Thy Neighbor’s Wife
Poor Reich and the other crazies used to think that sex, proper orgasms, and so forth constituted a challenge to power, to the bourgeois order: a freer fuck means a freer world. Plodding along the trail marked out by the high priest of the orgone box comes Gay Talese with the same assumption.
Orgasms as such do not interest him too much, as against the property/possession/power relations amid which the O, big, little, copious or casual, takes place. The smut-hound, dipping into Thy Neighbor’s Wife in bookshop or library, won’t find much to induce tumescence. Though the book purports to be a saga of sex liberation, of society’s journey upward toward the light, Talese is not interested in sensuality, the erotic, or the perverse.
In fact the book is terribly sedate. He has a concept of sex as “recreation,” rather like the other great postwar bourgeois obsession, tennis. Singles, or doubles, a good fast serve, netplay, game, set and M-A-A-A-T-C-H. Then back to the nuclear nest and more deeply felt, improved netplay with the Missus.
The dark god can be found in the index, wedged between “Peeping Toms” and “Pennsylvania.” This is Mr. “Penis” who has the modest distinction of getting three references. Talese’s normally lackluster prose takes on a modicum of energy when dealing with Mr. P.
…it does indeed seem to have a will of its own, an ego beyond its size, and is frequently embarrassing because of its needs, infatuations and unpredictable nature. Men sometimes feel that their penis controls them, leads them astray, causes them to beg favors at night from women whose names they prefer to forget in the morning. Whether insatiable or insecure, it demands constant proof of its potency, introducing into a man’s life unwanted complications and frequent rejection.
Talese’s contemplation of Mr. P then takes on the rhythm of a job application.
Qualifications: “Sensitive but resilient, equally available during the day or night with a minimum of coaxing….”
Previous Experience: “…it has performed purposefully if not always skillfully for an eternity of centuries, endlessly searching, sensing, expanding, probing, penetrating, throbbing, wilting, and wanting more.”
Character Testimonial: “Never concealing its prurient interest, it is a man’s most honest organ.”
Hired! Mr. P, our society has had its troubles with your sort in the past, and frankly some members of the screening committee here think we’d be better off without you. But we’re a forward-looking company, and I’m sure you’ll fit in.
Though Mr. P gets the job, Talese is still bothered about him. “It is also symbolic of masculine imperfection…. It is very vulnerable even when made of stone, and the museums of the world are filled with herculean figures brandishing penises that are chipped, clipped, or completely chopped off.” This sentence, parsed literally, must mean that there are statues where Mr. P, broken off from the crotch, is being hoisted aloft in the hand—which slip nicely illustrates the true story that Talese’s book avoids. Mr. P, so frisky and troublesome in the past, is in the mid-twentieth century in middle-class American society being socialized, brought under control, jerked off into hyper-repressive desublimation and if necessary snapped off at the root altogether and brandished aloft as the captive object, six inches of stone under control. Poor Mr. P.
What about Mrs. V? One gets the impression that Talese is more of a tit man really, since there’s a fair amount of to-do in the book about breasts being presented in swelling, pointed, creamy or simply “large” guise for the delectation of Mr. P. Near the end of the book there’s a sort of “Honor Mrs. V” day, when Talese reports on the efforts of some women to give Mrs. Vagina and her close relative Mrs. Clitoris a modicum of civil rights, bring them out into the noonday of progress amid inspection and approval.
Mrs. V’s triumphant social integration in full civil rights status is signaled by Talese’s report that “One woman who, like [Betty] Dodson years ago, believed that her genitals were deformed and ugly, was persuaded by Dodson’s color slides of female genitalia that she was as attractive as most other women; and the next day in her office, reassured and confident, she demanded a raise—and got it.”
This is splendidly helpful of Mrs. V, but on the whole Talese’s book, though purportedly about liberation and the escape from the Puritan heritage, is not about the liberation of women or of Mrs. V into emancipated hunter-gatherers of sexual gratification. Mr. P is the hunter, home from the hill to the womb. “For a man,” says Talese obliquely quoting “a recently divorced husband of a famous European actress” of whose views he seems to approve, “there is no substitute for the warm, welcoming place between a woman’s legs, the birthplace to which men continuously try to return.” Mrs. V hangs around as receptionist and, if she’s lucky, gets to know Mr. P really well and settles down.
“Quite apart from the potential danger involved in picking up stray men in public places, the average sexual woman did not enjoy intercourse without a feeling of familiarity or personal interest in her partner. If it was merely an orgasm that she sought, she would prefer masturbating in her bedroom with a penis-shaped vibrator to engaging the genuine article of a male stranger.” This is Talese reproducing without demur the views of “men who were well qualified to comment.” We must assume—since the passage occurs on page 530 in the final section—that this is what he tends to think.
“If it was merely an orgasm she sought.” The hunt for the big O used to be central to chronicles of sex liberation. The idea was that you masturbated until, in the fullness of time and good fortune, you obtained proper fulfillment for yourself and your employee Mr. P by meeting up with Mrs. V. The most virtuous course was then to discipline Mr. P until with skill and practice the supreme objective of simultaneous orgasm could be achieved.
There were endless tracts on how to achieve this satisfactory condition. They roughly paralleled in the Fifties and Sixties the strategic concept, espoused in the Pentagon, of Mutual Assured Destruction, which proposed that all bombs would go off pretty much together if one side made an aggressive move against the other. Both sides would shin up the escalatory ladder in tandem until prodigious emissions of radioactive material were jointly achieved.
Mutual orgasm is less fashionable these days, as the desired objective of congress. And in parallel the Pentagon strategists have shifted emphasis to pre-emptive strikes, flexible targeting options, and the view that one side could emit at least some radioactive material without necessarily causing the mutual assured destruction deemed the inevitable, proper terminus in earlier decades. The MX system even envisages Russian missiles speeding toward what may or may not be dry holes, a sort of cockteasing ritual very alien to the manly “Let’s All Go Off Together” Big Bang approach of yesteryear.
Quite in keeping with his interest in finding Mr. P satisfactory conditions of employment in late capitalist society, and describing Mr. P’s efforts to attain same, Talese is not particularly interested in mutual orgasm or whatever Mr. P might do when he gets stuck into his job. He’s interested in Mr. P’s basic rights—notably for Mr. P’s owner to obtain freely a magazine or photograph (if necessary purveyed through the public mails) over which he can masturbate, and in the property/power relations in which Mr. P can have a good time. Mr. P covets Thy Neighbor’s Wife (his ox or his ass or anything else that is Thy Neighbor’s are tastefully omitted, since this is a good clean book), and Talese tries to describe how Mr. P can enter into at least temporary owner-occupancy with a minimum of social disruption.
The overall assumption of the book is that Mr. P is having a better time these days. Talese noticed this almost a decade ago and thought he would write a book explaining how and why.
Various techniques are mustered for the enterprise. Least successful is Talese’s nonchalant blend of instant-history, which crops up intermittently—reeking of scissors, paste, and the hot breath of the editor: “In this Freudian age, Americans were opening up, acknowledging their needs, and, because of automation and the shorter workweek, they had more time in which to ponder and seek their pleasure. The newly developed birth-control pill was being anticipated by women. The bikini bathing suit, imported from France, was beginning to appear on American beaches. And there were newspaper stories about the existence of mate-swapping clubs in several suburban communities. Jukeboxes across the nation were throbbing with the music of the pelvic-thrusting Elvis Presley, and audiences gathered in nightclubs to hear a shocking new comedian named Lenny Bruce.”
Thirty-three pages later Gary Powers lands his U-2 in the Soviet Union and “this was one of many incidents that contributed to growing public doubts about the integrity and supremacy of American leadership…. Multitudes of younger Americans [were] now disregarding the codes and inhibitions that had influenced their parents…. While most of these and similar acts of defiance would be associated historically with the mid-sixties and later, the initial tremors were felt years before when Eisenhower was still the President; and many early signs of this schismatic trend were sexual.”
A couple of pages after this we have the inauguration of Jack Kennedy whose “personal popularity was of course enhanced by his fashionable young wife, Jacqueline, who became the most photographed young woman in the world and, parenthetically, the masturbatory object of numerous male magazine readers.”
So there was even a place for Onan on the New Frontier, admittedly well back in the pecking order of the great Kennedy circle-jerk but given increasing status in the capitalist circulation of goods and services. Talese takes care to writer earlier in the same sequence that “by 1960 the multiplying fortunes of Hugh Hefner permitted him to purchase for $370,000 a forty-eight-room Victorian mansion near the exclusive Lake Shore Drive, and to spend an additional $250,000 on renovations and such furnishings as a large circular rotating bed that would become the center of his expanding empire.”
Talese deals with Hefner at length. His function in the book is twofold, as illustration of how Americans were provided a better class of wank in the postwar years, and as emblem of the great success story; how Mr. P shook aside his early inhibitions, grew rich and successful, lived in a lovely home, possessed Mrs. Vs by the hundreds, if not thousands, without truly paying the price demanded by nineteenth-century morality.
In describing the growth of the sex-service industry in the last decade or so Talese does not confine himself exclusively to the accommodation and pleasuring of Mr. P via pictures of desirable women in magazines. Al Goldstein, inventor of Screw magazine, receives due recognition as the Ralph Nader of the massage parlor. But there’s no doubt that his greater interest is in Hefner, whose magazine, Playboy, allowed the humble wanker dignified, if lonely, participation in the postwar consumer world where the fetishization of consumer durables and Miss April were nicely glued together by the manipulation of Mr. P over the coated stock and color spreads of this monthly advertisement for the better life.