The Chumps of Choice

A Congenial Spot for the Discussion of Against the Day, by Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Cornell '59, and Any Other Damned Thing That Comes Into Our Heads. Warning: Grad Students and Willie-Wavers will be mocked.

Monday, September 10, 2007

A Brand New -- and Infinitely More Complicated -- Way to Get Pregnant!

pp. 876--891

Suffice to say, we'll avoid any illustrative Google Image Searches this week, for fear of casting this tasteful group blog down into the hellfires of the Not Safe for Work.

We're back, with a bang (har!), to Cyprian and the Question of Desire. I must confess I find Cyprian's mind at this point to be astonishingly difficult to wrap my own brain around. As a lay student (if not practitioner, in my own small way) of Buddhism, I have done a fair amount of thinking about the abnegation of desire. But as I haven't got a sadomasochistic boner -- bone! bone! Jesus, did anyone hear that? -- in my body, I have only ever thought in the shallowest way about masochistic submission as an expression of it.

And yet, we are forced to here: "Most who met [Cyprian] found it difficult to to reconcile his appetite for sexual abasement -- its specific carnality -- with what had to be termed a religious surrender of the self." This recalls a question I asked a few weeks ago: Is not the desire to end desire itself a desire?

Yashmeen, it seems, is the first to recognize this dissonance in Cyprian's mind, and to -- what's the word? Nurture? Exploit? Consume? -- it, inhabiting, as everyone is, " a world every day more stultified, which expected salvation in codes and governments, ever more willing to settle for suburban narratives and diminished payoffs" -- she sees Cyprian's "miraculous resurrection" (hmmm...) as an opportunity for transcendence.

Yin and Yang get all twisted up here, which, come to think of it, is perhaps the way we should always think of them. Yashmeen, hitherto always the pursued in relation to men, and the pursuer with women, finds that Cyprian responds to a seduction approach more appropriate to commanding the "desires of London shopgirls and haughty Girtonian alike." But with Cyps, unlike with the women Yashmeeen's pursued, "the gentle make-believe of princesses and maidservants [i.e., power relationships] was deepened, extended into realms of real power, real pain."

Do you see how the Personal becomes the Political here? Dominance and submission sex-games as expression, as mirroring, of the exercise of economic power? I can never see S&M at work without also thinking of czars and kulaks, of overseers in the cotton field, which, frankly, gives me a bit of a soft-off. The sadomasochistic enthusiast will no doubt answer me that, unlike the economic world, the exchange of power in S&M is voluntary, and that there are power relationships at work in even the most mundane missionary-position boffage. (Yes, but there's also a question of degree, nicht wahr?)

This can of worms is worth opening at least briefly, justified by this:
It was more than the usual history of flogging one expected from British schoolboys of all ages. It was almost an indifference to self, in which desire was directed at passing beyond the conditions of the self -- at first she thought, as other women on the face of it might, well then it's only self-hatred isn't it, perhaps a class thing -- but no, that wasn't it. Cyprian took altogether too much pleasure in what she obliged him to do. "'Hate'? no -- I don't know what this is," he protested, peering in dismay at his naked form in the mirror, "except that it's yours...."
(Emphasis mine.)

I ask again: Is not the desire to end desire itself a desire?

Later: "It was going on behind every other window one could see, common as the stars in the sky, the reversals of power, wives over husbands, pupils over masters, wogs over whites, the old expected order of things all on its head, a revolution in the terms of desire, and yet, at Yashmeen's feet, that seemed only the outskirts -- the obvious or sacramental form of the thing." Yashmeen seems to find some sort of mission to help Cyprian find oblivion and total self-abnegation -- but her self-justification is far from thought through: "Rules of proper conduct are for the dying, not for us." Famous last words...

The Spongiatosta family is throwing a "secret counter-Carnevale known as Carnesalve." (My desktop translator widget gives "meat" and "blank" for "carne" and "salve" respectively -- not very helpful....) Unlike the public Carnevale, held before Lent in anticipation of fasting, Carnesalve is "not a farewell but an enthusiastic welcome to flesh in all its promise. As object of desire, as food, as temple, as gateway to conditions beyond immediate knowledge."

My kinda party.

OK now, Jingo. Here's a challenge for you:

Try, just try, to summarize the action in the next scene without resorting to the sort of language to be found at (not that innocent li'l me would ever visit such a louche place)....

Cyprian, bedecked in his finest drag, and wearing a wig made from Yashmeen's own hair, catches Reef's eye at the Carnesalve. Reef, surprising no readers by this point -- this is the guy who solicited a blowjob from Yashmeen's dog; he'd fuck an alligator if somebody'd drain the pool (but see below! See below!) -- responds with a positive display of appreciation. Yashmeen, who has forbidden Cyprian to make any moves on her het-fella without express permission, escorts her boys/girls/somewhere-in-betweens to a private space for some "punishment." She demands that Cyprian retain the effluent emission from

(no, no! Too Latinate!)

She forces Cyprian to keep Reef's load in

(Jesus! What are you, a hack pr0n writer?)

Ardently looking on, waves of passion crashing over her as she watches her woman-man give the ultimate pleasure to her man-man, Yashmeen demands coquettishly that Cyprian retain Reef's bounteous love-reward

(Fuckin' hell! Harlequin Romances, now!)

All right. Reef goes Number Three in Cyprian's yum-yum, which he then proceeds to dribble into Yashmeen's hoo-hoo while Reef puts his weenie in his Naughty Place. Whew!

Happy? I know I am.

Besides the obvious trouser-tightening bits, the thing to observe here is that Cyprian is now overtly not only the "go-between" connecting Yash and Reef, but he's also taken both their roles, both the recipient and the deliverer of Reef's baby-batter. He has, in effect, become both of them.

MOVING ON... (Biomechanics being one thing but intimacy quite another...)

And now we are three.

Horndog Reef and Cyprian begin to "see" each other without Yashmeen's knowledge. Their pillow-talk is fascinating -- universes colliding, America and Europe. Reef, not the most percipient or empathic of men, wonders how "anybody can let somebody do that to him [i.e., bottom]," rather missing the point that the "doing to" him had been welcomed by Cyprian, and wasn't coerced or forced. "I mean, don't it hurt?" "It hurts, and it doesn't hurt," which I imagine is a pretty fair description, given the number of times it's done every day. "Japanese talk."

(Yes, more of that Japanese talk. Cue mention of "desire" in

Reef cites honor, which leads to Cyprian's observation (if "disingenuous"), "Perhaps I've only failed to see a connection between honor and desire (ding! ding! ding!), Reef." The relationship between honor and desire is of course more complicated for Cyprian, as his dismissal of honor as a personal value has been useful to him in the professional field. "Honor," as Reef sees it, equates to the refusal to be submissive to any person or thing, while for Cyprian it's an "outmoded sexual protocol." We get the searing insight that there are people who confuse Cyprian's submissiveness with sympathy, "especially those with the curious belief that sodomites, having few troubles of their own, could never become bored listening to the difficulties of others."

The passage that follows is all-revealing about Reef, and a damned sad passage too. He tells Cyprian of his encounters with closeted cowboys on trains, young men who'd left their wives ostensibly to look for work in the West but in reality to just get the hell away from the hellish secret lives they'd allowed themselves to get sucked into, of children that they love deeply and wives they may love but don't lust for. Then we're suddenly getting Reef counting himself among them, and the realization hits: Reef's closeted! And has been for the whole book!

Go back and check 218:13-18, just after Stray's had her baby and they've buried Webb. "Reef might not be able to pull off successfully the guise of a respectable wife-and-kids working stiff the way Webb had. Meant he'd either have to level with Stray or pretend to be up to his old rounder ways so she'd think when he disappeared for days at a time that it was ramblin and gamblin and nothing serious."

This explains so much! The sexual rapacity, the coolness to women even while he's laying them and his ease in leaving them, the idiot logic that leads him to solicit a blow-job from a poodle, the sudden, surprising eagerness to have it off with Cyprian... On my next re-read, I'm going to have a much more sensitive eye to this.

Reef dreams of Webb, after "years of avoidance" (how do you avoid dreaming about someone?). I think the mention of "being the Kieselguhr Kid in Webb's place" is a direct pointer back to p. 218; it was that issue that was disguising the real trouble in Reef's mind, and in ours -- "and now look at this that he'd come stepping into... Would Webb recognize him now, recognize his politics anymore, his compulsions?" Webb reminds Reef to "honor small victories"; when Reef points out their absence of late, Webb retorts, mysteriously, "Not talking about yours, numbskull."

The threesome take their act on the road, cleaning up in the casinos with Yashmeen's foolproof roulette system. Although they agree on the Big Issues (Anarchism, humor, and lots and lots of sex, and who can blame them, really?) they bicker (quite hilariously) over Reef's cooking. the outcome of which is a generous slathering of overcooked pasta in a Poisson distribution over Cyprian's phiz.

Wolfe Tone O'Rooney makes a brief appearance, warning darkly that "governments are about to fuck things up for everybody, make life more unlivable than Brother Bakunin ever imagined."

Once again, Cyprian has a nice, long wallow in his favorite subject: "But no more accountable was the absence of desire -- why one would choose not to embrace what the world judges, it often seemed unanimously, to lie clearly in one's interest." Yashmeen, her instincts as good as ever, perceives a change in Cyprian: "I feel...that somehow I am coming slowly not to matter as much to you as something else...."

Yashmeen discovers she's pregnant by Reef, and, Cyprian would like to think, with his help. I'm no gynecologist, but I'm willing to bet that the method they've been using is mighty, mighty inefficient.

Res ipsa loquitur.


At Monday, September 10, 2007 3:32:00 PM, Blogger Civic Center said...

Very nice, very nice, very nice-in-deed,
Very nice, very nice, very nice-in-deed,
Very nice, very nice, very nice-in-deed, very
Ni-i-i-ce, very nice-in-deed!

I'm not sure I agree with your supposition that Reef is closeted and that the cowboys on the train bending his ear were closet cases so much as they were guys who didn't want a wife and family for reasons they don't understand (which, come to think of it, could mean the closet). Also thought that Reef's surreptitiousness around Stray and his pretend "rounder behavior" was to keep her off the trail about his dynamiting anarchist ways rather than any sexual peccadilloes. As you point out, Reef would fuck an alligator if somebody drained the pool, which isn't exactly "closet" behavior.

In any case, your synopsis was a great mixture of Porn and Buddhism. Thanks.

At Monday, September 10, 2007 3:53:00 PM, Blogger Will Divide said...

Yeah, count me as thinking that the acidity in saliva would be enough to kill any activity in the semen department, but we'll give the old rascal his kink.

The act is, let's say, as far from an immaculate conception as you can get this side of an Aristocrats joke. And note the time of the frolic, midnight Easter morning. Resurrection indeed.

Carnesalve, can be translated from Italian as "Hello, Meat" or "Hail, Meat" which puts the night's revels in further focus. Recall also that the angel who announces Jesus' birth to his mother begins by saying "Hail, Mary". (God making a pass??)

Clearly, we need to pay attention to the kid on the way.

I was less confused by Cyp's self abdication. One finds a very similar case of rejection of class distinctions, S&M abasement, and attention to the ideals of higher service in the form of T.E. Lawrence, who's already in Arabia as our threesome get it on. (The movie only scratched the surface regarding the old boy's quirks. Interested parties should read A Prince of Our Disorder, or The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia for the dish.)

All in all, I sped past this part without much thought first time through, and the reread has been something of a revelation. The change wrought in Yash once she recognizes Cyprian's inner transformation is marvelous to behold, even if our author masks it with a French postcard sex scene. (A Pierrot costume?! Please. . .)

At Monday, September 10, 2007 5:55:00 PM, Blogger Neddie said...

Thank you, sfmike. A poor thing, cobbled together between bites on a sandwich at work while fobbing off requests for labor onto underlings, but mine own.

I'm not sure I agree with your supposition that Reef is closeted and that the cowboys on the train bending his ear were closet cases so much as they were guys who didn't want a wife and family for reasons they don't understand

Read that passage (885-6) again with the thought in mind. I think it just leaps out and grabs you by the throat.

First, it's pillow-talk between two men, one of whom is finally making a Big Admission to himself and wants to confess it to the other, more experienced man. Then we get the showing of tintypes of the kids: "Hell they love those chavalitos." But the wives' tintypes, erotically posed or not, arouse only the bitter observation that "a complete stranger is doin me a favor and don't even know it." (That favor, of course, is keeping the abandoned woman sexually happy, at least.)

Then you get "They sure wouldn't get into no discussion about their wife's pussy." Probably not their proudest subject to talk about... And then, "I was havin one of those psychic predictions about the day I'd be joinin them."

"Grand Army of the Matrimonial Republic, tellin each other war stories of the lines they'd had to fall back from...sometimes in a blind panic they'd pretend was somethin else, "Guess I went a little crazy there...."

But it was Reef's "Way my little boy looked at me, that last time...ain't like he knew anythin was different," that made me ask, Well, Reef, why did you leave? What crime had you committed? What was "different"?

Went back 600 pages, investigated the circumstances of Reef's leaving Stray, and bam! page 218 just kicked me in the nuts.

I'll admit, that passage on 218 can be read two ways; it could just be the anarchist stuff he's trying to hide from Stray, but you gotta admit, "Reef might not be able to pull off successfully the guise of a respectable wife-and-kids working stiff the way Webb had" is a mighty, mighty strong hint. And why is Reef so all-fired hot for Cyprian? He could have any woman at the Carnesalve, big galoot like him; why does a delicate young man in Yashmeen's wig get him so hot and bothered, him in his Pierrot getup?

"How much of this have you told Yashmeen?"

"No more'n she tells me about her younger days. Why? You fixin to run and rat on me?"

"Not I, but perhaps you should. Sometime."

"Easy for you to say."

Excellent advice from Cyprian, there.

Don't make the same mistake twice, Reef....

At Monday, September 10, 2007 7:07:00 PM, Blogger Neddie said...

a great mixture of Porn and Buddhism

It's only just now occurred to me:

What is the sound of one hand fwapping?

That is all....

At Monday, September 10, 2007 9:08:00 PM, Blogger Civic Center said...

Okay, neddie, you've convinced me, and reading the chapter over again what really convinced me was the last scene where Yasmeen catches Reef teaching Cyprian how to dance in a waterfront bar, and almost interrupts them but doesn't. It's an oddly tender scene in a not-very-tender section.

And Will, if you haven't read "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom" by old T.E. himself, I can't recommend the crazy book highly enough. I read it while being a teletype operator for Spreckels Sugar as a 20-year-old, and the book completely molded the way I look at Arabs, 20th century European history, man-on-man love, and life in general, though I think Allah I share very few of Mr. Lawrence's "kinks," which strike me as very British in their perversity. And you're right, Cyprian falls right into that category.

At Monday, September 10, 2007 9:34:00 PM, Blogger i am he said...

I'm in complete agreeance with sfmike w/r/t the excellent summary. I did, however, feel compelled to mention that, on two readings now, it never occurred to me that Reef was closeted. I guess its in the way you define this mercurial orientation situation we have on our hands here regarding Reef. Nonetheless, I'd read these passages more seeing Reef as an easy going kinda dude--whatever's whatever orientation, I guess. Could be its just a projection of me, who knows. Who cares. I just thought I'd throw that in, that I'd not seen him as closeted is all, really. Is anyone else getting sad? I still read these portions of the book and get distantly emotional about this all coming to an end... I think Yashmeen and Cyp's exchange helps to reinforce this particular response. Again: great work guys! Six comments already. (BTW: have you seen some of the earlier posts? effing in the sixties, the comments!)

At Monday, September 10, 2007 10:37:00 PM, Blogger Civic Center said...

Dear Ben: I'm still reading this book in the present tense, in fact am only about five pages past this section. How cool you're getting all emotional about coming to the end For The Second, Bilocated Time. And interestingly enough, I completely agree with you about Reef's "easy going kinda dude" sexual orientation, but neddie's "Brokeback Mountain" take is also oddly persuasive.

At Tuesday, September 11, 2007 11:39:00 AM, Blogger Darius Kazemi said...

I believe it was not Yashmeen's dog that Reef was getting dirty with, but rather the dog of the high society lady he'd been following around. I forget the lady's name, as it's been a while since I finished the book.

At Tuesday, September 11, 2007 11:58:00 AM, Blogger Neddie said...

Ah -- right you are, Darius. It's been a while...

At Wednesday, September 12, 2007 3:08:00 PM, Blogger Civic Center said...

Darius, how could you forget the name Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin? It's branded on my brain.

At Sunday, October 30, 2016 9:03:00 AM, Blogger Nicole R. Hill said...

I wanted to thank you for this great read!! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post

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