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.
Masturbation has come a long way since Onan first spilled his seed upon the ground. Characteristically, Talese maintains a tone of uplift about the practice, as if in the end society would be working nicely were all its individual members wanking away in autotelic equilibrium, appropriating each other without the trouble and fuss of actual contact. Poor Schopenhauer. He held the view that “the collected love affairs of the present generation, taken together, are…the human race’s serious meditation on the composition of the future generation on which in their turn innumerable generations depend.” He would presumably have been much distressed about the apotheosis of Onan and concomitant evidence of considerable aversion among the citizenry to the notion of “the future generation,” as attested by the increasing social stature and self-confidence of buggery and the blow-job in postwar American life.
Schopenhauer did at least have a theory of instinctive natural selection, in which the buggers simply disqualified themselves, after a process of unconscious self-assessment, from the high task of composing the future of the species. Talese isn’t interested in buggery at all, whether of women by men or men by men. This is a pity. Perhaps his publishers could commission a companion volume to be called “From Suburb to Sodom” which would study the fall of the wife-swapping suburbs and the rise of the homosexually gentrified inner city, in which such thoroughfares as Columbus Avenue, New York, attest to the integration of “perversity” into the social-industrial complex. Nice, decent, suburban Mrs. V, organizer of consumption for Mr. P, promoter of the more rapid circulation of commodities and the greater glory of capitalism, enters—“liberated”—the workpool of surplus labor and surplus pussy, while Mr. P now no longer has to busy himself with procreation of the suburban way but can do just exactly what he wants, can fit in anywhere, in any orifice, amid growing social approval, sterilely “recreating” to his heart’s content.
Hefner is symbol of the triumphant career of Mr. P. Talese devotes many pages to his good fortune, culminating in the return of Mr. P, original sin satisfactorily disposed of, to Eden. Eden in this case is in Holmby Hills, Los Angeles, whither Hefner transported himself from Chicago in 1970:
In 1970 he purchased for $1.5 million a Gothic-Tudor chateau on a lush estate near Sunset Boulevard…. For many months architects and workmen reshaped the surrounding five and a half acres into gently rolling hills and lawns, built a lake and waterfall behind the main house, and also created a stone grotto that sheltered a series of warm Jacuzzi baths in which guests could bathe in the nude. Music was piped into the steaming grotto, through the surrounding forest of redwoods and pines, across the sprawling green lawns on which dozens of Hefner’s newly acquired animals were allowed to roam…. On other parts of the property there was a greenhouse filled with rare flowers and plants; guest cottages furnished with antiques; a game house in which was a pool table, pinball and Pong machines, and small private bedrooms with mirrored ceilings. There was also built within a wide clearing of trees a step-down tennis court that was overlooked by an outdoor dining area where lunch or dinner could be served, and where black-tied waiters would provide on trays to each arriving racket-carrying couple two unopened cans of tennis balls.
The italicized two is Talese’s typographical gasp at the ne plus ultra of human felicity: balls in never-ending profusion. I remember visiting Holmby Hills a few years ago. The ventilation system had gone wrong so Eden smelled strongly of chicken soup. The birds stood sullenly in their own shit and the master bedroom, stuffed with cardboard boxes full of newspaper clippings, dominated by two enormous television screens arranged before an unmade and not particularly magnificent bed, suggested that Mr. P had not entirely shaken off the memory of adolescence, of the nervous youth whose occupation was to make pornographic drawings of Dagwood and Blondie.
Since Thy Neighbor’s Wife is really about property rights and power over them, it is instructive to follow Talese’s account of Hefner’s relations with Karen Christy, who arrived in Chicago from Texas to become a bunny in the Playboy Club, was espied by Hefner, and—though Hefner was conducting an official liaison with Barbi Benton in Eden West in Los Angeles—made maîtresse en titre in Chicago.
Qualifications of Mrs. V: “Though shy in a crowd, Karen was uninhibited in private; and during his [Hefner’s] vast and varied erotic past, he had never known anyone who could surpass her skill and ardor in bed. The sight of her removing her clothes thrilled him; and after he had covered her body with oil—which she seemed to enjoy as much as he—the smooth, soothing, glistening lovemaking on toe satin sheets aroused him to peaks of passionate pleasure.”
Character reference for Mrs. V: “Unlike Barbi, who was often tired in the evening after rehearsing in studios, and who disliked it when oil got into her hair on those nights when she had auditions on the following morning, Karen was not ambitious about a career and she had many free hours during the day for the washing and drying of her hair.”
Reward for Mrs. V: “During their first month together, he had given her a diamond watch inscribed ‘with love’; and his Christmas gift to her in 1971 was a full-length white mink coat. In March 1972, on her twenty-first birthday, he gave her a five-karat diamond cocktail ring from Tiffany’s. He also gave her an emerald ring, a silver fox jacket, a Matisse painting, a Persian cat, a beautiful metallic reproduction of the Playboy cover on which she was featured; and for her Christmas gift in 1972, she received a white Mark IV Lincoln.”
Final fate of Mrs. V, following departure from Hefner: “While she continued to drive her white Lincoln [around Dallas], she had no use for her furs and expensive jewelry. Around her neck she was soon wearing a gold chain given her by her new boy friend; and suspended from it was a fourteen-karat price tag on which was printed: “Sold.’ ”
Karen did, as we can see, contribute magnificently to the circulation of commodities. Talese does not even assuage the envious disciple of Onan, studying Karen and Hefner’s career, by assuring him that Mr. P came to a bad end. Talese dutifully recounts how the Playboy Empire fell briefly upon bad days—amid cruder offerings to Onan by Penthouse and Hustler—but concludes with a rousing corporate testimonial and considerable emphasis on the successful ascent of Hefner’s daughter Christie up the business ladder at Playboy Enterprises. Since it is implied that truly liberated, successful Mr. P can never get married—which would assume some measure of fealty and submission to home-loving Mrs. V—we are left with the father-daughter alliance in managing Mr. P’s commercial affairs. Talese has as much disdain for incest as he does for buggery, but there have been some valiant attempts in recent years to integrate even this sturdy taboo into the proper desire and pursuit of the whole—the nuclear family’s last gasp together, you could say—and so perhaps Talese’s evocation of familial union in property management is an effort to penetrate the Zeitgeist in a tasteful way without approaching sexual incest directly. In the end the only orifice that matters is the one through the bank teller’s window.
Specific barter arrangements, when couples take it into their heads to start compounding the conjugal P = V, can cause no end of trouble. Take Sally Binford; “…in real life, when she and one of her husbands tried to experience group sex by answering an advertisement in a swingers’ periodical, the only result was a rendezvous in a restaurant-bar with a portly burgher wearing a Goldwater button on his lapel, and his timid wife, who wore a plastic daisy in her hat. After moments of awkward amiability, during which the couple explained that they were not interested in a foursome but wanted to swap partners in private, they all shook hands and the couple disappeared into the balmy summer night.”
Small business Republicanism meets the conglomerating spirit. Eventually Sally Binford meets up with an actor called Jeremy Slate who, after breaking his leg and living in “virtual isolation in his Laurel Canyon apartment, brooding and meditating, smoking pot and masturbating,” reads some Reich and hauls his ass up to the Sandstone Retreat in the Santa Monica mountains, at which sex facility he meets Binford. P = V, first in the “recreational sex” context of the public ballroom, but this “was mainly an excuse for them to be together and to explore within their embrace the deeper intimacy that they both sensed was there.” Later Sally teaches women’s studies at Goddard College and “Jeremy conducted a male consciousness-raising seminar in which he disseminated Sandstone’s equal-rights sex doctrine, getting a positive reaction from many men who shared his view that the elimination of the double standard would be liberating for men as well as women.”
The “double standard” is of course the old male theorem that whereas P may equal V2, the reverse is intolerable. Sandstone was a sex resort dedicated to the refutation of this traditional formulation, where every P could merge with every consenting V and vice versa, and Talese devotes much space to the intentions and adventures of its original inhabitants.
Put in elemental terms the story tells what happens when the insurance business meets up with the military-industrial complex. John Bullaro, an executive of the New York Life Insurance Company, is—when we first encounter him—married to Judith Palmer, daughter of “a top executive with a Los Angeles aeronautics firm” with “personal connections in the industrial-military complex that was investing billions into the California economy.” Though, in their early days together, Judith had on occasion “performed fellatio with uncommon skill and ardor,” the marriage is not what it was and Bullaro is keeping Mr. P in good shape during brisk lunchtime rendezvous with Barbara Cramer, a business colleague. Talese says that Cramer has “large breasts…firm thighs and buttocks,” which he should know about, since he has P/V relations with her 403 pages later than Bullaro, on page 541.
Cramer, however, marries John Williamson, formerly an employee of Boeing, then of Lockheed, in Florida, before setting up his own electronics firm in Los Angeles. The capital realized in the sale of this business finances the acquisition of Sandstone, which is therefore a remote consequence of the space program. Before he buys Sandstone, Williamson, a student of Ayn Rand, decides to test Barbara’s “tolerance of sexual variety within their marriage” by taking her off on a weekend during which he leaves her in the next room and sleeps with a former airline hostess who now works in his electronics firm. The next day, to even things up, he introduces Barbara to David Schwind, an employee of Douglas Aircraft, and V2 = P2.
Aerospace now starts to proselytize insurance. Soon we find Bullaro sitting on a sofa in the Williamson house in Woodland Hills between Barbara and Arlene Gough (Hughes Aircraft), listening to group chat about Krishnamurti and responding manfully with the latest news on medical malpractice insurance. Bullaro knows the group to be “liberated” and as he eyes “the upturned breasts and dark nipples” of Oralia Leal (“a nude Nefertiti” of unstated corporate origin) he clearly hopes that P = V2 will soon result. Life deals the cautious insurance man a whack when the demonic Williamson invites Judith Bullaro to join her husband for a soirée in Woodland Hills. Judith has no knowledge that free love may accompany the martinis and pretzels, or that Bullaro has previously been in P/V contact with Barbara.
A truth séance follows in which the wretched Bullaro has to confess the facts of his liaison with Barbara. Judith is most upset and Williamson, disposer of property relations, makes the crucial suggestion: Judith “should return to the Williamsons’ home and actually watch her husband walk off to a bedroom with another woman to make love, and perhaps in this way she would realize that an open act of physical infidelity was less threatening than one that she might suspect and embellish with emotion.”
This too comes to pass. Then a few days later the Bullaros and the Williamsons set forth on a weekend to Big Bear Lake. As Bullaro emerges from a bedroom from a P/V session with Barbara he sees “two naked bodies together.”
The woman was on the bottom, lying on her back with her eyes closed, her blonde hair touching the floor, her legs spread wide and held high with her toes pointed to the ceiling. She was sighing softly and edging her hips forward as the broad-shouldered man who hovered over her was penetrating her with a penis that in the firelight looked like a burning red rivet…for the briefest moment he regarded the sight as beautiful. But then he recognized the familiar shape of his wife’s thighs and saw the foreign fetid penis oozing in and out of her, provoking her pleasurable sighs, and pounding back her buttocks, and ripping into Bullaro’s guts with such violent force that he suddenly felt disemboweled. Bullaro fell back, stumbling as he turned quickly toward the bedroom. He felt Barbara reaching out to him, trying to embrace and comfort him, but he abruptly slapped her hands away, no longer wanting to be touched by her, or by anyone, as he slammed the bedroom door behind him and collapsed crying on the bed.
The rivet, appropriately enough, belongs to engineer Williamson. P2 = V2.
This is the only moment in the entire book when you get some sense of human pain. (The only convincing literary conveyance of a sense of pleasure comes courtesy of a letter of James Joyce printed in Screw and quoted by Talese—“I would love to be whipped by you, Nora…. The smallest things give me a great cockstand—a whorish movement of your mouth, a little brown stain on the seat of your white drawers….” Old-style fetishism. Joyce would not have liked Sandstone.) The pain presumably stems from Talese’s empathy with the travails of Bullaro. Stylistic energy here contrasts strongly with the dutiful rhythms of Talese’s account of Barbara’s emotions the morning after Williamson has abandoned her in a Lake Arrowhead bedroom for noisy P/V next door with Carol the former airline hostess: “Her awareness that her husband had been sexually engaged the previous night with another woman was, after she recovered from the shock, not really shocking…his railing against covert adultery and senseless sexual possessiveness and jealousy had culminated last night in a defiant act against a centuries-old tradition of propriety and deceit.” Cha cha cha.
The truth is that there are two Taleses hard at work, telling two stories at cross purposes to each other. Advanced, “recreational sex” Talese hawks the free fuck/freer world line of goods, with plenty of bouncy stuff about the joys of P2 = V2 and the merry times enjoyed by all down on the old sex farm. Ur-Talese, New Jersey Catholic with a size 16 superego, comes lumbering along behind with intimations that Bullaro wanted to kill Williamson; that Williamson was Mr. P(rimus) inter P(are)s, group guru and power fucker; and he hints that unlike John Humphrey Noyes’s boast about the nineteenth-century experiment in P/V multiple equations at the Oneida Colony (“We made a raid into an unknown country, charted it, and returned without the loss of a man, woman or child”) there were some psychic victims of Sandstone. Oneida was a manufacturing facility with an emphasis on eugenics, hence was the self-confident progeny of nineteenth-century industrial capitalism, whereas Sandstone was, in the appropriate late capitalist mode, devoted to sex servicing (voluntarily engaged in by the adepts), being finally bought in 1974 by an ex-marine and social worker whose first act was to double the couples-club rates. Surplus sex = surplus value. Neither manufacturing nor eugenics was of interest to the Sandstonistas. Talese’s book is almost devoid of any mention of children. The P/V reportage steers clear of them, presumably on the grounds that recreation and re-creation are not the same thing.
Ur.Talese and Advanced Talese, toiling through the nine-year travail of Thy Neighbor’s Wife, never quite sorted things out between themselves on matters of basic attitude, but they are at one in extolling the book’s high importance. In the May Playboy (a wankfest, incidentally, for those with a preference for airline hostesses) Talese is asked, “Why do you believe this is an important book?”
Talese: “As a work of nonfiction it is pioneering because, for the first time, it reports what really happens in bedrooms, what really happens in the most private moments of real people’s lives, and it stands behind the reporting. It presents the real names. It gives you information you can verify.” Bullaro is real. You can call him up on the telephone and ask if he or maybe Barbara likened Mr. P (Bear Lake appearance) to a rivet.
Talese: “The book is an invasion of privacy, no question about it. Those people became pioneers when they gave me releases to write about them.”
Buttressing the invocation of the “real” is the traditional New-Journalist Author’s Note at the back citing tape-recorded interviews with “hundreds” of people, “some of them more than fifty times each.” Familiar problems at once intrude. Since Talese excises his own questions from the interviews and sometimes transfers direct into indirect speech, you can never be sure who is saying what. Did Hefner really proclaim, in one go, that “after I had covered her body with oil—and she seemed to enjoy it as much as I did—the smooth, soothing, glistening love-making on my satin sheets aroused me to peaks of passionate pleasure. In all my vast and varied erotic past, Gay, I have never known anyone who could surpass Karen’s skill and ardor in bed”? Maybe Hefner does talk like this. Maybe Mr. P himself gave an opinion on a deep background, nonattributable basis.
This stress on the “real” is enhanced by Talese’s appearance, as “Talese,” in the final section of the book before a concluding bow as Talese in the author’s note. Talese tells us that “Talese” worked in massage parlors, visited Sandstone, and caused great pain to “Mrs. Talese” by reason of the P/V activity involved in R&D for the book. Meanwhile newspaper interviews with Mr. and Mrs. Talese confirm the problems of “Talese” and spouse and indeed children incurred over the nine years of preparation, composition, and concluding publicity. Thus the book, in the oldest of journalistic traditions, is “A True Confession” given majesty by the gigantic sums of money expended upon it by Doubleday and Hollywood; pathos by Talese’s indication in interviews that he is uncertain how Mrs. Talese will react to public discussion of what Talese and “Talese” got up to; and absurdity by the last lines of the book in which Talese says that “Talese” returned to his childhood haunts in New Jersey, stripped his clothes off in a nudist colony on the shores of the Great Egg Harbor River and, regarded by bourgeois mariners, “looked back,” with Mr. P presumably pendent and unashamed.
The shabbiest thing about this sad book is Talese’s view of it as pioneering because it tells what “real people” do in real bedrooms. It is as though the prime sexual discourse of the twentieth century—psychoanalysis and “the case study”—let alone the far older juridical confession—had never been.
Talese’s function as a journalist in this particular project is quite other than he proposes. His ambition was to describe a struggle against puritanism, and his belief seems to be that though puritanism still threatens and menaces the liberation of Mr. P and Mrs. V, all will be well and at least the middle classes will evolve to more natural sexual mores, confounding the repressive instincts of the state and other powers that be. Back to Reich and the crazies: freer fuck means freer world.
Reich was wrong, and Michel Foucault right when he said, “We must not think that by saying yes to sex, one says no to power.” At the end of the first volume of his History of Sexuality Foucault says:
We are often reminded of the countless procedures which Christianity once employed to make us detest the body; but let us ponder all the ruses that were employed for centuries to make us love sex, to make the knowledge of it desirable and everything said about it precious. Let us consider the stratagems by which we were induced to apply all our skills to discovering its secrets, by which we were attached to the obligation to draw out its truth and made guilty for having failed to recognize it for so long. These devices are what ought to make us wonder today. Moreover, we need to consider the possibility that one day, perhaps in a different economy of bodies and pleasures, people will no longer quite understand how the ruses of sexuality, and the power that sustains its organization, were able to subject us to that austere monarchy of sex, so that we became dedicated to the endless task of forcing its secret, of exacting the truest confessions from a shadow.
The irony of this deployment is in having us believe that our “liberation” is in the balance.
Talese, or at the very least “Talese,” should have pondered his actual achievement as a journalist here. In his meandering package tour he has ratified the fresher forms of subjugation of Mr. P and all his friends in these late capitalist days. With the true instincts of the social-issues liberal he touts the trip as a journey toward liberation and a better world, with “real life” stenciled on the side of the suitcase.
May 29, 1980