Notes from Above Ground

We are always surprised by the banality of the perverse, by the limitations the body places on sexual activity, by the commonplaces of the erotic imagination. A subject so intensely charged ought, it would seem, to come up with more when it erupts in public view. The paraphernalia of fetishism should be more exotic than leather, chains, boots, and fur. One wants the Black Mass to be more chilling than it is. Only events like those British child murders, which occur from time to time, are truly shocking—and they, like the excesses of the Roman amphitheatre, fall more into the category of blood than flesh. We are not much interested in blood as entertainment these days. Perhaps we have been satisfied, even sated, by the daily life of the cities, the evening news on television, the events of last year, and the repeated promises of mass blood on real streets. This year, what we like are public exhibitions of flesh.

There is almost no one left in town who is not an expert on sex, going from film to theater to newsstand to bookstore—talking and writing about what he has seen. Everyone knows which theatrical coupling was real and which was simulated. Everyone tells us how sexually healthy he is and how non-erotic the performance, the performer, the book. The New York Review of Sex advertises in these pages. Screw and Pleasure, two of the other raunchy commercial off-shoots of the old love-drug-revolution press, are read for fun by people I know. One turns the pages of these papers, sees a naked girl whose legs are spread, and says—very Yellow Book—“What bad teeth she has!” We are apparently developing a new genre of middle-class pornography: one which stimulates no one at all.

The audience for this year’s exhibitions grows colder and more demanding. “I was disappointed,” said Clive Barnes as he left a performance of Che! during which the cast had sodomized (I use the term loosely) one another all evening. “I am very very bored,” a Feiffer voyeur says, “If anything, more bored than in real life.” “Oh,” one says upon hearing of the latest step away from sublimation, “is that all? Are you sure there was nothing more?”

The more spectacles we are exposed to, the more we expect. Surely there must be something none of us has thought of. In a way, it is this coolness which makes our presence at the public displays seem socially dislocating. We do not attend them as voluptuaries or even as voyeurs, bound together by the camaraderie of a dirty audience seeing a dirty thing. Rather, we are spectators at cultural events. One night we watch a disruption, the next, an ecstacy. We remain at the center of things. We are keeping up.

In this context, it is disorienting to sit behind Leonard Lyons and Morris Ernst, both aging and correct, at Che! while a naked actor attempts to perform fellatio on himself two feet from Lyons’s nose. Some years ago…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.