bars in search of a one-night stand. Judith Rossner’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1975), an example of cruising from a woman’s point of view, is a cautionary tale of casual sex. The novel tells of the sexual escapades of a woman who is seeking meaning in life through her erotic encounters. She is murdered at the close of the novel by a sexual predator who is aroused as much by the act of murder as he is by the act of sex. Like many late twentieth century writers, Rossner implies that the absence of spirituality, wrought by the skepticism of science, deprives human beings of God but not of their hunger for God. Unable to believe in an abstract protector and punisher, they seek solace in each other, their consummation and communion being the sexual act.
The fleeting nature of sexual bliss and the constant desire for renewal indicate, however, that erotic experience may be a tenuous salvation at best. The work of Jong and Roth partakes of a quest motif; that is, the protagonists will find fulfillment only if they can have sex with either the perfect partner, or, failing that, with a great many partners. As representatives of the search for meaning they are afflicted by a paradox similar to the one that haunts alcoholics or drug addicts: The more they attempt to fill the void inside them, the emptier they become. Man or woman, the erotic quester finds, cannot substitute for God; lust cannot take the place of love. The literature of the erotic seeks to engage not only the mystery of physical craving wrought by glands but also the hunger for intimacy born of the complex human heart.
Basler, Roy. Sex, Symbolism, and Psychology in Literature. New York: Octagon Books, 1970. Examines the psychosexual aspects of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917).
Brooks, Peter. Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993. Explores the rhetoric of narration regarding sex.
Gottesman, Ronald, ed. Critical Essays on Henry Miller. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1992. Explores the sources for Tropic of Cancer, its sexual aspects, and its relation to visionary poetry.
Hapke, Laura. Girls Who Went Wrong: Prostitutes in American Fiction. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1989. Explores the treatment of prostitution in literature from a social perspective, focusing on the American heroine and on the fallen woman as reflected in the minds of men. Rehabilitation and redemption are also discussed.
Hernton, Calvin C. The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers: Adventures in Sex, Literature, and Real Life. Garden City, N.J.: Anchor Press, 1990. Explores the African American experience in literature, particularly regarding racist stereotypes. Index.
Millet, Kate. Sexual Politics. New York: Doubleday, 1970. Important feminist analysis of sex in fiction, particularly regarding the misogyny of male authors.