Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Sixty-One: Characters

A friend tells me that she's writing what she calls "Dead Poet Erotica". She's writing erotica about the imagined sex life, the should-have-been sex life, of the young Sylvia Plath. The fragments she's shown me have been very hot indeed. She has constructed some very detailed scenarios for the young Plath--- Sylvia in high school, Sylvia at college, Sylvia at Cambridge. Her point is that Plath needed a guide, an older lover, who'd have introduced her to things, shown her how to channel her own passions. I can't really disagree, of course. Plath did need someone much better than Richard Sassoon--- let alone the boys she dated at Smith ---to show her things, to offer her adventures and encounters that would've let her accept herself as fiercely sexual. I especially can't object since my friend has told me that she's used me as one of the young Sylvia's older lovers. I have to be flattered by that.  And Ms. Plath was tall for her age, and leggy enough.  If I'd met her when she was a freshman at Smith or just arrived at Cambridge, I might well have pursued her.

My friend calls what she's writing "Dead Poet Erotica", and I think she may do other stories about a young Anne Sexton. But it needn't be about poets, of course.  I know that there are readers who'd be incensed by what she's writing, who'd find the idea unacceptable. Some would be angry because my friend's stories infringe on the image of Plath that's been held by so many girls over the last forty years--- the Plath who inspires so many Sad Girls, the Plath the Sad Girls so deeply identify with. Some would be angry because they'd see it as a desecration of a feminist icon, or because it would be seen as a kind of necrophilia. Others, I suppose, because it does involve that most evil of all male creatures, the older lover. Nonetheless, I have to like what my friend is doing, and not just because she made me a character.

I suspect that Sylvia Plath erotica raises some readers' hackles only because Plath still seems contemporary--- that we're too close to her. Oh, there is an on-line genre of celebrity erotica, with (badly-done, usually) tales of sex with currently famous models and actresses. And there are certainly tales of the imagined sex lives of famous dead celebrities, a kind of fanfic where writers imagine being with a young Brando, or with Marilyn as an aspiring actress, or with either Hepburn. Those are all on-line erotica, with all that the phrase says about any literary quality. If you go back a bit, though, tales on a similar theme stop being fanfic or slashfic porn and become period pieces or historical novels. A novel about the imaginary erotic life of writers or royalty a century or two ago is treated very, very differently from a story where the author creates a character for himself (or herself) who has sex with a celebrity who's either living or only dead in the recent past.

I can certainly see my friend's attraction to Sylvia, and I certainly would've been interested in being an older admirer for her. I'm flattered that she wrote me in as a character. I suppose I feel a bit depressed that at my age I haven't appeared as even a minor, passing character in a couple of novels. Appearing as the gentleman of a certain age who figures in a co-ed's sentimental education, appearing in some lovely girl's autobiographical first novel--- I very much like the idea, and I have always believed that if one lived in a major city or college town and moved among literary types that one would inevitably make at least passing appearances in novels.

It's possible to dream of being a character in a story, to live one's life as if one were a character in a story. It's possible to look at photographs or at words on a screen and imagine whoever is behind those things as a character in stories you tell yourself. I've imagined myself as a character in a story, and I've certainly told myself long, complex tales about strangers seen at other tables or in faded photographs.

I don't even have to ask what the gender warriors say about that. They dislike fantasy, and they see fantasy as tantamount to violation. My friend will be posting her stories soon, and I know she'll draw fire for them. She'll be attacked for desecrating Plath's legend, or for having her have affairs with older men, or for having sapphic experiences with other co-eds. I'll offer my support, of course. I'm grateful that she did write me into her stories, and even more grateful that she thought I'd be someone who'd have been good for the young Sylvia. And I am impressed with the stories themselves, with the writing and the settings and the ideas of sentimental and erotic education. My friend will very much have my support.

If you're reading this, I'd like to know your own thoughts about "Dead Poet Erotica", or at least about the idea of imagined erotica with figures from the past.  Who would you choose as characters? More to the point, perhaps, do you find yourself turning people you see--- whether or not you know them ---into characters in stories you tell yourself? And what do you feel about it all, about shaping characters, about creating them from people you know, about being a character yourself?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Sixty: Gavotte

There's something about Valentine's Day that brings out a kind of defensiveness. So many girls that I know will dismiss it as a wholly manufactured holiday, a late-capitalist marketing ploy, and yet still sigh over the idea of a day devoted to the symbols and rituals of romance. I'm like that, too, of course. I can't attach much weight to candy and flowers and cards, and there is something a bit too much like mandatory fun about the whole idea. Still, though, I do like the rituals of romance, and I like the idea of a ritual day  for all the ceremonies and formal invocations of romance. I'm male, and I do suffer from the usual insecurities about what to give, and to whom, but I nonetheless feel a certain attraction to the idea of a day set aside for romantic gestures, a day where even fairly extravagant gestures won't be mocked.

This afternoon I watched people trying to assemble some of the accessories for Valentine's--- buying bottles of Veuve Cliquot or Moët, calling shops to have gifts chosen and wrapped for delivery. I can understand feeling harried by it all, though a bottle or two of Veuve on a winter's night is always a good thing.

Valentine's this year falls just after Ash Wednesday, and I suppose there's something ironic about it falling as Lent begins. Nonetheless, I do like the formality of it all, the formality of presentations and dressing for the occasion. We expect romance to be spontaneous these days,  and then we judge the spontaneity against the manufactured visions of the marketers. Ritual and formality offer up a kind of haven from all that.  The gift, the reserved table, the clink of glasses--- those gestures are easily read, and they establish a kind of dialogue.  I've always been in favor of things like that, of frameworks that carry you along.

Romance is so very fraught these days--- what to say, what not so say, whether any word or action is too much or not enough, what the subtexts are. Ritual and formality make that easier. And they show that you bothered to learn the steps, that you valued the idea of romance enough to learn its symbols and forms.

I am someone who needs the forms and symbols of love as much as the essence, whatever that essence might be. Valentine's at least offers that. There's a chance to make the gesture, to speak in a formal language. And there is something to be said for a holiday, however manufactured, that encourages gestures of romance, that encourages lovers to offer up the symbols of attraction and courtship. A holiday that celebrates ritualized desire and bottles of Veuve--- what's not to like? And it does provide safety in the dance, a space and time where the gesture is separated from the individual. In a time where any gesture of desire or romance is endlessly scrutinized and critiqued, that's no small thing.