My New Novel (Part One)

Yikes–it’s Wednesday!  How many of you suffer from the subconscious conviction that Christmas always falls on Sunday?  No matter.  I had predetermined that I would publish a couple of excerpts this week from the preface to my new novel, Worse by Seven.  My commentary therein isn’t at all different from the sort of thing i usually post in this space, it may induce one or two readers to download the Kindle version or purchase the hard copy, and… and it has become fairly evident to me that most people aren’t reading blogs over the holidays, anyway.  So I’ll indulge in a bit of self-promotion today and Saturday, and otherwise join our fearless leaders in a shutdown of activity.

From the author’s “Polemical Preface”

[The preceding paragraphs describe the immense difficulties I encountered when trying to interest self-styled Christian publications in a much earlier version of this book twenty years ago.]

Still, there was certainly a component of the Christian community (understood in a more general—and also more genuine—sense) that did read novels. A few such people sampled my book before our press collapsed… and of these, more than a few lodged an objection not easily shrugged off as insubstantial. I should note that all members of this “test group” were affiliated with a Southern Baptist institution to which I had a professional connection at the time. The somewhat squeamish character of their reservations, then, was perhaps to be expected—for they were distressed that the novel had chosen to tackle the sexual revolution, especially as it had evolved in the Ivory Tower during the Eighties.

I had witnessed this lurid cultural debacle from a spectator’s seat rather than participating on the field of play—but my seat belonged to the first row of bleachers. Between 1972 and 1984, I studied at three different institutions of higher learning, eventually earning three degrees. Shortly thereafter, I began a career of teaching at various colleges that ended only a few months ago. My exposure to the lifestyle of the cultural elite, therefore, was lengthy.

In my time, I had seen one psyche after another, among both males and females, corroded dangerously by the prevailing ethic. When I began my academic apprenticeship back in the Seventies, the message was overtly hedonistic. (It has lately grown more self-righteously ideological: promiscuity not for pleasure’s sake, but to liberate oppressed minorities.) Back then, one was supposed to approach sex as among life’s most desirable joys, probably surpassing good food and a good sleep in many minds. To more than a few, I have a feeling that it even outranked food and sleep as a necessity. It was an “it”: an acquisition, a thing to be possessed and savored like a German-sweet-chocolate cake straight out of the oven. Educated adults were to understand this “itness” and to abstain from the childish or uncouth attachment of emotional significance to “good sex”. If both parties consented to dedicate their bodies (for a month, a weekend, or ten minutes) to plucking the forbidden fruit off the tree and sucking out its juices, then what ground remained for the moralist to grow livid and call down damnation? Would that bourgeois, probably Christian moralist have the same hang-up about other perfectly natural behaviors like going to the bathroom? More than once, I heard his kind dubbed “anal-repressive”.

The irony about the “anal-repressive” jibe was that it logically eliminated the possibility of love among the Enlightened without their ever having noticed. If sex is a kind of bowel movement involving the other side of the abdomen, what can it have to do with emotion? A physiological need cannot be considered a fine sentiment by any sensible person. The ability to sleep eight hours a night is no proof of delicate feeling. Yet the rock-and-roll mentality that saturated the society in which I grew up (and in which I observed very little growing up) persistently applauded itself as more “sensitive” and “caring” than its glowering, Puritanical parent generation. “All you need is love”—with the supplementation, apparently, of birth-control pills. At the same time, the refrain that “sex is just sex” was beginning to be sung by the same hipsters. I never could get an answer from any of them to the question, “So which one is it?”

Alas, the Christians I have tried to describe in my preamble held aloof from the fray of ideas rather than tearing into the other side’s contradictions, as I myself thought proper (and even compulsory for those of us whose business was ideas). My remote, unsoiled colleagues didn’t resemble the caricature of Christian self-discipline that the “educated” crowd drew of them except, perhaps one respect. They were not a bunch of trap-jawed males keeping their womenfolk barefoot, pregnant, and chained to the stove… but they did feel very uncomfortable about lifting the veils insistently draped by polite society. Let me return now to these ever-vigilant caretakers of propriety.

My book’s sin, for this more literate class of Christian, did not—of course—lie in promoting the “educated” view of sex as a natural joy for the laid-back (and sketchily toilet-trained); nobody ever accused my novel of that, and nobody who had read it ever could. Yet I seemed to have been doing something close to illicit promotion precisely by exploding the sexual revolution’s premises at close range. I was looking microscopically into a matter that good people agree to keep half a mile away, or to approach more nearly only if squinting through lowered eyelashes. It appeared that an author was doomed to make sex enticing (especially to impressionable young girls) even if he systematically, almost categorically revealed its host of spiritual risks in scrutinizing it. The scrutiny was impermissible. It was like giving a child a sip of beer to show him how vile the stuff tastes: what if the kid enjoys it?

Here I must set the scene more thoroughly. My tortured hero, Professor Huston Evans, had reached a vaguely suicidal decision to compete in elite campus dating games after he had followed a celibate adulthood’s path to marriage—only to see his young wife die within months. Evans’s state, at this point, is so deeply depressed that it becomes virtually nihilistic. The happiness achieved by his strictures having turned to ash in his hands, he can recognize no further virtue in fighting the good fight—for tomorrow, indeed, we die.

Through this tormented character, I tested the claims of the sexual revolution one by one. (Readers may believe or not, as they will, that Evans was truly a test vehicle for me and not myself under an alias: the novel isn’t an autobiography—but I’m too old now to bother about those who want it to be.) What I observed in peering imaginatively through this man’s eyes was that sex never has an emotional (I would prefer to say spiritual) value of 0. In other words, I am convinced that sex is never just sex (except, perhaps, in cases of pathological degeneration). Crude men will claim otherwise almost as a boast, or perhaps to challenge younger men to come down and join them in their psychological dunghill. When feminism, with the aid of the Pill, began to morph into a cult of promiscuity during the Seventies, “educated” women took up the same loud, hoarse boast. Female Ph.D.’s were now sounding rather like lifelong playboys whose only fear on earth was pregnancy, with its host of attendant shackles. Some of them, indeed, were sounding more like sailors on shore leave. These were the women with whom Evans felt he had some kind of score to settle. The vision of happiness they most derided was that for which he had most longed, and whose sudden loss after so much waiting seemed (in some associational manner created by his buried grief) all their fault.

And the poor man’s “vendetta”, if irrational, was not utterly incomprehensible. After all, the sexual revolution had indeed reduced his chances of finding what he sought to statistical zero, at least in an academic setting (with not much better odds to be found outside that setting). No man and woman could find enduring, mutually respecting happiness in such a climate; for, to repeat my thesis, a purely sensory savoring of sexual pleasure, as of a fine wine or a crêpe Suzette, is impossible for people of stable emotional health—yet such is the academic formula for sexual relations. The quixotic quest for “emotionally unengaged” sex—for that utterly detached joy in the “object”—must find itself diverted to one of only a few practical destinations. Evans had embarked upon an unwholesome journey to explore many of these, ripping up the scenery as he went.

Most natural for any tender, callow person is the tendency to fall in love with the partner, to be sure; but, among the experienced players of the game in an artificial world like Evans’s, this is also the least likely outcome. Much more often in these highly exploitative surroundings, one develops a contempt of partners as mere deliverers of “the thing” (a perverted sentiment felt especially often by men for their female partners) or a contempt of oneself as having developed an addiction-like dependency upon the thing (probably more common in females, since it requires introspection—but Evans explores these waters, too). Women sometimes want to get “the thing” out of the way as quickly as possible so that they may proceed to learn if they and their partners actually have a basis for friendship. Men seem to me more likely to push the envelope, seeking after ever more violent and unnatural ways to achieve “the thing” once they have grown bored with the old-fashioned way. Evans, I will note here, registers a new taste for physical violence—for a kind of vengeance on the world—before he retreats to the bedroom with his first conquest.

My design, in a way, was to write a little Inferno about de-spiritualized sexual experiences, with different levels of degradation implied here and there. Yet it seemed that most of the few self-identified Christian readers who nosed through that version of the book (and you’ve probably deduced by now that Seven Demons Worse was the first incarnation of Worse by Seven) couldn’t make out my Dantesque intentions. They saw the narrative as profoundly “off-color”. Neither of its versions ever had any explicit descriptions of sex acts or human anatomy (though the definition of “explicit” depends, I suppose, upon the beholder’s eye, and specifically upon how much imagination enhances that eye’s vision)—and, likewise, no references whatever appeared to any form of sex that might be called sodomy. Nevertheless, my harshest critics didn’t like my getting into Evans’s head. Sex is… hush… sex. Jack and Jill withdraw to the bedroom, the door closes, and… oh, Jack! Oh, Jill! Naughty, naughty! No analysis of either character’s reflections and feelings, please. If they’re not married, then something bad has just happened. And if they are… why, apparently nothing bad could possibly happen. The right and the wrong of it is all about being legal, not in the least about state of mind or disposition of the heart.