Wallace Shawn On Writing About Sex


“Various people who have liked me or cared about me — people who have believed in my promise as a writer — have hinted to me at various times in my life that an excessive preoccupation with the subject of sex has harmed or even ruined my writing.

They’ve implied that it was sad, almost pitiful, that an adolescent obsession should have been allowed to marginalize what they optimistically had hoped might have been a serious body of work. […]

Why is sex interesting to write about? To some, that might seem like a rather dumb question. Obviously, when someone interested in geology is alone in a room, he or she tends to think a lot about rocks. […] And I would have to guess that geologists find it fun to sit at a desk and write about rocks.

So, yes, I find it enjoyable. But apart from that, I find myself wondering, ‘Why is it interesting to write about sex?’ ”

From the opening of an essay in a forthcoming collection of essays by Wallace Shawn, printed in Harper’s Magazine this month. Some of Shawn’s reflections continue after the jump.

He suggests that it’s interesting mostly because the subject is still shocking: “At least, it’s shocking to me. Even after all these years,”

most bourgeois people, including me, still walk around with an image of themselves in their heads that doesn’t include — well — that. […] When I form a picture of myself, I see myself doing the sorts of things that humans do and only humans do — things like hailing a taxi, going to a restaurant, voting for a candidate in an election, or placing receipts in various piles and adding them up. But if I’m unexpectedly reminded that my soul and body are capable of being swept up in an activity that pigs, flies, wolves, lions and tigers also engage in, my normal picture of myself is violently disrupted. In other words, consciously, I’m aware that I’m a product of evolution and I’m part of nature. But my unconscious mind is still partially wandering in the early nineteenth century and doesn’t know these things yet.

Towards the end of the essay, Shawn offers some ancient reflections in wonderful new language:

The New York Times … does not include images of naked people [since nudity] somehow implies that anything could happen, [and] the Times is committed to telling its readers that many things will not happen, because the world is under control… The contemplation of nudity or sex could tend to bring up the alarming idea that at any moment human passions might rise up and topple the world we know.

But perhaps it would be a good thing if people saw themselves as a part of nature … Sex can be a humbling, equalizing force. It’s often been noted that naked people do not wear medals, and weapons are forbidden within the pleasure garden. […] Sex really is a nation of its own. Those whose allegiance is given to sex at a certain moment withdraw their loyalty temporarily from other powers. It’s a symbol of the possibility that we might all defect for one reason or another from the obedient columns in which we march.

Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →