Dani Shapiro
December 28, 2010

On Lust

Okay…this is the one I’ve been dreading.  The one that gave me pause, when I thought to write about the Seven Deadly Sins in the first place.  Lust?  I can make some sense out of the six other sins as they relate to the writing process, but lust…lust is a stretch.  So I’m going to take a brief detour today (before concluding the series tomorrow with the easily applicable greed) to share a few passages from one of the great contemporary writers who can create an erotic scene like none other.

But first, let’s address the fact that it’s incredibly difficult to write well about sex.  What makes a great sex scene?  Graphic words become strained, even comical, on the page.  And words meant to fill in as substitutes for graphic words (“member” for “penis”, say) are quite possibly even worse.  The sexier we try to make a scene, the more pathetic it becomes.  You know.  Heaving, bucking, throbbing, arching… is it possible for writers to find new language for the erotic?

What makes a sex scene come to life is the quality of its realness, its humanness.  Great writers find a way–unexpected language, surprising, often deceptively simple–to show us ourselves.

Here, from James Salter‘s Light Years, are a few brief passages:

“At noon, twice a week, sometimes more, she lay in his bed in the quiet room in back.  On the table near her head were two empty glasses, her bracelets, her rings.  She wore nothing; her hands were naked, her wrists.

Noon, the sun beyond the ceiling, the doors closed tight.  She was lost, she was weeping.  He was doing it in the same, steady rhythm, like a monologue, like the creaking of oars.  Her cries were unending, her breasts hard.  She was flinging out the sounds of a mare, a dog, a woman fleeing for her life.  Her hair was spilling about her.  He did not alter his pace.

She saw him far above her.  Her hands were clutching the sheets.  In three, four, five vast strokes that rang along the great meridians of her body, he came in one huge splash, like a tumbler of water.  They lay in silence.  For a long time he remained without moving, as on a horse in the autumn, holding to her, exhausted, dreaming.  They were together in a deep, limb-heavy sleep, sprawled in it.  Her nipples were larger, more soft, as if she were pregnant.”

And one more, because I can’t resist.  Salter is just so good:

“He was moving unhurriedly, like a man setting a table, plate by plate.  There are times when one is important, and other times one almost does not exist.  She felt him kneel.  She could not see him.  Her eyes were closed, her face pressed to the sheet.

He was slow, intent, like an illiterate learning to write.  He was unaware of her; he was beginning the act as if it were a cure.  The slowness, the deliberation, struck her down like blows.

There was no movement, none at all except or a slow distending to which she reacted as if to pain.  She was rolling, sobbing.  Her shouts were muffled.  He did nothing, then more of it, and more.”

Okay.  Whew.  That’s quite enough.  But can we all just bow down to a master?  Do we see the way a wrist can be made infinitely  erotic?  The way the unexpected (“as on a horse in the autumn”) can evoke an entire sensory world?