Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Ellen Willis "Classical and Baroque Sex in Everyday Life"

With the unfortunate and hopefully temporary demise of Bitch|Lab's blog, I figure I'll take one of her blogging traditions, namely posting pieces of important theoretical works for perusal and discussion. I'm posting Ellen Willis' 1979 essay "Classical and Baroque Sex in Everyday Life". I reread this after Susie Bright read an excerpt on a recent episode of her Audible podcast memorializing Ellen Willis. The essay is written half in jest, but nonetheless really gets to the heart of what so much of what is at issue in the "Sex Wars" (both conservative vs liberal/radical and sex-poz vs radfem). Its not so much an issue of pro-sex vs anti-sex (though there are some extremist conservatives and radfems who could earn the latter tag), but a conflict over different modes of sexuality. More on this in later posts; in the meantime, Ellen Willis at her finest:

There are two kinds of sex, classical and baroque. Classical sex is romantic, profound, serious, emotional, moral, mysterious, spontaneous, abandoned, focused on a particular person, and stereotypically feminine. Baroque sex is pop, playful, funny, experimental, conscious, deliberate, amoral, anonymous, focused on sensation for sensation's sake, and stereotypically masculine. The classical mentality taken to an extreme is sentimental and finally puritanical; the baroque mentality taken to an extreme is pornographic and finally obscene. Ideally, a sexual relationship ought to create a satisfying tension between the two modes (a baroque idea, particularly if the tension is ironic) or else blend them so well that the distinction disappears (a classical aspiration). Lovemaking cannot be totally classical unless it is also totally baroque, since you can't abandon all restraints without being willing to try anything. Similarly, it is impossible to be truly baroque without allowing oneself to abandon all restraints and so attain a classical intensity. In practice, however, most people are more inclined to one mode than to the other. A very classical person will be incompatible with a very baroque person unless each can bring out the other's latent opposite side. Two people who are very one-sided in the same direction can be extremely compatible but risk missing a whole dimension of experience unless they get so deeply into one mode that it becomes the other.

Freud, the father of the sexual revolution, was a committed classicist who regarded most baroque impulses as infantile and perverse. Nevertheless, the sexual revolution, as it is usually defined, has been almost exclusively concerned with liberating those impulses from the confines of an exaggeratedly classical puritanism. The result, to my mind, has been an equally distorting cultural obsession with the baroque. Consider, for example, that quintessential expression of baroque angst (a contradiction in terms, the product of Jewish guilt; Christian guilt is classical all the way), Lenny Bruce's notorious monologue about fucking a chicken. Or, come to think of it (puns are baroque), Portnoy's adventures with liver. I mean seriously (classically, that is), is fucking chickens and livers what sex is all about?

Curiously, contemporary sexual "experts" never mention this crucial polarity. This is because they have a vested interest in what might be called establishment or middlebrow baroque-really an attempt to compromise with proclassical traditionalists who insist that sex should be somehow worthwhile, not just fun. Thus the basic axiom of establishment baroque is that consensual sex in any form is wholesome and good for you; a subsidiary premise is that good sex depends on technical skill and is therefore an achievement. Kinsey, with his matter-of-fact statistical approach to his subject, was a pioneer of establishment baroque. Masters and Johnson belong in this category, as do all behavior therapists. The apotheosis of multiple orgasm is an establishment baroque substitute for the old-fashioned classical ideal of coming together, Real baroque sex has no ideals. Much as I hate to admit it, what I have in mind here is a sort of middlebrow baroque projectto report on the two kinds of sex in everyday life.

Time: Night is classical; so are sunrise and sunset. High noon and half an hour before dinner (or during dinner) are baroque.

Location: Outdoors is classical, except for crowded nude beaches. The back seat of a car is classical if you're a teenager, baroque otherwise. The shower is classical; the bathtub is baroque.

Number: Two is classical. One or three or more is baroque.

Lighting: Total darkness is ultraclassical except when it's a baroque variation. Dim lights and candlelight are classical. Floodlights and fluorescent lights are definitely baroque.

Clothing: The only truly classical outfit is nothing. Clothing evokes fantasy and fantasies are baroque. Black lace underwear is of course the classic baroque outfit. Red is baroque, as is anything see-through. Frilly white nightgowns are a baroque impulse with classical content.

Food: Eating in bed is baroque, although artichoke hearts and sour cream are more classical than potato chips and pizza. Tongues, tastes, and flavors are inherently baroque. Comparing sex with food is usually middlebrow baroque, except when a classicist, quarreling with the baroque idea that getting off is getting off no matter how you do it, points out that "Steak and hamburger may both be protein but they still taste different." Putting food anywhere but in your mouth is superbaroque.

Drugs: Wine and marijuana are classical. Cocaine and quaaludes are baroque.

Music: Comparisons between sex and music are classical even if the music itself is baroque. Rock-and-roll is a good mixture of both sensibilities. My favorite classical sex song is Rod Stewart's "Tonight's the Night"; my favorite baroque sex song is "Starfucker." Rock-and-roll is usually more classical than disco.

Pornography: Porn is basically a baroque phenomenon. Much of it (Hustler, most X-rated movies) is belligerently anticlassical and therefore a form of inverted puritanism. Some of it (Playboy) is pure middlebrow baroque. Many porn classics (like Fanny Hill) have a fairly large classical element. The larger the classical element, the likelier that a piece of pornography will be judged to have redeeming social value. If it is classical enough, it stops being porn altogether and becomes art, but this is a very subjective and relative matter. Lady Chatterley's Lover was once considered pornographic because it used certain baroque words, but by contemporary standards it is cornball classical. (Actually, Lawrence seems to have intended a classical celebration of the joy of the baroque, and he might have pulled it off if it weren't for all that solemn phallic worship and particularly those ridiculous flowers. One thing he did accomplish, though: he made "fuck" into a classical word without sacrificing its baroque connotations.) Pornography also becomes art when it is so baroque it is classical, like The Story of O.

Sex manuals: Love Without Fear is echt-classical. The Kama Sutra is baroque with classical trappings (all that religious overlay). The Joy of Sex, with its sections headed "Starters," "Main Courses," and "Sauces and Pickles," is middlebrow baroque except for its rather classical illustrations.

Devices: All technology is baroque, including contraceptives, vibrators, and air conditioning.

Sexism: Classical sexism is the mystique of yin and yang, masculine strength, feminine surrender, noble savage and earth mother, D.H. Lawrence, Norman Mailer. Baroque sexism is the objectification of women, black garter belts and six-inch heels, Larry Flynt, Helmut Newton.

Feminism: Classical feminism is a vision of total equality, the transcendence of artificial social roles, love and respect for one's partner as an individual. Baroque feminism asserts women's right to be baroque, traditionally a male prerogative; rejects preconceptions about what is natural and moral; insists that anything goes for either sex so long as it feels good.

National characters: The Italians are classical. So are the French, though they pretend otherwise. The Communist countries and Sweden are middlebrow baroque. As a rule, wildly baroque countries exist only in their conquerors' imagination. Americans have classical leanings, but the world headquarters of baroque is New York City. In Manhattan you can eat a chicken and the waiter won't even notice.