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“Stop keeping count”: How Vernon escapes a mundane sex-life, in Martin Amis’ Let Me Count the Times.

Abstract: In choosing to “examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day”, Virginia Woolf in her essay Modern Fiction showed how Modernists can use mundane moments to reveal life’s “luminous halo”. By making it new, the Modernist artist presented the mundane in such a way that it intimated a rich spiritual world, contingent to the everyday. In the less confident spirit of Postmodernism, Martin Amis, on the other hand, examines for a moment an ordinary bed after an ordinary night and finds that the mundane (in the sense of entirely routine and boring) sex-life of Vernon, his ordinary protagonist of the 1981 short story Let Me Count the Times, stubbornly refuses to reveal anything other than the predictability of his love-making. Vernon is trapped by a devastating egocentricity that virtually denies his wife’s existence and seeks to maintain control of his libido by quantifying the frequency of his sexual activities in statistical form. The mundane is a product of his excessive subjectivity. When Vernon begins to masturbate and his fantasies eventually grow to cosmic dimensions, he gradually moves through a series of subjective positions towards a symbolic death of his sense of self. Paradoxically, it is from this point that he can finally acknowledge the presence of his wife, her desires and her role as agent in their love-making.

This paper will use the ideas of Elizabeth Grosz’s Space, Time and Perversion, on the libido/death connection, to show how in Amis’ story mundane sex is a result of a dutiful application of the Symbolic Order to desire and how an escape into the semiotic world of jouissance can ultimately offer a way out of the mundane to a reality suffused with sexual joy.

I remember being told on a preparatory course for my confirmation as a member of the Church of England, aged about 14 or 15, that sex was much more than physical intercourse between a man and a woman. Sharing a beautiful experience such as watching a breath-taking sunset with someone you love could also be a sexual one, I was told. I was not too convinced by the latter suggestion. As a hormone-driven ostensibly heterosexual adolescent male, I was much more interested in the physical bit, and could not imagine what sex had to do with sunsets, unless the romantic mood they might occasion would lead to kissing and cuddling and hopefully more.

This scene has come to mind as I have been searching for a satisfactory definition of ‘sex’ for this article. The OED [1970] has not been much help. Its definitions are of ‘sex’ as follows: “1. Either of the two divisions of organic beings distinguished as male and female respectively;” and “2. Quality in respect of being male or female”. The focus is on ‘sex’ as a means of classifying is further illustrated by the next entry: “3. The distinction between male and female in general. In recent use often with more explicit notion: The sum of those differences in the structure and function of the reproductive organs on the ground of which beings are distinguished as male and female, and of the other physiological differences consequent on these; the class of phenomena with which these differences are concerned.”

On reflection in the expression ‘mundane sex’, it is the attribute ‘mundane’ in the sense of “worldly”, “earthly” as opposed to “heavenly” and thus “inspired”, leading to ‘mundane’ having connotations of that which is “boring” and “routine”, which seems to be responsible for dragging the word ‘sex’ away from the OED’s definitions towards something else. The Scottish novelist and academic, Christopher Whyte, once put it thus: ‘sex’ is what you have between your legs, and ‘sexuality’ is what you do with it. ‘Mundane’ in the sense of boring and routine implies repetition, and as such describes an activity rather than a classifying device. As such ‘sex’ in the expression ‘mundane sex’ must refer to the activity in the sense of ‘to have sex with someone’. That clearly seems to imply some sort of genital interaction, although of course this need not be limited to the heterosexual penetration which marked one extreme of my confirmation class teacher’s observation about the potential range of sexual experience.

In an editorial piece on the pain and excitement of moving house for the June 2001 issue of the Journal of Mundane Behaviour, Scott Schaffer connected the idea of the mundane in its repetitive routine sense with the concept of inertia. While the idea of something ‘inert’ seems to suggest absence of movement, action or change, Schaffer reminds us that the physical concept of ‘inertia’ can involve movement: the Concise Oxford Dictionary [1976] defines it as “1. Property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in straight line, unless that state is changed by external force” [my italics]. When used to described human consciousness, the feeling of inertia does not necessarily therefore imply stasis per se, real stasis in terms of consciousness presumably would only be achieved in a coma-state or death, but rather movement or action of such constant regularity that it fails to register as movement or action in the consciousness. As the definition suggests, awareness of the constancy of the subject’s actions or movements only returns when an external force is brought to bear, for example, in the shape of the decision to change job and house in Schaffer’s case.

Inertia in a sexual relationship does not therefore imply a total lack of sexual activity but rather activity of such regularity (“uniform motion in a straight line”) that it fails to register fully in the subject’s awareness. So, linking the inert/mundane connection Schaffer establishes to the concept of ‘mundane sex’, I will take this to refer to regular sexual activity between established partners, in which routine has taken over after the hormonal chemistry of the initial attraction has ceased to operate, in which desire is absent and the sexual act is no longer the occasion of an intensified self-awareness coming in turn from a heightened sense of the other partner’s presence.

In such a mundane relationship, each partner has no sense of their self being reflected positively and intensely by the other and so the relationship cannot generate self-esteem in either member. To transcend the mundane, desire must be present and, according to Hegel, to function positively desire must be reciprocal. To paraphrase Madan Sarup’s summary of Hegel’s Master/Slave anecdote, as an illustration of how desire works, the Self is moved into action through desire but this leads to a negation or even a destruction of the desired object or the desired Other. More simply put, if I am hungry, I am moved into the action of eating to fill the lack that I feel but the food I eat (the desired object) becomes destroyed in fulfilling my desire. It is only when I desire to be the object of desire of the other, that this desire becomes recognisable as human and as positive. The Other then reflects his/her desire back to me and thus my subjectivity and self-esteem are reinforced. This is love, perhaps. (Sarup 1993, 17-18). In the mundane sexual relationship we will consider further on in this article, for most of the time such reciprocal desire is notably absent and the relationship is far from an actively loving one.

Although the emotional isolation of mundane sex may be recognisable to most adults as not altogether unfamiliar, its evocation in literature presents certain difficulties. The literary portrayal of a character’s mundane sex-life surely falls within Virginia Woolf’s remit, when she exhorted us to “examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day”[in Abrams et al., 2000, 2150]. In her essay, Modern Fiction, Woolf promises that, given our attention, such mundane moments can reveal life’s “luminous halo”. While postmodern cynicism might make us less inclined to subscribe wholly to the modernist idea of the mystical or mythical underlying the everyday, it seems evident that by giving the ordinary our whole attention it will cease to appear ordinary. Whether the mundane is transformed by the Modernist-type authors’ gaze into something extraordinary or simply by any writer’s inherent need to ‘make it new’, the first victim of any literary portrayal of the mundane life and mundane sex within it is precisely its mundane-ness. Authorial awareness, if it directs the reader’s attention to details of the mundane, acts as the external force under which the inertia of a mundane life cannot be sustained. Similarly, in a fictional character, any degree of self-awareness will threaten the duration of a truly mundane existence.

Examples of sustained treatments of ‘mundane sex’ in literature seem hard to find and more often ‘mundane sex’ is glimpsed as part of the dull life which provides the background from which the protagonist struggles to escape into a world of meaning and self-awareness, where desire and the libido can fully manifest themselves. In such treatments, ‘mundane sex’ is often alluded to in absentia and derives its meaning through the artistic treatment of its opposite, say, in the momentary plenitude and later inconsistencies of passion. Direct literary treatment of ‘mundane sex’ which manages to maintain the feeling of its mundanity is much more problematic. And it is a problem which Martin Amis manages to solve in his short-story Let Me Count the Times from the 1998 collection Heavy Water and Other Stories by framing his theme in terms of a non-literary type of discourse which at once can provide infinite detail while affirming the uniformity and temporal regularity of truly mundane behaviour: namely, statistics.

The title of Amis’ short-story, Let Me Count the Times, alludes comically to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet XLIII in Sonnets from the Portuguese, which begins:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.

The poem attempts to express the variety of love in terms of qualities (‘Let me count the ways/I love thee) and in terms of spatial metaphors of great dimension. Its inspirational, mystical – ‘out of sight’ – quality is timeless and unworldly. In contrast, Amis’ opening sentence alludes to a thoroughly mundane, as in earthly, uninspired, temporal concept of love that focusses on quantity: “Vernon made love to his wife three and a half times a week, and this was all right.”[1999, 75] The apparently paradoxical “three and a half times a week” becomes comprehensible as the next paragraph explains how despite week to week variations in the frequency of their love-making – and the narrator goes into comically overwrought detail of variations in frequency and their mathematical consequences – Vernon and his wife always average out at 3.5 times a week. Knowing this does not imply a degree of the self-awareness that would preclude marital inertia, as we read: “Vernon didn’t know why, but making love always averaged out that way; it was invariable” [75].

Within such a mundane sexual relationship variations on simple vaginal penetration do not dispel the inertia if through statistical regularity they serve to reinforce the uniform and constant nature of the couple’s sexual activity. Thus Vernon’s ability to produce statistics on fellatio, cunnilingus and sodomy within the relationship show how the protagonist’s hilariously painstaking calculations – “Vernon performed cunnilingus[…] every fourth coupling, on average, or 45.625 times a year, or .8774038 times a week” [76] – consign these potentially interesting variations to the deadening confines of the mundane. Even the exceptional, such as Vernon ejaculating in his wife’s mouth, “which on average he did 1.2 times a year” [76], and the truly exceptional, such as ejaculating over his wife’s face once in the ten years they had been married, fail to disturb the reigning inertia, if the event can be quantified statistically, which of course it can: “Vernon ejaculated all over his wife’s face .001923 times a week. That wasn’t very often to ejaculate all over your wife’s face, now was it?” [76]. These sentences are from the narrator and while they report Vernon’s obsessive calculations, the complicity between Vernon and the narrator, as exemplified in the latter’s appeal to reason in the last sentence, as if attempting to help allay Vernon’s possible sense of shame, genders the narrative voice in no uncertain terms as male. By setting up this close alliance between narrator and protagonist, Amis also increases the sense of the suffocating masculine blindness of Vernon’s world as neither the narrator nor the protagonist operate from a clear-sighted critical vantage point.

The narrator can never intervene directly in the plot as the external force required to overcome the inertia of a character’s life unless certain literary conventions are to be broken. Usually another character or event must act as the external force which awakens a character from their mundane existence and in Let Me Count the Times the obvious candidate for this role – there are no other characters, as such, in the story – is Vernon’s wife. However, the egotistically enclosed nature of Vernon’s world during most of the story is reflected in the fact that the wife barely registers as an autonomous being. For example, she is never named although she is referred to occasionally as “the loved one” [76 & 93]. However, rather than suggesting real affection, this label serves only to depersonalize her further by referring to her in the conventional terms of romance. For most of the story Vernon’s various sexual actions, including the ones he terms exceptional, are greeted only with silence from the wife and Vernon has no idea what is going through her head.

Despite this apparently insuperable distance, within Vernon’s conventionally mundane world the wife continues as his only real partner:

Vernon’s wife was the only woman Vernon had ever known. He loved her and he liked making love to her quite a lot; certainly he had never craved any other outlet. When Vernon made love to his wife he thought only of her pleasure and her beauty: the infrequent but highly flattering noises she made through her evenly parted teeth, the divine plasticity of her limbs, the fever, the delirium, and the safety of the moment. The sense of peace that followed had only a little to do with the high probability that tomorrow would be a night off. [77]

Here the narrator’s use of adverbials – ‘quite a lot…only a little to do with…’ hints at an unconfessable sense of dissatisfaction underlying the apparently healthy, devoted normality of Vernon’s sex-life. And while the narrative voice ostensibly affirms the sentiments of a conventional happy couple’s love-making – ‘he thought only of her pleasure and her beauty’ – the description of ‘her evenly parted teeth’ and the ‘divine plasticity of her limbs’ reduces the wife to something more akin to an inflatable sex-doll. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of ‘the fever, the delirium’ with the ‘safety of the moment’ creates an exquisite dissonance between the momentary release from cold reality through orgasm and the contained nature of the relationship which provides physical safety through marital fidelity and psychological safety through the illusion of control via statistics.

If the description of the wife here and the fact that she never speaks about their sex-life suggests that for Vernon she has been reduced to a mere sexual object, elsewhere the text itself conspires to erase her. In describing their sexual activities, Vernon is invariably the grammatical subject: “Vernon performed cunnilingus… Vernon sodomized his wife… Vernon ejaculated…” etc [76], except when we read “fellatio was performed by Vernon’s wife every third coupling” [76]. Here the use of the passive construction, while not removing all trace of the wife’s agency, conspires to remove her from the grammatical subject position in the same way that the narrator, whose alliance with Vernon we have already noted, denies the wife her status as subject in the world of language. During sex she emits only noises and after sex no matter how shameful the act from Vernon’s point of view she remains silent. In Lacanian terms she is denied a subject position in the Symbolic Order, a position which only Vernon occupies. Only he readily expresses himself and produces language.

According to Lacan’s theories, the Symbolic Order, into which a person passes when they have developed a sufficient sense of self from the various reflections they receive from their environment during the transitional ‘mirror stage’, has a single source of power and authority: the ‘Phallus’. The Phallus is the symbol of patriarchal authority which operates through language and at the initial stages of Vernon’s story he embodies these concepts to perfection. His production of statistics to control and order his experience and the silence and submissiveness of his wife seemingly identify her with lack and him with the Phallus as he uses symbolic language to reaffirm the patriarchal authority. This exercise of authority is about power – and this power can appear infinite in its dimensions.

The way the power of the Phallus, often in the form of a dominant ideology, can appear to stretch to infinity, in other words to be limitless, is nicely captured in a moment in the story shortly before Vernon’s mundane world begins to come under pressure. When Vernon’s office is given an extremely powerful computer which allows him to produce more accurate statistics on his sex-life than ever before, the programme is powerful enough to be able to take leap years into consideration. Vernon therefore locks himself in his office until:

Just after midnight Vernon’s hot red eyes stared up wildly from the display screen, where his entire sex life lay tabulated in recurring prisms of threes and sixes, in endless series, like mirrors placed face to face. [77]

The statistics he triumphantly produces with their recurrent numbers ‘in endless series’ symbolize the infinite reach of the powerful symbolic order; and yet this unlimited power is an illusion.

Since Saussure, we have become increasingly aware of the way in which any piece of language ultimately derives its meaning or, to put it another way, its power to signify, from other pieces of language; language consistently only refers to itself in an infinite play of signs. Any definitive meaning, where language might come to embody a meaning in its totality, is ultimately beyond its reach. As it is, for us as language users, the moment when language attains complete meaning is infinitely ‘deferred’ in the sense Derrida uses the word, as any search for meaning of a word/words always only leads to other words and so no word can offer a complete meaning by itself.

Likewise, in Vernon’s symbolic language, the statistics cannot be finite numbers but must end in the recurring three and sixes, forever deferring completion. In this context the numbers seem highly appropriate, as three and six are also numbers which are deeply associated with the ultimate Phallus, the authoritative ruler of the patriarchal hierarchy, God, and his opposite ‘number’. As Amis’ image of the ‘mirrors placed face to face’ cleverly suggests, the infinite deferral implicit in recurring numbers or any symbols which in some way express the infinite perhaps derives from the fact that the numbers only ultimately reflect themselves and are incapable of expressing the real, complete, truth about Vernon’s sex-life. Similarly, the inertia of Vernon’s mundane sex-life is maintained precisely because of its unending self-referential quality. The fact that he does not interact with his wife as an independent subject beyond his control but nullifies her to the point where she becomes a mere object guarantees that as a subject he remains unchallenged. Because he does not direct his desire towards her desire there is no recognition of himself as a subject. By not allowing his wife to act as an independent ‘mirror’ and thus to reflect his sense of self back to him in such a way that it would cause an increase in self-awareness, with the ensuing possibility of change or growth, Vernon’s mundane world is virtually unassailable.

The power of statistics does not only reside in their apparent ability to describe the past but also their ability to predict the future. In predicting they can also be used to continually re-authorize the reigning ideology which produces them, as they encourage conformity with what has been predicted. Thus, at a later stage in Amis’ story, Vernon becomes aware that he has not “exacted from his wife any of the sly variations with which he […] used to space out the weeks, the months, the years” [87]. In consequence Vernon excitedly calculates: “She now owed him…Why, if he wanted, he could have an entire week of…They were behind with that to the tune of…Soon it would be time again for him to…” [ibid. – original italics and punctutation]. With mixed metaphors of economic obligations, Vernon’s statistics empower him to indulge in the sexual variations of which he was earlier so ashamed.

I suggested earlier that literary treatments tended to deal with ‘mundane sex’ in its absence, by considering it in the light of its opposite and this is true of Amis’ story, too. After three pages in which Vernon’s mundane sexual world is firmly established, Amis devotes the remaining sixteen pages [1999: 75-93] to the gradual overthrow of that world. Given that Vernon’s statistics offer him such a powerful tool with which to control experience, it is not surprising that when the force that dispels his inertia comes, it is not external but comes from within. Even Vernon can sense this, as shortly before his ‘adventure’ begins, we read that “he saw things that made him suspect that life might have room for more inside”[78].

In view of the almost autistic isolation of Vernon as a sexual being, albeit within the conventional confines of a heterosexual matrimony’s mundane sex-life, one might expect release from that mundane life to come in the form of an extra-marital affair. In a sense it does, although appropriately enough for the self-centred Vernon, only within the strict confines of his imagination. Vernon’s ‘adventure’ is exclusively on the level of fantasies which grow in proportion to his increasing addiction to the pleasure of masturbation, which he rediscovers after 10 years of marriage one night in a hotel room while away from his wife on a business trip.

Of all the modes of sexual practice masturbation lends itself to mundanity when it is considered as a means of relieving a bodily need. In The Use of Pleasure, Volume Two of The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault presents a classical example of this in referring to Diogenes Laertius’ account of Diogenes the Cynic, in the former’s Lives of Eminent Philosophers (VI 2 46). According to Diogenes Laertius, the Cynic philosopher would masturbate in the marketplace when he needed to satisfy his sexual appetite. By bringing this particular practice of Aphrodisia into the daylight before the public gaze Diogenes was, according to Foucault, attacking the rule of privacy which surrounded such acts by equating them with other fundamental occupations such as having breakfast, which he also did in public. Foucault comments:

[…] This parallel with food gave Diogenes’ action an additional meaning: the practice of the aphrodisia, which could not be shameful since it was natural, was nothing more or less than the satisfaction of a need; and just as the Cynic looked for the simplest food that might gratify his stomach (it seems that he tried eating raw meat), he likewise found in masturbation the most direct means of appeasing his sexual appetite. He even regretted that it was not possible to satisfy hunger and thirst in so simple a manner: “Would to heaven that it were enough to rub one’s stomach in order to allay one’s hunger.” [1987, 54-5]

When viewed on the basic mundane level of satisfying simple bodily needs, Diogenes suggests that in terms of efficiency masturbation has it over eating and drinking, as these at least require some sort of interaction with the environment, in the search for bread and water.

On a psychological level the autonomy of the self-satisfaction that masturbation offers makes it potentially one of the most mundane modes of sexual practice as it does not require physical interaction with another. It can therefore minimalize the risk of the egotistically enclosed Self experiencing the discomfort of having or not having its self-image reflected back to it by its Other. By the absence of the Other as an ‘external force’ which dispels inertia, masturbation is potentially the most mundane form of sexual practice available.

However, the account of Diogenes satisfying his bodily needs on a physical level fails to take into account the function that sexual fantasy can play during masturbation; rather like Vernon’s statistics, which quantify his love-making in terms of its physical manifestations alone, neither account recognizes that bodily needs are connected to psychological needs, and that these are ultimately manifestations of desire. And it is only when Vernon gives full reign to his desire, initially within the safety of his secretive masturbation about which his wife never discovers, that the mundanity of his sex-life can gradually be dispelled.

It is from this point in the story of Vernon and his wife that mundane sex recedes into the background and forms the unexciting backdrop against which the narrator pursues the ever-increasing range of his protagonist’s fantasies. The narrative therefore focusses on a world which is diametrically opposed to that of mundane sex and in doing so it reveals one key element that is lacking in a mundane sexual relationship: desire.

Before returning to Amis’ story, therefore, I would like to consider recent writing on the subject of desire by Lacan scholar, Elisabeth Grosz . In “Libido as Desire and Death”, the twelfth chapter of her book, Space, Time and Perversion [1995], Grosz considers the work of the French sociologist, Roger Caillois, and in particular his writing on the symbolism of the Preying Mantis, and of the American philosopher and translator of phenomenological theory, Alphonso Lingis, to raise questions about the nature of Desire, especially as it is accounted for in psychoanalytical thinking, in its linking death and sexual desire. According to Grosz, Lingis’ work is an attempt “to sever the bond between sexual pleasure and the death drive, to think libido in terms other than the hydraulics of the Freudian model of sexual discharge or cathexis” [1995, 202] This ‘hydraulic model’ sees Desire attaining its fulfilment at the moment of ejaculation, the “little death” of the Metaphysical poets, and pervades Freudian thinking. Grosz claims,

All of Freud’s works can be understood as a generalization of and abstraction from the model of male orgasm to the fundamental principle of life itself: […]indeed the pleasure principle, the notion of psychical investment or cathexis, the movements of repression that sever an ideational representative from its energetic intensity, all accord with this hydraulics of tumescence and detumescence. [203]

Lingis’ project has challenged the way that male orgasm has been taken as the standard for all sexualities and modes of erotic encounter and he “demonstrates that sexual passion is not reducible to the goal of sexual satiation, but lives and thrives on its own restless impetus. Orgasm need not be understood as the end of the sexual encounter, its final culmination and moment of conversion towards death or dissipation” [203]. According to Grosz, Lingis suggests rather that at the crucial moment “[orgasm] can be displaced to any and every region of the body, and in addition, seen as a mode of transubstantiation” [203].

Seeing orgasm in terms of displacing itself to any and every region of the body and thus not locating itself definitively in the genital areas, and in terms of transubstantiation, a constant transforming process, is analagous to Grosz’s earlier discussion of Lingis’ views on the Libido. Desire does not die with orgasm, but as “erotic craving [it] seeks to prolong and extend itself beyond physiological needs” [195] in a way that Diogenes’ cynicism, Masters and Johnson’s research – whose research “comes nowhere near mapping desire” [196] – and Vernon’s statistics will never be able to appreciate. Erotic desire is, in Grosz’s words, “uncertain, non-teleological, undirected [… and] lacks the capacity to succumb wilfully to conscious intentions or abstract decisions”[195]. Unlike sexual drive which is “object-directed, and takes for itself a specific series of objects […] eros, desire, has no objectives, no privileged objects, only a series of intensities” [196]. By not being object-driven, desire can never know fulfilment, can have no telos, and therefore as Libido, it does not respond to a goal-related logic, but “rather it exhibits a logic of its own governed by modes of intensification”. [196]

Martin Amis’ story bears out Lingis and Grosz’s observations. Although Vernon’s secret masturbatory sessions can also be turned into statistics, in terms of the number of times he reaches orgasm, orgasm never fulfils desire but simply leads to its further intensification. Thus Vernon begins with fantasies of fairly modest dimensions in which he limits himself to taking his wife, reduced – or rather abstracted – along the way to a “hysteria of volition splayed out on the bed before him” [82], in the manner of a porno stud as she murmurs gratifyingly about his size, while Vernon beats off the attentions of a gypsy, a Turk, a Chinaman and two negroes [82-3]; and later these fantasies progress to Vernon’s making his way through all his wife’s family and friends, including his mother in law.

Lingis characterized the effect of Desire as causing disarray, and a sense of disarray is incongruent with the placid routine of the mundane. Although during the early stages of his fantasizing Vernon’s sex-life with his wife continues to function concurrently with his ever-intensifying masturbatory fantasies, its sense of mundane routine is threatened and the couple’s love-making comes under threat from the disorder which Desire brings with it:

they were definitely losing ground. At first Vernon’s mind was a chaos of backlogs, shortfalls, restructured schedules, recuperation schemes. Later he grew far more detached from the whole business. Who said he had to do it three and a half times a week? Who said that this was all right? [84].

Not only does his mundane marital sexual activity diminish in frequency but the processing of statistics, which in some way maintained it, is finally put under such pressure that it ceases to serve a purpose as it can exercise no control over Vernon’s ever stronger libidinal drive. Desire has brought disarray into Vernon’s ordered world.

As Desire intensifies, Vernon fantasizes about female film-stars; however, when he turns his attention to fantasizing about women in pornography, he is momentarily shocked and distressed by what he sees. “Why should pretty young girls take their clothes off for money like that – like that?”[85] he thinks. The fact that he then turns his attention to the heroines of literature after his brief pornographic sojourn is significant. “Quality, he told himself, was what he was after – quality, quality” [85]. If literature offers a ‘quality’ site in which Vernon’s erotic fantasy can range freely,1 perhaps pornography here represents literature’s inverse as the ultimate site which offers ‘quantity’ alone, a superabundance of genital information which threatens to diminish erotic desire by offering an excessive availability of mundane body-parts.2 During the course of sleeping his way through the English literary canon and discovering to his intense gratification that even Fanny Price and Little Nell could be reduced to howls of desire when he buckled his belt the morning after and prepared to leave [86], one day Vernon encounters the writing of D.H.Lawrence. With Lawrence, Vernon is clearly suddenly struck by an awareness of female sexual desire of which he had been entirely ignorant until that moment: “He never knew that women behaved like that… [and] felt obscure relief and even a pang of theoretical desire when his wife bustled in last thing, bearing the tea-tray before her”[87]. In some sense, literature has served its purpose at this point in that it has acted as a catalyst to produce two effects on Vernon: first, it provides an infinite area over which desire and the imagination can freely range (as the heroines of Russian, American and French literature all await his coming [86]); secondly, it also raises into Vernon’s semi-consciousness (it is still only ‘theoretical desire’ he feels for his wife) the possibility that women in general and his wife in particular may experience similarly intense desires for sexual fulfilment as he does.

Despite this incipient awareness, Vernon’s raging desire continues to intensify to the point where it characterizes its objects no longer as “mere woman” but first as a “wriggling human swamp of tangled naked bodies” and later as an entirely abstract “thudding mass of membrane and heat” [88]. Vernon’s characterization of himself moves into the abstract as well, as he progresses from becoming “a cumulus cloud, a tidal wave, the East Wind, the boiling Earth’s core, the air itself” [88] to the cosmic dimensions of “a supernova, a black sun […] bullocking through the cosmos, ejaculating the Milky Way” [89]. With fantasies of such universal dimensions, it is hardly surprising that on the rare occasions he still has sex with his wife he needs to fake his orgasms as his sex-drive is virtually spent. And yet, elements of the established mundane routine persist. When we read of Vernon’s faking that “amazingly, and rather hurtfully too, his wife didn’t seem to detect any real difference” [88-9] and that, if she did, “she didn’t say anything about it” [90], it is clear that to the protagonist his wife remains an unscrutable figure, whose silence and apparent insensitivity to his plight reflect the emotional distance between the two marital partners.

It is only when Vernon finally develops a sort of testicular migraine followed by “a single, joyous, unconvenanted climax – […] out of the blue, on a bus, one lunchtime” [90], all of which leaves him sexually incapacitated – “The Thing was dead. He was impotent” [90] – that the opportunity to express his sexuality more openly eventually presents itself. After a month and six nights avoiding sex with his wife in order not to address the subject of his impotence, it is finally the wife who finally acts as an external force to dispel Vernon’s total inertia, first by asking, “Do you want to talk about this?”, and then in response to Vernon’s silence by placing her hand upon his thigh. In this way she initiates their love-making for the first time. This is a prelude to two and half hours of love-making in which “he had done to his wife everything he could possibly think of, to such an extent that he was candidly astonished that she was still alive”[91]. As the story ends the next morning it eventually becomes clear to the terrified Vernon that his wife had after all thoroughly enjoyed all the “naughty”, “rude” [93] things he had done the night before. Mundane sexual routine has been dispelled by the release of erotic fantasy into the couple’s love-making and they have experienced what Lacan terms jouissance, a totally fulfilling form of orgasm, and mutual enjoyment of each other’s pleasure in a reciprocal form of desire which approximates Hegel’s tentative definition of ‘love’, alluded to earlier in this article.

The narrator’s closing remarks suggest that to some extent the protagonist has learnt his lesson: “Vernon knew one thing: he was going to stop keeping count. Pretty soon, he reckoned, things would be more or less back to normal. He’d had his kicks: it was only right that the loved one should now have hers” [93]. Vernon’s awareness of his wife’s right to ‘have her kicks’ shows a considerable improvement on his earlier self-centredness. Similarly, Vernon’s decision to leave statistics out of his love-life suggests an awareness in a sense that the Symbolic Order and its languages have little place in a sexual relationship if desire is to be allowed to circulate freely within it. This awareness is also echoed by the wife’s response to Vernon’s painful attempts to explain the recent past: [Vernon] “I -” [Wife] “Don’t, Darling. You needn’t say anything. I understand” [92]. Here it is the wife who ‘silences’ the husband, providing a balance to the husband and narrator’s conspiracy to erase her voice discussed earlier in the text. There is a sort of gratifying symmetry about this silence. Another positive factor is that the wife is also aware, and Vernon is aware that she is aware, that any sexual activity however suffused with jouissance has the potential to become mundane, as is evident from her comment about the fun and games of the night before:

‘You mustn’t do that too often, you know.
‘Oh, really?’ drawled Vernon. ‘Who says?’
‘I say. It would take the fun out of it.’ [93]

This awareness of the deadening effect of routine is perhaps one of the few guarantees against that effect recurring.

The disappearance of Vernon and his wife back into the bedroom at the end of the story, despite the positive aspects of the ostensibly happy ending outlined above, cannot altogether dispel the ominous connotation of Vernon’s reckoning that “Pretty soon […] things would be more or less back to normal” [quoted above]. While the wife’s eschewing language may be healthy in the present, in the way it empowers her and saves Vernon his embarrassment, in the future such lack of communication may once again lead to the development of emotional distance between the marital partners. Equally, the wife’s awareness that too much repetition of even the most delightful, outrageous love-making acts will take the fun away serves to underline the following ominous truth: just as desire dispels the inertia of the mundane life, so the mundane, like rust that never sleeps, perpetually encroaches upon that area where mutual sexual desire can lead to the joy of momentary fulfilment.

Notes

1Readers of Amis’ novels will know that literature as a field in which characters’ imagination can be stimulated beneficially, bringing them to some higher degree of self-awareness, is a familiar one from Money[1984]. There Martina’s potentially positive attempts to help John Self get a grip on his life include the recommendation of various edifying books, including Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984.

2The idea that Desire can diminish or disappear in the presence of an excessive quantity of physical information, suggested by Vernon’s steering away from pornography in Amis’ story, corresponds to Baudrillard’s remarks in Les Stratégies Fatales [1983, 9], that “the real is not erased in favour of the imaginary, it is erased in favour of the more real than the real; the hyperreal. […] Sexuality does not disappear in sublimation, repression and morality, it disappears with much more certainty in what is more sexual than the sexual; porn. The hypersexual contemporary of the hyperreal […]
Moreover, in general, visible things do not conclude in darkness and silence: they disappear in what is more visible than the visible: obscenity.” (Author’s translation)

Works Cited

Abrams, M.H. (ed) et al, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, volume 2, seventh edition, 2000, New York and London, W.W. Norton and Co.

Amis, Martin, Heavy Water and Other Short Stories, 1998, London, Jonathan Cape, and in paperback, 1999, London, Vintage. Originally published in Granta, 1981.

Baudrillard, Jean, Les Stratégies Fatales, 1983, Paris, Grasset & Fasquelle.

Foucault, Michel, The Use of Pleasure – The History of Sexuality volume 2 (trans. Robert Hurley), 1987, London, Penguin.

Grosz, Elisabeth, Space, Time and Perversion, 1995, London, Routledge.

The Oxford English Dictionary, 1970, Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Sarup, Madan, An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism, 2nd Edition, 1993, London, Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Schaffer, Scott, “Introduction: Social Change and Everyday Life,” in Journal of Mundane Behaviour, vol. 2, nº 2, June 2001

Sykes, J.B. (ed), The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, 6th edition, 1976, Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Author: John Style is a full-time lecturer at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili, in Tarragona, Spain, where he teaches 19th and 20th Century British Literature. Research interests include the historical novel (his doctoral thesis was on the novels of Patrick O’Brian) and music and literature. He also practises the piano with mundane regularity in the hope of reincarnating as Art Tatum 2.

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