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Katie Roiphe, crypto-puritan

January 8, 2010

The Naked and the Conflicted,” Katie Roiphe’s recent essay in The New York Times Review of Books, is a bunch of outrageous, sometimes contradictory assertions pasted down around the following undeniably sound points:

  1. Today’s Important Male Writers (by name: David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, Benjamin Kunkel, Jonathan Safran Foer) are far less preoccupied with sex than Yesterday’s (Philip Roth, John Updike, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow).
  2. The manifest sexism of Yesterday’s IMWs is today more quaint than offensive, more relic than threat.
  3. That same sexism is perfectly consistent with the Old Guard’s real, even permanent artistic merit.

Petty qualifications aside, these claims are apparent in outline to all but the most obtuse or puritanical reader. But Roiphe’s agenda is less to expound than excoriate. On these sober intellectual foundations, she builds a shaky, angry indictment of the New Guard.  They’re not just dull, they’re diseased!  The essay eventually finds its way back to a calmer resting place, but not before losing a lot of pissed-off readers along the way. (Whatever gets ‘em talking, I guess: her former student Conor Friedersdorf says here that Professor Roiphe is explicit about the rhetorical value of less-than-sincere polemic.)

Roiphe begins with an ostensible mystery: why do Philip Roth’s sexist sex scenes still after all these years incite ‘punitive, vituperative’ reviews and spontaneous book-flingings?  This turns out to be a red herring, for they don’t enrage us, at least not on the grounds of their sexism. No, they enrage us because they simply don’t measure up to the literary porn of decades past. Is this falling off because the Exuberant Virility shtick is played out or because Roth himself has lost a step? Some of both, most likely. Roiphe herself initially leans toward the first explanation—Roth’s “The Humbling” is ‘redundant’—then swerves, settling on the second—our “rage” actually hides pity for the giant stumbling where he once excelled, like Willie Mays falling down in the Mets’ outfield. This shift is significant, since her later moralizing depends on it.

Roiphe then turns to the New Guard. Sex, for them, is no longer the existential pivot it was for their forefathers—a spot-on, if elementary observation. But Roiphe’s language has the same ‘punitive, vituperative’ character she earlier puzzled over.

Rather than an interest in conquest or consummation there is an obsessive fascination with trepidation, and with a convoluted, post-feminist second-guessing.

These are writers in love with irony, with the literary possibility of self-consciousness so extreme it almost precludes the minimal abandon necessary for the sexual act itself… .

They are good guys, sensitive guys, and if their writing is denuded of a certain carnality, if it lacks a sense of possibility, of expansiveness, of the bewildering, transporting effects of physical love, it is because of a certain cultural shutting down, a deep, almost puritanical disapproval of their literary forebears and the shenanigans they lived through.  [my emphasis]

This, of course, invites the question: Why the righteous indignation? Literary styles change with the times and when they do it’s occasion for excitement, stock-taking, nostalgia, and perhaps regret. But why anger? Surely we can appreciate both Old and New, each on its own terms. Exuberant virility can be sublime, but so too a low-temperature sexuality. We can debate their relative merits, of course, but it’s like debating Mozart vs. Beethoven—it should be done over coffee, not before a judge and jury. It’s a conversation, not an inquisition.

So here’s the real mystery: why is Katie Roiphe so mad? (She’s so mad she can’t even be bothered to parse the different kinds of ambivalence. She writes that the current sexual style is “childlike” but that triumphing in sex is now seen as “passé”. Well, which is it, the ambivalence of innocence or the ambivalence of experience? Exhaustion with the world or ignorance of its ways?)

I suspect that Roiphe’s anger is more than just overzealous appreciation of the Old Guard. For Roiphe, the new ambivalence represents nothing less than a disease of the healthy male psyche. It’s the sickness of false consciousness. The new ambivalence is all fundamentally fake, an elaborate, well-entrenched pose. If it revealed something from deep in the writer’s soul, that would be one thing. But it doesn’t. It expresses nothing beyond a superficial desire to appear cool or ‘with it’ in the eyes of others. Roiphe writes that passivity, paralysis, and ambivalence are “somehow taken as signs of a complex and admirable inner life”, implying that the New Guard is interested in merely the signs, not the constituents of a rich inner life. Where the old exuberance was about asserting one’s nature, the new ambivalence is supposed to be simply about cowing to fashion. (Roiphe never seriously considers the extent to which the ambivalence might be authentic and the old exuberance a pose.)

But whose fashion? Surely not the general public’s: we’re told that they only object to sexism done badly. Crusading feminists at large? Maybe, but, as Roiphe notes earlier, their influence has been limited: they were powerless to stop the Old Guard from winning honors and readers. The answer comes out on the last page: liberal education and, in particular, the writers’ college girlfriends. The somewhat veiled charge is that these women used sex as a weapon and turned their boyfriends’ natural virility against itself, making it self-denying, deformed, a perversion of the natural order.

It should be obvious now why Roiphe needs to shy away from the hypothesis about the Exuberant Virility shtick being simply played out. For that would suggest that Roth’s virility is no more natural than Wallace’s ambivalence—the latter is not just a corruption of the former—and hence that each should be taken on its own terms. Roiphe would have grounds for thinking the new writers inferior to old, but none at all for haranguing them (or their poor girlfriends).

So underneath the rhetoric, Roiphe has a tidy story. Exuberant virility is somehow deeply inscribed in the natural, eternal order of things, and it’s therefore a central criterion of aesthetic success, at least for male novelists. When social taboos came down after WWII, the previously latent virility was free to flower. But since then a cadre of sex-wielding feminists has turned the virile forces into instruments of their own repression, leading to work that is not just aesthetically suspect but morally defective. This theory achieves the neat trick of making feminists look both more threatening (in their alleged power to corrupt the young) and more helpless (against the tide of history) than they actually are. Of course, the problem with all this is that it’s laughably simple-minded and odiously moralistic. One might even say ‘puritanical.’

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