July 26, 2017KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsLiteratureReadingUncategorized

NSFW: On “Hysterical Literature,” Leaves of Grass, and the Sexy Reading Movement

Somewhere in the foggy realm between performance art and porno, on a YouTube channel where a poem drives up page views, a woman reads aloud from a paperback book. She sits at a table and starts from the beginning. She is only visible from the waist up. She begins to “celebrate herself” and “breathe the fragrance” of herself; she reads a line ending “urge and urge and urge.” She will ask, a little later, “[w]hat is the grass?” but seems more enamored with the “hum” of her “valved voice.” She will never look up from the poem, though she begins—a little coyly—by addressing the camera and telling us her name. (It’s Alicia.) This seems to be part of the script. The longer she reads, the more she pauses. The pauses give way to sighs and gasps. Somewhere after the eleventh minute she orgasms loudly. “Done,” she says, oddly boastful, “Leaves of Grass.”

This is “Hysterical Literature,” a video project from Clayton Cubitt, a New York photographer whose work has gone viral among the creative class. Since his first “session” in 2012, he tells us, viewers have spent 65 million minutes watching “Hysterical Literature,” indulging a taste for the soft-core under the guise of the highbrow. Or perhaps it’s vice versa. Maybe we come for verse and take the vice on the side. Either way, his premise is simple: in each of his sessions—including one with the comic Margaret Cho—a different woman reads from a favorite book. A few write about the experience, noting how everything contracts “like a stretched rubber band” (Stoya) or how “art relies on freedom from restraint” (Danielle). What unites them is bit of subterfuge that Cubitt reveals elsewhere. There is an assistant under the table with a vibrator in hand.

Cubitt’s ruse here is easy, but instructive. It is the book, he would convince us, with which we have sex. His thesis is loud: reading can be an orgasmic act. Still, the longer I thought about “Hysterical Literature,” the more questions I had. Why does Alicia’s session feel—for lack of a better word—more authentic than the others? How did it get closer to Cubitt’s goal of bibliographic sex? And why does the rest of this project feel faddish and tawdry?

Let’s start with the obvious: “Song of Myself” is an erotic poem. Whitman tells us to “loose the stop from [our] throat[s]” and plunge a “tongue to [his] bare-stript heart.” He spies on twenty-eight male bathers, and—through the power of second-person direct address—we join him. We too speak in “voices of sexes and lusts.” The poem’s yous makes the reader a co-conspirator in (or object of) Whitman’s erotic quest. This is the reason that John Greenleaf Whittier tossed Leaves of Grass into the fire, and it’s the same one—or one among many—that compels Alicia to let go. The poem treats her like a legitimate sexual partner; by reading it aloud, she externalizes (and materializes) her beaux: “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs.” There are moments too when he seems reciprocally aroused: “Looks down, is erect, bends an arm.” Alicia reads these lines with a smirk.

But erotic imagery and direct address are only half the story here. Leaves of Grass is a book meant to transcend imagery and literary devices. Consider these lines from what was, for twenty-one years, its last poem, “So Long!” (1860):

Camerado, this is no book,
Who touches this touches a man,
(Is it night? are we here together alone?)
It is I you hold and who holds you,
I spring from the pages into your arms—decease calls me forth.

Oh how your fingers drowse me,
Your breath falls around me like dew, your pulse lulls the
tympans of my ears,
I feel immerged from head to foot,
Delicious, enough.

Walt Whitman always thought of Leaves of Grass as more body than book. Like a body, it opens to terror and wonder. Like a body it responds to fingers and touch. It too has a spine. To hold Leaves of Grass in one’s hands is to feel the furtive attraction that Whitman hints at in his parenthetical: “Is it night? are we here together alone?” Whatever the answer he will leap “from the pages into your arms.” Whitman will always defy the boundaries imposed by bound, printed matter. This is a point that “Hysterical Literature” gets surprisingly right. Alicia’s session replicates this transcendence, even if it does so through a parlor trick. That hidden assistant gives Whitman’s poetic embodiment a credulous boost. Whitman might even have approved. In “Spontaneous Me” (1860) he refers to his penis—and all penises—as “lust lurking masculine poems.” Does it seem surprising then for Leaves of Grass to join an orgasm as it builds?

The final lines that Alicia recites imply some preternatural awareness of Whitman’s embodied text. Here they are, from the superior 1855 edition of “Song of Myself,” which she reads:

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

If poems originate in tongues, lungs, and vocal chords, they travel through readers via those same organs. Oral recitation only makes that union—a bodily union that bridges both time and space—more defined. We all move our tongues when we read, whether silently or orally. We all change the shape of our lips. This reproduces a poet’s own motions when he writes. Whitman understood this, declaring, late in “Song of Myself,” that “[i]t is you talking just as much as myself. . . . I act as the tongue of you.” I find it uncanny, almost eerie, that Alicia climaxes just as Whitman becomes aware (“O I perceive”) of his posthumous life in his readers’ mouths (“so many uttering tongues”). I cannot get over how the text and the sex here feel so synchronized and precise.

There are twelve sessions of “Hysterical Literature.” Ten women read prose (Henry James, Tom Robbins, Bret Easton Ellis). Two read verse (John Ashbery’s “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is the other poem.) The readers are young, old, white, and women of color. Some read quietly or shyly. Some read with pride. One woman reads in French. Another reads Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a mash-up that felt too disjunctive—sexual pleasure and slavery’s horrors?—for me to hit play. The sessions combine the suspenseful, comic, and prurient, but their literature feels like a prop. How could they not? Of all the authors read here, only Whitman addresses the reader, let alone reimagines reading as sex. In Cubitt’s other videos the book is always just a book.

And this, I suspect, is why I find “Hysterical Literature” underwhelming. To watch these sessions with any real attention to language is to be let down. Cubitt appeals to our inner voyeur, but lets our inner intellectual off the hook. In this he’s not alone. There is a lot of talk these days about reading as sexy—a popular bumper sticker comes to mind—but very little inquiry into what exactly that means. Not long ago I learned about the Outdoor Co-Ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society. Their name pretty much sums them up. When living in San Francisco, I’d occasionally spot advertisements for Naked Girls Reading, now active in over twenty cities. Again: the name says it all. “Hysterical Literature” fits squarely into this Sexy Reading Movement, one more click hole we go to to feel enlightened and aroused. It proposes sex as a hip and marketable gloss on old-fashioned reading, a version of the librarian who—after years of deprivation—pulls the pins from her hair. What it misses is the fact that almost all literary reading is sexy. It adds a strange need for readers to perform.

Two caveats before I go further. First, I’m not averse to reading as sexy. I’ve published an essay on male nudity in poetry, recounting—among other things—William Blake’s joy in reading Paradise Lost with his wife in the nude. I wrote a dissertation grounded in the belief that reading poems is an erotic encounter. To read them out loud, I wrote, is to feel “words passing like fluids, bodies moving in sync.” I still think that’s true. Secondly, it’s possible that Cubitt’s videos are empowering. As Cubitt’s friends, the women volunteer, unashamed of their sexuality. They know what awaits them; they’re game. We might read their reading—some go on for quite awhile—as devotion to reading or to their favorite books in spite of a pleasurable distraction. Many laugh. These laughs inform Cubitt’s title (it’s “hysterical”), though he also re-appropriates a 19th century diagnosis (“hysteria”) used for women behaving “unwomanly.” These women do! That diagnosis brought us the vibrator (see Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room, Or the Vibrator Play) and an awful T.S. Eliot poem.

Still, it is the performative aspect of the Sexy Reading Movement that I most resist, the belief that reading—in and of itself—isn’t enough. Sexy Reading is exhibitionist reading. Sexy Reading means that the reader needs an audience too. I suppose this is a natural extension of social media, where an audience is always already around. It is a small mental leap from reading a book, to Tweeting about a book, to Tweeting a sexy selfie where that book doubles as a bra. It is a leap, however, that I neither want to make or observe. This is not mere prudishness. I find that reading poetry is, whatever its content, inherently erotic. This may tip my Whitmanic hand—half my dissertation discusses Whitman, half Dickinson—but the reasons seem clear: poetry puts two sets of lips, lungs, and tongue in sync. Poetry is a transhistorical union based on our unchanging anatomical forms. A book is your private sexual partner. As Whitman tells us, that is “delicious, enough.”

To perform that union, as “Hysterical Literature” and the Sexy Reading Movement do, is to make it a show and a bit of a sham. I can imagine how others could find reading equal parts sex and performance. I watched their videos on YouTube to write this piece. (Really, honey, it’s research. I swear.) But in doing so, I become a voyeur spying over the shoulder of a voyeur. It’s not the orgasm that shames me; it’s the books. I have intruded upon (or third wheeled within) an act that unites two personalities across time: reading. Perhaps this makes me more of a literary monogamist than I’d like to admit. I skip around between the titles on my nightstand, but I only read the sexy parts to my wife. I feel no need to perform my literary lust. I’ll concede that the Sexy Readers are cooler. To adapt a term from Dan Savage, they are bookishly monogamish.