Jesse Bering’s Favorite Reads from 2011

Jesse Bering is a scholar in residence at Wells College. He is a regular columnist at scientificamerican.com and a frequent contributor to Slate, and he has appeared on NPR, Playboy Radio, and more. He is the author of The Belief Instinct and Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? And Other Reflections on Being Human, which will be published in July 2012 under the Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux imprint. He lives in Ithaca, New York. Follow him @JesseBering.

This has been a year filled with lewd and licentious readings because I’m working on a new book about the science of sexual deviance and human psychology, particularly our preoccupation with normalcy and the dread of being outcasts when it comes to what secretly arouses us. One of the more important aspects of this nonfiction project is being able to ground the scientific discussion in clear literary or narrative moments. It’s usually not deliberate on the part of fiction authors, but often their stories are complementary to actual science, or at least they map onto recurring findings that arise in controlled laboratory studies. Many of the classic works of fiction that I’ve read this year, alongside the many dry empirical articles, articulate rather complex scientific ideas in stunningly intimate language. Here are a handful of my favorites.

Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima
Published in 1948, twenty-two years before Mishima died infamously by seppuku during a failed coup attempt in Tokyo, many scholars believe that this coming-of-age tale about growing up gay in early twentieth-century Japan is largely autobiographical. Mishima’s portrayal of a teenage boy’s dawning awareness of his sexual attraction to other males in a society that not only forbids him from expressing these desires but also forces him to overtly mask his true self behind a heterosexual veneer is an extraordinary and nuanced analysis of many adolescents’ experience even today. The protagonist also finds himself reflecting on the origins of his specific homosexual fetishes, such as his attraction to men’s blood and gore—and especially their armpits.

Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille
The Marquis de Sade has nothing on Bataille; this book is scandalous even for our so-called Rule 34 society. “That was the period when Simone developed a mania for breaking eggs with her ass,” the protagonist recalls fondly of his first love. The final scene involves the lasciviously homicidal Simone luring a priest into a decadent violation of his celibacy vows. “His body erect, and yelling like a pig being slaughtered, he spurted his come on the host in the ciborium, which Simone held in front of him while jerking him off.” But you’d have to be a fool to brush aside this little masterpiece as vintage pornography; psychoanalysts have long considered it a rare glimpse at the hidden carnal spirit of man. The surrealistic writing is exquisite but the tone is bleak and the shame palpable, so be prepared to be mildly traumatized.

The Balcony by Jean Genet
I’ve been crazy about Genet ever since reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential homage Saint Genet (a beatifying tome about a living writer that many critics say destroyed Genet’s creative genius) and have devoured most of his works. But I’m embarrassed to say that it’s only this year that I got around to reading one of his most famous plays, The Balcony, which centers on the affairs of a brothel catering to a colorful array of government officials in a town on the brink of war. Run by a philosophically astute madam named Irma, the whorehouse serves as a protective womb in which people are free to nourish their true libidinal selves, selves that must be drained regularly for their public personas to go on with the business of being “normal” people. “When it’s over, their minds are clear,” reflects Irma after these men visit her establishment. “I can tell from their eyes. Suddenly they understand mathematics. They love their children and their country.” With his singular grasp on the many unspoken links between human sexuality, politics, and hypocrisy, The Balcony is Genet at his finest.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
Carter’s prose, most of which trades in the intense psychosexual conflicts inherent to clever women’s relation to ravening men, is both irreverent and spectacularly clear. She draws on the classic feminist themes of male objectification, but she does it so fluidly and convincingly that her fiction exposes the undeniably sordid, dehumanizing blackness that can fuel male lust for mindless flesh. In making male readers—at least, this male reader—feel so vividly like the woman in her stories, Carter has no need to appeal to the sort of bristling outrage that so often undermines feminist writings. I also took considerable pleasure in knowing that, while most people this year were getting the sanitized Dreamworks’ version of that charismatic pussy, I was privileged enough to have stumbled onto Carter’s own deliciously risqué take on Puss in Boots.

Vita Sexualis by Ogai Mori
Another Japanese classic, and one handpicked for censor by Japan’s vice minister of war, is Mori’s portrayal of a passionless, “abnormally frigid” philosophy professor in Japan named Mr. Kanai. Sensing that most other people are “erotomaniacs” without any useful insight into the origins or causes of their overly excitable sexual natures, the professor seeks to understand what the fuss is all about. Vita Sexualis is so effective because the protagonist is relentlessly logical and the narrative voided of even the slightest emotional charge. “Mr. Kanai had never carefully thought about the way his sexual desires had germinated or the way they had developed,” Mori explains matter-of-factly. “Might he not probe these desires and write about them?” In examining, without apology or hesitation, those parts of himself that most people refuse to acknowledge exist, we’re all the better for Kanai’s soberly erotic self-analysis.

All Authors’ and Editors’ Favorite Reads of 2011

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  • A Reader

    Love your writing, been checking in with it for a couple of years now. A quick but truly important comment on your blog presentation. Please, for the love of our eyesight, please ditch the grey text and go with full black. The human eye needs contrast to process text. Without it the work is much harder. Cheers and Happy Ho-Ho.

    • sean

      not true. black on white text generates optically active boundary effects which inhibit readability. maybe a darker shade, but grey is best.

      ps: i enjoy your writing too, Jesse. if you’re writing a book on sexual deviance you might look at Sarah Goode’s recent work on paedophilia.

  • sean

    ,,,and Genet is awesome.