Is it good to show sex in a book? Some argue yes. “After all, love is what makes the world go round,” they say. “It’s happening somewhere every hour of every day, so if reading about it makes you squirm, you really need to get over it—read more, not less. It’s what we’re all thinking about, so shouldn’t it be what we’re reading about too? Honestly, love-making is the fulcrum on which happiness and misery turn, so literature trying to hide it would be stupid. There are times when you simply can’t tell a complete, profound story without getting explicit. Who could think of Anna Karenina distinct from those dark nights with Vronsky? How could we see David Copperfield’s soul without exploring his euphoria in Dora?”
With the approach of the complete solar eclipse of August 21, 2017, special protective sunglasses hit the market in America. And these glasses sold, due to the obvious fact that looking at even the tiniest part of the sun (as it comes into or out of full eclipse) can damage your eyes. A solar eclipse is a breathtaking marvel of clockwork and fireworks, so no one wanted to miss it. Watch parties assembled across the US, sunglasses in hand, ready to take in the spectacle. And since a comparable eclipse hadn’t taken place since 1918, this was a sensible response from the American public. Or was it?
From another standpoint, you could say the excitement was exaggerated. Scoffers and poets, perhaps, will tell you that they prefer the face of the sun to its shadow, that the whole affair was in some way a testament to the silly fact that most of us fail to appreciate the grandeur of the sun as it normally is—shining brightly, faithfully overhead. Why turn natural beauty artificial? they ask. At least, maybe that’s what a rapper named Joey was thinking.
Three days after the eclipse, the Huffington Post ran an article entitled, “Joey Bada$$ Cancels 3 Shows After Staring Into The Eclipse.” Staring into the eclipse? Without protective sunglasses? What was Joey BadEyes thinking?
“This ain’t the first solar eclipse and I’m pretty sure our ancestors ain’t have no fancy eyewear. Also pretty sure they ain’t all go blind,” he tweeted.
Fortunately, neither did Joey. “But he also said that he was seeing in different colors,” reported the Post.
Showing sex explicitly in a book is like staring down the sun with naked eyes. It’s no use saying, “Poor Joey, his eyes were too weak!” His eyes were just fine; it was the light photons from a raging fireball aimed at the back of his skull that caused the discomfort. So too, the natural feeling when we read between the sheets is that something too bright is searing into our mind. We feel shame. We know that what is intimate should be covered, what is radiant respected. So wouldn’t explicit literature benefit from an eclipse?
The sensible thing, therefore, is to enjoy the light of the sun, but not to gaze directly at it. “Very well, be squeamish and Victorian if you must,” one might say, “but sex doesn’t bother me. My eyes are different and can stand the raw humanity.” Of course your eyes are different—in color, size, and beauty—but they do not differ essentially from mine. Brown eyes do not blink less than blue. Total darkness leaves us groping for light, both you and me, as surely as excessive light can blind. We are not talking about a subjective moral system, relative to the beholder, but the innate structure of being. Writing out sexually explicit scenes which stir the reader in a way akin to pornography will always be morally disordered because it they will always be able to burn a man’s conscience. The sun is the sun.
But proponents of bed scenes encourage us to get over this squeamishness through increased exposure. Let me be clear. I have no difficulty believing that this method “works.” It certainly is easy enough to take pleasure in beholding something so obviously pleasure-filled, and discomfort would perhaps recede with repetition. But the point is, what does this exposure do to my vision? It’s like saying, “Only let Joey BadEyes stare at the sun in increasingly long intervals, and then he’ll be able to stand it.” Of course he will be able to stand it, but only because he goes blind.
“That is precisely why he should put on sunglasses!” comes the triumphant reply. “Then we can all stare happily together.”
This insistence on looking at the sun (come hell or high water) they justify on the ground that sex is the most normal thing in the world. You only have to swim in it, think of it, talk of it, laugh at it, and then it is no longer so bright and troublesome. I reply that sex is indeed ordinary…ordinary like the sun! Ordinary like the divine disposition for light and warmth on earth. Ordinary like God creating them male and female in a paradise garden. As ordinary as wonder itself! Take off your glasses—the grime of titillation—and enjoy innocent fiction that glows. Because you wear dark glasses all the time for staring at the sun, you see everything else in shadow. But if you remove them, and respect the light above, you will see the whole world as for the first time, in its natural light.
No need to prime ourselves for one apex encounter with the sun, to dare ourselves into raising our sight towards the source of scalding fire. We should cultivate a serene sense of wonder at all times. Thank God for men and manliness, and not less for women and femininity. Let us tremble before the beauty of our bodies that are fearfully, wonderfully made. Let sexuality be admired everywhere, in the most humdrum circumstances and the highest. Our love should be passionate and our principles hard, but let our sight be soft and reverent, as light sent from the moon.
Ah yes, the moon! The moon is reflected light just as literature is the mirror of reality. Like a wise author who censors his imagination, she removes the blister from the solar blast, but bathes us nevertheless in the very same nostalgic light. If the moon were always present, like the sun, we might grow weary of her. But she changes, waxing and waning, ever new in form, for our greater enjoyment. And if she hide completely from time to time, let us not fear the clarity of a dark night, nor shun the book which gives no sensual passion.
And what if the moon should bewitch you? If the moon should bewitch you—and why should you not let yourself be bewitched?—if you cannot resist her summons, then follow the light to its source and take flight to the sun. Yes, fly directly toward the sun! But if you do, know that you must leave everything else behind, and that your ship will be burned up and yourself as well, until you become one in being forever with the sun, and no other. Sexual intercourse shall be enshrined in exclusivity and perpetuity. And this I call marriage to a woman.
At the beginning of this article, I mentioned Anna Karenina’s “dark nights with Vronsky” and David Copperfield’s “euphoria in Dora.” The creators of these characters, Leo Tolstoy and Charles Dickens, are undisputed masters of fiction. The depth of their stories rivals their breadth, encompassing the whole gamut of human life and love, and then plumbing it to the core. Neither Tolstoy nor Dickens used their ink to show the sexual act. Not in marriage, and not outside it.
By all means let us have sunlight! Let us have the searing brightness of the sun overhead, and the glow of sunrays which warm and comfort us, like radiation energy that seeps in and pushes us forward. Let us have light like love, light which holds us up like the love between our parents. Let us marvel at man and marvel at woman, and know that they were made for each other. Let us have heroes who take ship toward sun and sweet bondage, forsaking all others to fly into the arms of a single waiting spouse.
But when it comes to books and stories, let us have also eclipses and the blushing cheek. Let us have the silver light of moon, like crystallized awe before the beloved. Some may lament that the moon has a hidden, private side, which she does not share with us. I admit the moon is modest, but is she not more stunning than the sun?