Monday, December 04, 2006

Romance, Pleasure, and Poetics

Hello, everyone. I've been gone so long, this blog feels unfamiliar: a bit like visiting home for the holidays after one has actually moved out of the house, out of state, into adulthood. Not that what I'm up to elsewhere has been particularly adult; in my other (so-called) professional lives I've been teaching glum undergraduates, grading exams, and working my way through a two-foot stack of poetry by Latina/o American poets, looking for a lead for my next piece. This weekend, though, a discussion of pleasure and poetry got me thinking and writing about romance again, and I thought I'd continue those musings, and that conversation, here. I hope that you all can bring some fresh perspectives to the debate!

A graduate-student blogger named Josh Corey kicked things off with an introspective post about the disparate pleasures he takes in fiction and poetry; or, to be more precise, in certain kinds of fiction and certain kinds of poetry. As my old friend Mark explains,
Josh contrasts the “absorptive” or “immersive” pleasure of your average well-written novel (the “vivid continuous dream” evoked by John Gardner) with the more thorny pleasures offered by “anti-absorptive” poetry – writing in which the language does not “disappear” from the page, to be replaced by an evoked or described world – writing, in short, that foregrounds its own materiality as language, that won’t let us forget that we’re after all reading.
Like many essayists and theorists, alas, Josh doesn't just distinguish between these pleasures; he ranks them. Unlike many others, however, Josh quickly checks himself, refusing to let the hierarchy he sets up pass unchallenged:
Most readers (on airplanes or elsewhere) are after the infantilizing dream-state [offered by "immersive" fiction], and yet I can't blame others or myself for wanting to be nurtured by certain reading experiences rather than pricked into greater consciousness. A healthy diet, so to speak, probably requires both. But isn't the moral content that creeps into my language here interesting? Immersive fiction as trans-fats, innovative writing as leafy greens. I am loath to become a scold, urging children to read Language poetry [my link: ES] because it's good for you. Is the pleasure of anti-absorptive writing simply the masochistic pleasure of self-denial, of anorexia? Is it a "higher" pleasure because further from the pleasures of the flesh? And yet the anti-absorptive is closer to the body of language than immersive fiction is: we savor the materiality of phonemes and syntax and sentences, provoked into the kind of apperception that requires us to look up from the book now and then and figure. One type of reading is active and closer to writing; the other is passive and demands our submission—there's a masochism for you.
Now, on my Say Something Wonderful blog I took issue with Josh over a lot of this. I find his description of "immersive" fiction rather sloppy; it can't account, for example, for my vivid sense, this past weekend, of snuggling up with two entirely different authorial "voices" as I read Eloisa James's Pleasure for Pleasure and Pam Rosenthal's The Slightest Provocation. His sexual and culinary metaphors are both somewhat casual, and likewise won't hold up on close inspection. How, though, shall we talk about the different pleasures of reading different sorts of literature? Are there other discourses available?

In search of them, I'm heading off to read an essay from Sally Goade's forthcoming collection on romance fiction, Empowerment vs. Oppression (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2007): "Forms of Pleasure in the Reading of Popular Romance: Psychic and Cultural Dimensions," by Eva Y. I. Chen. I'll let you know what she says, and how it helps. In the mean time, I notice that the theorists and philosophers who get cited in these debates are all men, all modern, and all European: Freud, Lacan, Roland Barthes, Pierre Bourdieu, Theodore Adorno. Who are the women I should read? Who are the non-European thinkers? Who are the ancients, the medieval rhetoricians, the neo-classicists, the Romantics? Who thinks about pleasure outside the literary sphere, in disciplines from psychology to, I don't know, marketing?

I'd love your suggestions, and promise to make use of them!


  1. I see that on your blog you've already picked up on the way that Josh is using 'psycho-sexual metaphors'. But it's interesting how the 'psycho-sexual' metaphors overlap with the passive/active metaphors and the dichotomies between active/passive and mind/body lead me inevitably to the binary opposition of male/female. After all, Josh mentions the word 'jouissance', which, Cixous defines as:

    that which operates outside of patriarchy, in the realm of the feminine Imaginary. Jouissance is a crucial concept since for Cixous it is the source of women's writing and of "blowing up" the Law of the Father. (Susan E. Dunn, 1998)

    I've noticed that in a lot of the descriptions of heterosexual sex in romance, the female is passive, the one to whom pure pleasure is given, the one who is 'taken', and who passively absorbs (physically and metaphorically) while the hero is active, mentally aware and intent on giving the heroine pleasure.

    That's a generalisation, but I do think it's there and it worries me a bit because, like the distinction that Josh is drawing between the two kinds of literature, it seems a false division to me. Of course some texts are easier to read than others, but one can also step back and read those same 'absorbtive' texts in a more analytical way, just as one can try to savour the apparently intellectual works for their sounds, imagery etc. What we do here, on this blog, demonstrates that just because a work is apparently 'immersive fiction' doesn't mean that it can't also be read in an 'anti-absorptive' way.

    Then again, binary oppositions such as body/soul, feminine/masculine, passive/active annoy me because I don't see why things have to be simplified in this way. Human beings, like texts, are complex and multifaceted. We can be both in our bodies and spiritual, in touch with a 'feminine' and a 'masculine' side, and, by turns, both passive and active. And the whole idea of 'good' food v. 'bad' food irritates me too. Humans need food and there's nothing wrong with enjoying food and it being good for you. Obviously you can overdo eating certain food groups, but putting a label on a food and calling it 'bad' (or 'good') seems to me to distort the whole eating experience because the eater, instead of responding to the food, is also responding to all the cultural baggage attached to the food. To give an example, Josh compares innovative writing to 'leafy greens' and then says 'I am loath to become a scold, urging children to read Language poetry because it's good for you'. Now, does that not suggest that 'leafy greens' are something one has to struggle to eat? Something that you're told is good for you but you don't really enjoy? But what about the pleasure of feeling a lettuce leaf crunch in your mouth, the tangy nutty flavour of raw spinach, the rush of liquid that you feel in your mouth as you bite into some lightly steamed brocolli?

    And, to turn things around, how about if you were told that dark chocolate is high in iron and mood enhancers and you should take it every morning as a dietary supplement? I think that would take a lot of the pleasure out of eating chocolate.

    Anyway, to get back to poetry, I think the mystic poetry of someone like San Juan de la Cruz (his Cántico espiritual is here in Spanish and here in an English translation) is a challenge to Josh's theory in the same way that, say, Crusie's romances are. If you read San Juan's poetry for surface meaning, it's very emotional, rich and absorbing (and the soul is cast as feminine). But it's also deeply theological, as the explanation of the stanzas attached to the English translation demonstrate. So it can be both 'absorbtive' and 'anti-absorptive'. Then again, some people have always been a bit wary and distrustful of mystics, perhaps precisely because they break down some of the dichotomies that people find comfortable.

  2. Thanks for the response, Laura! I've continued this debate on the other blog (Say Something Wonderful). Cixous is a thinker I'll have to check out on this topic--it's been years since I read her work.

    On the whole, I too find the binary oppositions through which this discussion proceeds (passive / active, "immersive" / "anti-absorptive," pleasure / jouissance) to be crude tools at best. Using them to tease out the experience of reading is like using a blunt magic marker to do calligraphy, to borrow an analogy from Dr. Ian Kerner (grin).

  3. You also asked for other references on pleasure, correct?

    In the philosophy world, the work on the utilitarian school of ethics will be relevant. Mill's Utilitarianism essay is a great place to start. In it he tries to find different levels and types of pleasure other than pure physical pleasure. Mill's male and European, but at least it's early to mid 19th.

    Plato, as always, will have something to say on this, but I am blanking on exactly which dialogue. The Symposium is what comes to mind, but that's really about forms of love, rather than pleasure per se.

    I'm walking through Asian philosophy schools in my head, but nothing perfect is coming up. One of the problems is that different cultures just make different assumptions about what to debate. So finding someone in culture A to talk about the exact same thing as in culture B is often difficult. You might glance through some of Mo Tzu's stuff. He's 5th to 4th century BCE or something like that. But just skim and see, as I can't recall for sure that he will ever get to this topic precisely.

    I keep thinking of the topic of pleasure as really one about the best way to live and what brings contentment and fulfillment. If that's the case, then both Chuang Tzu and Lao Tzu will address this indirectly.

    Perhaps some tantric buddhist works would have something to say about pleasure in a spiritual context.

    I think that's the best I can do, Eric. Sorry it's so vague. But good luck and have fun with it. As you say, there's going to be a lot of work in psychology on this, but I don't know the literature. Damasio does a lot of work on emotion and consciousness.