Harvey Shapiro (review date 25 August 1973)

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[Shapiro is an American educator, poet, novelist, and critic who has served as editor of the New York Times Book Review. In the following excerpt, he provides a favorable assessment of Half-Lives, commenting on Jong's treatment of women's issues.]

To write as a woman is to write from an extreme situation: the assumption behind Erica Jong's and Adrienne Rich's recent poetry. It gives energy to their lines. And I suspect, it gives them readers they might not ordinarily have. This can be a temptation (I think it is for Erica Jong) to play to that audience. But for the most part it must mean poet touching reader, reader touching poet, in a way that can make both more alive.

Erica Jong is quick, easy, raunchy (the pose is sometimes that of a female rake) and her personality so fills her poems [in Half-Lives] that it's difficult sometimes to see around her to her meaning. There is nothing particularly feminist or ideological in this; it's part of the personality packaging some poets fall into naturally these days. It permits the reader easy access to a book through knowing the basic plot and the main character (as, for example, Diane Wakoski: men throw me off their motorbikes).

Her free verse is held together by repetitions (a line, or phrase or syntactical unit) and it is designed to move quickly, images shifting with each line, the imagination always looking for the next turn. Given that technique, you don't stay with a line; there isn't time for that savoring of something made to last that has been one of the traditional pleasures of poetry. But then this poetry is designed to say that art isn't a refuge, that nothing lasts, that all a poet can do is to make lines out of her life to prove that life real, and when the lines stop the life has gone. (See her opening poem: "Why does life need evidence of life? / We disbelieve it / even as we live.")

Does she manipulate her audience? Maybe some of her poems use women's liberation as a piece of pop culture (to know the movement lives, take a walk down the bra-less streets of New York), as in her funny "Seventeen Warnings in Search of a Feminist Poem." "Beware of the man who writes flowery love letters; he is preparing for years of silence. / Beware of the man who praises liberated women; he is planning to quit his job." Some of these cartoon poems reverse Thurber's war of the sexes. The opening of her "Anniversary" poem, for example:

        Every night for five years
        he chewed on her
        until her fingers were red and ragged
        until blue veins hung out of her legs
        until the children tumbled
        like baby kangaroos
        out of raw crimson pouches
        in her stomach

Now it may be that in every marriage there's a victor and a victim, but is the wife always the victim (and doesn't the battle sometimes shift rapidly, to say nothing of long periods of armistice)? But wife as victim is the program. (It takes her next poem, "Divorce," to reverse that.)

In general, men don't fare too well in these poems. "How You Get Born": "you wait in a heavy rainsoaked cloud / for your father's thunderbolt…. / Your mother lies in the living room dreaming your eyes. / She awakens and a shudder shakes her teeth…. / She slides into bed beside that gray-faced man, / your father." That's the way it used to be. In her own experience, love is better; "You on the...

(This entire section contains 743 words.)

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prow / of Columbus' ship / kissing the lip / of the new world." Emily Dickinson, you've come a long way. The manner is playful throughout but the material frequently is not. Beneath it all is her assertion in poem after poem, of the essential hard luck of being a woman poet. That's the way I read her "Alcestis on the Poetry Circuit" ("She must never go out of the house / unless veiled in paint. / She must wear tight shoes / so she always remembers her bondage."), which is like a verse rendition of the psychologist Matina Horner's thesis that women are conditioned by the culture to fail. And her purest Muse poem, "Why I Died," is a celebration of a suicidal woman ("She is the woman I follow. / Whenever I enter a room / she has been there—") with its inevitable recall of Sylvia Plath.

Harvey Shapiro, "Two Sisters in Poetry," in The New York Times, August 25, 1973, p. 21.


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Erica Jong 1942–

American poet, novelist, and biographer.

The following entry provides an overview of Jong's career-through 1990. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 6, 8, and 18.

Best known for her novel Fear of Flying, Jong has received both popular and critical recognition for her frank, satirical treatment of sexuality. Her works have been interpreted both as pioneering efforts in the movement toward an authentic and free expression of female sexuality and, according to an anonymous reviewer in Kirkus Reviews, as "porn with a literary veneer." Some critics have noted that attention to the risque elements of Jong's fiction has eclipsed her treatment of serious social issues in her fiction and poetry.

Biographical Information

Jong grew up on the Upper West Side of New York City. Her mother, Eda Mirsky Mann, was a painter, and her father, Seymour Mann, was a musician, composer, and importer of giftware. As an adolescent, Jong wrote and illustrated numerous journals and stories. She later served as editor of the literary magazine and producer of poetry programs for campus radio at Barnard College, from which she graduated in 1963. Jong (then Erica Mann) earned an M.A. in English literature at Columbia University in 1965, and in 1966 she married Allan Jong, a Chinese-American psychiatrist. The Jongs moved to Heidelberg, Germany, where Allan served in the military until 1969, and Erica taught at the University of Maryland Overseas Division. It was in Germany that Jong departed from writing poetry in the formal style of William Butler Yeats, W. H. Auden, and Dylan Thomas, and began developing her own distinctive approach to treating the human condition in order to incorporate the sense of paranoia she experienced as a Jew living in Germany. It was with her poetry collection Fruits and Vegetables that Jong first gained critical attention, but it was shortly after the publication of Fear of Flying in 1973 that Jong received popular notice and became a famous writer. Jong's awards include Poetry magazine's 1971 Bess Hokin prize, the 1972 Madeline Sadin Award from New York Quarterly, and the 1972 Alice Faye di Castagnolia Award from the Poetry Society of America.

Major Works

In her poetry, Jong presents observations on such topics as aging, love, sex, feminism, and death, and while her treatment of these topics is often serious, her tone is largely life-affirming and humorous. Jong has asserted that the common theme in all of her works is "the quest for self-knowledge," a theme that dominates her semi-autobiographical trilogy of novels Fear of Flying (1973), How to Save Your Own Life (1977), and Parachutes & Kisses (1984). These three works trace the life of Isadora Wing, a writer who travels extensively and seeks spiritual, emotional, and physical fulfillment in various relationships with men. The recipient of far more popular and critical attention than its sequels, Fear of Flying has been characterized as a bildungsroman in the tradition of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, James Joyce's Odyssey, Dante's Inferno, and the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. In Fanny: Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hack-about-Jones (1980) and Serenissima: A Novel of Venice (1987), Jong employs the settings and language of eighteenth-century England and sixteenth-century Venice, respectively. Fanny is Jong's version of an eighteenth-century pornographic work by John Cleland titled Fanny Hill, and Serenissima depicts Jessica Pruitt, a twentieth-century actress who falls ill and is transported in a dream to Elizabethan England, where she becomes romantically involved with William Shakespeare. In a departure from fiction, Jong has written the biography The Devil at Large: Erica Jong on Henry Miller (1993). Jong became close friends with Miller, who, in an early review of Fear of Flying, called the novel "a female Tropic of Cancer."

Critical Reception

Critical reaction to Jong's works has been mixed. While some critics have focused negative attention on the raw language and sexual explicitness of her works, some have lauded Jong for crossing gender barriers and paving the way for other women writers to use language previously considered the domain of male authors. Gayle Greene has asserted: "Jong confuses liberation with sexual liberation and confuses sexual liberation with the freedom to talk and act like a man, but the bold language that so impressed readers masks a conventionality, a failure to imagine otherwise." Many critics, however, have praised Jong's masterful use of humor, her ironic and honest depiction of interactions between men and women, and her insight into society as a whole. Joan Reardon has commented: "If 'woman writer' ceases to be a polite but negative label, it will be due in great measure to the efforts of Erica Jong."

Anatole Broyard (review date 11 June 1975)

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[An American educator and critic, Broyard served for fifteen years as a New York Times book reviewer and feature writer. In the following review of Loveroot, he faults Jong's poetry as pretentious, commenting, "Ms. Jong is too full of herself."]

When Fear of Flying ended with the runaway wife returning to scrub her infidelities in her husband's bathtub, some feminists saw Erica Jong's novel as a washout. She may have come to agree with them, for she has since divorced her second husband and written an article in Vogue magazine on the obsolescence of marriage. She has her own bathtub now, and her own bathos. She says, for example, that Loveroot, her third book of poems, was written to prove that women poets need not commit suicide.

The author leaves us in no doubt as to why some women poets did commit suicide. In a poem on Sylvia Plath and other "martyrs," she says, "Men did them in." They will not do her in, however, for she has seen through their "doom-saying, death-dealing" ways. She is in her own hands, her "big mouth / filled with poems," and I think it should be interesting to see what she does with her independence. History has many cunning corridors, as T. S. Eliot remarked, and in the history of the feminist movement Mrs. Jong's corridor probably has a cunning peculiar to itself.

She has come out of the bathtub to "teeter on the edge of the cosmos," to "write in neon sperm across the air." Her sisters in arms may question this reference to sperm with its suggestion of men, but it is to the author's credit that she writes as if she had generated it herself. Perhaps we have here a more modern version of Rimbaud's "alchemy" of language.

It is curious to see in how many ways women have modified Freud's famous dictum that anatomy is destiny. Recently, I suggested that, for some new women novelists, anatomy is irony. I believe Mrs. Jong would say that it is poetry. It makes up, at any rate, a good part of her own. "My breasts ache … my womb pulls earthward …" "The poems keep flowing monthly / like my blood." "I offered my belly as a bowl … my breasts as the chafing dish / to keep us warm … I offered my navel / as a brandy snifter."

Blood recurs often enough to clot Loveroot's pages. I think that, in the author's mind, blood stands for sincerity. Her poems must pass some blood test of her own devising. While only women bleed, they may soon, if I can read the signs, teach men to ejaculate blood. In spite of her proud protestations, Mrs. Jong is rather ambivalent about her body. While it is not a party to the "orgasms of gloom [that] convulse the world," it does have its burdens. It leaves her a prey to "the loneliness of pregnant whales," and it is threatened by a "blockage" which can be cured only by love, whose "first sure sign … is diarrhea."

In their movement toward emancipation, woman sometimes see fit to put aside coquetry, to adopt a flat-footed stance of "authenticity." "Mistakes:" the author writes, "she will make them / herself." "Life: not reasoned or easy / but at least / her own." Under the influence of this authenticity, the author tends to blunt her poems—"truth is often crude"—until the message becomes the medium. Confounding truth and poetry is one of the fond homilies of our time. I will not attempt to seduce you with poetry, Mrs. Jong implies. You must take me as I am. Sublimation is just so much hypocrisy.

Here is the cult of identity again, in one of its many manifestations. Love me, love my identity, and a militant woman's identity must be seen without bra or embellishment. She refuses any longer to be an interior decorator of the womb. Poetry is not a bauble, but a speculum.

In the "zoo-prison of marriage," the husband sleeps through his wife's "noisy nights of poetry." "The pages of your dreams," she muses in tender condescension, "are riffled by the winds of my writing." The husband dozes like a baby while the wife adventures among emergencies. The supermarket is a concentration camp where "the blue numerals" of the tally are "tattooed / on the white skins / of paper …" While men can "yearn / with infinite emptiness / toward the body of a woman," she "must not only inspire the poem / but also type it, / not only conceive the child," but bear it, bathe it, feed it and "carry it / everywhere, everywhere…." In the author's view of marriage, there are no maids, no day camps, no anticlimaxes. The uncharitable might say that there are no children either, except for rhetorical ones.

In Loveroot, the drama of anatomy elbows out the drama of poetry. The blood's pulse dulls the meter. The "I" blinds the eye. The bombast drowns the music. The sincerity stifles the wit. Mrs. Jong is too full of herself. We might say of this book, as F. R. Leavis said of the Sitwells, that it belongs more to the history of publicity than to the history of poetry.

The poetry is in the pity, Wilfred Owen observed, but perhaps this sort of sympathy no longer suits our pitiless age. The poetry is in the publicity—there, isn't that more like it? Women poets need not commit suicide; Mrs. Jong is right. Still, I think she ought to be reminded that, for her, fame too may be a form of death.

Anatole Broyard, "The Poetry Is in the Publicity," in The New York Times, June 11, 1975, p. 41.

Principal Works

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Fruits and Vegetables (poetry) 1971
Fear of Flying (novel) 1973
Half-Lives (poetry) 1973
Here Comes, and Other Poems (poetry) 1975
Loveroot (poetry) 1975
The Poetry of Erica Jong (poetry) 1976
How to Save Your Own Life (novel) 1977
At the Edge of the Body (poetry) 1979
Fanny: Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones (novel) 1980
Ordinary Miracles: New Poems (poetry) 1983
Parachutes & Kisses (novel) 1984
Serenissima: A Novel of Venice (novel) 1987
Any Woman's Blues (novel) 1990
Becoming Light: Poems New and Selected (poetry) 1991
The Devil at Large: Erica Jong on Henry Miller (biography) 1993

Jane Chance Nitzsche (essay date Winter 1978)

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[Nitzsche is an American educator and critic. In the following essay, she delineates Jong's use of parallels to the myth of Daedalus and Icarus in Fear of Flying.]

Although Erica Jong felt that her first novel, Fear of Flying (1973), was too literary for wide appeal, it rapidly became a best seller, its humor and eroticism praised on the dust jacket by John Updike and Henry Miller as well as by Hannah Greene and Elizabeth Janeway, but its literary qualities frequently ignored or even savagely castigated in reviews by such critics as Walter Clemons, Ellen Hope Meyer, Paul Theroux, Patricia S. Coyne, and Martin Amis. Characteristic of the criticisms is the following evaluation [by Hope Meyer in The Nation, January 12, 1974]: "literary it is not. Poorly constructed, too prone to phrases like 'our mouths melted like liquid,' it has a shapeless, self-indulgent plot and weak characterization, especially of the men." Such weaknesses supposedly exist because "There is no artistic distance between the author and her subject, and hence no objectivity."

Yet as a poet Jong received critical acclaim for Fruits and Vegetables (1971) and Half-Lives (1973), collections of poems whose colloquial diction and casual line lengths camouflage a tightly controlled form. Such control is achieved by the use of rhetorical figures and extended images, or conceits. As an example, in "The Man Under the Bed," which appears in Fear of Flying but which was originally published in Fruits and Vegetables, the bogeyman of the child metamorphoses into a fantasy lover of a lonely woman lying in bed at night, in a conceit that dominates the syntax and diction of the poem through the rhetorical figure of anaphora. Jong's poetic technique has led Helen Vendler to conclude, in a review of Half-Lives, first that "the poems need to be seen whole" and second that "Inside her rigid frames of syntax, a playful metaphorical mind is at work, busy in powerful invention of little fables" [The New York Times Book Review, August 12, 1973]. These two statements might be applied equally well to Jong's very literary novel. It needs to be seen whole because it contains a "powerful invention of a little fable," in this case a reworking of the myth of Daedalus and Icarus, and the use of the theme and symbol of flying.

Flying as a theme both introduces and ends the novel. Isadora Wing begins her "mock memoirs" by announcing her fear of flying: after treatment by six of the 117 psychoanalysts aboard the flight to Vienna, she remains "more scared of flying than when I began my analytic adventures some thirteen years earlier." In contrast, at the end of the novel, when Isadora sits in the bathtub in her husband's hotel room admiring her body and hugging herself, she realizes "It was my fear that was missing. The cold stone I had worn inside my chest for twenty-nine years was gone. Not suddenly. And maybe not for good. But it was gone." The novel, then, traces the stages necessary to progress from a fear of "flying"—literally and apparently figuratively, judging from this last quotation—to its elimination and subsequent replacement with a love of self. Isadora's last name, "Wing," underscores the significance of the novel's major theme and symbol.

Flying, for Jong, denotes literal flying but connotes creativity ("in the way that the word 'fire' was used by poets like Alexander Pope to mean sexual heat, creativity, inspiration, passion"), sexuality, and independence. Indeed, during the novel Isadora manifests, confronts, and rids herself of each of the three fears of flying. First, in her marriage to her second husband, Bennett, she overcomes the fear of creativity (and the habit of artistic dishonesty) so that she can fly, or explore the world of herself through poetry: "My writing is the submarine or spaceship which takes me to the unknown worlds within my head. And the adventure is endless and inexhaustible. If I learn to build the right vehicle, then I can discover even more territories. And each new poem is a new vehicle, designed to delve a little deeper (or fly a little higher) than the one before" (my italics). In her relationships with all of her men, especially with Adrian, she encounters the second fear of flying, consisting of those social or sexual inhibitions that prevent her from realizing her fantasy of the archetypal casual sexual union during which bodies flow together and zippers melt away. Only with Adrian does she overcome her fear sufficiently to brave convention, bolstered by thoughts of "D. H. Lawrence running off with his tutor's wife, of Romeo and Juliet dying for love, of Aschenbach pursuing Tadzio through plaguey Venice, of all the real and imaginary people who had picked up and burned their bridges and taken off into the wild blue yonder. I was one of them! No scared housewife, I. I was flying" (my italics). Finally, in her relationship with herself, the most important relationship of the three, she fears confronting and being herself: living independently of men, without their approval. Thus when Adrian abandons her in Paris, he forces her to survive alone, to "fly." Terrified, Isadora describes the experience as "teetering on the edge of the Grand Canyon and hoping you'd learn to fly before you hit bottom."

Jong strengthens the theme and symbol of flying by conjoining it with myth—the classical myth of flight, the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. To fly in the sexual sense, for Isadora, means adopting "borrowed wings" that belong to a man in order to fly to a heaven of ecstasy, hence to leave herself behind: "I wanted to lose myself in a man, to cease to be me, to be transported to heaven on borrowed wings." Only when Isadora, alone in her Paris hotel room at the end of the novel, realizes that overcoming her fear of sexual flying has seriously interfered with her progress toward flying independently—toward being and accepting herself—does she begin to differentiate between false and true flying. So she describes herself as "Isadora Icarus … And the borrowed wings never stayed on when I needed them. Maybe I really needed to grow my own." In the classical version of the myth, Icarus used his artist father's wax wings in order to escape from the labyrinth in which both he and his father had been imprisoned; although warned not to fly too close to the sun, Icarus recklessly ignored his father's advice and tumbled, his wings melted, into the sea. Clearly, Isadora Wing, assuming the role of Icarus, has also borrowed the wings of the "father"—obviously sexual, and donated by the various father figures within the novel with whom she has fallen in love, for example, Bennett Wing, who succeeds her first husband, the childish, insane Brian. Described as a "good solid father figure, a psychiatrist as an antidote to a psychotic, a good secular lay as an antidote to Brian's religious fervor," Bennett Wing appeared to Isadora "On the wing, you might say … Wing. I loved Bennett's name. And he was mercurial, too"—at least in his sexual acrobatics, which endow him with "wings" for Isadora (my italics). Like Icarus, however, Isadora flies too high and burns her wings, learning then how faulty this borrowed rig is: "What had love ever done for me but disappoint me? Or maybe I looked for the wrong things in love." Like many other women, Isadora has had to earn those "gossamer wings" belonging to the ideal man ("beautiful, powerful, potent, and rich") she imagines will "fly you to the moon … where you would live totally satisfied forever" (my italics). Such sexual flight leads to satisfaction with self ("the moon … where you would live totally satisfied forever"), but is impelled in part by a disgust with self—implied also by the need to "lose oneself" in love for a man. So Isadora decries the female body, as through advertising society programs most women to regard their bodies as too earthy and too earthly, justly requiring a narcissistic attention to "your smells, your hair, your boobs, your eyelashes, your armpits, your crotch, your stars, your scars, and your choice of Scotch in bars" in order to win those "wings" which will "fly you to the moon."

Yet the myth of the labyrinth also depicts a second means of escape. Icarus and Daedalus were imprisoned in the labyrinth by King Minos because Daedalus had previously helped Theseus to escape when he had been imprisoned. The earlier mode of escape entailed returning through the maze the same way one had entered: Theseus, with whom Minos' daughter Ariadne had recently fallen in love and for whom she had requested aid from Daedalus, was given by her a ball of string to unwind as he entered and to retrieve as he departed. This too suggests a gift, like the wax wings, of the "father" to the child, but here offered by the paternal figure Daedalus to a female child, Ariadne, and intended to effect her lover's escape, not her own. In Jong's reconstruction of the myth, the ball of string is given to the childish Isadora by Adrian, who combines both Daedalus and Ariadne, the former in his role as the second major father figure and psychiatrist in Isadora's life and the latter in his name as an anagram of Ariadne's. Specifically Isadora as Theseus must unravel the string as she explores the labyrinth of Vienna and herself by returning to the past and re-enacting troubling familial roles. Isadora explicitly refers to this part of the myth: "We quickly picked up the threads of these old patterns of behavior as we made our way through the labyrinths of Old Europe." Isadora reverts to her position as second-born in the family, Adrian reverts to his position as first-born ("Adrian, in fact, was born the same year as Randy [1937] and also had a younger brother he'd spent years learning how to bully"). Thus this relationship between Isadora and Adrian differs significantly from that between Isadora and Bennett: it depends more on unraveling the verbal threads of past behavior than escaping the labyrinth of the self on sexual wings. Of this analytic passion Isadora declares, "We talked. We talked. We talked. Psychoanalysis on wheels. Remembrance of things past." Again and again Isadora relates her emotional and intellectual rapport with Adrian (despite his frequent sexual impotence), then contrasts it with the silence of the primarily physical relationship with Bennett. The rapport culminates—as they wander through the labyrinths of Old Europe—in the long exchange of past relationships with former lovers and spouses, of which Isadora's side is recorded in chapters twelve through fifteen ("The Madman," "The Conductor," "Arabs and Other Animals," "Travels with My Anti-Hero"). But just as the first escape from the labyrinth (the body) involved borrowing wings (wings/Bennett Wing) to fly (sexual ecstasy), so the second escape from the labyrinth (the mind) involves unraveling the ball of thread from the past (good love/Adrian Goodlove) to find the way out or to ameliorate confusion (emotional and intellectual understanding). Both escapes, however, are false. Although the dialogue of Adrian and Isadora depends on "remembrance of things past…. the main thing was entertainment, not literal truth" (my italics). Manufacturing and elaborating upon her past, Isadora tells Adrian not about herself but about her various lovers (just as Adrian's latent homosexuality led to his voyeuristic participation in Bennett and Isadora's earlier lovemaking and his caressing of Bennett's back afterwards, so this sexual aberration diagnosed by Bennett and recognized by Isadora and continues in the form of his interest in other men she has known). He requests that she find patterns ("threads") in her past by categorizing these men. When she obliges, she realizes she is escaping the labyrinth of her past—that is, fleeing from the truth of her past, her self—by following the false thread lent to her by Ariadne/Adrian.

Oh I knew I was making my life into a song-and-dance routine, a production number, a shaggy dog story, a sick joke, a bid. I thought of all the longing, the pain, the letters (sent and unsent), the crying jags, the telephone monologues, the suffering, the rationalizing, the analyzing which had gone into each of these relationships, each of these relationdinghies, each of these relationliners. I knew that the way I described them was a betrayal of their complexity, their confusion.

She flees from the complexity of the past stored in her memory—because she desperately needs to escape herself, or rather, to earn Adrian's approval of herself and thereby accept what she is.

That is, she needs to face that minotaur locked within the labyrinth. Jong's mythic parallels suggest that escaping the labyrinth of the body (through Bennett Wing, sexual love) or the labyrinth of the mind (through Adrian Goodlove, remembrance of things past) constitutes a refusal to confront oneself—envisioned in the novel not only as a labyrinth, but indeed as the minotaur within the labyrinth threatening intruders, that monster which is half beast, half human. That Jong finds the metaphor of the divided self especially relevant to twentieth-century concerns (she defines the modern as "the attempt to bring together the dissociated sensibility") has been revealed previously in her book of poems, Half-Lives, whose title refers to "Wholes and halves, and looking for fulfillment, at least in the 'Age of Exploration' section, and finding the separation could not be bridged." As metaphor for the divided self in Fear of Flying, the minotaur expresses itself chiefly through the conflict between Isadora's body and mind, or the disjunction between the woman and the artist. At fourteen, for example, Isadora saw this conflict as an either/or dilemma: either a woman accepts her sexuality (through intercourse with Steve, her first lover), thereby implicitly denying the artistic drive, or a woman denies her sexuality (through masturbation, through starvation to stop menstrual periods) to retain the option of being an artist. Later in her life Isadora repeats these attempts to escape the division of self, the minotaur, by losing herself in a man ("flying"). Unfortunately, each man she chooses fulfills only one half of her divided self, either her body or her mind: Brian before his psychosis represents the intellectual who prefers a sexless relationship in marriage; Bennett, in contrast, represents the sexy psychiatrist who rarely talks to his wife about shared interests; Adrian, finally, talks incessantly but remains frequently impotent, similar then to Brain. What Isadora needs in order to fly is "a perfect man" with a mind and body equally attractive to her: "He had a face like Paul Newman and a voice like Dylan Thomas." Such a man of course does not exist, or exists only in the combined figures of Bennett and Adrian, who together mirror Isadora's divided self, her minotaur (Isadora describes Adrian as a horny minotaur): "Adrian, it seemed, wanted to teach me how to live. Bennett, it seemed, wanted to teach me how to die. And I didn't even know which I wanted. Or maybe I had pegged them wrong. Maybe Bennett was life and Adrian death. Maybe life was compromise and sadness, while ecstasy ended inevitably in death."

In the classical myth the half-beast, half-human monster was conceived by King Minos' wife Pasiphae. So the minotaur of Isadora Zelda White—her name expressing the divided self of the artist (Isadora Duncan, Zelda Fitzgerald) and the woman ("white" suggesting that purity associated with woman)—was conceived literally and figuratively by her mother. The parallel is apt: Pasiphae lusted for the bull her husband refused to sacrifice to the god Poseidon, who vengefully inhabited the bull during the begetting of the minotaur. Psychologically, then, the minotaur represents the monster (that is, the divided self) engendered by woman's intercourse with the divine (that is, begotten when woman tries to be an artist, or to aspire toward a role or an act which seems unnatural or unconventional). It is this monster a woman inherits—from her society, generally, but from her mother, specifically. Isadora reveals her heritage in chapter nine, "Pandora's Box or My Two Mothers": the bad mother or "failed artist" channels all of her creative energy into unusual clothes, decorating schemes, and vicarious plans for her daughters, all of which eschew the ordinary, whereas the good mother, a loving and sympathetic woman, adores her daughters in the most ordinary way. Clearly the bad mother resented Isadora when she interfered with her lapsed creative passion; her anger teaches her daughter the lesson of the minotaur-woman, that "being a woman meant being harried, frustrated, and always angry. It meant being split into two irreconcilable halves." The specific division of self troubling Isadora's mother occurs between her domestic and artistic sides: "either you drowned in domesticity … or you longed for domesticity in all your art. You could never escape your conflict. You had conflict written in your very blood."

As the minotaur in reality, Isadora finds herself imprisoned in—or concealed by—various labyrinths of falsity throughout the novel, primarily because others—or even she herself—cannot face the monster she represents. The first labyrinth is introduced in chapter three ("Knock, Knock") when her sister Randy, representing her family, rejects the unconventional artist in her ("'you really ought to stop writing and have a baby'") and sends her fleeing to the closet where she mulls her feelings of being a woman trapped, a "hostage of my fantasies. The hostage of my fears. The hostage of my false definitions" (my italics). She knows as a woman she doesn't want to emulate Randy, bearer of children, because "'you deny who you are'" (i.e., Randy refuses to leave the closet or labyrinth of her woman's fears created by her family and society), but she does not yet possess the courage to give birth to herself, the minotaur. Locked in this closet, hugging her knees, Isadora also becomes a fetus, eventually to be expelled from the womb of the closet: "What I really wanted was to give birth to myself—the little girl I might have been in a different family, a different world." The closet as both labyrinth and womb ("knock, knock") also symbolizes the role of woman as child bearer ("knocked-up"), that prison which must collapse after birth of the little girl, the true self, the minotaur ("who's there?").

The second major labyrinth is described in chapter four, "Near the Black Forest." In Heidelberg, Isadora and Bennett live in a "vast American concentration camp," a kind of ghetto or military labyrinth: "And we were living in a prison of sorts. A spiritual and intellectual ghetto which we literally could not leave without being jailed." An imprisoned Jew—that is, pretending to be an Aryan—Isadora at first dares not reveal her Jewishness, but then, lonely, bored, and trapped in her silent marriage to Bennett, she begins exploring Heidelberg, particularly for hidden signs of the Third Reich: "Only I was tracking down my past, my own Jewishness in which I had never been able to believe before." Two discoveries result from her exploration: first, as a Jew she has denied her heritage and as an artist she has covered up her inner self (minotaur) with false masks (labyrinth); second, Germany has hidden its real self, its love of Hitler, with a mask of hypocrisy. That is, as the American editor for a weekly pamphlet, Heidelberg Alt und Neu, she "started out being clever and superficial and dishonest. Gradually I got braver. Gradually I stopped trying to disguise myself. One by one, I peeled off the masks." Eventually her exploration of her outer prison converges with her exploration of her inner prison. Coming upon the hidden Nazi amphitheater whose pictures were concealed by little pieces of paper in old guidebooks, Isadora indignantly tells the truth about German hypocrisy in her weekly column. The symbolic meaning of the German minotaur (the hidden amphitheater paralleling the hidden love of Hitler) at the center of the external labyrinth underscores the monstrosity at the center of her internal labyrinth. Specifically, writing in early poems about romantic, unreal scenes and situations, "ruined castles" as well as "sunsets and birds and fountains" she censors her real self:

I refused to let myself write about what really moved me: my violent feelings about Germany, the unhappiness in my marriage, my sexual fantasies, my childhood, my negative feelings about my parents…. Even without fascism, I had pasted imaginary oak-tag patches over certain areas of my life.

Her writing thereafter discloses the true nature of the inner monster she has previously imprisoned.

Similarly, because her husbands and lovers have related only to one half or the other of her divided self, frequently refusing to recognize the other half, they inevitably imprison the offensive half in symbolic labyrinths. First, Brian holds her hostage in their bedroom during the final period of their marriage when he becomes completely psychotic, an ironic prison given his previous neglect of her sexual needs. Second, Bennett, the Freudian psychiatrist and father figure, has imprisoned her in a motel room in San Antonio, in an Army ghetto in Heidelberg, and in their silent marriage, about which she feels ambivalent, as it expresses only one side of herself: during a Freudian lecture on the Oedipal conflicts of the artist, Bennett squeezes her hand, as if to say, "Come back home to Daddy. All is understood. How I longed to come back home to Daddy! But how I also longed to be free!" (my italics). She decides to leave the prison of her Freudian marriage and her Oedipal attachment to Bennett in chapter ten, appropriately entitled "Freud's House" (which they had visited before listening to the Freudian lecture). Third, Adrian, who pretends to lead her out of the labyrinth of Old Europe—and the labyrinth of her marriage—by unraveling her (false) past, merely traps her within a maze of emotional deception: the car of escape and freedom becomes itself a miniature prison from which she occasionally yearns to flee, usually when passing an airport. Eventually he abandons her in Paris, part of that European labyrinth she cannot seem to leave; she then promptly imprisons herself in a hotel room. It constitutes the most significant prison in the novel.

Isadora had erred previously in determining to escape what she regards as a labyrinth—the complexity of being herself. As Dr. Happe explains to her just before she decides to leave Bennett, "'What makes you think your life is going to be uncomplicated? What makes you think you can avoid all conflict? What makes you think you can avoid pain? Or passion? There's something to be said for passion. Can't you ever allow yourself and forgive yourself?'" To accept the complexity of herself implies understanding the conflicting sides of herself as represented by the minotaur. And to understand herself she must confront herself by descending into the labyrinth until she reaches the center it inhabits. At first refusing to probe her true nature out of fear, Isadora huddles in the self-imposed prison of her hotel room. She remains afraid of 'flying' (connoting independence) on her own wings just as she remains afraid of the minotaur monster within her: she represents both Isadora Icarus and Theseus. To fly independently she must be whole, thus she must heal the division in her self (slay the minotaur) imprisoned by the complexity of her life. Both tasks Isadora will perform: as Isadora-Theseus she will descend into the complexity of her life in order to slay the minotaur—determine where the division of self occurs—and then as Isadora Icarus she will overcome her fear of flying by becoming independent and leaving the hotel room without the help of a father-Daedalus. Previously she has descended into herself in order to fly above the prison by writing poetry: she revealed herself honestly in her art after the Heidelberg experience. Now she must learn to reveal her self honestly in her life, without the support of a man (although Bennett guided her inadvertently to the point where she learned to write poems, just as Adrian guided her inadvertently to the point where she learns to be herself). The Theseus and Icarus portions of the myth then are clearly related.

The last four chapters of the novel detail Isadora's Theseus-like descent into her own labyrinth to face the minotaur, followed by her Icarus-like flight from the prison. At first afraid, Isadora cries like a baby, then appeals to her adult self for help. The subsequent dialogue between the two halves of her divided self, "Me," and "Me," representing this child and adult, also represent the lonely man-needing woman and the alone artist conflicting within Isadora. The confrontation with the minotaur begins. That her dilemma cannot be resolved by siding with one position or the other is reflected in the last words of the dialogue: it ends as it has begun, with the question, "Why is being alone so terrible?" Recognizing the permanent division of her self, Isadora then acquaints herself with her two sides. First, she washes her very dirty body, then she uses a mirror "to examine my physical self, to take stock so that I could remember who I was—if indeed my body could be said to be me." Her body she perceives as a cosmos or labyrinth she must explore as she has explored her feelings in her writing: "One's body is intimately related to one's writing…. In a sense, every poem is an attempt to extend the boundaries of one's body. One's body becomes the landscape, the sky, and finally the cosmos." During this self-scrutiny she slays the minotaur—the conflict between the two sides of herself—with the weapon of humor. Laughing at a joke she tells, she no longer remains paralyzed by fear: she can now act, or depart the labyrinth by retrieving the unwound thread. That is, she probes her psychological self and her past by reading the notebooks from the previous four years to determine how she has gotten here and where she is going (the true "thread" of the past leading to the reality outside the labyrinth), just as she has explored her physical self and her body. Most important, she reaches that reality when she finishes her reading: she stops blaming herself for "wanting to own your own soul. Your soul belonged to you—for better or worse." No longer fighting herself, she can begin to accept and understand herself.

That she now owns her own soul—"for better or worse"—is expressed symbolically through the chapters "Dreamwork" and "Blood-Weddings or Sic Transit," the two chapters themselves suggesting a marriage of the soul and the body respectively. The dreamwork dramatizes her mind's attempt to accept the body in that it illustrates a solution to the problem of Isadora's physical needs. The menstrual period arriving the following morning dramatizes her body's acceptance of the mind, in that it has been delayed by Isadora's worrying and exploration of her past with Adrian. Both suggest gifts she bestows upon herself (equivalent to Daedalus' gift of the string to Theseus and Ariadne and of the wings to Icarus, in that they represent the means of salvation and rescue). Her dreamwork, first, consists of two important segments. In the earlier segment, she dreams she has been awarded her college degree plus a special honor, the right to have three husbands, Bennett, Adrian, and a mysterious third. Her teacher Mrs. McIntosh, however, advises her to refuse the honor; unfortunately Isadora wants three husbands, thereafter because of this desire forfeiting both the degree and the honor. That is, to become a whole person (graduate with honors) by relying on (or marrying) the three males who reflect approval of aspects of Isadora's self (Bennett, her body, Adrian, her mind, and the third, everything remaining) may seem sound advice to a male and paternal Daedalus (who advocates flying on borrowed wings) but not to a female guide like Mrs. McIntosh. And Isadora seconds her: although she had viewed Adrian as a "mental double" because she wanted "a man to complete me" she subsequently realizes "People don't complete us. We complete ourselves." A better way of attaining wholeness (graduating with honors) occurs in the second important dreamsegment: a book with her own name on it (that is, previous public honesty about herself in her art) must be followed by public love-making with the author Colette (that is, a public union or marriage, rather than a conflict or war, between the artist and the woman in Isadora).

Such dreamwork indicates Isadora has become her own psychiatrist. Previously she had visited six different psychiatrists, eventually marrying the Freudian analyst Bennett Wing, who counsels duty and obligation over desire and inclination and who has pinpointed her past and present problem as an Oedipal conflict. In contrast, Adrian the Laingian existentialist advises her to pursue her inclinations instead of her duties and to live without a past and a future. But Isadora spurns both her Daedaluses by choosing the tertium quid of Jung. Interestingly Jong explains of herself that "I'm really closer to being an Jungian than anything else. I believe in the communal unconscious. I really believe that what motivates human beings are their dreams, their fantasies, and their mythologies." Throughout the novel Isadora too has been motivated by fantasies—her dream of the Man-under-the-Bed (the Ideal Man), her fantasy of casual and uninhibited sexual union—so much so that she quits her marriage for the apparent embodiment of the latter in Adrian. At the end, however, signalling her independence, her dreams stress woman as rescuer—Mrs. McIntosh and Colette—both representing the woman intellectual and artist as she is; too, because these dreams dramatize her internal conflict and its resolution, they allow her to be her own rescuer, her own psychiatrist. Thus she foregoes the borrowed "wings"—borrowed advice, borrowed thread, borrowed psychiatry—of the Daedalus father (Bennett and Adrian) to grow her own wings and fly independently, thereby becoming her own mother and giving birth to herself (Anne Sexton's line, "A woman is her mother," precedes chapter nine, "Pandora's Box or My Two Mothers").

After this dreamwork Isadora awakens in chapter eighteen ("Blood-Weddings or Sic Transit") to discover her menstrual period has arrived. This period signals the "blood wedding," "for better or worse," between the formerly conflicting selves. Indicating wholeness, it also represents renewal, or rebirth, in three different ways. First, she is literally sure that she is not pregnant, a possibility that would have encouraged a return to Bennett: "In a sense that was sad—menstruation was always a little sad—but it was also a new beginning. I was being given another chance." Now she has the opportunity to determine whether she can live independently of male approval, indeed a new beginning. Second, more figuratively the period represents a psychological "coming of age," a transition or transit ("Sic Transit") from childhood to adulthood (hence the digression on the symbolism of menstruation in this chapter, with Isadora's remembrance of her first menarche "two and a half days out of Le Havre"—again, in transit). Third, the period provides Isadora with an opportunity to test her old "fear of flying" (independence). Beginning a period without any tampons represents every woman's fear—but Isadora copes ("flies") by first making a diaper of Bennett's old shirt, then using French toilet paper, and finally leaving the labyrinth to buy some at a drugstore. The symbolism of the diaper suggests as well that the "little girl" to whom Isadora longed to give birth, as she meditated in the closet, has indeed been born. Isadora has released herself from the prison (womb) of the labyrinth. She is now ready to fly.

Instead she returns to England via train and boat, leaving the labyrinth of Old Europe behind. (This tertium quid also contrasts with Bennett/Daedalus' flying and Adrian/Ariadne's automobile travel). Proof that she has finally become whole occurs when she rejects a stranger's offer of casual sex on the train to London—"The fantasy that had riveted me to the vibrating seat of the train for three years in Heidelberg and instead of turning me on, it had revolted me." She rejects "flying to the moon" on borrowed wings, not just sexual ecstasy per se but a masculine conception of female fantasy. Further, she discovers when she finds Bennett's room in England that her fear of flying (her inability to cope, her fear of independence) has disappeared, replaced by a liking for herself (an acceptance of her body as well as her mind). Her acceptance is expressed in her admiring catalogue of the erotic features of her body, thighs, belly, breasts, as she bathes in Bennett's tub. Whether Isadora returns to her husband or whether she divorces him means little because she has already "married" her selves. This reunion suggests they will live happily ever after—truly "A Nineteenth-Century Ending," as the title of this last chapter implies.

Thus the unity of the novel depends upon the mythic parallels adduced above. The myth of Icarus similarly provided a structure for James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which Stephen Daedalus became an artist like the "old artificer," the father he preferred to his real one, his priestly one, his national one. But Jong interprets the myth from the woman's point of view: Isadora Icarus spurns the "old artificer"—her real father, her psychiatric fathers, her sexual and intellectual ones, refusing those borrowed wings or strings, refusing to be governed by old myths. She returns to the minotaur begotten by her two mothers and unites her divided self so that she can fly away from the labyrinth on her own wings.

Both the novel and its author have been misunderstood. Whereas Jong intended her work to "challenge the notion that intellectual women must be heads without bodies," instead her intellectual Isadora has been viewed, at least by one critic, as entirely body, "a mammoth pudenda, as roomy as the Carlsbad Caverns, luring amorous spelunkers to confusion in her plunging grottoes …" [Paul Theroux, New Statesman, April 19, 1974]. Similarly the intellectual author has herself been castigated because of Isadora's adventures. "To a lot of men," she admits, "a woman who writes about sex is basically a whore. This assumption is not made about men who write about sex." Yet Isadora has heroically reconciled her formerly divided selves of mind and body, artist and woman. So the novel itself, as this study has attempted to reveal, weds its humorous and erotic content to a carefully controlled form—achieved through the myth of Daedalus and Icarus and the theme and symbol of flying.

Jane Chance Nitzsche, "'Isadora Icarus': The Mythic Unity of Erica Jong's 'Fear of Flying'," in Rice University Studies, Vol. 64, No. 1, Winter, 1978, pp. 89-100.

Joan Reardon (essay date May-June 1978)

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[Reardon is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, she describes how Fear of Flying "demonstrates the 'coming of age' of its author, the development of her style," suggesting that the novel functions as "a distinctively female idiom."]

Initial critical reaction to Erica Jong's Fear of Flying sold the book but did little to establish its considerable literary value. Particularly cutting, and more often than not, hostile, were the women who linked Jong's work to the tradition of Austen, Eliot, and the Brontes in their reviews and found the novel wanting. Ironically, the feminist critics were both negative and positive. For some, the book was trivial and did not state the case; others responded like Carol Tavris who said: "Jong has captured perfectly the dilemmas of the modern woman, the ironies of liberation and independence" [Psychology Today 8, 1975]. And still other reviewers joined Jane Crain in an unforgiving dismissal: "Taken one by one, no feminist novel really rewards critical scrutiny—they are all too steeped in ideology to pay the elementary respect to human complexity that good fiction demands" [Commentary, December, 1974]. With considerably more generosity, men tended to review the book as a good popular novel, a cut above Diary of a Mad Housewife, with the welcome addition of considerably more humor. Though Paul Theroux [New Statesman, 19 April 1974] and the anonymous TLS reviewer [Times Literary Supplement, 26 July 1974] were denigrating as well as negative and Alfred Kazin disregarded the work, Henry Miller praised it as "a female Tropic of Cancer" [New York Times, 20 August 1974]. To be sure, there were references to poor characterization, lack of irony or distance in the narration, but, on balance, John Updike's "… feels like a winner. It has class, and sass, brightness and bite. Containing all the cracked eggs of the feminist litany, her souffle rises with a poet's afflatus" [The New Yorker, 17 December 1973] seemed to be the prevailing male judgement.

Neither the reviewers nor readers read Fear of Flying within the context of Erica Jong's earlier statements about poetry and fiction nor did they treat the novel as a logical development of the themes and style of her poetry. More significantly, no critic pursued Christopher Lehmann-Haupt's passing observation that the novel was "sensitive to the ambiguities of growing up intelligently female these days," [The New York Times, 6 November 1973] or examined the novel within the literary tradition of the bildungsroman. Quite literally, Fear of Flying is the tale of Erica Jong's thinly disguised autobiographical heroine, Isadora Wing, on her journey from immaturity to maturity. As such, the plot follows the standard formula of the educational novel outlined by Jerome Buckley in Season of Youth in which a sequence of incidents involves a sensitive youth who leaves a provincial and constrained life in a small town, journeys to a cosmopolitan city, and begins his or her real education. After a series of initiating experiences, at least two love affairs, and a number of moral encounters, the character rearranges her/his values and pursues a career in earnest, leaving adolescence behind.

The pattern, at least in its essential aspects, parallels Fear of Flying. That Isadora Wing is a sensitive character is made abundantly clear in her relationships and in her engagement with literature. Her parents, especially Isadora's mother, are portrayed as understanding and curiously disapproving as they encourage and discourage their gifted daughter. Fascinated by her desire to write and simultaneously hostile because she, unlike her sisters, rejects the role of motherhood, her family becomes increasingly antagonistic. Consequently, she leaves the repressive atmosphere of home by many routes—marriage, trips to Europe, analysis by at least six different psychiatrists, and, ultimately, by an affair with Adrian. When she does at last come of age, she returns "home" to her husband Bennett on her own terms, convinced of the "wisdom of her choice" of housewife as artist.

Isadora Wing, a character who is lost both literally and psychologically throughout most of the novel, finds herself on its final page. The circuitous routes always lead back. Familiar landmarks of the past—hotels, cafes, and trains—orient her to the present. The loss of contact with actual time frees her to listen to an inner rhythm, a resolute private timing which encompasses the twenty-eight-day time sequence of the novel. She finally comes to know where she is and what time it is as she resolves her fears—of flying, of driving, of "the man under the bed," of submitting her work to a publisher—and she comes of age. "I was determined to take my fate in my own hands. I meant that I was going to stop being a schoolgirl," she says at the end of the novel. And one can assume she speaks with the authority of the author's voice.

The imagery of Fear of Flying supports the various stages of the heroines's coming of age and reveals the author's growing confidence in her own fictional voice. Illustrating the progress of Isadora Wing's "growing up female," Erica Jong uses the journey of Alice and Dante through fantasy and dream into a "wonderland" and an "inferno" from which her heroine eventually emerges with a clearer perception of herself. She refuses to be the perpetual child or the symbol of pure love. The rejection of Alice and Beatrice coincides, therefore, with Isadora's rejection of male definitions. Having exhausted the image of physical journey from place to place, Erica Jong finally employs the image of menstruation to convey the inward journey into her own womanhood.

Using Lewis Carroll and Dante to define the male image of woman as little girl and idealized lover is accomplished by Erica Jong with considerable panache. That Isadora ricochets between the two images is apparent throughout the novel. Furthermore, using the seemingly disparate authors unifies the journey motif employed extensively throughout the work—actual movement from America to Europe as well as movement in time from youth to maturity and, finally, the psychological movement toward self-understanding. Physical transport from place to place underpins the plot and supports the chapters which delineate earlier travels. Within the framework of the longer journey from New York to Vienna, and to London, another important journey is undertaken. Isadora and Adrian leave "the Congress of Dreams" together, circle through Europe, and ultimately part company in Paris. In the context of these two major journeys, Isadora relates all other past trips, excursions, and travels which have in some way or other contributed to the present, including travel from New York to California and four different journeys from New York to Europe.

The recalled journeys, which interrupt the overall movement of the plot, serve to disorientate the reader as the narrative shifts from continent to continent as well as from present to past. However, the imposing pattern is always circular. Conversation spins round and round. "We seem to be talking in circles," Isadora says to Adrian as she has said to Bennett and Brian years earlier. Words echo words as the car "goes around in circles, dodging traffic." Similarly, dreams, nightmarish or benign, repeat Isadora's endless experiences with all the analysts in her life. The same story told and retold until she finally rejects analysis in the person of Dr. Kolner:

Why should I listen to you about what it means to be a woman? Are you a woman? Why shouldn't I listen to myself for once? And to other women? I talk to them. They tell me about themselves—and a damned lot of them feel exactly the way I do—even if it doesn't get the Good Housekeeping Seal of the American Psychoanalytic.

With this first note of freedom, struck early in the novel, Isadora moves away from the analyst's couch into the labyrinth of Europe. From the phantasmal "dream of a zipless fuck" to the "dreams of Nazis and plane crashes" entire scenes assume the "swift compression of a dream." Dreams serve to confuse reality with unreality, actual occurrences with visionary happenings.

To a heightened degree, Alice, the prototypical child, exhibits this same sense of confusion in wonderland. Within the framework of her adventures, reality and fantasy, sense and nonsense, sanity and insanity are juxtaposed to create a dream-like world. Erica Jong's repeated references to Carroll's work clearly link Alice to Isadora. Because of their repetitiousness, Isadora describes her conversations with Adrian "like quotes from Through the Looking-Glass." In Wonderland, the Red Queen explains to Alice: "Now here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!" Similarly, in the mirrored discotheque, Isadora and Adrian find themselves "lost in a series of mirrored boxes and partitions which opened into each other … I felt I had been transported to some looking-glass world where, like the Red Queen, I would run and run and only wind up going backward." In addition to the patterns of vertiginous motion, and to distorted patterns of size and shape, familiar characters also transfer from Wonderland to Fear of Flying. Adrian's grin is a continual reminder of the Cheshire cat. When Alice asks the cat, "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to walk from here?" the cat replies, "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to." Adrian, "smirking his beautiful smirk with his pipe tucked between his curling pink lips," tells Isadora, "you have to go down into yourself and salvage your own life."

Both Isadora and Alice live in a fantasy world which is more congenial to them than is reality. However, for Isadora, residence in wonderland is impossible to maintain. When the fantasy "of the zipless fuck," which Isadora pursues throughout the novel, becomes a reality, she realizes the disparity between eight-year-old naivety and twenty-nine-year-old delusion. She calls herself, "Isadora in Wonderland, the eternal naif." The fantasy "instead of turning me on,… revolted me! Perhaps there was no longer anything romantic about men at all?" Isadora rejects one fantasy after another as Alice, weary of the Queen's tricks, seizes the table cloth and upsets her illusory dinner party. But most importantly, Isadora outgrows the role of "Isadora Wing, clown, crybaby, fool," and opts for a life that will satisfy her rather than repeatedly seeking some fantasy lover who will disappoint her.

However, all the aspects of her journey are not as felicitous as Alice's adventures in wonderland. Isadora, because she is "bloody Jewish … mediocre at other things, but at suffering you're always superb," must descend to the depths of Dante's hell in order to cleanse herself of yet another illusion—another masculine image of woman. Early in the novel, she assumes the Beatrice role by idealizing her various love-relationships, "Dante and Beatrice … Me and Adrian?" She also links Brian and herself to the well known lovers, "What if he were Dante and I Beatrice?" She would be able to guide him through the hell of his madness. However, ultimately Isadora must identify both with the pilgrim Dante and some of the sinners he encounters on his way. She is the incontinent Francesca, "The book of my body was open and the second circle of Hell wasn't far off"; and Adrian, of course, is Paola. As the Dantean lovers are whirled and buffeted through the murky air by a great whirlwind, so Isadora and Adrian are seen in various degrees of intoxication, moving through the purple mists of the "Congress of Dreams" and motoring in endless circles through Europe. However, Isadora's journey like Dante's is ever downward. When Adrian and Isadora venture into the bizarre, mirrored, and stroboscopic world of the discotheque, Isadora renames it "The Seventh Circle." Once inside they become lost in the maze of mirrors and with mounting panic they look for familiar faces in the crowd of strangers, "all the other damned souls." Isadora's relationship with her first husband establishes still more persistent links with the damned souls in the lowest depths of hell. Brian tells her, "… you're in hell and I'm in hell and we're all in hell," and calls her Judas when she consents to his hospitalization. He reminds her: "Didn't I know that I would go the the Seventh Circle—the circle of the traitors? Didn't I know mine was the lowest crime in Dante's book? Didn't I know I was already in hell?" The analogy is strengthened when Isadora experiences guilt, not for betraying him, but for surviving his madness "as if I were Dante and he were Ugolino and I would return from Hell and relate his story."

To complete his arduous journey through the triple world of the Divine Comedy Dante required the assistance of three guides—Virgil, Statius, and finally Beatrice—symbolic representations of reason, repentance, and love. Isadora's three lovers assume comparable roles on her journey to self-understanding. Brian, whose powerful mind is condemned to madness, is the antithesis of reason, but his "verbal pyrotechnics" and his way of looking at the world "through a poet's eyes" influence Isadora's desire to write. Her second husband Bennett withdraws into his guilt and silence until "he made his life resemble death. And his death was my death too." From Bennett, Isadora learns solitude and silence and proceeds to listen to the inner voice urging her to write. The heroine's third serious lover, Adrian, becomes an "idealized lover." Like Beatrice, he is passionately loved but never possessed, "that was part of what made him so beautiful. I would write about him, talk about him, remember him, but never have him. The unattainable man." He is the guide who ultimately shows Isadora the way to self-understanding, the way to salvage her life, hit rock bottom, and climb back up again.

After Adrian leaves her in Paris, she describes the terrifying experience of being alone "like teetering on the edge of the canyon and hoping you'd learn to fly before you hit bottom." Yet, it is into this abyss that psychologically and emotionally she descends. After experiencing a period of numbness and fear, she looks into the mirror to reaffirm her physical identity. The reflection of her body assures her that she is still very much herself. She searches for her notebooks and begins to read the entries which record her past four years of married life with Bennett: "I am going to figure out how I got here … And where the hell was I going next?" Considering that question further, she realizes that running away from Bennett was the first step in reclaiming what she had surrendered long ago—to her parents, to Brian, to Bennett and only recently to Adrian—namely, her soul.

As Dante is instructed to wash the film of hell off his face in the morning's dew before he enters purgatory, Isadora washes herself before leaving her hotel room. She describes her trip from Paris to London as "purgatorial." The fog and cloud-cover veiling the island of England, leaving only the white cliffs of Dover visible, create the mixture of light and darkness which surrounds Dante's purgatorial mountain. Isadora enters through the custom gates like Dante passing through the gates of purgatory. The purifying bath of the last scene completes the rites of passage. Isadora has fulfilled her promise to return made earlier to Adrian. "Back where?" he questions. And she replies: "To Paradise," which, in the context of the novel, is a return to Bennett; however, now it is on her own terms.

The journeys form repetitious circular images, lending a vertiginousness and confusion appropriate to the immaturity of the heroine. Counterpointing the actual journey of Isadora—not in the traditional mode of the youthful hero from country to city but from New York to the twin capitols of the world, Paris and London—is the fantasy adventure of Alice and the pilgrimage of Dante, "mid-way this life" from sin to grace. The unusual blending of imagery from Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Dante's Divine Comedy reinforces the "novel of youth" and suggests as well a reappraisal of values, a purgation resulting from a process of painful soul-searching.

But these literary conventions as well as Isadora's previous twenty-eight years must be examined, evaluated, and ultimately rejected as part of what she considers the male definition. The novel of journey, the image of woman as child and icon must give way to the author's own feminine perceptions. Isadora angrily states: "I learned about women from men, I saw them through the eyes of male writers. Of course, I didn't think of them as male writers. I thought of them as writers, as authorities, as gods who knew and were to be trusted completely." Within the tradition and yet apart from it, Erica Jong uses the image of woman as child—the eternal Alice—and woman as idealized lover—the eternal Beatrice—only to reject both roles and "survive."

Indeed, the novel accomplishes more than that. It portrays not only the end of the journey but the journey itself on Erica Jong's own terms; namely, the awareness "of the fact of being female and going beyond it." In a paraphrase of her fictional heroine's words, Erica Jong has stated the case in "The Artist as Housewife / The Housewife as Artist":

The reason a woman has greater problems becoming an artist is because she has greater problems becoming a self. She can't believe in her existence past thirty. She can't believe her own voice. She can't see herself as a grown-up human being. She can't leave the room without a big wooden pass.

              [Here Comes, and Other Poems]

In a literary tradition where the standard of excellence is synonymous with male, the writer who is also a woman distrusts her own voice, undervalues her own experience and never really achieves a sense of self. According to Erica Jong, coming to terms with her own body, therefore, is the first corrective step for a creative woman to take, and Fear of Flying demonstrates precisely how this is accomplished. The result boldly stated by Isadora Wing is a literary work which is the antithesis of all those books throughout all of history which "were written with sperm, not menstrual blood."

However, the precedent for a "feminist style" had been established by a number of talented women poets before Erica Jong published Fruits and Vegetables. Discovery of the poetry of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath "came as a revelation," she said, because for the first time in her reading of literature, poetry ceased to be exclusively a "masculine noun." These contemporary women poets had come to terms with themselves as women, and "wrote about their bodies and never attempted to conceal the fact that they were women." They were attuned to the special rhythm which dominated their lives from menarche to menopause, and they were fearless in tapping "a kind of hidden power." In short, they expressed themselves in their own diction. Their images and symbols were chiefly drawn from the reality of daily experience rather than from the existing literary tradition.

Sylvia Plath charted new ground as she became more and more "attuned to her body harp." The casual and continued references to the interaction of her psychological and physical states and the relationship of both to her ability to write at certain times found in both Letters Home and some of her early poetry clearly indicate the extent to which Plath was preoccupied with the menstrual cycle. The specific symbols which became the texture of her poetry; the ocean, the moon, pregnancy and sterility revealed her deepest feelings about life and death. More often than not these feelings were expressed in the language of blood.

In later poems like "The Munich Mannequins" menstruation becomes an image of repeated bankruptcy:

       Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children.
       Cold as snow breath, it tamps the womb
       Where the yew trees blow like hydras,
       The tree of life and the tree of life
       Unloosing their moons, month after month, to no purpose.

And she concludes, "The blood flood is the flood of love. / The absolute sacrifice." Furthermore, birth, "There is no miracle more cruel than this," and the flow of blood in the afterbirth symbolized the ultimate creative act of poetry. Menstruation, signalling the failure to conceive, symbolized sterility. Because Plath was writing in her own terms about her own experiences, she opened the way for Erica Jong to explore with a surer sense the uncharted areas of female experience.

But Sylvia Plath was not alone in her efforts to create a more personal idiom in her poetry. In quite another style Anne Sexton adopts a valuable coarseness, a rude incapacity to be delicate in many of her confessional poems. Consider for a moment the titles, "In Celebration of my Uterus," and "Menstruation at Forty," poems belying their apparent flippancy and expressing, instead, a subjective and interior experience of time in relationship to the menstrual cycle, "That red disease … / year after year."

Rather than reject the experience of bodily pain, of hospitalization, of surgery and blood flow, Sexton utilizes all aspects of her physical and psychological states. In a poem on her childhood called "Those Times …" she contrasts the isolation of the child of six with the image of her future womanhood:

       I did not know the woman I would be
       nor that blood would bloom in me
       each month like an exotic flower.

And in the poem "The Break," the life of the roses in her hospital room is symbolically vitalized by blood:

       … My one dozen roses are dead.
       They have ceased to menstruate. They hang
       there like little dried up blood clots.

In "Song for a Red Nightgown" she reinforces the connection between the lunar cycle and the menses:

       surely this nightgown girl,
       this awesome flyer, has not seen
       how the moon floats through her
       and in between.

Anne Sexton is eminently qualified to draw upon personal knowledge of her physical and mental states and to translate that knowledge into viable poetry. Notwithstanding the masculine opprobrium directed toward some of her poems, she remains true to her own words, "I cannot promise very much. / I give you the images I know."

These are some of the women writers, therefore, who have explored "the fact of being female and go beyond it, but never deny it." Following their example, Erica Jong boldly incorporates certain private and female symbols, thought unmentionable in the past, into the artistic texture of her work. There is a noticeable evolution from the oral and sensual imagery of her first book of poems, Fruits and Vegetables, to the search for a genuine understanding of woman's role in the second volume, Half-Lives. However, the third book, Loveroot, states the case most explicitly. For in virtually all of these poems she is both iconoclastic about the traditional subject matter of poetry and sure about the necessity of woman's survival as both person and writer within the perimeters of feminine experience. More to the point, Erica Jong demonstrates in these poems that even the subject matter of a poem written by a woman can be, and indeed, must be different:

I think women poets have to insist on their right to write like women. Where their experience of the world is different, women writers ought to reflect that difference. They ought to feel a complete freedom about subject matter. But most important, our definition of femininity has to change. As long as femininity is associated with ruffles and flourishes and a lack of directness and honesty, women artists will feel a deep sense of ambivalence about their own femaleness.

  ["The Artist as Housewife / The Housewife as Artist"]

In the volume, Half-Lives, Erica Jong states the dilemma of the woman poet with uncompromising severity. "The Send-Off," a poem written to friends after she has sent her first book to the printer, poetically expresses the fear which was later to haunt Isadora Wing; the loneliness and half-life of the woman artist who is reminded month after month of the barrenness of her womb by the menstrual flow, the symbol of the non-event:

        The book gone to the printer to die
        and the flat-bellied author
        disguised as me
        is sick of the anger of being a woman
        and sick of the hungers
        and sick of the confessional poem of the padded bra
        and the confessional poem of the tampax
        and the bad-girl poets
        who menstruate black ink.

        I am one!
        Born from my father's head
        disguised as a daughter
        angry at spoons and pots
        with a half-life of men behind me
        and a half-life of me ahead
        with holes in my shoes
        and holes in my husbands
        and only the monthly flow of ink to keep me sane
        and only sex to keep me pure.

        I want to write about something other than women!
        I want to write about something other than men!
        I want stars in my open hand
        and a house round as a pumpkin
        and children's faces forming in the roots of trees.
        I read my fortune in the bloodstains on the sheet.
                   (Singing the Monthly Blues)

The meaning is fairly obvious. The creation of the poem or novel is symbolized by the menses while the failure to conceive a child is visibly demonstrated by the discharge of the unfertilized egg, a pattern which imposes itself with idiotic, irrational punctuality on a woman's consciousness every twenty-eight days from menarche to menopause. In still another poem from the same volume, the polarity of the role of mother vs. artist is expressed in the imagery of exotic flowers:

        I imagine the inside
        of my womb to be
        the color of poppies
        and bougainvillea
        (though I've never seen it).
        But I fear the barnacle
        which might latch on
        and not let go
        and I fear the monster
        who might grow
        and bite the flowers
        and make them swell and bleed.

        So I keep my womb empty
        and full of possibility.

        Each month
        the blood sheets down
        like good red rain.

        I am the gardener.
        Nothing grows without me.

"Hook images," used earlier by Sylvia Plath to describe the demands of her two children on time and creative energy, appear in the poem. However, Erica Jong rejects "the barnacles which might latch on" and interprets the menstrual flow as a validation of her art and a symbol of its potency. As the last line suggests, she insists upon the right to make the final determination.

Despite the deliberateness and forcefulness of Erica Jong's poetry, it is to the novel Fear of Flying we must turn for a more subjective exploration of the multiple problems of "growing up female" and for more daring stylistic techniques of expressing the feminine experience. In addition to creating the sexually fanciful Isadora Wing, Erica Jong devised a subtle sequence of time to enclose the action of the novel. The Pan-Am flight to Vienna, the ten-day Congress at the Academy of Psychiatry, the two-and-a-half week motor trip through Italy, Germany and France, the climax in Paris and the short one-day trip to London is a little less than a month although the alternating chapters span the childhood, early education, university career, first marriage and almost five years of the second marriage of Isadora Wing. The elements of time present and time past merge into the climactic now by linking the climax—the end of the affair with Adrian—with the menstrual cycle.

The twenty-eight days of the novel chart the various biochemical changes, the physical experiences of ovulation and flow as well as the psychological movementsof relaxation and tension which explain, at least in part, Isadora Wing's actions. In addition to the journey to a "wonderland" of sensuality and sexuality, to an "inferno" of guilt and eventual repentance, she must journey inward to define herself as a woman and to understand to what extent every woman is "tied to that body beat" month by month. Isadora's attraction to Adrian at the beginning of the Congress is directly associated with ovulation. She says:

I seem to be involved with all the changes of my body. They never pass unnoticed. I seem to know exactly when I ovulate. In the second week of the cycle, I feel a tiny ping and then a sort of tingling ache in my lower belly. A few days later I'll often find a tiny spot of blood in the rubber yarmulke of the diaphragm. A bright red smear, the only visible trace of the egg that might have become a baby. I feel a wave of sadness then which is almost indescribable. Sadness and relief.

Isadora's observation describes the emotional tension which pervades the ten-day period of the Congress. Being physically and sexually attracted to Adrian, she is also melancholy at the thought of betraying her husband Bennett. She reels emotionally from lover to husband until the last session of the Congress is over. At that point she impulsively decides to tour Europe with Adrian.

After two and a half weeks of careening through Europe in Adrian's Triumph, the beer-drinking twosome reach Paris and part because Adrian has arranged to join his wife and children in Cherbourg that very evening. Having lost a sense of time as well as her heart, Isadora describes the situation:

The enormity of his betrayal leaves me speech-less. Here I am—drunk, unwashed, not even knowing what day it is—and he's keeping track of an appointment he made over a month ago.

Alone and still dazed by his desertion, Isadora is able "to gather my terror in my two hands and possess it." Overcoming her fear of strange rooms, her fear of "the man under the bed," she finally falls asleep and awakens the next morning to discover her menstrual period has begun. In the release of tension, signalled by the physical flow, she prepares to leave the hotel. The narrative is momentarily halted by Isadora's recollection of her first period and the subsequent case of anorexia she experienced at fourteen when she almost starved herself to death and stopped menstruating for a year and a half because someone told her that "if I had babies, I'd never be an artist."

Now, twenty-nine years old and secure in the adult knowledge that menstruation cancels out the fear of pregnancy, she shampoos her hair, packs, and goes out into the sunny streets of Paris in search of a drug store and a cup of cappuccino. In her own words, she is being given another chance. Anxiety over a possible pregnancy is dispelled. While her affair with Adrian has thrown her back on her own limited resources, there have been few consequences. Isadora concludes: "In a sense it was sad—but it was also a new beginning." After the overnight journey from Paris to London, Isadora gains admission to her husband's hotel room, and the bathtub scene concludes the novel. The purification by water is certainly appropriate to the Dantean journey; however, a more subtle meaning can be attached to the bath; namely the Jewish rite of mikvah, the ceremonial cleansing required of all orthodox women after the menstrual period before sexual relations can be resumed. The twenty-eight days of the novel are over; a new cycle begins.

It is impossible to read Fear of Flying and not recognize that more than any woman writer before her, Erica Jong is fully attuned to her own body. As a result, her prose as well as her poetry is vigorous and sensual and at one with the inner rhythms which she understands so well. In the complete physicality of language and image, she insists again and again that "one's body is intimately related to one's writing."

Perceiving the coming of age of the artist in the totality of female experience, she has structured a novel on one of the most personal experiences of female physiology, the menstrual cycle, and has achieved a correlation of subject matter and form which is both artistic and universal. Indeed, Erica Jong has done more than that, she has reached the sensibilities of her reading audience with a brave and brash voice and attempted in the words of Virginia Woolf, "to measure the heat and violence of the poet's heart when caught and tangled in a woman's body." She is a writer who understands that a woman's perception of coming of age is:

      Every month,
      the reminder of emptiness
      so that you are tuned
      to your body harp,
      strung out on the harpsichord
      of all your nerves
      and hammered bloody blue
      as the crushed fingers
      of the woman pianist
      beaten by her jealous lover.

      Who was she?
      Someone I invented
      for this poem,
      someone I imagined …

      Never mind,
      she is me, you—

      Tied to that bodybeat,
      fainting on that rack of blood,
      moving to that metronome—
      empty, empty, empty.

      No use.
      The blood is thicker
      than the roots of trees,
      more persistent than my poetry,
      more baroque than her bruised music.
      It guilds the sky above the Virgin's head.
      It turns the lilies white.

      Try to run:
      the blood still follows you.
      Swear off children,
      seek a quiet room
      to practice your preludes and fugues.
      Under the piano,
      the blood accumulates:
      eventually it floats you both away.

      Give in.
      Babies cry and music is your life.
      Darling, you were born to bleed
      or rock.
      And the heart breaks
      either way.

To date, Fear of Flying is the most compelling statement of "growing up female in America: What a liability!" In the 311 pages of Isadora's journey from youth to maturity all the old idols fall and a woman novelist has had the courage to assert her freedom and liberation from the masculine ideal on her own terms. Isadora is neither Alice nor Beatrice, inspiration nor guide. She even rejects the most irresistible myth of all—motherhood—and dares the vagaries of print. The arduous journey from childhood, replete with the fantasies and dreams of youth and the search for the "wrong things in love," the borrowed wings which "never stayed on when I needed them," leads ultimately to the conclusion, "I really needed to grow my own." Isadora Icarus:

Isadora White Stollerman Wing … B.A., M.A., Phi Beta Kappa. Isadora Wing, promising younger poet, Isadora Wing, promising younger sufferer. Isadora Wing, feminist and would-be liberated woman. Isadora Wing, clown, crybaby, fool. Isadora Wing, wit, scholar, ex-wife of Jesus Christ. Isadora Wing, with her fear of flying, Isadora Wing, slightly overweight sexpot with a bad case of astigmatism of the mind's eye. Isadora Wing, with her unfillable cunt and holes in her head and her heart. Isadora Wing of the hunger-thump. Isadora Wing whose mother wanted her to fly. Isadora Wing whose mother grounded her. Isadora Wing, professional patient, seeker of saviors, sensuality, certainty. Isadora Wing, fighter of windmills, professional mourner, failed adventuress …

Isadora Wing comes of age.

At this point it is difficult to assess the importance of the work of Erica Jong. Having been praised by John Updike and Henry Miller and dismissed by Alfred Kazin as a "Sexual Show-Off," she is as she has so cogently stated, "Exhibit A." However, a strong case can be made for her ability to crystallize the dilemma of the woman writer and communicate that anguish in a brutally forceful way. And an even stronger case can be made for her artistic forging of a new and bold image of the "Housewife as Artist." If "woman writer" ceases to be a polite but negative label, it will be due in great measure to the efforts of Erica Jong.

Joan Reardon, "'Fear of Flying': Developing the Feminist Novel," in International Journal of Women's Studies, Vol. 1, No. 3, May-June, 1978, pp. 306-20.

Further Reading

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Butler, Robert J. "The Woman Writer as American Picaro: Open Journeying in Erica Jong's Fear of Flying." The Centennial Review XXXI, No. 3 (Summer 1987): 308-29.

Discusses Fear of Flying as a picaresque novel, asserting that "Fear of Flying, like most American journey books,… boldly equates life with motion and stasis with death."

Ferguson, Mary Anne. "The Female Novel of Development and the Myth of Psyche." In The Voyage In Fictions of Female Development, edited by Elizabeth Abel, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland, pp. 228-43. Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1983.

Discusses how Fear of Flying and other novels "show women successfully developing, learning, growing in the world at large."

Friedman, Edward H. "The Precocious Narrator: Fanny and Discursive Counterpoint," in his The Antiheroine's Voice: Narrative Discourse and Transformations of the Picaresque, pp. 203-19. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1987.

Examines Fanny according to the tradition of the picaresque novel.

Guy, David. "The Devil's Inamorata." New England Review 15, No. 4 (Fall 1993): 184-91.

Provides a positive assessment of Jong's discussion of Henry Miller in The Devil at Large.

Harder, Kelsie B. "The Masculine Imperative: Naming By Gael Greene and Erica Jong." Literary Onomastics Studies XI (1984): 147-63.

Illustrates the significance of character names in Jong's works.

Johnson, Diane. "Should Novels Have a Message?: Joan Didion, Bertha Harris, and Erica Jong." In her Terrorists and Novelists, pp. 124-33. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1975.

Discussion of the question of messages in novels, using How to Save Your Own Life as an example of a novel that "resembles in every way the ramblings of the deserted friend who has taken to the tape recorder and submitted the unedited transcript…."

Kemp, Peter. "Moll Flounders." The Listener 104, No. 2685 (30 October 1980): 588-89.

Negative assessment of Fanny.

Review of At the Edge of the Body, by Erica Jong. Kirkus Reviews XLVII, No. 3 (1 February 1979): 189.

Assesses the poems in At the Edge of the Body as "glib, the work of an imitative, if intelligent, sensibility," and asserts that Jong "exerts her personal charm to make us accept second-rate work."

Review of Serenissima: A Novel of Venice, by Erica Jong. Kirkus Reviews LV, No. 4 (15 February 1987): 245-46.

Responds negatively to Serenissima.

Kronsky, Betty. "Eat, Darling, Eat!" The Village Voice XVI, No. 35 (2 September 1971): 23.

Positive assessment of Fruits and Vegetables.

Review of Ordinary Miracles, by Erica Jong. Publisher's Weekly 224, No. 7 (12 August 1983): 62.

Mixed assessment of Ordinary Miracles.

Anne Z. Mickelson (essay date 1979)

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[In the following excerpt from her Reaching Out: Sensitivity and Order in Recent American Fiction by Women (1979), Mickelson provides an analysis of Jong's characterizations and use of sexual language in Fear of Flying and How to Save Your Own Life, concluding that Jong implies male dominance and female helplessness.]

[Two] novels by Erica Jong—Fear of Flying and How to Save Your Own Life—end with a kind of symbolic ritual baptism in celebration of the female body. In the first novel, Fear of Flying, the heroine, Isadora Wing, returns to her patient but dull husband after an unsuccessful attempt to find in Adrian Goodlove the perfect combination of friend and lover. Stripping off her clothes, she climbs into the claw-footed bathtub, immerses herself in water up to her neck and contemplates her body. "A nice body," she tells us. "Mine. I decided to keep it." It's a comforting picture which leaves the reader with a sense of well-being. At the end of the second novel, How to Save Your Own Life, Isadora, now husbandless but firmly clasped in the arms of her young lover, Josh, finally experiences orgasm with him. Paradoxically, she has up to this point been automatically responsive to her husband's mechanical embrace, but unable to achieve orgasm with Josh's more spontaneous and inspired lovemaking. In Joycean fashion, Isadora commemorates the momentous occasion by passing water.

True, this act is involuntary and not conscious as when Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus make water together in front of Bloom's house at the end of Ulysses. Isadora is embarrassed, demonstrating that her flaunted lack of inhibition has not yet successfully embraced the debatable Joycean idea that the indecorous, the vulgar, the commonplace reveal the higher things. She has to be assured by her lover that he loves everything about her: her "shit," her "pee," her "farts," her "tight snatch," etc. The scene resembles the one between Connie Chatterley and Oliver Mellors in D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover (Jong, like Oates, has read her Lawrence) in which Mellors tells Connie that he is glad that she shits and pisses: "I don't want a woman as couldna shit nor piss." More will be said about Jong's language and style in the discussion of How to Save Your Own Life.

Although Jong concentrates on woman's body, its hungers, its drives, more centrally the novels are the story of a dying marriage and a woman's odyssey to love. Both books pose the questions: what is it to be a woman? where lies salvation? In Fear of Flying, the sense of crisis is communicated by a quaking, picaresque Isadora who finally leaves her uncommunicative, joyless, psychiatrist husband for a Laingian psychologist, Adrian Goodlove. Adrian offers her the promise of sensual love (by squeezing her ass) and the promise of a life which he calls twentieth-century existentialism. This, he explains, means making no plans for the future, seizing the day, and feeling no guilt. As it turns out, neither promise has substance. Adrian is sensual in public where consummation is impossible, and impotent in private. He makes all the rules for the relationship while pretending there are none, and he does have plans of his own, which include going back to his wife and children and leaving Isadora. In one of the many good one-liner observations in the book, Isadora concludes that her fling with Adrian has been desperation masquerading as freedom.

Neither husband nor lover provides Isadora with a sense of her own identity or gives her any security. Ultimately, she has to, as all women must, try and fashion her own sense of destiny. In the course of her quest, we get good insights into how difficult this is for women in our society. Thomas Hardy observed of women in English Victorian society, "doing means marrying." Things haven't changed much since Hardy's day, according to Jong. The cruel jests aimed at unmarried women, found so frequently in fiction and comic strips, are still with us. Isadora fears being the butt of ridicule, or a "pariah," since a woman alone "is a reproach to the American way of life." Accustomed to being dependent first on father, then on husband, she is timid about losing dependency on some man. She dreads being alone. So she marries, and finds out that her loneliness is compounded.

In the late nineteenth-century novel and throughout twentieth-century novels, marriage is often the death of love. We are told in Fear of Flying that Isadora's first husband, Brian, is a good friend and lover until marriage. Then he turns into a man so completely devoted to work that he eventually breaks down. It must be said that it is difficult to be sympathetic to Isadora's early plaint about Brian's lack of virility, because of work pressures. After all, he is the one who works hard while she has time to pursue her studies and putter around the small apartment. But her confusion and unhappiness, stemming from Brian's growing madness until he is committed, are understandable. So is the story of her second marriage to a dour Chinese psychiatrist whose own life is one vast analysis, as Isadora puts it. She discovers that he punishes her with long silences which precipitate her into still greater isolation. Obstinately, despite the fact that Bennett, the husband, is no companion and insists on her dependence on him and his independence of her, Isadora clings to the idea that even a bad marriage is better than none. She demonstrates that although western woman's feet were never bound like the Chinese woman's, making the latter dependent on man for food, shelter, clothing, etc., her woman's mind has been crippled into accepting so-called inherent limitations. The author makes it clear that family, school, society have conditioned Isadora in her thinking. She is, for a while, a woman who conforms to the rigid and restraining role imposed on her, and defers to her husband's view of reality.

But despite the brain-washing, Isadora's mind persists in nagging her with questions: How can an intelligent woman fuse the physical and intellectual parts of her being into one healthy whole? How to achieve integration, exhorts Isadora? How to resolve the conflict between the creative woman and the wife? How to be feminine? What is being feminine? Is it more feminine to be a wife and mother than to be a writer?

It can be argued that some of the drama surrounding the heroine's dilemma is rubbed off by the presence of abundance: plenty of time to write, and enough money to pay analysts' fees or walk into Bloomingdale's and buy an expensive pair of shoes when she is feeling low. Certainly, there is a marked difference between Isadora and the working-class mother who is a wage earner/house-wife/mother, or the artist woman who tries to paint, sculpt or write while wrestling with laundry, bills, cooking, cleaning the toilet, and checking the temperature of a sick child. There is no evidence that Isadora performs any of the chores of domesticity outside of whipping up an airy soufflé now and then. But this is irrelevant. As Virginia Woolf points out gratefully: it was the money an Aunt left her which allowed her the freedom to write. The issue which the author poses is: how can woman find self-fulfillment in some creative work without accompanying feelings of guilt?—a universal problem which is just now receiving attention.

The other problem which plagues Isadora is one which more often revolves around men, and is generally found in male writing: marriage claustrophobia, the itch to escape marriage, the desire for the mate you can't have. John Updike's stories of marriage frequently deal with this theme; for example, "Museums and Women." Isadora, in her own words, itches for men, and particularly for some man who would be friend, lover, everything. In short, like Fellini's hero in 8 1/2, she fantasizes about her ideal, composite mate. In the meantime, she looks with delighted longing at men; tells us how much she loves their smells, their shapes, their genitals, and is collectively in love with all men, except her husband. If there is none of the repugnance for the male body found in Oates's fiction, there is, however, a hint of female chauvinism. Isadora may revel in fantasies about the male body's perfections even when there are none, as in the case of the unappetizing would-be music conductor Charlie, but she confides that while men's bodies are beautiful, their minds are befuddled.

In between, there are comments, as in Portnoy's Complaint, on the problems of being Jewish and having a Jewish mother, but without the self-righteousness which mars Roth's book. Isadora's mother is an intelligent, talented woman, frustrated in her aspirations to be a painter, and anxious for her daughter to fulfill her dreams for her. It's not an uncommon wish in disappointed women, as Lawrence demonstrates with Mrs. Morel (Sons and Lovers) and Hardy with Mrs. Yeobright (The Return of the Native). Both these last-mentioned women seek self-esteem. In their particular cases, it is through their sons. Isadora's mother is not a tragic figure in the sense that Mrs. Yeobright and Mrs. Morel are. The author's observations and sentiments about family and mother are tempered with banter and humor.

Isak Dinesen once remarked that what the modern novel needs is humor, and Fear of Flying has that much needed ingredient. There is the funny bit about Isadora's fear on the plane: if the plane should fall how would she face God after stamping her religion Unitarian. The satire on analysts going to the Vienna convention, accompanied by scowling children and wives padding around in space shoes, is one of the best passages in the book. This high-spirited satire is not diminished by her kind words on the value of analysis. For Isadora, analysis enabled her to get some neuroses out of the way, thus permitting her to write. There is also playful wit in Isadora's sexual fantasies, for example the "zipless fuck," about which so much has been written. The departure with Adrian is truly a comedy of errors, as she describes it.

Her eye for social observation is shrewd. The scatological digression on French, German, and other nations' toilets is an incisive as Colette's observations on primitive toilet facilities provided for actresses while on tour. Good, too, are her descriptions of Beirut: veiled ladies riding in the back of a Chevrolet or a Mercedes Benz; shepherds who smoke cigarettes and carry transistors while tending flocks. There is, however, more than a hint of ethnic prejudice in her descriptions of the red-capillaried faces of German women, with their heavy bodies made still more heavy by costumes of loden cloth. But this is balanced by her honest appraisal of the former Nazi official who gives her a job (during her stay in Germany), and her self-questioning: how would she have behaved during the Hitler era?

Fear of Flying shuttles backward and forward for 311 pages, giving us a woman in Isadora Wing who is part little girl, part female rogue, part troubled artist/wife/daughter and, more specifically, a woman who gets all kinds of advice from family and the men in her life. The family wants her "to settle down" and Bennett warns her that if she leaves him, she will mess up her life. Adrian counsels her that if she is going to have something interesting to write about, she must have experience—with him. It's very much like the advice given the ladies of the Russian court by Rasputin: if you want redemption, you must sin with me. All things considered, Adrian's advice proves to be correct. Isadora fares better than the Russian ladies. If there is no salvation with him, the Adrian experience at least provides Isadora with piquant and serious material for a book (as we learn in How to…), proving the wisdom of that statement by Anaïs Nin: make literature out of misery. Isadora returns to her husband after the Adrian fiasco, convinced that no matter what her reception by Bennett will be, she will survive. "Surviving meant being born over and over. It wasn't essay, and it was always painful. But there wasn't any other choice except death."

These are brave words which promise that the woman we meet in Fear of Flying and who tells us: she never wants to age; wants to give birth to herself; wants a blazing sensual love and a blazing career; wants freedom and security—that this woman will find some solution to conflicting desires. To put it another way, Isadora Wing appears like some modern Persephone, who will continue to move out of the gloom of her marriage into the sunshine of a better relationship, and mature as woman and artist.

How to Save Your Own Life, sequel to Fear of Flying, begins with "I left my husband on Thanksgiving Day." A few pages later, Isadora confides that she had saved the thought of leaving her husband "like a sweet before bed-time, like a piece of bubble gum put on the childhood bed-post…." Some 300 pages later, the reader learns that the heroine is now leaving apartment and husband. The plot is stuck, like that bubble gum on the bedpost, with repetitions of what we have already learned in Fear of Flying. Briefly, Bennett is dull, lacks joy and makes love mechanically, yet Isadora is afraid to leave him, clinging to the myth of husband as protector and Daddy figure. She is convinced that compromise is a way of life. The further they drift apart, the more frenetic is their lovemaking. The only new ingredient of plot is Isadora's discovery of her husband's infidelity, and her jealousy and anger that he has played the role of saint while casting her in the role of villain. However, the reader has long foreseen that Isadora, like Hemingway's Nick Adams, has concluded that "it's not fun anymore." Unlike the Hemingway hero, she is unable to make an "end to something." Maybe that's the point of the novel—the difference between the way men and women go about dissolving a relationship. Where men are active, women are passive.

Granted this, there is nothing in the characterization of the bouncing, skipping, giggling, gutsy-thinking Isadora that makes her a classic example of the intelligent but passive woman, without the self-assurance to take responsibility for her own life. She knows how to seek help from friends, analysts, lovers, and how to compensate for any failure of feminine nerve with a range of consolations that include masturbation, sniffing cocaine, smoking joints, making love with a woman, drinking six gin and tonics plus wine at one sitting, participating in a sex orgy, reading mail in the nude, and taking pot shots at critics who write nasty reviews about her work. She's about as help-less as Moll Flanders.

Nor is her jealousy of Penny, with whom Bennett has had a love affair, entirely credible since she, herself, looks upon infidelity as a diversion in an unhappy marriage. Some effort is made to enlist the reader's sympathy by noting that Penny read Isadora's short stories with Bennett during post coitus, but this is not too convincing. Ultimately, Isadora is redeemed for us by her honesty. She gives a belated palm to Penny for the courage to have an affair with Bennett, leave the husband who saddled her with six pregnancies, get a degree, and start a new life for herself. However, Isadora's early references to Penny as goyish, dumb, possessing "washed-out shiksa eyes" are ethnic slurs which settle like a thin layer of sludge in otherwise humorous appraisals of people. Along with certain other disclosures of malice, they detract from the picture of Isadora as a warm, Jewish girl filled with gregarious good humor, animated by kind instincts, and in love with most people and the whole universe, despite her jealousy and other problems.

The central emphasis in the novel keeps shifting to Bennett, and there are no attempts to lighten the dark strokes with which his characterization is sketched. Although Jong's men are not the unsavory characters Oates portrays so often, Bennett comes close to being the villain in this domestic drama. Isadora rationalizes that he slept with Penny in order to get back at her for her writing, while at the same time he played the role of the forgiving husband. The accusation is legitimate, for even at the end, when a childish Isadora seeks sexual revenge against Bennett by embellishing on the number of lovers she has had, he keeps intoning piously that he is prepared to forgive her. The most valuable thing to come out of this exchange, for the heroine and the reader, is Isadora's realization that during the entire marriage she has been made to feel grateful to Bennett for letting her write. Not once has she asked herself if it were all right for Bennett to practice his vocation of psychology. After all, that was his job. Her writing, he made her see, was a self-indulgence, toward which he was prepared to be generous. Unfortunately, the problem of writer versus woman and the guilt feelings that the conflict engenders is not satisfactorily resolved in this novel, as we see in the relationship with Isadora's next love, Josh.

Not so evident here is the humor present in the first novel, Fear of Flying, which keeps the details of the disintegrating marriage from falling into self-pity, and makes of Isadora a kind of Thackerayan heroine whose "one eye brims with pity while the other watches the family spoons" (for Isadora, her writing). There is one amusing description of a skiing accident, a broken leg, and a ride to the hospital in which a drugged Isadora tries to urinate into a wadded kleenex and then tosses it out of the car window, while a morose Bennett frowns over his spoiled vacation. Typically, however, where an Oates heroine traces the downward curve of her marriage by the number of miscarriages she has had, Isadora (like a Hemingway hero) sees it in terms of accidents and physical scars. And just as rain is always a presentiment of trouble in Hemingway's stories, so we read that Bennett arrives at the ski lodge bearing with him the rain.

While continuing to unravel a marriage already reduced to a limp, tangled skein, the novel retains in crumpled form many of the themes, from creativity and femininity to the hunger for love, with which the author worked in the first novel. It also contains telling observations on the drawbacks of fame; Hollywood, which is filled with divorced men with hair transplants; bachelors who give Jacuzzi parties; the loving camaraderie between intelligent, talented women; the way other women, in the scramble for success, imitate the worst of men's vices; the pressures by husband and society for a woman to use her husband's name. About the latter, Isadora is not only chagrined but feels cheated and betrayed at giving her husband—neither a reader (except for his psychology books) nor a writer—immortality by placing his name on her books.

This is a legitimate complaint. Names are important to men, as Shakespeare points out in Othello: "Who steals my purse steals trash;' tis something, nothing; / … But he that filches from me my good name / Robs me of that which not enriches him, / And makes me poor indeed." Of course Shakespeare is speaking of slander, but writers have always been concerned that their name "will not perish in the dust," as Southey writes. Why should women writers, or any woman, be deprived of her name, Isadora asks? Why indeed? In the case of Isadora, she is honest enough to confess that the fault lies not so much with society as with herself. She is so hungry for Bennett's approval that she gives him her work—and makes him famous.

If the heroine is chilled by her foolishness and her husband's lack of affection and care, particularly when she needs him, she is warmed by her many friendships with women. Where there are no developing and deepening relationships between women in Oates's fiction, Jong's second book emphasizes the value of women friends. The short description of the episode with Jeannie (a thinly-veiled portrait of Anne Sexton?) contains warmth and tenderness. It is Jeannie, a poet, who, at times, lives desperately on Valium and Stolichnaya vodka ("anything to oil the unconscious") who gives Isadora the push to break with husband: "Live or die … but for god's sake don't poison yourself with indecision." There is also lusty, 5′9″ Gretchen, who points out that Bennett has treated Isadora badly until fame made her for him the goose which laid the golden egg. In reply to Isadora's wonderment that her jealousy of Penny has improved their sex life, Gretchen replies: "jealousy makes the prick grow harder. And the cunt wetter." A tough woman!

Hope, another friend, twenty-two years older than Isadora, advises her to get rid of Jewish guilt, and helps her with the publishing of her poems. Then there is Holly, a plant lover, who offers her studio, herbal tea, and sympathy. Not least among this cast of women characters is Rosanna Howard, who provides a chauffeured Rolls Royce, champagne, caviar, and her musk-scented body. Isadora, her head filled with images of Missy and Colette, Violet and Vita, Gertrude and Alice, and her blood fired by expensive wines, reels off to bed with Rosanna. She discovers that her rakish joy in breaking a taboo, and her view of her act as a punitive measure against her mother ("I felt I had gone down on my mother"), do not compensate for her aversion to vaginal taste and smell. She invokes the indulgence of "Gentle Reader" and Lesbians everywhere for her distaste: "I tried, I put my best tongue forward…."

There are male friendships, too, but these are predominantly sexual, except for the one with eighty-seven-year-old Kurt (Henry Miller?), who is generally accompanied by his male nurse or two former Japanese wives. Isadora talks and makes love with two men, both conveniently named Jeffrey. These Belle du Jour diversions take place in the afternoon and Isadora is able to explain her absences to Bennett as "shopping in Bloomingdale's." Later, when she does take a token walk through the store, she notes the way some women buy, and rationalizes that the compulsive woman buyer is trying to compensate for a lack of love. It is not a very relevant or sage observation, since she herself does not look upon these afternoons of sexual love as fulfilling. Yet, obviously they give her an ego boost. Sauntering down the avenue, she is no fearful Oates heroine shrinking from the stares of men. On the contrary, she invites looks and boldly stares back with the smug assurance of sexual magnetism, and that men detect the aroma of the afternoon's lovemaking on her.

Any successful novel, as we have been told repeatedly, must deal with love in one form or another. Love must be the pervasive thread which binds the whole together in some form of tapestry. Isadora's Hollywood trip not only serves the purpose of tracing her increasing disillusionment with the unscrupulous woman producer Britt and her unhappy realization that no writer can control the quality of the movie made out of her/his work; it also brings love into her life—Josh. There is no question that describing Josh with his furry, warm, likeable face always gives Isadora pleasure. Despite the age difference of six years, which troubles Isadora only briefly, she decides to take her friend Jeannie's advice, be a fool, and give herself up to her passion for Josh.

The language of love here, as elsewhere in the author's writing, contains a sexual vocabulary in which "cunt," "cock" and "fuck" predominate, although there is also an ample sprinkling of "shit," "piss," "crap," "getting knocked up," etc. Language has always been the concern of American writers, from Hawthorne and Melville to Hemingway and to contemporary writers like Gould, Brautigan, Godwin, and Burroughs. They have attempted to find a language through which to convey the essential experience of love and of American life, while leaving the impress of personality on language. Jong chooses to write in what she feels is an earthy style. How to Save Your Own Life reveals that she is troubled by whether she has succeeded in finding the right words and voice. Through Isadora she asks: how should one write about sex? She admits that she is "plagued by the confusion between natural earthiness and licentiousness, the mistaking of openness and lack of pretense for a desire to titillate and shock."

Certainly, since women have been taught for centuries that they are not sexual beings and that only "bad" women like sex, we need frankness on the subject. But how to write about it?

This is not a new dilemma. It faced D. H. Lawrence in Lady Chatterley's Lover at a time when sex was a forbidden subject both for men and women and censorship fettered all writers from treating it in an intelligent way. Lawrence, however, was determined to break through Victorian prudery. There is no doubt that he was using this last novel as a final way of ridding himself of sexual reservations resulting from the influence of early Chapel religion and a clinging to Oedipal love for his mother, which had haunted him all his life.

His purpose in Lady Chatterley's Lover was to structure a hero who would be earthy and, at the same time, well-read and filled with social concern. The man, Mellors, was to meet a titled lady suffering from emotional attrition; he would make her aware of the necessary value of the body's physical life. To accomplish this, Lawrence decided to have Mellors employ a special language of Midlands dialect and four-letter words during sexual scenes. At other times, Mellors would expound in perfect English on the horrors of industrialization and its effect on men and women. The shift from an educated man to one who speaks a slurring dialect interposed with "fuck," "cunt," "shit," etc. is unsuccessful. Connie's sister sums it up succinctly: "he was no simple working man, not he: he was acting! acting!"

We get the same impression of Jong's language, in which Isadora at one point is making literary references to John Keats and the next moment is sprinkling around the familiar cunts and cocks. We are to understand that education has not robbed Isadora of her essential earthiness and that she can use the language of warm, simple common woman or man, who accepts sex and the body as a natural part of life—unlike educated people who extol the mind, deny sex its rightful place in life, and are shocked by forthright language.

One serious argument against this line of reasoning is that representing the common man or woman in this way propagates a sentimental myth. Civilization long ago caught up with the simple human being who, at some time or other, expressed the physical part of his or her nature in natural, instinctive, and graceful ways. When today's dock worker, or mechanic, or farmer, or gas station attendant uses the language of "fuck," "cock," "cunt," it is as expletives or insults, regardless of their original sexual meaning. No writer to date has succeeded in semantically restoring the words. For those who grew up in poor areas, or lower middle-class neighborhoods, and heard this language every day from dull, uninteresting men and boys in their daily comments on sports, women, or the weather, it lost its shock value around the fifth grade.

I am not making the absurd claim that women don't talk this way now. I am saying that many women have utilized this means of expression as an assertion of their independence and freedom from former reticence about sex. Also, to many women writers from comfortable, middle-class homes, it may seem like a fresh, exciting, and original approach to sexual love.

But is it? As with all patterns of language, the writer after a while is imprisoned within a rigid enclosure of words in which, as in How to…, love is reduced to cunt and cock. We don't have a man and woman experiencing a warmly human relationship in which ultimately there is a sense of rebirth and a feeling of unity with the living universe (as that post-sexual love dialogue between Isadora and Josh would have us believe). There is only an impression of disembodied genitalia in which dripping cunt meets hard cock.

Witness the following descriptions: "She wanted this one, this copper-colored lover, this pink cock …" "Only his cock inside of her could give her peace." "His cock was bulging under the copper buttons of his jeans…." There is a lot of copper around here and we are constantly reminded that if Josh's member is bulging, Isadora's dripping. Together with the description of the ocean thundering outside the love chamber and the water sloshing in the water bed from the exertions of the two lovers, the reader is drenched with verbal and scenic descriptions.

A more serious criticism is that what we're really looking at is genitalia parodying physical and emotional experience. If the writer is trying to tell us that for the man, his male reality is his hard, erect penis, and that for the woman, the female reality is the wetness and slipperiness of her vagina, the reader has difficulty in accepting this. In Jong's emphasis on "cock," and on "cunt" as "a dark hole," we are only too conscious of the language of pornography in which women are not women but "hot slits," "gaping holes," and "fuck tubes."

The writer attempts to cope with the sexual scenes in various ways: she avoids the greyness of clinical language; she shifts narrative voice from first to third; she gives realistic details of Isadora's various positions during intercourse. In respect to the latter, though the reader is awed by Isadora's athletic agility, the overall impression of all this rapture is of a scene straight out of Playboy or a Mickey Spillane novel. We have a virile, masterful Josh demanding: do you want my sperm? And Isadora, clad in a filmy, black nightgown slit up the front and with pink ribbons which push up her breasts, confiding to the reader: "She needed him. She needed this man." Instead of a woman finding her own self-worth, language and scene crystallize in the kind of male fantasy found in girlie magazines.

In using this kind of sexual vocabulary, there is a sense of the writer beggared for expression and falling back on a vocabulary of male street usage. Woman needs a sexual vocabulary of her own—not one borrowed from men's street language. Such language is always self-limiting, because it is more geared to voicing frustrations than fulfillment (God is "a shout in the street," says Stephen Dedalus). Language needs to be precise, original. It should give a sense of independent, first-hand experience as response to the encounter. It should avoid filtering the experience through terms associated with male attitudes which are demeaning to women. By adopting the male language of sexuality, Jong is also fooling herself that she is preempting man's power. All she is preempting is the pose of sexual prowess.

I said at the beginning that both works by Jong end with some sort of water ritual, which is to be interpreted as a celebration of the female body. In Fear of Flying, Isadora's warm, appreciative, anatomical description of her body lying in scented, soapy water helps to do just that. The water bed in How to…, on which Isadora's love odyssey comes to a climax, is an ersatz symbol of baptism and a new life, not unlike the black nightgown that Isadora is wearing—"proof" of her womanhood. As for the question of salvation, Isadora sums it up in one phrase: "He had the cock." Freud would love it, especially since earlier Isadora has voiced the idea that women must have power.

The world of Fear of Flying and its sequel How to… offers us a heroine who appears to be far more intrepid and confident than any of Oates's women. Yet, ultimately, we see that Jong's Isadora Wing is as helpless as the most timid of Oates's women characters—in the common avowal that man has the power. True, Isadora's discovery comes out of sexual need and not fear, but her conclusion is basically the same as the one affirmed in book after book by Oates. Woman is helpless. Man is powerful.

Anne Z. Mickelson, "Erica Jong: Flying or Grounded," in her Reaching Out: Sensitivity and Order in Recent American Fiction by Women, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1979, pp. 35-48.

Pat Rogers (review date 24 October 1980)

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[Rogers is an English educator, editor, and critic. In the following review, he provides a positive assessment of Fanny.]

Have you met Miss Jones? The real Fanny Hill can at last stand up (or lie down, most of the time): it turns out that her true identity is that of Fanny Hackabout Jones, a foundling brought up in one of the stately homes of Wiltshire. Only, in the end, [of Fanny], it emerges that she is not who she seems. John Cleland got everything hopelessly tangled up [in his Fanny Hill; or Memoirs of a woman of Pleasure]: well, that's no surprise. Erica Jong relates Fanny's "True History" in three books, all but 500 pages, of pseudo-authentic language. Stylistic mannerisms by Fielding; plot rather by Smollett; research supervised by the late James Clifford and J. H. Plumb (not to mention a research trip to Bath, conducted by Russell Harty, "which was invaluable even though Bath did not finally appear in the novel"). The aim is to be true "to the spirit, if not the letter, of the eighteenth century." One has to say it: Erica Jong has succeeded remarkably well.

The most surprising thing about Fanny is that it really does concern the eighteenth century. Readers expecting a sequel to the adventures of Isadora Wingwill puzzle the text into convenient shapes, but the will be distorting the genuine imaginative flight-path. Sure enough, the novel has strong feminist overtones: but the sexual politics make only qualified sense in contemporary terms, and Fanny has more in common with the eighteenth-century blacks she encounters than with Isadora, "growing up female in America" during the 1950s and 1960s. Fanny faces repression not just from cultural or socio-economic circumstances, but as a legal entity. Her mode of escape is correspondingly violent; she is on the wrong side of so many laws that a few infractions of polite moeurs wouldn't do much good.

Here then be ripped bodices, witchcraft, piracy, torture, murder, suicide, highway robbery, execution at the yardarm, madness, nay cruelty to horses. Fanny undergoes most of the varieties of sexual experience, without Isadora's excuse of curiosity. While she is a prostitute, she has dealings with Jonathan Swift, whose well-known obsession with horses leads him to attempt an experiment in bestiality. John Cleland exchanges clothes with her: they both enjoy this, as Fanny feels liberated in men's clothing and spends a lot of the book in drag. Later on, Fanny meets a ship's captain whose repressed homosexuality can only be sublimated by sadism, flagellation, coprophilia and bondage. (He is a slaver, and a slaverer, as one might say, to boot.)

Erica Jong has tried to give us what the blurbs used to call "the entire teeming spectacle". In Fanny this means ranging from country estates (Gothic piles, with formal landscaping, in the process of being Palladianized and Picturesquified) to London and the wider world. The city is lovingly evoked in all its squalor. Cries of "gardyloo" cleave the air as Fanny makes her way from whorehouse to Newgate, risking omnia citra mortem as she takes on a male world and a rationalist culture. For there are deists abroad (the slave-captain is that, too), apostles of optimistic Shaftesburian philosophy who turn their eyes away from the stench. Nobody could accuse the author of doing so. Along with the street cries and the Medmenham Monks, the ropedancers and the fairgrounds, there is a constant undertow of reference to biology. Fanny samples the unreliable abortive devices of the age; she witnesses mutilation and branding. No cosy Hanoverian dawn in this book.

In How to Save Your Own Life, Erica Jong described California as a wet dream in the mind of New York. Fanny is assuredly better adapted to wet-bobs than dry-bobs. As the heroine reflects:

What a Profusion of Fluids is the Female Form! Milk, Tears, Blood—these are our Elements. We seem to be fore'er awash in Humours of divers Sorts. O we are made of Waters; we are like the Seas, teeming with Life of ev'ry Shape and Colour!

The author extracts a woozy poetry from this dampness, in which the buried equivalence seems to align reason, enlightenment and cruelty with the "dry" masculine powers. The crucial act for women is suckling, which puts them in touch with ancient instinctual forces and the radiant mysteries of being. Thus the metaphysic at the heart of the work is coherent, if not especially original.

Plainly, the only way to deal with this noisome world is through comedy. Fanny is not often pervaded by laughter, but there are moments of high camp: the female pirate Anne Bonny on the prow, with a cutlass in her hand and a rose in her mouth. Or the episode when Alexander Pope (sadly prone to premature ejaculation) lets slip the punch-line of his still unwritten Essay on Man in discoursing with Fanny on sexual inequality. There are crowds of quotations in the text, knowingly dropped for fellow-buffs to pick up at the author's behest.

In Fear of Flying the heroine was engaged in a study of sexual slang in eighteenth-century poetry. Erica Jong's studies are displayed in lists to delight Panurge's heart, of words for the male and female pudenda, of synonyms for "whore", of fairground turns. The elaborate research seldom obtrudes distractingly, though some of the file-cards on piracy might happily have been scattered to the ocean winds.

Erica Jong states in an afterword that she has "to a large extent" confined herself to the language of the period. That is fair comment, and the intrusion of some anachronistic words (tart; dustbin; pansy; bill and focus as verbs; sucker; to bore; even bluestocking) doesn't seriously interfere with the author's purposes. Slightly more worrying is Pope's "sensitive" expression, which needs another fifty years of aesthetic development to give it the right meaning. There are a few lapses in idiom: "sheer, irrational Delight" rings false, as does theremark, "That must be quite some Letter". The most serious flaw is the repeated introduction of "Hubris" as an item of colloquial English, which is wildly out of key with the age.

The factual background is convincingly presented. There wouldn't have been many locks (just millweirs) as Fanny sailed from the Chilterns towards London: and there was no such address as 17 Hanover Square in 1724—the house later so designated had just been built, but numbering had not yet caught on. Finally, the pastoral vision of "the black and white Cows eating the beautiful moist Grass" belongs to modern Wiltshire—the meadows would then have contained not Friesians but the old longhorn breeds of cattle.

But Erica Jong does not claim absolute historical accuracy, and it is something she can afford to forgo. Fanny is at all events a much better book than Cleland's original Memoirs, with their rootless London and repetitive devices. Erica Jong has produced a richer work, with more ideas about the human condition, more tonal unity, a larger command of narrative, a deeper primal literary impulse. For this Fanny above all wants to write—screwing is mostly incidental—and she has an identity beyond the sexual. The book will be damned as inauthentic by people who wouldn't know 1710 from 1790, and put down by critics whose rhetoric of fiction never took them beyond chapter three of their own great opus. For readers who think that popular fiction can be entertaining without being irredeemably silly or vapid, Erica Jong has delivered a convincing piece of positive evidence.

Pat Rogers, "Blood, Milk and Tears," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4047, October 24, 1980, p. 1190.

Clive James (review date 6 November 1980)

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[James is a well-known Australian editor, television commentator, and critic. In the following negative review, he finds John Cleland's eighteenth-century work Fanny Hill superior to Jong's version of Fanny.]

Not long ago there was a popular novelist called Jeffrey Farnol, who is now entirely forgotten—which, when you think about it, is as long ago as you can get. Farnol wrote period novels in a narrative style full of e'ens, dosts, 'tises, and 'twases. Men wearing slashed doublets said things like "Gadzooks!" in order to indicate that the action was taking place in days of yore. Farnol was manifestly shaky on the subject of when yore actually was, but he had a certain naïve energy and his books were too short to bore you. His masterpiece The Jade of Destiny, starring a lethal swordsman called Dinwiddie, can still be consumed in a single evening by anyone who has nothing better to do.

Erica Jong knows a lot more than Farnol ever did about our literary heritage and its social background. [Her Fanny: Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones], which purports to be the true story, told in the first person, of the girl John Cleland made famous as Fanny Hill [in his Fanny Hill] draws on an extensive knowledge of eighteenth-century England. This is definitely meant to be a high-class caper. Nevertheless Jeffrey Farnol would recognize a fellow practitioner. There is something Gadzooks about the whole enterprise. On top of that it is intolerably long. Where Farnol's Dinwiddie, after skewering the heavies, would have made his bow and split, Jong's Fanny hangs around for hours.

Jong's Fanny, it turns out, would have been a writer if circumstances had not dictated otherwise. Circumstances are to be congratulated. Left to herself, Jong's Fanny would have covered more paper than Ruskin. There is something self-generating about her style.

I wrote Tragedies in Verse and Noble Epicks, Romances in the French Style and Maxims modell'd upon La Rochefoucauld's. I wrote Satyres and Sonnets, Odes and Pastorals, Eclogues and Epistles. But nothing satisfied my most exalted Standards (which had been bred upon the Classicks), and at length I committed all my Efforts to the Fire. I wrote and burnt and wrote and burnt! I would pen a Pastoral thro'out three sleepless Nights only to commit it to the Flames! And yet were my Words not wasted, for ev'ry budding Poet, I discover'd, must spend a thousand Words for ev'ry one he saves, and Words are hardly wasted if, thro' one's Profligacy with 'em, one learns true Wit and true Expression of it.

Five hundred pages of that add up to a lot of apostrophes, i'faith. But the fault lies not with the 'ties and 'twases. A historical novel can survive any amount of inept decoration if it has some architecture underneath. Take, for example, Merejkovsky's The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci, in the learned but stylistically frolicsome translation by Bernard Guilbert Guerney.

"Nay, nay, God forfend,—whatever art thou saying, Lucrezial! Come out to meet her? Thou knowest not what a woman this is! Oh, Lord,' tis a fearful thing to think of the possible outcome of all this! Why, she is pregnant!… But do thou hide me—hide me!…"

"Really, I know not where…."

"Tis all one, wherever thou wilt,—but with all speed!"

As transmitted to us by the industrious Guerney, Merejkovsky's Leonardo is every bit as noisy as Jong's Fanny. But The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci is a good novel in the ordinary sense and as a historical novel ranks among the greatest ever written. The characters and the action help you to penetrate history—they light up the past. Jong's Fanny makes the past darker. By the end of the book you know less about the eighteenth century than you did when you started.

Jong deserves some credit for trying to bring back yesterday, but what she is really doing, inadvertently, is helping to make you feel even worse about today. She uses pornography to preach a feminist message. This is a peculiarly modern confusion of motives. At least Cleland had the grace to leave out the philosophizing, although it should be remembered that those few general remarks which he put in were more pertinent in every way than anything which his successor has to offer. Here is Cleland's Fanny at a critical moment.

And now! now I felt to the heart of me! I felt the prodigious keen edge with which love, presiding over this act, points the pleasure: love! that may be styled the Attic salt of enjoyment; and indeed, without it, the joy, great as it is, is still a vulgar one, whether in a king or a beggar; for it is, undoubtedly, love alone that refines, ennobles and exalts it.

Admittedly Cleland's prose has been somewhat neatened up for modern publication, but you can still see that even in its original state it must have been a less strained instrument than that wielded by Jong's Fanny. Cleland has other points of superiority too. For one thing, his pornographic scenes are actually quite effective. Indeed they are too effective, since pornography exceeds requirements if it makes you want to know the girl. Cleland's Fanny Hill might not strike women as a book written from the woman's viewpoint, but it can easily strike men that way. The book's concern is with women's pleasure, not men's. Cleland's Fanny does a powerfully affecting job of evoking what a woman's pleasure is like, or at any rate what a man who likes women would like to think a woman's pleasure is like. She leaves a man sorry for not having met her.

For Jong's Fanny, whose full name is Fanny Hackabout-Jones ("Fannikins to lovers besotted with her charms"), the same cannot be said. She is a bore from page one. Even in moments of alleged transport she has one eye on her literary prospects. You just know that she will one day write Fear of Flying. One of her early encounters is with Alexander Pope. Erica—Fanny, sorry—tries to interest Pope in her verses, but he is interested only in her breasts. Pope is but the first of several famous men who make themselves ridiculous by pursuing Jong's Fanny. (Swift involves her in a threesome with a horse.) All they see, you see, is Fannikins's cunnikin. Passion blinds them to her attainments as a philosopher.

And yet, clearly,' twas not the Best of all Possible Worlds for Women—unless, as Mr. Pope had argu'd, there was a hidden Justice behind this Veil of seeming Injustice…. Fie on't!' Twas not possible that God should approve such goings-on! A Pox on the Third Earl of Shaftesbury and his damnable Optimism!

Running away from home, Jong's Fanny falls in with a coven of witches. The witches, you will not be surprised to learn, are prototype feminists. They are given names like Isobel and Joan in order to allay your suspicions that they are really called Germaine and Kate.

"Fanny, my Dear," says Isobel, "let me tell you my Opinion concerning Witchcraft and then Joan can tell you hers.' Tis my Belief that in Ancient Times, in the Pagan Albion of Old, Women were not as they are now, subservient to Men in ev'ry Respect…."

"E'en the very word 'Witch,'" Joan interrupted, "derives from our Ancestors' Word 'Wicca,' meaning only 'Wise Woman.'"

Isobel lookt cross. "Are you quite finish'd, Joan?" says she. "Will you hold your Tongue now and let me speak?"

An oppressive male chauvinist society makes sure that these pioneer women's liberationists are appropriately raped and tortured, but meanwhile Jong's Fanny has become installed in a London brothel, where she shows an unusual talent for the trade. Colly Cibber's son ties her to the bed. ("Now I am truly trapp'd in my own Snares, my Arms and Legs spread wide upon the Bed so I can make no Resistance, my Ankles and Wrists chafing 'gainst the Silver Cords.") Then he enters her. ("… Theo's Privy Member makes its Presence felt near my not quite unsullied Altar of Love.") Then he does something I can't quite figure out. ("He sinks upon me with all his Weight and wraps his bandy Legs 'round my own….") How bandy can a man be?

Jong seems to take it for granted that a woman's lust can be aroused against her will, if only her assailant presses the right buttons—a very male chauvinist assumption, one would have thought. Cleland's Fanny was more discriminating. But then, Cleland's Fanny knew her own feelings. Jong makes Cleland one of her Fanny's literary lovers. Jong's Cleland is interested in role swapping and has a propensity for climbing into drag. Thus Jong lays the ghost of Cleland's commendable success in fleshing out a feminine character. She says that he had a feminine character. Perhaps so, but what he mainly had was imagination.

Jong's Fanny is meant to be an edifying joke, but the joke is not funny and the edification is not instructive, although it is frequently revealing. Setting out to show up Cleland, Jong unintentionally declares herself his inferior. As to the pornography, Cleland knew when to stop: his Fanny always concedes, while describing the moment of ecstasy, that beyond a certain point words fail her. Words fail Jong's Fanny at all times, but she never stops pouring them out. Finally the sheer disproportion of the enterprise is the hardest thing to forgive.

I quite liked Fear of Flying: there was the promise of humor in it, if not the actuality. But in this book, which sets out to be light, comic, and picaresque, everything is undone by an utter inability to compress, allude, or elide. Is Peter de Vries to be the last author in America of short serious books that makes you laugh? Joseph Heller's Good as Gold is at least twice as long as it should be. By the time you get down to Erica there seems to be no awareness at all of the mark to aim at. If Max Beerbohm couldn't sustain Zuleika Dobson, how did Erica expect to keep Fanny going for triple the distance on a tenth the talent? I'faith,' tis a Puzzle beyond my Comprehension.

Clive James, "Fannikins's Cunnikin," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXVII, No. 17, November 6, 1980, p. 25.

C. D. B. Bryan (review date 21 October 1984)

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[Bryan is an American novelist, editor, nonfiction writer, and critic. In the following review, he notes that Parachutes & Kisses lacks plot development and comments that Jong settles for "the self-aggrandizing delusions of a literary Mae West."]

Eleven years ago in Erica Jong's best-selling Fear of Flying, Isadora Wing was 29 and twice married—first to a psychotic Columbia University graduate student and next to Bennett Wing, a Chinese-American Freudian child psychiatrist with whom she fearfully flew to a Psychiatric Congress in Vienna. There she met Adrian Goodlove, a British Laingian psychiatrist who spouted existentialist theory, playfully squeezed her, thought Jewish girls "bloody good in bed" and so mesmerized Isadora that she dumped Bennett in Vienna and took off with Goodlove on a haphazard trans-European motor trip, during which the main hazard turned out to be not Goodlove's losing battles with tumescence but his plan all the while to keep a scheduled appointment with his wife and children in Cherbourg. Isadora, feeling betrayed, winged back to Bennett, let herself into his empty hotel room, climbed into his tub and lay there not certain whether she had returned to soak in the hot water of his bath or their marriage.

In How to Save Your Own Life, Erica Jong's 1977 sequel, Isadora was 32, had divorced Bennett, with his "glum face, his nervous cough, his perpetual analyzing," and was busy dealing with the problems of having written Candida Confesses, an enormously successful novel whose heroine, Isadora confided, "was modelled after myself." The difficulty was "my public insisted on an exact equivalency between [Candida] and me—because my heroine, astoundingly enough, had turned out to be amanuensis to the Zeitgeist."

What Zeitgeist? The Zeitgeist of women torn between the middle-class virtues of marriage and the longing for freedom. "I suspect," Isadora had confessed in Fear of Flying, "I'd give [independence] up, sell my soul, my principles, my beliefs, just for a man who really loves me." She finds that man in Miss Jong's second novel, in the writer, punster and banjo player Josh Ace, the 26-year-old son of a team of well-known Hollywood screenwriters of the 1930's. At the end of How to Save Your Own Life, Isadora was off to join him.

Now, with Parachutes & Kisses, Erica Jong's third novel in this series, Isadora is approaching 40, is separated from "cold-eyed" Josh and is "possessed of a demonical sexuality which has no need to justify itself with love." But now that "she's flush (though she never believes it) and famous (though she never believes that either) impotent men seem to be everywhere!"

Everywhere, that is, but in her bed, for in this book's opening paragraphs we learn that during her separation she has been consoling herself with a "drugged-out" disk jockey from Hartford, a "cuddly" Jewish banker from New York, a blue-eyed writer from New Orleans, a "cute" Swedish real-estate developer with Caribbean holdings, a lapsed rabbi, an antiques dealer who drives a Rolls despite being a high school dropout, a "brilliant" 26-year-old medical student with access to drugs, a plastic surgeon who's "into oral sex" and "so many others she's practically lost count." Practically.

It's hard to know what to make of this book. There are still some wonderful lines, scenes, dialogue exchanges. The Zeitgeist remains a woman's fear of loneliness, to which now has been added learning "how to make demonic passion jibe with domestic responsibilities, artistic responsibilities, financial responsibilities." The book speaks of Isadora's "quest for love" as being what "linked her to other women, what stirred her vitals not only to sex, but also to poetry; what made her—despite her oddness in being famous and affluent—exactly like other women, exactly like her friends, her sisters, her readers." But it is a quest centered not in her heart and mind but in her reproductive organs. There is a distressing self-serving quality to this book, an annoying arrogance, the giddy presumption that Isadora is speaking not only to women but for women, for all women everywhere.

In one of her chapter headings, Erica Jong quotes Muriel Rukeyser's lines "What would happen if one woman were to tell the truth about her life? The world would split open," a perfectly permissible literary hyperbole, with its promise of sensitivity, honesty and insights. But what are the truths of Isadora's life? The baby-boom generation is middle-aged; steep driveways are hell in the snow; children get hurt when parents divorce; and orgasms feel nice.

Damn it, Fear of Flying was fun! Isadora at 29 was fearless and vulnerable, garrulous and witty, self-mocking and guilt-ridden, tender and earthy. That book burned with a sexual and emotional energy that made one feel one might be in the presence of a young Wife of Bath. There were even moments in How to Save Your Own Life—a marvelously awful orgy, the impact of betrayal on a marriage—but that book contained more smoke than fire. Parachutes & Kisses contains no fire at all. Isadora tells us that "Life has no plot" is one of her favorite lines. Life may not have a plot, but a novel needs one. An endless recitation of sexual episodes is O.K. for the forum section of a girlie magazine, but it does not suffice for a book.

Certainly Erica Jong writes tellingly of nature's cruel paradox, which has women reaching their sexual peak just when their men are being eviscerated by midlife crises, but rather than try to deal sympathetically and insightfully with that dilemma, Isadora's solution is to avoid the problem entirely by seeking out ever younger men. Josh of the second book was six years Isadora's junior; Berkeley (Bean) Sprout III of this latest is younger than Isadora by 14 years. He is

somebody who really loved her and would fiercely protect her no matter how quixotically. He wanted to be her Lancelot…. He understood that underneath her peculiar notoriety (which Josh had finally found so intimidating) there was only a woman who wanted and needed loyalty and love. He was not put off by her fame, did not see her as either a forbidding fortress or a potential acquisition. He saw her only as a person, strong, yet vulnerable.

The reader wishes him luck, for what this reviewer sees is different: Erica Jong turning her back on all that rich Chaucerian promise and settling instead for the self-aggrandizing delusions of a literary Mae West.

C. D. B. Bryan, "The Loves of Isadora, Continued," in The New York Times Book Review, October 21, 1984, p. 14.

Rolande Diot (essay date November 1986)

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[In the following essay, Diot analyzes the role of humor in Jong's writings.]

In How To Save Your Own Life, a character called Kurt Hammer is thus described by the female narrator and heroine Isadora Wing—Jong's alter ego and fantasmatic persona—in the book:

Kurt Hammer has honed his underground reputation on tattered copies of his reputed-to-be pornographic novels, smuggled in through customs in the days where sex was considered unfit for print. Now that sex was everywhere in print, his royalties were fading….

She meets him in LA, she is thirty-three and he is eighty-seven, but still full of pep and punch. Isadora calls him "her literary godfather"—or sugar daddy? Friendship, affection and mutual admiration characterize their relationship: but Fear of Flying is not Tropic of Cancer, How To Save Your Own Life is not Tropic of Capricorn, nor is Parachutes and KissesThe Rosy Crucifixion. And yet, Jong doubtlessly attempted to write a female version of those erotic autobiographies; she tried her hand at what Miller-Hammer calls "the metaphysics of Sex", filled with delirious hysterical humor and satire. She created a woman's fantasmatic journey into sex, a marvelous "whoroscope"—Jong's own coined phrase for this Tropic of Virgo, or is it Virago? She is still an exception in the literary world: in a time of so-called women's liberation, one has still to meet the great figure of literary comedy that might reach the epic, grotesque and homeric heights of Miller's Cosmic Comedy or "cosmodemonic" trip around the tropics of Sexus, Nexus and the like. Jong's trilogy, not counting Fanny, is evidence of her vast talent as a pastiche writer; with Miller-Hammer in her rearview mirror—the rearview mirror of Isadora's Mercedes convertible whose license (so much so …) plate spells QUIM…. The modern broomstick of the contemporary witch/bitch embarking on her journey into the womb and the natural cavities of the female body. Riding her QUIM/QUILL, she performs her outrageous investigations into female sexuality and male idiosyncrasies and shortcomings. Her trilogy is also a marvellous empire on which the pun never sets. But Jong is not Miller. Her immense culture and gift for parody may give the illusion that her sense of comedy, her recreation of the topsy-turvy world appears like a female Rabelaisian carnival of sex and a celebration of the "cheerful body", to use Mikhail Bakhtin's words. Or is she the female schlemiel disguised as the scandalous Jewish Princess of Central Park West and Columbia? Or is she the modern embodiment of some feminine "chutzpah", the impertinent, aggressive and insolent mischievous counterpart of the schlemiel? Or would she be just the modern form of the hysterical nymphomaniac, super-woman of the best-selling type? Fraud or freak?

Jong is not Miller, nor Rabelais, nor Joyce, although she evinces reminiscences from her English lit. courses and can imitate some of the tricks, but not the greatness and vastness of vision of the creator of "chaosmos". Nobody is perfect. My contention is that she is notwithstanding the one female author that comes nearest to being one of those stars of comedy. She fails, partly, but she stands unique in the great jungle of comedy. Why so? The obvious answer is, and the feminists will not deny it—the sociocultural conditions of literary creation. It seems needless to develop this point here, since Mohadev Apte has pointed out the causes and circumstances of this situation in a remarkable chapter of his recent book Humor and Laughter [1985]: sexual inequality in the production of humor is responsible for the rarity of women comedians in literature and elsewhere. However, we are now witnessing a slow but undeniable progress in the liberation of women vis à vis the taboos of our judeo-christian society and its puritanical dictates. So: is it a question of time and patience? Will there eventually be a complete equality of the sexes in front of humor as in the rest of life? Or is it a question of psycho-physiology as some would have it? Should it be that humor, and the sense of it, be located in the left rather than in the right lobe of the brain, if, according to some, women are right-lobe oriented and men left-lobe dominated? This precious racist and sexist theory has its supporters in the scientific circles—vicious circles seems more adequate. An open question which it is not for me to settle at this point. What I am concerned with here is another viewpoint: that of communication. When a woman is gifted with a sense of humor and adds to it the creative talent of the satirist and humorist, like Jong, and when she is sufficiently liberated to practice self-debunking and self-disparaging humor, even sick humor; when she is bold enough to make fun of everything including death, sex, motherhood and the Virgin Mary, sickness and impotence—what next? What responses does she get from 1) her female audience 2) her male audience 3) her androgynous and/or homosexual audience—not to mention dogs and children, academics and literary critics and specialists of Humor International Incorporated. The following quotation, from Tropic of Capricorn will illustrate this point marvellously:

Evelyn, on the other hand, had a laughing cunt(…). She was always trotting in at meal times to tell us a new joke. A comedienne of the first water, the really funny woman I ever met in my life. Everything was a joke, fuck included. She could even make a stiff prick laugh, which is saying a good deal. They say a stiff prick has no conscience, but a stiff prick that laughs too is phenomenal.(…) Nothing is more difficult than to make love in a circus.(…) She could break down the most "personal" hard-on in the world. Break it down with laughter. There was something sympathetic about this vaginal laughter. The whole world seemed to unroll like a pornographic film whose tragic theme is impotence.(…) The female seldom laughs, but when she does it's volcanic. When the female laughs the male had better scoot to the cyclone cellar.

This direct testimony metaphorically emphasizes the connection between sex and power, humor and impotence. Laughter is incompatible with erotic performances, a well-known physiological phenomenon, which is also attested by some aesthetic theories of modes. But if we go further in the examination of the connection between sex and power, we find that, according to Miller and males in general, humor in a woman creates sexual impotence in her male partner; and this, even when the woman is laughing, not at the man, nor of the man, but just laughing, the male experiences a great deal of tension and of subsequent frustration: he feels humiliated, reduced to the function of object, castrated. Woman is the castrating bitch again—QED. Next: sexual power and sexual domination mean control of the social and cultural scene, not to mention the political one. But it also spells the control of procreation and the creative process. The creative powers of the male are annihilated by the laughing female; Superman shrinks to the diminutive proportion of homunculus or infant. The superman of sex loses both his identity and existence, as male subject and as male organ. In Parachutes and Kisses, the scene with the Nobel Laureate is an example of Jong's satirical perception of a woman's power when she appropriates language—and the language and discourse of sex, a field usually reserved to men. In this hilarious scene, Isadora, the heroine and narrator, makes fun of her sexual partner during the love scene. She assumes the function of the voyeur—of herself and her partner, right in the middle of the development of the sexual act, including preliminaries and post coital communication. Isadora/Erica plays the part of the exhibitionist and rapist at the same time as she enjoys her female role. As she is unable to physically rape the man, she reduces him to impotence, symbolically, by turning him into an object: sex object and target of her sati(y)re. She grades her lovers, so to speak, by keeping an exact amount of how many orgasms she can have with them—not how many they can have with her. She plays the game of the multiple orgasm herself, with zest and elegance, and loses c(o)unt of them in the process; and she also evaluates, not just the quantity, but also the quality of her ecstatic moments, without losing (her) head nor control of the situation. A virtuoso performance, which elicits from the Nobel Laureate genuine admiration:

When intellectuals copulate without love, they still must think of intellectual things to say afterward. And the Laureate was a great summerupper. 'That was a most satisfactory ejaculation', he would say, to our heroine's utter astonishment. Or on an occasion when she gave him a great blow job, he complimented her by saying, 'What a memorable arpeggio—or shall I say cadenza?' 'Why not just call it a blow job?' Isadora asked, irreverently. 'A blow job by another name is still a blow job'. Gower looked at her as if she were the crudest of vulgarians, raised his bushy eyebrows, pulled his white beard, and said: 'You certainly are an amazing woman, a woman of warmth and nuance'. Let us just say I'm a good lay'. Isadora said, 'and leave it at that'. And that, in fact, was where they left it for all time.

One word at this point about the use of the so-called 'obscene' language used by Jong and her heroine: four-letter words and the rest. There is another transgression of a taboo: that of propriety. Naming a cat a cat seems all right for a man, and a male writer: Miller always refers to women by the four-letter word and alternative to 'quim'! Feminists were enraged and protested violently, but the aggressive and disparaging vocabulary used by Miller, Mailer and others remains as part and parcel of their specific stylistic originality and flavor. It's no use trying to bowdlerise the English language, but why not turn it to our advantage and take up the glove men have dropped? says Jong, very logically and humorously. Violence and brutality and the pejorative description and evaluation of the female human being as 'bodily function' and genitals are involved in the use of obscenities; they seem normal under a man's pen. This metaphorically depicts his 'active' part, in the sexual act. Even though it may hide the anguish supposedly caused by the 'vagina dentata' ambushed in the ogress's cave. To exorcise their fright, males use obscene words as the participants in the Greek phallic processions of the ancient 'comoi' used to throw filth at the effigy of 'the Evil King', symbol of Death and Sterility. Then, when a woman appropriates this language, and discourse, what happens? The communication situation and process are different according to the sex of the woman's audience. Just like when Blacks refer to themselves as 'niggers' Jews as 'kikes' and Italians as 'wops', so does the self-disparaging pejoration of one's own self turn into a humorous operation: the symbolic destruction of one's own self-image as reviled by the enemy, but by using the enemy's weapon, thus stating one's superiority and symbolic control of the situation, and by so doing, reversing it. The power of words is thus transferred on to the pharmakos, and the oppressor's violence is also reversed and suffering becomes pleasure; a mixture of triumph and anguish over one's own predicament and inferiority, but at the same time an ambiguous feeling of enjoyment of this state: a kind of sado-masochistic pleasure. When Jong uses this sexual language defying taboos and propriety, an attitude which is traditionally forbidden to women, she certainly enjoys liberating her own aggressive pulses, at the expense of her own sex and kin, but at the same time, it seems to me that she rids language of its potential malignancy and hostility, its destructive quality by using it against herself, and her sisters, exactly as in the case of anti-semitic jokes told by Jews: it deflates the nasty balloons, and assumes the function of an exorcism of the evil and black magic contained in the 'rat-killing ritual' which satire is.

When Jong dares voice her body's desire and pleasure, she performs a most scandalous operation in terms of moral and aesthetic taboos: the desacralization of the so-called "mystery of the Eternal feminine" (Alas, poor Goethe …). Moreover, she distorts the whole narrative and offers a caricature of the real, that is, of her sexual experience. In How To Save Your Own Life, she depicts the various sexual idiosyncrasies of Isadora's lovers:

An expert and diligent lover, Roland makes love like a robot programmed by Alex Comfort….

He returns dutifully and kisses me very wetly (as he has ever since I ran off with a man whose kisses were wetter than his). He presses his pelvis against mine with consummate technique. I feel he is using craft, The Craft of Fucking or The Well-Tempered Penis by Bennett Wing….

Jeffrey belched after eating me as if I were a mug of beer. I couldn't bring myself to touch him for another six months….

As a witness of the scenes, and an actress in them, she assumes the necessary aesthetic detachment and distanciation, if not actual physical distance. If one analyzes Jong's humor in those instances from the functional point of view, it appears that the female humorist assumes the function of both object and subject of the carnival ritual: the elimination of the scapegoat in which the sacrificial victim is Woman, as sexual partner of Man, ridiculed and caricatured, made fun of as comic butt in the drama. The ritual is being performed in terms of satire: where both Man as male, and Woman as female are symbolically destroyed after a comic reduction. Yet, at the same time and simultaneously, the woman as humorist and puller of the strings, acts as King of Chaos, and directs the whole show. Then, the female audience laughs at the male victim, the poor pharmakos, emblem of authority, domination, exploitation and so forth—from the female standpoint. The male audience may appreciate the game, but only within the limits of their sense of humor.

But the operation is also pure humor, as defined by Freud: a ritual of self-debunking in which the humorist as schlemiel recreates and enjoys the representation of her own failures, limitations, ridicules and shortcomings—as woman, as lover, as human being, but especially as emblem of womanhood and femininity. Her body becomes the scapegoat of the ritual, and women immediately identify themselves to the victim, they laugh at themselves as objects, but rejoice at the brilliant control of the situation evinced by the subject. This temporary fit of madness and delirium, and symbolic suicide which humor is, achieves its aim: by providing both pleasure and therapy to the female audience. They purge themselves of their schizophrenia by rehearsing and exhibiting it by proxy. A very profitable deal, indeed. But how about the male audience? They laugh heartily with no hang-ups, all right. They enjoy liberating their aggressiveness at women, at the symbolic image of the neurotic, helpless and schizophrenic creature—an image which so admirably fits with their own aeon-old prejudices. MCPs, all of them, as Isadora would say. Men's pleasure is that of satire, their laughter and the catharsis it entails are different in nature from those experienced by women in the same game. But it is a perilous one: just as it is always risky for minorities, whether they be ethnic, sexual or other, to practice this kind of self-disparaging humor. In the lesbian scene of How To Save Your Own Life, Isadora dons the mask of the male—the butch—and tries to perform well with her female partner, Rosanna, the frigid millionaire heiress. She undergoes the agony and anxiety of the male lover trying desperately to bring his/her partner to orgasm. The narrative of the repeated failures, various grotesque devices called to assistance by Isadora, sexual aids of the most unheard-of nature—cucumbers, Coke bottles and so forth, are worth the trip. It is a kind of conjugated fiasco, whose sight and minute description is thoroughly enjoyed by both male and female members of the audience. The scene can be read as an ironic metaphor: that of the humorist as some bi-sexual 'ubermensch', who plays upon the fantasies and fantasms of both male and female readers. She resorts to such tricks as are exploited by porn-film makers: lesbian scenes are favorites, and even a serious writer, like Anais Nin, cannot resist the temptation to narrate the visit that she and Miller, our old friend Miller, made to a Paris bordello to watch two prostitutes making love, on order and for a few dollars, with the help of various sorts of dildos to the great joy of Miller, and utter puzzlement of poor humorless Anais. And this leads us to another remark about Jong's humorous techniques: she practices a carnivalisation of both male and female sexual fantasms and recreates the fantasmatic scenarios which men and women alike nourish in their erotic dreams and actual sexual games, in order to reach orgasm. What happens here is a transfer of roles: by identifying with the narrator, Isadora the butch, we assume her part and our imagination follows hers to play the impossible bi-sexual lovemaking scene which suddenly becomes real and possible: our desire receives immediate symbolical gratification. It could lead to a great oneiric recreation of the absolute act of love, where the self enjoys both its feminine and masculine half: what Diane Di Prima magnificently achieved, in her lyrical poem Loba, the wolf-goddess. But Jong goes one step further, it seems to me: she appropriates the dream and the impossible reconciliation of opposites and feigns to ignore the anxiety-producing otherness in the sexual relation: by pretending she is the one and the other, she suppresses the existential anguish involved, and, thanks to the momentary 'suspension of disbelief', an enormous amount of energy finds itself released and it bursts into an immense cosmic-erotic explosion of orgasm-like laughter. Anima and animus are reduced to the comic diminutive form of homunculus and homuncula, or muliercula, Don Giovanni and Donna Elvira, Quixote and Sancha, ad lib….

Superwoman Jong the humorist has turned her sexual energies and formidable vitality as a woman into power: by controlling her anxiety as a female and by assuming the power of her male half, she has proved capable of turning them into the absolute power of making both men and women laugh at their libido. Creating, causing, arousing laughter is her way of bringing them to pleasure—a pleasure whose nature is so close to sexual pleasure. By mastering the taboos of sex, by exhibiting her own sexual drives, desires and perversions, in a totally unabashed manner, she has risen to the stature of the Nietzschean ubermensch of humor: beyond good and evil, beyond male and female, she has conquered absolute power and will-power. Humor is definitely connected to this notion of power: sexual power as acknowledged and exercised, freely and without shame or guilt. The only source of anguish that remains is death—non-existence. But then, both sexes are equally helpless: and there lies the real equality of sexes.

Maybe Jong has not made a giant's leap but just a small step towards this total liberation of woman regarding humor. Yet, female humor will no longer exist as such after her if women exercise their power as human beings and as producers of comedy. They will regain power through creation and recreation, but, alack poor Miller!—once they have gotten rid of procreation; which means simply the end of the human species: if humor is at this cost, who said it was a problem?

Rolande Diot, "Sexus, Nexus and Taboos Versus Female Humor: The Case of Erica Jong," in Revue Française D'Études Américaines, No. 30, November, 1986, pp. 491-99.

Michael Malone (review date 19 April 1987)

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[Malone is an American novelist, editor, nonfiction writer, and critic. In the following review, he provides a mixed assessment of Serenissima.]

Who afraid of Virginia Woolf? Not Erica Jong, who invokes Woolf's Orlando as an epigraph for Serenissima, in which Jessica Pruitt, jet-setting movie star (in Venice to judge a film festival) falls ill midway through the book (Liv Ullmann nurses her—"What are friends for?"), and travels backward in time to the 16th century. There she finds herself transformed into Shylock's daughter—the very role she's been cast to play (despite her 43 years) in "nothing less than a filmic fantasy based on The Merchant of Venice" conceived by a Bergmanesque Swedish genius, "undoubtedly the greatest direct of our time," as well as her former lover. (The actor playing Shylock is also an old lover, but then presumably the honor is not a rare one.)

Nor has our heroine any fear of flying off with young William Shakespeare himself, whose first gasped words as they collide in the Ghetto Vecchio are "who ever loved, who loved not at first sight?" His next are "What's in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." He then introduces himself as "a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage." Jessica's old Hollywood pals might call this Meeting Cute with a vengeance, but as Will tells her, "Marry, come up, you jest at scars that never felt a wound." The brief adventures of these time-crossed lovers lead them by foot, horse and skiff north through Italy to the Villa Montebello (Belmont in English, the bard explains), where they consummate their love, "that highest of all highs." "Who would dare describe love with the greatest poet the world has ever known?… Was Will Shakespeare good in bed? Let the reader judge!"

After Fanny Hackabout-Jones's willingness to kiss and tell on Pope, Hogarth and Swift, [in Fanny], the reader will not be surprised to hear that Jessica indeed dares describe "Will's stiff staff" in a series of tumbles, including some in which she herself is not a participant: one with his sadistic lover-patron, the Earl of Southampton, and a Venetian courtesan, making "a three-backed beast that pants and screams and begs for mercy"; one in an orgy with fantastically masked, lascivious nuns, immediately after which Will's partner, Juliet, gives birth, then chokes to death on her own vomit, leaving the poet to eulogize: "Now cracks a noble heart. Goodnight, sweet princess, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."

It is this nun's infant, rescued from the murderous convent, whom Jessica and Will flee Venice to save. Violence of course pursues them: Southampton wants to rape and/or kill them both; Shalach (Shylock) wants his daughter and/or his ducats back. The thuggish courtiers Bassanio and Gratiano want bloody revenge. Swords are drawn, bodices ripped and hailstorms hurled from heaven. Christian villagers rampage and slaughter the Jews of Montebello (Will hides behind a hedge ruminating on "What a piece of work is man"). Forced back to Venice by Shalach, Jessica ostensibly dies, floating out of her body to watch Southampton and Shakespeare kiss her in various places, as they "genuflect before [her] orifices." Then, alive in her coffin, like Pericles' wife, she is cast into the sea, where a storm swamps her funeral gondola. She arises, reborn into the 20th century, to discover that she has dreamed (or lived) the screenplay of Serenissima. As Ben Jonson might say, it's some moldy old tale.

Erica Jong has one fictional heroine, brave, bookish, beautiful and indefatigably libidinous, poet of the erogenous zone, priestess of the Great Goddess, whether that heroine is Fanny, the 18th-century whore-turned-pirate-turned-writer, or Isadora, the much married best-selling novelist of the Wing trilogy (a Jew from the West 70's), or the much-married international star Jessica Pruitt (a WASP from the East 70's, who sometimes thinks "being a Jew would be so cozy. They seemed to have more blood, more poetry, more sensuality than my people.") Like her predecessors, Jessica loves sex, her art, her many illustrious friends and her adorable little daughter. Like them, she is irresistibly attractive (she compares herself to a Burne-Jones angel, Botticelli's Venus and the Dark Lady).

Whether in designer clothes, or disguised as a 16th-century boy, Jessica wears—like Isadora, like Fanny—her heart on her sleeve, and thereby suffers: her "openness and trust abused," her lust for life misinterpreted, her hurts unappreciated. She fears, as they did, that she may have loved not wisely but too well (not to mention too often). "Love was my addiction." No doubt, her little body aweary of this great world, tired of the nosy paparazzi and the sequined glitterati (whose life style Ms. Jong captures vividly), Jessica slips into a fevered reverie of magic rings, ancient crones, mysterious potions and literary pornography.

As might be expected of a movie star who has toured Medea in Southern penitentiaries, who refers to her career as her "sullen craft" and "stubborn art," Jessica is perhaps a little more scholarly than the average denizen of "palmy LaLa Land." She not only knows her "Jackie O." and "Paloma P." her carpaccio and Pinot Grigio ("Gore V." bursts into a bedchamber where our heroine has just kneed in the groin an amorous Russian poet), she also knows her Canaletto and Miró, her Byron, Ruskin, James and Joyce. She knows the minor Elizabethan playwright Robert Greene, and the invitational policies of Manhattan PEN meetings. Her speech is sprinkled with Italian phrases; her thoughts are sprinkled with pontifical pronouncements on male domination, motherhood, culture and moral history ("That's the tragedy of our generation—we haven't even got a myth of good battling evil"). For Jessica, far preferable to a starring role in the miniseries "Vegas II" is a world where Will's tendency to quote his yet unwritten works on all occasions is shared by everyone: Southampton reels off sonnets, Shylock wails in passages from Lear, Jessica broods, "We are such stuff as dreams are made of." The odd effect is that they all sound like a mixture of Bartlett's index and Maxwell Anderson's pseudo-Elizabethan argot. The result is a slow, though short, misty dream. Shakespeare does not come to life, and Shylock we barely meet.

As she proved in Fanny, a picaresque of intelligence, buoyant invention and wonderful Rabelaisian energy, Erica Jong can write a historical novel that both honors its tradition with affectionate parody and creates its own full fictional reality. The Renaissance has not served her as well as did the 18th century. Perhaps had she really written the story implied by her premise, the story untold in The Merchant of Venice (of Shylock's daughter, who renounces her faith for a shallow suitor; who confesses, "Alack, what heinous sin is it in me! To be ashamed to be my father's child"), perhaps had she told Jessica's tale, instead of following Shakespeare and Southampton from brothel to convent, Ms. Jong would have found the plot worthy of her careful research, her rich descriptive facility and her deep love of the period. Or she might have produced the novel Tintoretto's Daughter that her Isadora Wing once wrote. Perhaps someday she will.

Michael Malone, "The True Adventures of Shylock's Daughter," in The New York Times Book Review, April 19, 1987, p. 12.

Benjamin DeMott (review date 28 January 1990)

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[DeMott is an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, educator, and critic. Following is his mixed review of Any Woman's Blues.]

Leila Sand, the heroine of Erica Jong's [Any Woman's Blues], is a mid-fortyish, compulsively fornicating artist and celebrity who, despite occasional moments of satisfaction in the natural world or in bed, is almost continuously woebegone. She's gripped by a sadomasochistic obsession (object: an obnoxiously faithless young hustler named Darton Venable Donegal IV), her muse is deserting her and her studio is in chaos. What's more, her children (twin daughters) don't need her, and wine and weed keep punching her out.

Leila fights the blues hard, to be sure, and her struggle—waged mainly in her Connecticut country house, in SoHo and in hotels and palazzi in Venice—becomes the substance of Any Woman's Blues. Guided by her writer pal Emmie, Leila tries Alcoholics Anonymous (and provides convincing glimpses of the comic candor and heartbreak of A.A. meetings, as well as of their democratic fellowship and quasi-religious intensity). She also battles her addiction to Dart Donegal, eventually managing to lock him out for good. And, late in the book, there's a hint of oncoming redemption through the religion of art. At one point Leila "is in a state of grace. She wants to skip, to kneel before the Madonna, to invent drawings and paintings that will communicate joy to the joyless, faith to the unbeliever, and love to the loveless. She wants everyone to savor and celebrate life because it is a feast. It is there for the taking. You have only to open your mouth, open your hand, love one another, thank God, and rejoice."

But at the end, as at the beginning, Leila's prospects inspire only wary hope. A.A. has helped, but she hasn't really kicked her habits. The young hustler is gone, but he's followed by an equally unpromising passion, a Venetian Casanova. (The pair make out on gondola rides.) Defeat sounds often in her voice: "All my life," she says, with her story winding down, "I've wanted nothing but to bring sex and friendship together—and I seem to be farther from it than ever." And the world she's made her own—overpopulated by corrupt and violent celebrities—seems doom-ridden.

Owing to the heroine's lineage, there's bounty for moralists in Any Woman's Blues. The preface, written by a fictional feminist literary scholar, passes the word that the book is actually the work of the sensationally uninhibited Isadora Wing, the heroine of Ms. Jong's first novel, Fear of Flying, which was published in 1973. (An upbeat afterword by Ms. Wing confirms the attribution.)

With this news come lessons. Famously shameless in four-letter word and deed, Isadora Wing was a creature of sexual delight, huge appetite and no guilt whatever about infidelity and promiscuity. If Leila, the first-person narrator of Any Woman's Blues, is Isadora 17 years later, it follows (for moralists) that sin and abomination don't pay. What happens to a female Portnoy, a supermerry, superraunchy Wife of Bath who never looks back? If she becomes Leila Sand, what happens is that she sometimes finds herself banging her frustrated head on the floor, in a pool of her own blood, wailing in wretched loneliness, no comfort left but prayer. Hedonists, attend.

For readers as opposed to moralists, though, the point about this book isn't that wanton indulgence gets its comeuppance. It's that literary self-indulgence spoils the narrative—and the central character. Isadora Wing, Leila Sand's forebear, was a figure of wit as well as appetite; her lively brain powered Fear of Flying with a current of shrewd, funny observation on men, women, marriage and physicality, male and female. Always she stood at a fine remove from piety and self-pity. Isadora as Leila, on the other hand, has lost several steps. She stamps and weeps and tries to "thank God for the lichen, for the raspberries, for the clouds" (the phrase "thank you" is repeated a hundred or so consecutive times on a single page). She carries on, now hysterically, now sanctimoniously, but seldom entertainingly.

At moments, Ms. Jong seems aware of the problem. When Leila's hustler tormentor walks out after a cliché-strewn, soap opera-like scene ("'That's it!' screams Dart. 'The last straw!'"), Leila falls to the floor and weeps. Whereupon in marches Isadora Wing, in italics, as follows: "Isadora: Couldn't she weep in a chair for once? Leila: Could you?"

The aim of these and other tart-tongued interruptions is to lighten the proceedings, and once or twice they succeed. An occasional idiom or patch of comic invention elsewhere calls up Ms. Jong's earlier achievements. There's a "punky adorable midget" designer named "Mij Nehoc (Jim Cohen spelled backward)," and also some well-judged flame-throwing at Manhattan vanities. ("She's the charity disease queen of New York—a hotly coveted title.") Some of the chapter epigraphs, moreover—from blues lyrics by Bessie Smith, Ida Cox and others, including Piano Red ("You got the right string, baby, but the wrong yo-yo")—will make any responsible person laugh out loud.

But as a whole, Any Woman's Blues feels leaden. What's missing is what won the author of Fear of Flying a place among the true and unforgettable headliners of late-20th-century literary vaudeville: gorgeous, saving sass.

Benjamin DeMott, "The Fruits of Sin," in The New York Times Book Review, January 28, 1990, p. 13.

Marni Jackson (review date 19 February 1990)

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[In the following review, Jackson characterizes Any Woman's Blues as "a compelling but confused novel that strains for a moral clarity beyond its grasp."]

When Erica Jong finished writing Any Woman's Blues, her latest novel, she must have realized that there would be some debate over what the book was really about. Was it, as the helpful subtitle suggested, a "novel of obsession" about a successful woman, Leila Sand, in love with a hopeless cad named Dart Donegal? Was it about Leila's voyage from her addiction to love, sex and red wine to independence, sobriety and serenity? Or was the book simply a fictional veil cast over Erica Jong, famous author and bon vivant, as she tries to give up everything she urged women to pursue in her first novel, Fear of Flying? Only one thing is clear by the end of the novel: Alcoholics Anonymous must surely be the new church of the 1990s if even Jong's high-flying heroines are now finding their salvation in AA meetings instead of midnight trysts.

Jong's fictional alter ego is a 39-year-old painter with a weakness for too much wine and all the wrong men. "I lived for sex, for falling in love with love," confesses Leila. Her drug of choice is the fickle young Dart, who makes her life miserable: "All I can do is listen for the crushed gravel under Dart's motorcycle wheels, which seem to ride right over my heart." Dart ruins her concentration—and he does not do much for Jong's incorrigibly purple prose, either. "Love is the sweetest addiction," she writes. "Who would not sell her soul for the dream of two made one, for the sweetness of making love in the sunlight on an Adriatic beach with a young god whose armpits are lined with gold?"

When Dart disappears with a bimbo, Leila tries to make do with an impotent millionaire, followed by a corporate man more attached to his telephone than his libido. Finally, with the help of AA, she starts down the road from dependency to what the book calls "self-love, which is not to be confused with narcissism." Most of all, she wants to stop finding her reflection in the mirror of men. Leila succeeds, but true to the archetype of addiction, she suffers relapses along the way. That lets Jong do what she clearly enjoys most, which is to write about old-fashioned, reckless sex.

In fact, Leila's visit to an S-and-M brothel in New York City is the one place where the lackadaisical narrative of the novel picks up: it is a raunchy, truly shocking episode in Leila's moral education. Female masochism lurks under her obsession with Dart—who actually wears spurs—but in the brothel scene it loses its sentimental veneer. Jong should have stayed with Leila's dark side rather than swiftly repudiating it the next morning, in the interests of moral growth. The author wants to arrive at wisdom in her novel faster than her heroine deserves it. Leila's idea of convalescence is a little trip to Venice, where she has one last fling with a playboy named Renzo (is there a self-help program for authors with a weakness for bad names?). They rendezvous in a motorboat on the Venice canals. Ah, yes, recovery is a rough road. Leila's 10-year-old twin daughters are also suspiciously convenient, disappearing whenever a new lover shows up. Ever the romantic escapist, Jong seems to be running from her own thought.

Perhaps sensing that the book was skittering out of control, Jong imposes a literary device that does not work. The whole novel is presented as an "unfinished manuscript," written by Isadora Wing, Jong's heroine in her earlier novels. That coy business weakens a novel that already can barely bring itself to focus on any other character except Leila.

But Jong has an unerring instinct for what is on people's minds—in this case, the power and perils of addiction. It gives the book something of the lurid fascination of a TV movie of the week. Jong's careless, confessional style also makes the experience of reading Any Woman's Blues seem like leafing through a teenager's diary. "I collapse in a torrent of tears," she writes at one point. "'No more pain! No more pain!' I mutter. But even as I imagine him waving goodbye to me, I know I am really waving goodbye to him." And so on. The novel is so at odds with itself that when Leila achieves peace of mind at the end, it simply does not ring true. It is as if Jong had invited her guests to a vegetarian banquet and then passed by with trolleys of broiled steaks. The result is a compelling but confused novel that strains for a moral clarity beyond its grasp.

Marni Jackson, "Crash Landing," in Maclean's Magazine, Vol. 103, No. 8, February 19, 1990, p. 55.

Gayle Greene (essay date 1991)

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[Greene is an American educator, editor, and critic. In the following excerpt from her Changing the Story: Feminist Fiction and the Tradition (1991), she faults Jong for failing to challenge traditional patriarchal views of women and sexuality in Fear of Flying.]

Accustomed as I am to having to defend my interest in Fear of Flying, I'll state at the outset why I find it important. Sexual liberation was an essential partof the early women's movement, and Fear of Flying has been taken seriously, if not as "literature," as an expression of sexual liberation—most recently, by Susan Suleiman [in Subversive Intent: Gender, Politics, and the Avant-Garde, 1990] who describes it as "a significant gesture, both in terms of sexual politics and in terms of … sexual poetics," praises its "freshness and vitality" of language, and calls it a "fictional counterpart" to such books as Our Bodies, Our Selves (1973) and Shere Hite's Sexual Honesty, By Women for Women (1974), which similarly reclaim female bodies and sexuality for females. I confess to having liked the novel when it first appeared, though it does not bear up to rereading and I don't finally share Suleiman's enthusiasm. But as the only instance of feminist metafiction I know of to sell ten million copies, it was important as a vehicle for the dissemination of feminist ideas and for the controversy it sparked, and it deserves attention as a cultural document.

Disappointed by the women of the past—in history, literature, and her family—Isadora is left to chart her own way. Turning "to our uncertain heroines for help," she encounters only "spinsters or suicides":

Simone de Beauvoir never makes a move without wondering what would Sartre think? And Lillian Hellman wants to be as much of a man as Dashiell Hammett…. And the rest—the women writers, the women painters—most of them were shy, shrinking, schizoid. Timid in their lives and brave only in their art. Emily Dickinson, the Brontes, Virginia Woolf, Carson McCullers … Flannery O'Connor … Sylvia Plath sticking her head into an oven of myth…. What a group! Severe, suicidal, strange. Where was the female Chaucer? One lusty lady who had juice and joy and love and talent too? Where could we turn for guidance?

"So the search for the impossible man went on", she laments, implying that the failure of her literary foremothers is responsible for her dependence on men. She sees an even more direct connection between the failure of her mother and her dependence on men: "So I learned about women from men". Like other contemporary women novelists, Jong writes to fill the gap between the fiction of the past and women's experience in the present.

Jong implies that she is telling "the other side of the story":

A stiff prick, Freud said, assuming that their obsession was our obsession.

Phallocentric, someone once said of Freud. He thought the sun revolved around the penis. And the daughter, too.

And who could protest? Until women started writing books there was only one side of the story.

Recalling the Wife of Bath's claim that if women wrote, the stories would be different, Jong implies that she is "the female Chaucer," the "lusty lady" with "juice and love and talent too."

Like other women protagonists, Isadora seeks escape in an affair, and as in other contemporary versions of the "two-suitor convention," the husband represents the oppressive patriarchy and the lover represents liberation; for Adrian—whom she picks up at a psychiatrists' convention in Vienna, which she is attending with her husband, Bennett Wing—is Laingian, bearded, English, and sexy, and promises "spontaneity, existentialism, living in the present," against the dull security of Bennett. Adrian proposes that they have an "odyssey"—"'you'll discover yourself'"—and urges Isadora "'to go down into [herself] and salvage [her] own life'" to "find patterns in [her] past." As they drive through Germany and France, Isadora tells him "everything": "What was this crazy itinerary anyway if not a trip back into my past?"; "we … picked up the threads of these old patterns of behavior as we made our way through the labyrinth of Old Europe."

But the best Isadora can come up with is that she keeps being attracted to men who are poor risks—which is not very original but at least explains her attraction to this jerk, who is not only married but impotent; and though she senses that she is repeating this pattern with Adrian, she does not examine this too closely. Nor does she examine anything else too closely; her recounting of her past has no bearing on her present; it is merely episodic, merely there. So, too, is the structure of the novel, which, in its alternation of episodes set in the past with episodes set in the present, might provide a vehicle for plumbing the past, but does not; for Isadora's past has as little to do with her present problems—with her boredom in her marriage and fear of leaving it—as the labyrinth of old Europe has to do with the labyrinth of herself: Europe also is merely there, an exotic backdrop.

Adrian promises Isadora that she will discover her strengths and learn to "stand on [her] own two feet"; and he becomes, "perversely, an instrument of [her] freedom" when he drops her in Paris, without warning, to return to his wife. He tells Isadora he's "'not here to rescue [her],'" and she accepts this, drawing the moral that "I wasn't Adrian's child, and it wasn't his business to rescue me. I was nobody's baby now. Liberated. Utterly free. It was the most terrifying sensation I'd ever known in my life. Like teetering on the edge of the Grand Canyon and hoping you'd learn to fly before you hit bottom."

She finds her "wings" by surviving a night alone in a hotel room in Paris. Talking herself through a panic, trying to get hold of her fear, she rehearses, again, the names of women of the past:

Me: Think of Simone de Beauvoir!

Me: I love her endurance, but her books are full of Sartre, Sartre, Sartre.

Me: Think of Doris Lessing!

Me: Anna Wulf can't come unless she's in love….

Me: Think of Sylvia Plath!

Me: Dead….

Me: Well—think of Colette.

Me: A good example. But she's one of the very few.

Me: Well, why not try to be like her?

Me: I'm trying….

Me: Then why are you so afraid of being alone?

Me: We're going around in circles.

But it is her own writing, not theirs, that pulls her out of this tailspin, as she realizes, reading through her journals, how much she has changed. That night, she "assigns herself dreams as a sort of cure," and these dreams, which include "a book with her name on the cover," instruct her that she would not "be a romantic heroine" but that she would "survive": "I would go home and write about Adrian instead. I would keep him by giving him up."

The "book with her name on the cover," the book she will write, is the novel we have just read, and Fear of Flying ends with the protagonist ready to begin. Isadora has presumably learned "to go down into myself and salvage bits and pieces of the past," to plumb "inner space…. My writing is the submarine or spaceship which takes me to the unknown worlds within my head … a new vehicle, designed to delve a little deeper (or fly a little higher)." Whereas once she had difficulty admitting that she was "a woman writer"—

I didn't want to risk being called all the things women writers … are called…. No "lady writer" subjects for me…. I languished in utter frustration, thinking that the subjects I knew about were "trivial" and "feminine"—while the subjects I knew nothing of were "profound" and "masculine"….

—presumably now she has the courage to tell "the other side," in authentic female voice, and Fear of Flying is the fruit of those lessons.

Isadora shows evidence of change when, at the end of the novel, on her way back to Bennett in London, she has the chance of a "zipless fuck" with a "stranger on a train"; though such a prospect once fueled her sexual fantasies, she now finds the idea "revolting." She realizes that it was wrong to want "to lose [her]self in a man, to cease to be [herself], to be transported to heaven on borrowed wings." By learning to take her writing seriously, she has, supposedly, grown wings of her own. Flight is a recurrent image in women's writing,… and is often a metaphor for women's writing, signifying what Grace Stewart calls the desire to escape "the polarity between woman and artist"; and since in French voler means not only "to fly," but "to steal," it has further associations with "stealing the language"—a connection stressed by Suleiman, who sees Jong as accomplishing both feats.

But Isadora's ending suggests that her "wings" are still Bennett's—Bennett Wing's—since she has followed her husband to London, let herself into his room, and ends up soaking in his bathtub, contemplating her options:

Perhaps I had only come to take a bath. Perhaps I would leave before Bennett returned. Or perhaps we'd go home together and work things out. Or perhaps we'd go home together and separate. It was not clear how it would end.

At which point, the novel ends:

But whatever happened, I knew I would survive it. I knew, above all, that I'd go on working. Surviving meant being born over and over….


I hummed and rinsed my hair. As I was soaping it again, Bennett walked in.

Notwithstanding Isadora's assertion of open-ended possibilities and her insistence that she is free to leave, strong probabilities are suggested by the force of her past, which the novel does nothing to exorcise, and by her situation in the present—she is naked in her husband's bathtub. Isadora may have outgrown her desire for zipless fucks, but she has not overcome her need of Bennett. Besides, we know from the sequel, How to Save Your Own Life (perhaps the most embarrassing novel written in recent decades by a woman with literary pretensions), that she does not leave Bennett until she has another man lined up to take his place.

The blurb on my paperback copy of the book proclaims Fear of Flying "a dazzlingly uninhibited novel that exposes a woman's most intimate sexual feelings," and besides the reviewers who praised it for telling it like it is from the female sexual viewpoint, we have Jong's testimony to the numerous women readers who share her fantasy of the zipless fuck. But women's "most intimate sexual feelings" sound depressingly familiar: cunt, cock, prick, ass, tits, fuck, fuckable, blowing and being blown. These do not break new ground.

There have been various attempts to defend Jong's use of male sexual vocabulary, most notably by Suleiman, who claims that it is a way of "filching" the language from men, "a parody of language of tough-guy narrator / heroes of Miller or Mailer," a "reversal of roles and of language, in which the docile … silent, objectified woman suddenly usurps both the pornographer's language and his way of looking at the opposite sex." But even granting this as Jong's purpose, to reverse the terms is not to challenge the terms. The problem with this sexual vocabulary is that it inscribes a power struggle in which women have been "had"; to wield it is not to steal the language or demonstrate "authenticity," but to reveal a more insidious form of alienation. The challenge facing women who write about desire is to articulate new terms for sexuality that will transform the old power struggle and change "the rules of the old game"—as Drabble does in The Waterfall.

Jong confuses liberation with sexual liberation and confuses sexual liberation with the freedom to act and talk like a man, but the bold language that so impressed readers masks a conventionality, a failure to imagine otherwise. Isadora is right—she does "talk a good game"—and there are wonderfully quotable bits in Fear of Flying, which I've filched throughout chapters 1 and 2, but they are suspiciously excerptable, on the surface, as is the feminism of the novel. The novel does not, finally, challenge "the old story" at the level of plot, language, or meaning. When Isadora is falling for Adrian, she senses the presence of a "hackneyed plot," "the vocabulary of popular love songs, the cliches of the worst Hollywood movies. My heart skipped a beat. I got misty…. He was my sunshine"; and Fear of Flying is itself caught in the hackneyed, for Isadora resists one set of cliches to succumb to another and is left going "in circles," "round in circles," on a "merry-go-round," a "constant round."

Thus the ending of How to Save Your Own Life comes as no surprise:

It was no good. All her feminism, all her independence, all her fame had come to this, this helplessness, this need. She needed him. She needed this man. When he entered her, when his hot cock slid into her, she was moaning something about that, about surrender.

"A stiff prick?" On the basis of Jong's fiction, "their obsession" would seem to be "our obsession."

Gayle Greene, "Old Stories," in her Changing the Story: Feminist Fiction and the Tradition, Indiana University Press, 1991, pp. 86-102.

Erica Jong with Lynn Spampinato (interview date 19 April 1994)

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[In the following interview, Jong discusses her memoir Fear of Fifty, her views on feminism, and her goals as a writer.]

[Spampinato]: I read recently that you have two new books that are set to be published soon: Fear of Fifty and Twenty Forty. Would you like to tell me about them?

[Jong]: Twenty Forty is a novel I'm still working on that is set in the future, but it is nowhere near ready for publication. Fear of Fifty, my mid-life memoir, will be published this August [1994], and in it I relate the events of my life, beginning on my fiftieth birthday and moving backward in time. In this process of telling my own story, I tell the story of my generation, which I refer to as "The Whiplash Generation," because we were raised to be Doris Day, grew to young womanhood wanting to be Gloria Steinem, and now we're raising our daughters in the age of Princess Diana and Madonna. So I think we've been buffeted about in our views and opinions of love, of marriage, of motherhood, of feminism, and of course, of femininity itself. I think we are really a remarkable generation. So I tell my own story (very personally and very humorously), as a way of telling the story of my generation.

What made you decide to write Fear of Fifty at this point in your career?

I think there's a sort of natural progression, which is, when you hit mid-life—we optimistically call it mid-life, it may be two-thirds of the way toward death, actually—I think that you begin to see your life in a very different perspective. If your parents are still alive, you begin to see them as human beings, rather than ogres or angels. If you have a child or children, you begin to see where you fit in on the evolutionary chain—between your parents and child. It's a moment of reappraising your life and discovering where you belong in the continuum. This is the time that people want to trace their "roots." "Where did I come from?" and "where did my family come from?" and "how did I get to be me?" become fascinating questions. Given the buffeting that my generation has experienced—with feminism going in and out of style as if it were a hemline—I was drawn to assess why I had been able to function as a creative writer in a world that is not very good to women writers. What gave me my strength, where did it come from? I discovered that it came from both my parents, in different ways. And why was I able to survive creatively when my two sisters were not as free, when my mother was not as free, when my grandmother was not as free. So it was a sort of reappraisal of my life at fifty. And I think that is very typical of the kind of changes that go on psychologically at mid-life.

You mentioned feminism going "in and out of style." Do you perceive any pervasive trends in the current state of contemporary feminist literature and publishing?

I think we went through a period when we had a tremendous split in the feminist movement, between those women who believed that feminism should reach out and embrace homemakers, women with children, women who didn't have the posture of separatists, and those feminists who were very hard line and hard core, and didn't want to open the tent to everyone. And that split I perceived to be one of the problems of the backlash era. (Not that we feminists created the backlash; it came out of the Reagan administration and the Bush administration, and a roll-back of women's rights that came along with a very reactionary trend politically.) But in a sense I think that we also opened ourselves to it, because as feminists we didn't spread our tent wide enough. In the 70s there was a tendency to exclude women who wanted to have children and who loved men. "Where do I fit into this movement?" they asked. Some of them felt they were treated very badly. What I see now is a kind of reaching out, more inclusiveness—which is good. And in the younger generation of feminists, the third-wave feminists, like Naomi Wolf, Katie Roiphe, Susie Bright, and the new people who are coming along and writing books (who are in their late twenties or early thirties) there is a much greater inclusiveness—something I have always been arguing for. Let's not have political litmus tests in order to be included in the feminist movement. You don't have to be one kind of feminist only to be included. And I think it's hopeful that we have more inclusiveness and a kind of "big tent" feminism now, because that gives us the hope of creating a mass movement, rather than an exclusionary movement. I'm very happy about that. The next generation, the third-wave feminists, are coming along, and they're opening the net wider. I think that's good.

How do you respond to critics, particularly feminist critics, who fault your use of sexual vocabulary in your novels? For instance, Gayle Greene, in her book Changing the Story: Feminist Fiction and the Tradition (1991), stated: "Jong confuses liberation with sexual liberation and confuses sexual liberation with the freedom to act and talk like a man." Now she was referring specifically to Fear of Flying, but this has been a fairly consistent criticism of many of your novels. How do you respond to statements like Greene's?

It seems to me natural that in a patriarchal society where women have been deprived of the full use of their sexuality for centuries, or where sexuality has meant a kind of terrible repression and submission for women, that many feminists will feel that the only way to be free is to be anti-sexual. Adrienne Rich has written about this; Audre Lorde has written about this. Women in sexist society frequently throw out Eros, because Eros, for women, has historically been so entrapping. But it is a mistake to throw out Eros, because Eros is the source of our creativity. So I understand that there are feminists who feel that I've sold out to the male principle, but they are deeply misunderstanding the thrust of my work. They themselves have bought into male dichotomies, but they don't even know it! Every creator needs to be fueled by the life-force, and the life-force is Eros. Sexuality is not a matter of bowing down to male subjugation—not at all. Sexuality can be female. I hope that women will recapture their own pagan sensuality, the kind of sensuality that they had thousands of years ago in a pre-patriarchal world, and I hope they will learn to use it as a creative force. The women who criticize sexuality per se cannot even understand a female-positive Eros. They see it in terms of male pornography, which abuses women, and that's all they can imagine. But if you go back to an earlier tradition, if you go back to Sappho, if you go back to Nefertiti, if you go back to the Egyptian women who ruled, the Egyptian deities who inspired, you see that female sexuality does not have to be male dominated. The Judeo-Christian world is, in a sense, an aberration in history, in that women's sexuality has been subjugated by men. I see sexuality in a much freer sense than these feminists do. I think of the sexuality of a Sappho, a very liberating sexuality and a very pro-female sexuality. The critics to whom you refer are trapped in a kind of Judeo-Christian worldview; they think that to be prosex is to be pro-male-domination. They just don't understand. They are more oppressed by patriarchal thinking than I am.

In a 1987 interview with Contemporary Authors, you stated: "I think of myself as a poet who stumbled into the habit of writing novels. But they use different muscles, really." What did you mean by using "different muscles," and do you still think of yourself as primarily a poet?

I do apprehend the world as a poet—that is imagistically. I never outline a novel's plot first, as some thriller writers do. I always start with an image, with a sense of the language of the book, and generally with a character, and I sort of know where the arc of the story is pointing, but I never know just where it ends. I think like a poet. When I say "using different muscles," I mean that the novel can contain all kinds of things that the poem can't. The novel can be a criticism of society, the novel can include the way people cook and go to the bathroom and ride on horseback or in spaceships, and it can include all the impedimenta of the world, and you can make that part of your book's subtext. So the novel has a reach that the poem does not have. And that I find very beguiling—the impulse to create a world. In that sense you're using different muscles. The novel also allows for observation of character, which most modern lyric poetry does not. Speaking out of an "I" persona, which is an outgrowth of the poet's own "I," may go very close to the bone, but it doesn't paint a society as a whole. I guess those are the ways in which the two forms use different muscles. My poetry feeds my prose, and most of my books start, in some sense, through poetry. If I didn't go back and write poetry after every book of prose, I would be impoverished. Writing poems and keeping notes in notebooks restore me to myself. They are my compost heap. Through them, I get back to my center.

What would you say are your primary aims or goals as an author?

I would like to bring wholeness to contemporary women. I think that women have been deeply split—their minds have been split from their bodies, their sexuality has been split from their intelligence. I think Judeo-Christian culture has forced women into a kind of whore/madonna split and mind/body split. Each of my heroines is looking for integration. Fanny wants, as she always says, "reason and rump," Isadora is looking for sexuality and intellect both; she doesn't want to give up one for the other. To have sex but no intellect is like having breathing but not eating. So, I think the aim of my books is to accomplish a kind of integration and wholeness for modern women. My heroines begin their stories suffering from a lack of integration, and in the course of their adventures they come upon a new integration.

You seem to use a great deal of autobiographical information in your works. Would you describe your writing process? How do you incorporate your personal experience in your plots and characters?

I don't really know. I generally transform my life in the writing process. Sometimes I write books that seem more superficially autobiographical (in the sense that the heroines come from New York, are Jewish and bookish like me) and sometimes the autobiographical impulse is more hidden, as it is in Serenissima or Fanny or the future novel I'm writing now. Why I reach out and pick up certain elements of life and use them in the book, or how I transform them, I can't tell you—it's really an unconscious process. I try to make the heroines as real and visceral as I can. For example, I want them to have professions I know well. In Any Woman's Blues, Leila is a painter, a metier I understand very well because I come from a family of painters. In Serenissima, Jessica is an actress: I have many friends who are in the acting profession. I would probably not want to give a character of mine a profession that I didn't feel in my guts. But how I transform stuff that really happened to me, I really don't know—it's very intuitive.

How do you perceive yourself in relation to the larger picture of contemporary literature?

We live in a time when there has been a revolution in women's autobiographical writing. If you look at a book like Jill Ker Conway's anthology of women's autobiography [Written by Herself: Autobiographies of American Women, 1992], you see that this is a great age of flowering of the autobiographical impulse. Women writers have fulfilled the prophecy of Emerson ("novels will give way, by and by, to diaries or autobiographies"). Why? Because women have had to define themselves anew in this century. All the givens we were raised with have been swept away—notions of motherhood, notions of wifehood, notions of the stability of the family—everything has changed. So, we turn to autobiographical writing to help us define ourselves, and to help us define our womanhood in a time when female status is radically changing, and relations between the sexes are, too.


Jong, Erica (Vol. 8)