Teenage Girls

Spoiler alert: If you're my Dad, this is definitely one of those posts that will horrify you. Avert your eyes

"Well, here at least is the cage, and here is this young woman in the cage. All we have to do now is listen to her." - Jean Paulhan, "Happiness in Slavery"

When I was 14, I bought Exit to Eden*. I'm not even sure why. I'd never read Anne Rice before, but I'm sure I'd heard of her. They were already putting her name on that book, then; it was no longer pseudonymous. I must have read the jacket copy, it must have intrigued me. Even though my parents were well aware I'd read the first three in the Earth's Children series — with all the rape and "nodules" a couple years before, sharing the sexy parts with my grade six pals and giggling with titillated embarrassment — I knew enough to hide this book from them. This was something more: Exit to Eden was dirty. I was a virgin at the time, and while I'd received decent sex education in school, the mechanics of some of the racier scenes took a couple reads (and one scene took a couple years) to grasp. Exit to Eden tapped into something that I'd only vaguely recognized before. I was a kid that got a funny feeling in my stomach when girls were tied to the railway tracks; I'd created and replayed elaborate scenarios in my head for years, and they often revolved around coercion, violence, and gender-bending. I shared that book with pals then too, telling them how amazing it was. My friends, however, would pass the book back to me without much comment. They didn't like it, they didn't get it, it frightened or repulsed them. I was different, maybe only in admitting that Exit to Eden did something to me. After that, because it had been mentioned**, I bought Story of O. Lisa, one of the main characters, remembers reading it at a young age, and feeling a validation that she wasn't alone. There were others out there who got a thrill from the same things she did. That was me. I was that kid. Story of O was even more engaging and puzzling. The first read was purely visceral, but on every re-read I got more from it. More of the mindfuck became apparent. It remains one of the most beautiful things I've ever encountered.

Fact is, some teenaged girls are total perverts. I watched a CBC documentary the other day, called Sext Up Kids, that took the usual tack of showing girls as victims to porn culture. Society's daughters are innocents corrupted by a pervasive adult culture of hardcore sex. Near the end of the doc there was mention made of the validity of female desire and sexual agency, but the overwhelming idea was that girls just don't want sex, and if they do, they certainly don't want to do anything "dirty." In Maidenhead Tamara Faith Berger throws all that shit out the window.

16-year-old Myra, the main character, has a chance encounter on a Florida beach. She's one of three siblings on vacation with parents who are frictioning apart. She thinks about sex: she thinks about the sex her older sister must be having, the sex the girls on spring break are offering in their bathing suits, asses turned to the sun. When she's approached by a man she takes him up on his unspoken offer. They return to his motel room, but she runs away before she can make contact with his penis (though he does pee on her, as she cowers on the carpet). She returns to her family: "My mother's lips were stuck together." Her mother has closed herself, out of necessity, as a counter-point to Myra's unfolding. The vacation, the marriage, the life, isn't working, and Myra's mother is sealing herself off. In speech, yes, but in the context of a book like this we must consider this an allusion, also, to her sensuality. As Myra takes the beginning steps in coming into her sexuality on that vacation, her mother moves in the opposite direction. "My mother was frustrated. Maybe all mothers are frustrated, as if they shit out their hopes with each kid."

She goes back to that room before her family leaves, and here's why:
Come back, you little bitch. That was what that guy had said when I was running out of his room. [...] I felt something drip in my underwear. That guy's low voice, hunched over, his poking-out cock. Little bitch. Come back, little bicth.
She masturbates to orgasm for the first time, thinking about him calling her a bitch. When she goes back to Elijah's motel room, his girlfriend Gayl is there. Gayl is anger and punishment. Gayl slaps Myra, marking her; Myra's skin refuses to heal up, even after she returns home to Canada. The precedent of humiliation, submission, and violence is set. She likes it, and her fear is not of being harmed, but of not being enough.

I want to acknowledge that to dwell on the sexual part of this book is the easy way, and it misses a lot. Myra's journey of self-discovery is intellectual, spiritual, and emotional as well. The book really is about the development of a full being, but it happens through sexual experience. I, however, can't help but identify with Myra, and remember myself at that age. I was that same girl and like her I felt burdened by virginity. Like anti-Hester Prynnes, some girls feel marked by it. To remove that stain is to start your life. Our cultural narrative — despite the sexualized images of young girls (remember how long Britney claimed to be holding out?) — insists that girls will always shy away from sex, need to be convinced and coerced and when they do it, it must be "romantic," it must be with a boy you love. Agency is taken away from young women, no one wants to believe that some girls are just as horny as the boys. Tamara Faith Berger goes even further, showing that some girls know very early on what they want.

As the novel moves forward, and Myra gains practical knowledge about her own sexuality — with Elijah and Gayl but also through a more conventional relationship — and she subsequently becomes more intellectually curious and daring. Berger knows that discovery of the physical often translates into a mental journey; all the things you'd never considered now seem possible. Maidenhead plays out like a dream, a female-driven fantasy, focusing on the erotic potential of being discovered intact and summarily dismantled. There's a good chance that my 14-year-old self would have imagined something similar.

"Fucking is dirty. You want to not have it all romantic and drippy. It's okay that you want it dirty with this guy. It's okay that you want that picture in your head to be true." What I thought was shame, she was saying, was not shame at all. - Tamara Faith Berger, Maidenhead

"Actually, what if the role of the erotic (or of dangerous books, if you prefer) was to inform and instruct us? To reassure us on the subject[.]" - Jean Paulhan, "Happiness in Slavery"

For more on Myra's intellectual journey, and that time I asked a stupid question of Chris Kraus in public, see Emily Keeler's super smart "A fuge of cock" in the Toronto Standard

*I really need to tell you, if you didn't know already, the book has basically zero to do with the movie. *shudder*
**I loaned my copy of Exit to Eden to a friend a couple years back, and it was never returned, so I'm unable to quote it directly.
Though it's to Berger's credit that she also lets Myra's mother find her own path as well. She moves to Korea to teach English, and winds up living in a love hotel instead of a teacher dorm.
And in my opinion it's this bullshit narrative that leads to a lot of girls losing their virginity even if they've maintained a "no," because boys are taught that a girl won't give up her virginity (like it's a possession) unless it's forced from her, somehow. Consent is paramount, always.

Forever Damned

The amazing thing about J.-K. Huysmans' Là-Bas (1891) is how completely undated it feels. The small details of life in the late 19th century are there, of course, but so much of it feels if not contemporary, than at least modern or recent. I was also inspired to re-read Elaine Showalter's Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle, which deals mostly with British and American literature, but holds a lot of cultural resonance for my reading Huysmans.

Seeking something other than his staid writerly life, where the most exciting occurrence is the un-scheduleable trial of his concierge brutally "cleaning" his apartment, Durtal is attracted to the life of a medieval serial killer and the currents of contemporary Satanism in fin de siècle Paris. As Durtal digs deeper into the story of Gilles de Rais, in order to write a definitive biography, his own life creeps nearer and nearer to real-life seductive dark mysteries. Ostensibly, Durtal is trying to understand how a man like de Rais could be drawn into medieval Satanic rites, a possible cause of the madness which enabled de Rais to slaughter hundreds of children.
And, let's be honest, the Marquis de Sade was no more than a timid bourgeois, a wretched little fantasist, in comparison with Gilles.
The tortures visited upon these children are written about explicitly, and it's no surprise that Là-Bas was censored and banned. The details are the stuff of Thomas Harris novels, or the movie Se7en. Durtal's research has him inquiring about the methods of modern Satanism, and other occult theories, and leads him, eventually, into witnessing a Black Mass.

From the very first page, Durtal is complaining about the current state of literature.
Try reading any of the latest novels a second time. What do you find? Trivial anecdotes, tidbits culled from the newspapers, nothing but scandal and demoralization[.]
There are passages in Là-Bas that could have been ripped from current CanLitCrit. Durtal complains that "the only people who buy books are society women, who can thus make or break an author." This is very much the sentiment of the anti-populist critics, who hate the sales increases of Giller award-winners, CBC Canada Reads finalists. There are tirades against schools of writing (Decadents, Naturalists) and worries that writing, and society, is too influenced by the Americans.

One of the American influences — briefly mentioned in the text of Là-Bas — is the Spiritualist movement, credited as beginning in New York with the Fox sisters and their famous rappings. Spiritualism quickly moved across the Atlantic, and while most popular in England, France could not help but be involved in a more general feeling at the end of the century that “saw civilization as being in a crisis that required a massive and total solution.” (Wikipedia) I turn to Elaine Showalter for a good synopsis of this feeling:
The ends of centuries seem not to only suggest but to intensify crises, as the 1989 bicentennial of the French Revolution and the astonishing events in Eastern Europe reminded us. History warns that after the revolution comes the terror and decadence. [...] The crises of the fin de siècle, then, are more intensely experienced, more emotionally fraught, more weighted with symbolic and historical meaning, because we invest them with the metaphors of death and rebirth that we project onto the final decades and years of a century.
Through Là-Bas we can see how certain topics do return to Western culture every hundred years or so. As Durtal's close friend, des Hermies, says:
But it's always been like that. The tail-ends of centuries all resemble each other. They are always periods of vacillation and unrest. Magic flourishes when materialism is rife. This phenomenon appears every hundred years.
and he is quite right. If we think to the1980s and 90s, there was most obviously the Satanism scare (talked about briefly in Sybil Exposed), with sensible adults convinced that everything from Dungeons & Dragons to Twisted Sister was a gateway for their children to join in with the devil.

This is also the time that the goth aesthetic reached its highest point, with dark clothing, pale skin, and religious symbolism used as heretical fashion. While the 60s had its share of dabbling in the “New Age” arts of crystals and astrology, in the 90s things took a heavier turn, with neo-pagans believing they really could affect the world around them through spell-casting. And there's always The Craft...

When I was talking about Là-Bas with a friend of mine, who is an actual professorial smart person, he said that the novel is ultimately about the dangers of getting what exactly what you want.
[N]o sooner has one secret been revealed than we lose interest in it and crave another... Just so in reading. The attempt to peer into the very core of a text, to possess once and for all its meaning, is vain--it is only ourselves that we find there, not the work itself. (Showalter, 166. Quoting Morris Zapp)
Durtal, while claiming to be "he who, when the stable-door of his sick senses opened, was happy to drive the stinking herd clamouring to get in towards the abattoir where their sinful heads might be split open by the butcher girls of love", and protesting that “the only kind of love that matters, one which is entirely intangible, a love made up of past sorrows and present regrets” is really very easily swayed into an affair with a married woman. Similarly, he is too easily titillated, very much wanting to see for himself what exactly goes on in Satanic Mass.
When reading descriptions of Satanism in Là-Bas, both contemporary to the novel and historical, I couldn't help thinking about the “real” Satanists of our time, most of whom turned out to be (and I wrote this in my annotations) malformed dorks. In a fin de siècle context, being “dark” will get you laid. Turns out, a lot of these black magicians, those who practiced the entirely laughable “sex magick” were just... kind of horny nerds. Which is fine, but it's also a let down for people who genuinely feel the pull of darkness. Durtal feels that pull, but when he sees an actual Black Mass, he's completely disgusted, and let down. Funnily enough, Cadrinal Docre, the leader of this Satanic sect, is described as not very physically attractive (though Durtal's ego has likely something to do with this description). Des Hermies, again and ever the smartest and most logical voice, agrees with my assessment of Satanism, when he remarks “I am convinced that for them the invocation of Beelzebub is only a preliminary to the carnal act.” Neither Durtal's affair, that began with letters and mysteries, nor actual Satansim can live up to what his imagination can conjure. “How right I was when I wrote that the only women you can go on loving are the ones you haven't had.” This is a human condition, of course, evidenced every time one is chased only to be quickly released after catch. We can make things as good or brutal as we need them to be in our minds, yet real life is simply a lot less exciting, and if I may, that's why we have literature.