Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Magnum Orifice -- Thoughts on "Vagina: A New Biography," Naomi Wolf

Words, words – what is there to fear in them?  Or in ideas?  Supposing they are revolting, are we cowards?[1]

                                    Henry Miller, Paris Review Interview, 1961

Yes, Dear Reader, I have been at it again.  So many good books to read in the world, and I have been trudging through Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography.  Why did I do this to myself?  I was prepared to give the book a pass, but friends kept sending me links to scathing reviews telling me “this is right up your alley.”  Ahem.

The reviews have been fun to read.  Critics, who have allowed Ms. Wolf a wide berth in the past, have been harsh.  The reviewers for New York Review of Books, The Guardian, The New Statesman, The New Yorker, and The Millions are versed in feminist history and literature.  I am not.  I am just a humble, passionate reader with access to two large library systems, a drop of common sense, and sympathetic friends who entertain my oddities.  Curiosity is the Devil’s something-or-other, so I had to have a look for myself.

Vagina is unintentionally funny, na├»ve, sad and infuriating.  Funny came first on page three.  I texted my friend, The Commodore:[2] “Do you feel a kind of holistic (that is, not merely sexual) gratitude[3] for the vagina qua vagina?  Just curious.”  He was bewildered by my sudden inquiry, which was perhaps a bit much to drop on a chap before the first evening cocktail.  He informed me that “The Men Who Built America” was on the History Channel.  I turned on the television and continued with Ms. Wolf’s journey within while the hell-fires of the Industrial Revolution raged without, set to Campbell Scott’s narration.[4]  I don’t read in front of the television normally, but two thoughts popped to mind.  Was Andrew Carnegie really that foxy?  And, the humorless masculine universe of the robber barons was a nice foil to the humorless, feminine universe of Ms. Wolf.

Soon sluggishness settled on the old keppe.  The first chapter “Meet Your Incredible Pelvic Nerve” begins with the author’s personal crisis.  While she was extremely happy and satisfied with her mate and life was dandy, sex went from incandescent to merely spectacular.  Her glorious Technicolor™ orgasms, which helped her locate her special place in the cosmos, petered off, and she had to make do with lots of regular orgasms.  What would an educated and rational woman do?  Why, panic of course! She sat by the cold iron woodstove[5] in her cottage upstate and bargained with God, or whomever.  If The Universe would restore her to her former sensation, and if she learned anything worth knowing in the process (italics mine this time), she would write a book and tell all of us about it.

This is a curious bargain.  A bargain in exchange for a favor usually requires one either to do something, or to refrain from doing something, that one does not normally do.  Ms. Wolf writes books.  Often these books are about her own experience, which she blows up to apply to all women.  She promised to do her job in exchange for full restoration of her senses.  This is not much of a bargain. She owes the Universe flowers.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I am sympathetic to Ms. Wolf’s medical condition, and the subsequent diagnosis and treatment sound ghastly.  Vertebrae were involved, and I will say no more.  If you are fortunate enough to enjoy good health, it is a jarring experience the first time your body conks out on you.  In July 1998, I sprained my left ankle.  The severe sprain was the result of a nasty fall on a train platform while wearing a saucy pair of high-heeled sandals, the sort of sandals Luciana Paluzzi might have worn in Thunderball. The little spill, that I thought might get me a prescription painkiller and a talking to about heel height, got me several weeks of pain, crutches, casts, ice and heat, but no fun meds.  I sprained the anterior talofibular ligament.  This is a very important bit.  If not treated properly, it will gnaw at you constantly and ache when it’s damp and dictate your choice of shoe for the rest of your life.  You can barely move without this busybody ligament asserting its importance.  Do you have any idea how much you use your left foot to brush your teeth?  No, of course you haven’t.  When this ligament is not happy, it will not allow you to think about much else.

During the best part of the summer, I was immobile and mostly alone.  This gave me time to think.  Mainly, I thought about how much pain I was in and how I wanted it to stop.  I wanted to go for a run, even though I didn’t run.  My leg propped on a pillow, I would stare at my ankle and converse with it.  Please, heal.  Please, let me turn over in bed without waking up in pain.  Please, let’s be friends.  I promise I will never wear those shoes again.[6]  I envied people with cooperative anterior talofibular ligaments and wanted mine to be restored.  I developed a lasting interest in observing gait.  People do some twitchy things when they walk.  Take a look for yourself sometime. 

It’s a grand nuisance and sort of marvelous that a small part of the body affects the whole so completely.  Every piece is important and deserves respect and care.  Ms. Wolf also had time to contemplate the human body and its cogs and gears during her convalescence.  Our similarities end there.

During her treatment, she was shocked – shocked! – to discover that the neural networks of the sex organs[7] are connected to the spine, which is in turn connected to the brain.  So, the vagina is plugged in to the medulla oblongata,[8] and women have a profound Vagina Brain Connection.  One wonders why the scientists she interviewed, or an editor, did not impress upon her that all neural networks connect to the brain.  That is how we work.  We are masses of string connecting things – knees, breasts, thighs, eyes, tongue – to the brain.  Our brains are not wireless, yet.  This lazy bit of thinking is just the beginning.  What follows is 300 pages of piffle: part scientific and cultural history, poorly executed, and part prescription for a Better Way of Life, poorly conceived.

Ms. Wolf makes the daring statement that men need to do a better job of satisfying women’s needs, if we are to be the creative, peaceful doves we are at heart.  Adopt a more adoring attitude, boys, and make the world a better place.  Well, shucks, who am I to argue with that?  I am on board out of pure selfishness, until she explains what she means.  Then my rational mind, that old killjoy, shows up and ruins everything.  Women require what Ms. Wolf refers to as the Goddess Array.  It’s a simple prescription: candles, caresses, careless whispers.  Goddesses are docile when treated right, and that is a scientific fact.  No irrational, spiteful, selfish or homicidal demands are made from a properly appeased goddess, no Sirree.  A goddess is never bored or dissatisfied with her obedient worshipper.  The worshipper never grumbles at his goddess; he is too busy plucking rose petals for her foot bath in fear of his life. 

With the Goddess Array, everyone wins: happy vagina equals happy woman equals happy man.  There is nothing reductive about that in the least.  As an aspirant goddess, albeit of the smiting sort, I imagine that some women would be bored with the Goddess Array buffet.  The worshipful stance is well and good, but at some point, you want a man to get off his knees.  At some point.  Also, people have a big appetite for kink in its various gross and glorious forms, or so the internet tells me.  The hothouse flower treatment is not everyone’s cup of gin.

In Ms. Wolf’s view, a properly fed and watered vagina will never lead its owner astray.  She will not pretend to like Led Zeppelin or the New York Jets to impress a penis.  She will not don a diaper and drive two thousand miles to stalk and kill a rival vagina.  She will not find herself in the wrong bed with the wrong dong, no matter how very right it might feel.  She will not engage in a bit of cyber-stalking and accidentally bring down the CIA.  Bathroom stalls and backseats, dark corners and closets have a practical and unlascivious purpose.  The vagina will lead her to a fine man[9] who will cuddle her, and speak softly to her, and handle her like a Faberge egg, which is what she wants, whether she knows it or not.  Afterwards, she may have an urge to paint flowers.  Oh, how wrong she is, Dear Reader!  According to the flyleaf, Ms. Wolf is working towards her doctorate in Victorian literature at New College, Oxford University.  What on earth is she reading?  Any sensible person over the age of twenty who thinks that sex when done right envelops you in a blissful, protective bubble and does not recognize that it can also turn you into a weepy mess or a mad stalker or Lady Macbeth is suffering under strange delusions.  She is also not much of a reader.  This is a fault.

It defies belief that a fifty-year old writer who has made a career as a third-wave feminist delivers a prescription for female happiness that reduces women to their sex organs and argues that women’s capacity for happiness hinges on the way those organs are treated and spoken to by men.  You read that right: spoken to by men.

Ms. Wolf announces in the chapter “The Worst Word There Is” that words about the vagina create environments that directly affect women’s bodies.  Words create stress, stress damages the body’s tissues and organs, ergo words hurt the vagina, ergo, words about the vagina are doubly bad because the vagina is listening.

To prove how damaging words can be, she cites Tropic of Cancer and the passage about the whore Germaine and Henry Miller’s description of the whore’s cunt.  I read Tropic of Cancer at least once a year, and I have inflicted this book on many a trusting person.  Yes, Miller writes some rotten things about women… and men and Paris and history and Europe and America and religion and art and everything.  Miller the Merciless delves into his imagination and experience to report on the human being, with all its joys, appetites and ugliness.  His dancing, spinning prose needs cunt. It can’t do without it.  If you are the sort of person who is primed to be offended, Miller will not disappoint, and good on him for it. 

Then Ms. Wolf turns to Anais Nin’s story “Mathilde” and tells us that this is the sort of thing the ladies like to read.  Mathilde is a snappy Parisian who hears that French gals are all the rage in South America.  She packs off to Peru for group sex and opium.  One of her lovers, Antonio, will poke her anywhere but the vagina.  Mathilde hopes to bring him around to her way of thinking on the matter.  He shoots her up with cocaine and when he is certain she is numb, he opens a penknife and is poised to slice her vagina to ribbons when the police burst in and save Mathilde.  It turns out Antonio is a known vagina slasher.  While the word “cunt” never appears in this story, it left me rather queasy.

It is strange that Ms. Wolf makes an argument about sex-based taste for words and literature using the work of famous artist-lovers.  Theirs is a beautiful correspondence documenting their obsession with art, ideas, language and each other.  Nin helped edit Tropic of Cancer and financed its first publication.  She thought Miller’s art was brilliant and exhilarating; she wasn’t put off by his words.

That Ms. Wolf singled out the Germaine passage from Tropic of Cancer is a wee bit hypocritical.  As part of her research into whatever it is she is trying to prove she visits a male Tantric therapist, to put it in the nicest possible way.  She keeps her shirt and sarong on[10] and enjoys “an hour of agenda-free, oceanic bliss.” Agenda free?  She paid a reformed London financier turned love guru three hundred quid for an hour of some high falutin’ stroking.  Presumably if Germaine had recited a lively ditty from the Vedas while getting her johns off, that would have redeemed the encounter, made it less transactional. 

Vagina had a strange effect on me.  Normally I delight in reading a bad book, but I couldn’t read more than a chapter at a time without going into a blue funk.  Himself[11] grew weary of this venture.  He informed me that the book was putting me in a mood, and he suspected that it might be a horcrux.  He is quite handy around the house, and he looked online to learn how to fashion a basilisk fang to lift the curse.  I got Vagina from the library, and it’s poor form to return a library book scorched with snake venom.  He was right, of course.  The book cast a pall over my spirit.  It was almost as if it was hurting my brain, which, by the transitive property, was also hurting my vagina.

I usually read several books at once, but when something is really bad, I need selective reinforcements.  There are pluses and minuses to this sort of reading.  The minus is that it delays finishing the hated book.  The plus is your reading life remains pleasant and your will to live is restored.  Dear Reader, if you are going to read Vagina, I recommend you choose a few companions to help you along.

If you are looking for a counterpoint to Vagina, and you have already read and re-read Tropic of Cancer, you can do no better than to peruse the delightful Flashman, by George MacDonald Fraser, OBE FRSL.  Unlike Ms. Wolf, Mr. Fraser knows what happens when you let the naughty bits do your thinking for you.  They will get you tossed out of school, wrapped up with foreign whores, embroiled in a duel that you will barely survive, and before you know it you are married to a Scotch lass and shipped East, cricketing your way through the Kush to Afghanistan, where the real fun begins.  Mr. Fraser did careful research for his books,[12] and he knows his onions.  Sir Harry Paget Flashman is an obnoxious and anachronistic English colonial, and he is a hell of a lot of fun.  Flashy can buckle my swash any day.[13]  Mr. Fraser has my enduring gratitude for his footnote on the Rugby School Mutiny of 1797.[14]  My life is permanently improved by this footnote. 

Or, if you are interested in sexual biology, read Mary Roach’s Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex or Natalie Angier’s Women: An Intimate Geography.  Both books are informative and funny.  Bonk rushes in where many would never think to tread: Taiwanese surgeries, Danish pig farms, monkey labs, female penis pumps (just read the book), and coital magnetic resonance imaging.  Mr. Mary Roach deserves a prize for being an Exceptionally Good Sport.[15]  Angier’s Women does not reduce a woman to her sex organs.  It starts with the female in her larval stage and works up to the brain and evolutionary biology, with sharp, occasionally loony, feminist commentary. 

If you are looking for advice on how to live a better life and Vagina’s saccharine Goddess Array makes your teeth ache, then I have just the antidote for you.  Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Life and Love from Dear Sugar, by Cheryl Strayed.  Normally I would waive you away from advice books because I am against self-improvement on general principle.  Unless you are a Yankees fan,[16] or you are plotting genocide, you are probably okay.  Also, these books are often painful to read because the authors are illiterate simpletons.  Ms. Strayed is not an illiterate simpleton.  She writes like a motherfucker, to borrow her phrase.  You might not want to read this book in public.  Advice seekers write to Dear Sugar with terrible problems and her advice is compassionate and stark.  Sugar has brought me to unrestrained tears on three train rides so far.

As I bounced between these books, I realized why Vagina depressed me.  The author had great material to work with and Bonk and Women show that there are many engaging approaches to write about Women with a capital “W.”  Ms. Wolf claims that Vagina: A New Biography is a call for female liberation and happiness, but the title should be Vagina: An Autobiography.  The book is depressing because the author is the subject, and she does not seem to like her subject very much.

The best part of the book is the beginning, when she writes about her health troubles.  It’s the best part because it is sincere and even when I was laughing at her horrid prose, I really did want her to get better.  When she sobs and bargains with the Universe, she is afraid that the joy has left her life and it’s gone forever.  It sounds as though she has enjoyed good health for her adult life.  She reached the age of forty-six before her body disrupted her life, and she is not taking it well.  None of us do, so why take it personally?  She claims that she has regained all of her previous sensation, but certain sports and activities are off limits now.  Recovered, yes.  Back to normal, no.  When your body turns on you, you never drop your guard.  The thought floats lightly around your consciousness: this could happen again.  The next time, it could be worse.  The next time, I might not get better.  And then Vagina started to makes sense, in a fashion.  The book is not a brave call for women’s liberation, it’s a plea for protection.  Please don’t hurt me.  Please, don’t let this happen to me again.  Please, I am very fragile and very scared.  Please, be careful what you say.

Vagina could have been a better book if Ms. Wolf had written to Dear Sugar for advice, first.  Sugar is not a licensed therapist, and she was not to the manner born.[17]  Sugar is a scrapper.  She is the friend you call in a desperate moment.  If you need a slap, she will wallop you.  If you need a hug, she will smother you with love.  But Sugar will not coddle you or lie to you.

In the column “Tiny Revolutions,” a middle-aged woman who calls herself “Wanting” is facing single life again at the end of a long marriage.  Wanting sounds like a nice person who is ready to get crazy and fall in love.  Wanting is scared that nobody will love her back.  Wanting deserves the kid glove treatment.  Wanting doesn’t get it.  Sugar has lived in the rough world and she knows what a woman worth her salt knows: nobody gives you permission to live the life you want.  You have to take it for yourself.  Sugar sums it up beautifully: “courage is a vital piece of any well-lived life.” [18]

Let’s take this one step further: whose permission are you seeking and why do you need it?  If you want to be a goddess, then be a goddamn goddess.  Be brave.  Don’t whimper.

Ms. Wolf underwent a painful ordeal and it’s great that she regained her lost sensation.  It’s a shame she did not channel the experience to examine the private terrors of sickness, waiting, uncertainty and dig up what revelations, if any, she had when she recovered.  I would like to read that book.  But, I have no patience for the sort of person who thinks that re-organizing the world to assuage her existential fears results in a better life for the rest of us.  I do not presume that my taste is the gold standard, but I still keep trying to get people to read Henry Miller.  Ask me how well that’s going.

I would not have bothered to write about this book, if not for the enraging chapter “The Worst Word There Is.”  This no such thing as bad words, only words used badly.  Do not trust anyone who deals in forbidden words or forbidden ideas, no matter how benevolent their intentions might seem. They know what is best for you because you can’t handle the complexities of adult life, you poor thing.  Don’t cower from words or ideas.  Grapple with them, bat them around, tear them to pieces and make them your own.  Words, words, what is there to fear in them?  Plenty, Mr. Miller, but as you well know, cut yourself off from words and you cut yourself off from life.  No thank you.

A writer who retreats from words has learned nothing worth knowing.

The humiliations and defeats, given with a primitive honesty, end, not in frustration, despair or futility, but in hunger, an ecstatic, devouring hungerfor more life.

                                                      Anais Nin, 1934
                                                      Preface to Tropic of Cancer

[3] The italics are Ms. Wolf’s. She makes liberal use of italics and quotation marks. 
[4] That man can do Very Bad Things with his voice.  His toasted almond, caramel, and suede voice.
[5] Why am I telling you about the cold, iron woodstove in the cottage upstate?  Because this book is riddled with unnecessary details that lodge in the memory and refuse to budge, like carpenter ants in hibernation.  I am quite irritated that this detail occupies my valuable mental real estate.  Now it occupies yours.
[6] See that?  That’s a bargain.  That’s how that works.
[7] Ms. Wolf uses “vagina” to describe all of the female tackle.  The vagina in Vagina is not a discrete organ, but a melange of lady parts.
[8] I can attest that the anterior talofibular ligament has its own neural network to the brain, although probably not via the vagina.
[9] Warning: he will most likely be a vegetarian and a cycling enthusiast.
[10] Of course she wore a sarong to the Tantric therapist. What else would she wear? Why must she tell us these needless details? And yes, I have done it to you again.
[11] AKA My husband.
[12] There is a series. I am so very pleased.
[13] Flashman is the inspiration for “Lord Flashheart” in Black Adder. Woof woof!
[14] Go to Wikipedia, look up “Willoughby Cotton,” and then come right back here.
[15] See Chapter 5.
[16] Bronx natives are exempt from this. The rest of you have no excuse.
[17] Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is on my reading list.  I recommend you add it to yours before the movie with Reese Witherspoon comes out.  God give me patience.