Friday, August 10, 2007

Review: Toni Bentley's "The Surrender"

In which this blogger gingerly if intellectually considers sex, a particular variation in an "erotic memoir" treating an expression of love for which (fearful of a Pandora's Box of spam) I dare not speak its name, even if my wife's on-line musings edge nearer the everlastingly intriguing topic du jour as opposed to my more reticent self. At least I enriched my usual fare; this I picked up at the library with Rogelio Alonso's newly translated study "The IRA & Armed Struggle" & Bob Quinn's account of his 1940s childhood along Dublin's River Dodder in a downmarket "Smokey Hollow." Surely the first and probably last book I'll ever open from the Regan Books imprint that imploded in the Murdoch-OJ "If I Did It" scandal, which tames Bentley's "How I Did It" exploits. At least we have moral outrage in its proper balance, as smirking murder annihilates even blunt sex.

I dutifully introduce to this Amazon US review two Irish connections: the early medieval sadsack penitentials single out Bentley's confessed action as deserving of punishment but less so for heteros, at least. James Joyce, even if not accusing Bloom of this act unambiguously in his ambiguous "Circe" chapter, sidles near this "contested space" in his December 1909 letters to Nora, grandad's reveries that so angered Stephen Joyce and resulted in his ridiculous megalomaniacal control of the estate preventing scholarly access since Ellmann published them in 1975. I am not even "officially" to 1909 yet, having just begun the "Selected Letters" and only with the couple in Trieste at Berlitz so far. More about Sunny Jim and his "f---bird" Nora related to this and so much more (of course) anon.

"Words seemed the only way to mark the spot, to preserve my transitory experience of eternity. This is a testamentary document. Do not miss the message, distracted by the profanity of the act." (8-9) The seven pages that comprise "The Holy F[&%$]" earn five stars. As a man, within this book-- not my usual genre!-- I found this introduction revelatory: it shows the male how otherworldly the act of sex can become when made unfamiliar and raw and sanctified by its daring. The disorienting act of sex by its transfer away from the usual to the upended challenges the natural order. The rapture Bentley craves shares its closeness to that open to procreation. The loss of ego, however, she chooses to release not by the social norm for union but that proclaiming a humanistic defiance of the ordinary.

A rebellious decision that places a woman as truly pro-choice, even against the familiar voices for sexual freedom which themselves tended to disdain this action, which found few advocates among the now-PC orthodoxy of earlier pioneers for sexual liberation. Post-feminists, or more open-minded women, may find, as might many men, a potential for renewal of sexual possibility in this outre practice. In this brief memoir, hints of this arousing power echo from the introduction outward. While the rest of the book fails for me to expand upon the insights of the seven pages of text introducing this daring subject, Bentley is to be commended for her courage. She brings her idea and ideal of fulfillment by sexual longing to a mass market, mature, audience rather than where this book may have languished, in some "adult" category that no public library or major bookstore would have stocked.

Bentley recounts her literary, spiritual, and physical quest to find God in this tender but risky act of total submission to another man. She is a smart, witty woman. Not a natural writer, it seems; the introduction remains the most cogent presentation of her subject. Her own sexual exploits along brazen lines, in fact, make up "color commentary" compared to her main psycho-sexual narrative. Her reports from numbered acts among the nearly three-hundred "surrenders" spice up her reflections, the post-coital thoughts that as the quote I opened this review with demonstrates, she commits to paper as well as memory.

The topic, judged to make most readers skittish if judged by the coy refusal of the dust jacket blurbs to explicitly state her "holy act" makes this book controversial. This ultimate frontier is crossed by Bentley. It's probably the last to be explored, in our era where rumors of "rainbow parties" among adolescents, Monica and cigars, and casual banter have made another formerly whispered, semi-taboo act, that of oral stimulation, practically mainstream in our society. Bondage gear co-opted by Hot Topic, French maid uniforms by Halloween-clad grown-ups, sex emporiums franchised, there's little remaining even for half-prudish, half-brave Americans to contemplate that presents a higher barrier to overcome on the journey to knowledge through sexual union. For women who have the opportunity to have it all whenever and with whomever, Bentley asks: "is that all there is?" No less than a contemplative monk or nun, Bentley treats the "Sex & the City" generation to her candor and her own solution.

This disparity between what as Seneca lamented-- not to mention the boastful Doobie Brothers' album title!-- "what were once vices are now habits" of conventional vaginal and now (if only the past forty years) oral intercourse against that of alternative penetration make up the thrust of her argument here. Straight intercourse, she proposes, for her is by its "nature" meant to be too easy, too deceptive for the one entering, and too familiar. She counters the (in)famous passage in Norman Mailer's "An American Dream" that angered Kate Millett in the opening pages of her "Sexual Politics" decades ago. What's lacking in popular literature is a cultural history of attitudes towards this act, whose feared name, [Blog: when you articulate the municipal sin misattributed to the Cities of the Plain (see Mark Jordan's book to be reviewed by me soon here)] drips with condemnation, the taint of fire and the smell of brimstone.

"A raid on the Devil and a trip on back to the Lord" as Mailer sums up the difference between the two entries, but Bentley insists that this is a male view, and few males, she charges, have surrendered as she has. This sub-topic, however, is but alluded to in the rest of the memoir. Her consideration would have benefited from placing her own experience within a context of other men and women who have sought ecstasy beyond pleasure or pain. Her introduction posits for this form of trust in one's partner, one's own liberation on the way towards the mystical union with the divine. These are daring suggestions, and refreshing ones. But, for most of the remainder, her own affairs with men and a woman here and there take precedence over implications of this larger subject. It still awaits sustained and serious attention by a major publisher and a skilled interpreter. {See my Amazon review blogged here more recently of "The Rear View," Jean-Luc Hennig.) This background needs to be foregrounded, the sides reversed, the exchange of the dominant model of intercourse with the one that few today can honestly, openly confront.

My title of the review [Blog: "Sowing Seed in a Barren Furrow"] is one of the few analogies she does not use! But, I chose it as it symbolizes the decision to engage in an intimate encounter that remains the most confrontational in its refusal to follow the easier course, the natural destination we all drive towards, the road more travelled. Admittedly, it's difficult as Bentley herself finds to avoid bottom-heavy metaphors or puns, and she falls into this trap at the risk of silliness, which on the other hand lightens the self-analytical tone of her memoir. She reminds us that sex however pursued should be more enjoyable and less fraught with tension.

The issues she has with her father are covered in chapters I found rather predictable, and the arc of the affair with her lover "Mr. A" follows a familiar curve. While I recognize her commendable desire to overcome her atheist background by her search for the transcendent, and her own italicized couplings play well off the more detailed rationales and journalistic treatments, the balance of the narrative remains unsettled. Perhaps unavoidably in a book of this nervous search, but more polishing of the remainder of the manuscript to match the grace of its opening pages would have resulted in a better crafted study. Sex and spirituality deserve wherever an adept joins them a respectful, profound meditation.

It's as if she wanted to write a memoir about "it" and a study of "it," but then settled abruptly to chart her affair and end with its quick aftermath. She skims therefore in her conclusion a far more valuable integration of her Buddhist meditation. Surely the Tantric and esoteric teachings linking sex and spirit deserved more elucidation?

The book halts nearly too abruptly. Short chapters (two hundred large-type pages can easily be read in less than two hours) dash about between well-chosen quotes, statistics, random musings, and an admittedly intriguing comparison between the rigors of her quarter-century of ballet training and the demands that she places her body and soul into while enjoying the embrace of her adventurous lover. Recommended for open-minded readers, and I hope this book will encourage writers to consider more complex implications of the subversive argument and enticing situations Bentley uncovers.

(Blog P.S. A portion of Bentley's introduction excerpted via her site:

Image credit of author, from NY Times, titled "Once Forbidden, Now Championed," a rather Senecan allusion! Bentley had 33 previous lovers, is in her mid-forties; I am her age but with a tenth of her breadth of experience! "Mr. A." was the first into what Sir Richard F. Burton in Victorian times suggested as he roamed the nether realms of body and geography as her "Sotadic Zone."

Extra credit for author's inclusion on her website of deadpan reviews. Snappy comebacks, in soundbites:

About the "sacred sex" Bentley discovers in a Salon interview with a somewhat skeptical Rebecca Traister:}

No comments: