Friday, October 28, 2011

From the Original French

Oh yeah, that was what I wanted to write about tonight! Today I began reading Why Must a Black Writer Write About Sex? by Dany Laferriere, published in 1994. The title had caught my eye, but alas, Laferriere doesn't have anything much to say on his subject. (The original French title was Cette grenade dans la main du jeune Negre est-elle ou un fruit?, which is even worse, I think; a better title for the translation, with the original in mind, might have been Is That a Pineapple in My Pocket, or Am I Happy to See You?) The tone of the book is 1960s hipster, and it's been done and done again.

But one passage jogged me a bit.
America owes an enormous debt to Third World youth [by which he means, of course, young men only]. I'm not just talking about historical debt (slavery, the rape of natural resources, the balance of payments, etc.); there's a sexual debt, too. Everything has been promised by magazines, posters, the movies, television. America is a happy hunting ground, that's waht gets beaten into our heads every day, come and stalk the most delicious morsels (young American beauties with long legs, pink mouths, superior smiles), come and pick the wild fruit of this new Promised Land. For you, young men [you see, I told you!] of the Third World, America will be a doe quivering under the buckshot of your caresses. The call went out around the world, and we heard it, even the blue men of the desert heard it. Remember the global village? They've got American TV in the middle of the desert. Westward, ho! It was a new gold-rush. And when each new arrival showed up, he was told, "Sorry, the party's over." I can still picture the sad smile of that Bedouin, old in years but still vigorous (remember, brother, those horny old goats from the Old Testament), who had sold his camel to attend the party. ... Work? Our Bedouin didn't come here to work. He crossed the desert and sailed the seas because he'd been told that in America the girls were free and easy. Oh, no, you didn't quite understand! What didn't we understand? All the songs and novels and films from America ever since the end of the 1950s talk about sex and sex alone, and now you're telling us we didn't understand? What were we supposed to have understood from that showy sexuality, that profusion of naked bodies, that total disclosure, that Hollywood heat? [36-37]
This, of course, was the complaint of white American males in the 50s and onward: there were all those hot babes in the movies, on TV, in the ads, in the pinup calendars, but they thought they were too good for Joe America: you had to be a smooth rich guy like what's-his-name Hefner or Jack Kennedy. Women's desires, women's wishes and fantasies and dreams aren't even on the map (link is NSFW). (There's a not-very-funny scene in the book where the narrator recounts, or maybe just imagines, being accosted by a male Brit who adores black men; the narrator panics, assuming that he'll be expected to fellate the guy in public, which shows how little he knows about Mandingo fantasies. I can't help suspecting a certain disingenuousness on his part, though. It still shows how much Laferriere's fantasies are built on the objects of his desire as objects, not people, so that being desired objectifies and feminizes him.)

I've written before of the technocratic "faith that on the other side of the next mountain there lives a 'race' of natural slaves who are waiting to serve us, their natural masters. They will welcome our lash, set our boots gratefully on their necks, and interpose their bodies between us and danger, knowing that their lives are worth less than ours. Since there is no such natural slave race, the obvious solution is to build one." Laferriere's fantasy is testimony to a similar dream among many men that while the bitches at home are ugly and stingy with the sexual favors, across the ocean or in a mountain valley there exists a race of beautiful, complaisant, insatiable lovelies who've never learned the word "No", who live only to service the masculine ego, who never have a pimple or a wrinkle or a bad day of the month. (Just because your culture and religion pronounce such women harlots and Jezebels, that doesn't mean you don't want your fair share; maybe even more so, and you can even punish them because you desire them.) Since there is no such race, the obvious solution is to build one, which is what Hollywood and Madison Avenue did; but they never really existed except behind the glass screens, on the page, on stage or screen. And they were never "free"; they were expensive -- certainly high-maintenance.

These fantasies aren't limited to straight men, of course; many gay men also dream of a world packed full of mustached manly men with their hairy pecs a-bursting out of flannel shirts, six ax handles across the shoulders, and nary a sissy in sight. Or complaisant blond party twinks with bubble butts, whatever.

What amazes me about these fantasies is the assumption of entitlement they incorporate, though as Laferriere shows, the entitlement is connected to deprivation: I don't have, but I should -- it's my right.* So, of course, there's resentment, even before the rejection or after the acceptance. Women for Laferriere aren't people, they're the opposite of men, his opponents in the war between the sexes. (Again, this attitude is not unknown among gay men.) Lester Bangs wrote, in his book on Blondie, that he believed that if your ordinary Joe were given an hour alone with the sex-goddess of his dreams and total freedom to do as he wished, he'd beat her up. (Analogously, the imaginary slave race would be available to be whipped. Just because the Master could.) I think Lester was right, and something of the mentality he imagined underlies Laferriere's indignation at the broken sexual promises of the West.

* P.S. I know better than to trust an interview, but here's what Laferriere told an interviewer who asked if he was the great womanizer who narrated his novels:
You know, writers will often write about the things they lack and I’m no exception to that rule. I had no money for wine, so I soaked my [writing] book in wine, I did not manage to eat my fill so I put food in my book, I lived alone, so therefore many girls appeared in my first book.
Which makes sense to me; but if this is true, it's interesting that his fantasy women still are adversaries.