April 20, 2010

Even high culture not as wild anymore?

In the comments, Jason Malloy points to a great NYT essay on the decline of carnality in serious lit. I don't read much fiction, and the most recent authors I've read are probably Salinger or Kawabata, so I'll have to take her word for it. Despite being totally unfamiliar with the books she's talking about (mostly written from the '60s to the present), I still found the larger cultural shift she discusses entirely familiar:

The younger writers are so self-­conscious, so steeped in a certain kind of liberal education, that their characters can’t condone even their own sexual impulses; they are, in short, too cool for sex. Even the mildest display of male aggression is a sign of being overly hopeful, overly earnest or politically un­toward. For a character to feel himself, even fleetingly, a conquering hero is somehow passé. More precisely, for a character to attach too much importance to sex, or aspiration to it, to believe that it might be a force that could change things, and possibly for the better, would be hopelessly retrograde. Passivity, a paralyzed sweetness, a deep ambivalence about sexual appetite, are somehow taken as signs of a complex and admirable inner life. 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, and in direct rebellion against the Roth, Updike and Bellow their college girlfriends denounced. (Recounting one such denunciation, David Foster Wallace says a friend called Updike “just a penis with a thesaurus”).

If there's one word I keep using in my discussion of this shift, it is "self-conscious." I really like her use of "abandon" instead of my "wild," but it doesn't work as well as an adjective.

This doesn't look like a strictly generational thing, as the more puritanical writers come from the disco-punk generation of 1958 - 1964, Generation X, and probably whoever the hot authors of the '79 - '86 cohort are. Rather, what's common is when they started writing -- the very late '80s or early '90s and afterward. That of course coincides with the sexual counter-revolution of the past two decades and counting. Even the older writers who used to write more carnal scenes can no longer pull it off, which shows that everyone is susceptible to the larger changes. This is not an effect of aging since the young today are even more hostile to lust.

Where else in high culture does this show up? Art films perhaps? The trouble is that a lot of those are probably French, and France does not have a clear split between pre-'91 and post-'91 culture like America and Canada do, judging by crime rates. Italy saw a huge drop in crime during the '90s, though, so we could throw them in. The UK... kind of, but not as much. Are the artier movies made in those countries during the '60s through the '80s wilder than those from the '90s and 2000s? I'm not a film buff (and even less so for the artier flicks), but Woody Allen vs. Wes Anderson comes to mind.


  1. You know, the social conservatives go on and on about how depraved they think U.S. culture has become. However, postings like this fit more with my real-world personal experiences which suggests that we are become more prude than previous generations.

    Crime, both violent and property, is down. There seems to be fewer serial killers than there were in the 70's and 80's, at least fewer that are noted by the media.

    Teen pregnancy and STD rates seem to be lower as well.

    I think, if anything, today's culture is less depraved than it was, say, 30 years ago. Also, young people seem so passive compared to the boomers or even my generation of the late 80's, early 90's.

    I think the girls gone wild phenomenon is mostly show and no do. Girls feel more comfortable flaunting their bodies because they they feel less threatened by guys.

    It seems to me that the religious right/social conservatives live in some parallel universe as compared to the rest of us.

  2. My guess for this literary phenomenon: postmodernism is more apart of the common cultural landscape. Postmodernism is ironic, detached, self-conscious, etc. The older literary cultural of the 1970's or so was more existentialist, which urged authenticity and a breakdown of the old order. The irony is postmodernism first came onto the scene in the 1970's, it just takes a few decade for cutting edge academics to permeate the high culture.

    On a more practical level, the Sexual Revolution was a failure. No one really believes that "free love" will really solve their problems, they just do it anyway for the physical sensations and the drama (really, in this day the drama between people is fun to watch). More sensitive souls just avoid sex altogether because they ironically hold it in special esteem and the hurt of making love and breaking up is too much for them, whereas it's apart of life for others. To compound this, Americans trust each other less.


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."