Erica Jong’s “Fear of Flying”, Doubly Transgressive

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Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying is about a woman, Isadora Wing, who challenges the traditional norms for sexual womanhood in her quest for liberation. Fear of Flying was the first of Jong’s work to receive notoriety, and is the text that made her both a critical and popular success. Some academics argue that Jong’s novel is not particularly “’a great novel’ or even a ‘great feminist novel’… [but that it is] a milestone… ‘a self conscious reversal of stereotypes’… [and a] cultural and literary innovation” if nota particularly great literary work (Templin, pg. 174). Whether or not this is true, there is no doubt that Jong’s work spoke directly to the gender politics of her time. Jong was part of the first generation of the second wave feminist movement. This new era of feminism was interested in the intersection of the personal with the political and how this intersection perpetuated gender hierarchies in the everyday lives of women. Second wave feminists recognized that the political rights gained during feminism’s first wave were meaningless unless the social and private roots of women’s oppression were addressed. Thus, second wave feminism had a particular interest in sexual politics (Templin, pg. 39). The bedroom was suddenly open to feminist critique. Women were beginning to speak of themselves as sexual beings with subjectivity, autonomy, and agency. Jong notes that before she wrote about the fantasy of the ‘zipless fuck’ (essentially, a casual sexual encounter), “women were not presumed to have it. Fear of Flying became a rallying cry for women who wanted the right to have fantasies as rich and raunchy as those of men” (Jong, xi), to claim the sexual agency and vibrancy so long denied them in both life and literature.

Fear was a novel contemporary readers either hated or loved. Unfortunately, many of the critiques of Jong’s work had sexist undertones. For example, male critics frequently dismissed Jong’s novel for being too ‘confessional’, a term that became “a putdown term for women, a sexist label for women’s poetry” (Templin, pg. 3). The deeply personal nature of Jong’s writing was deemed embarrassing and unliterary. This criticism likely is not a reaction to anything ungainly about this supposed ‘confessional’ style of writing, as much as to being threatened by a woman author who unabashedly asserts female sexual subjectivity. By accusing Jong of being too ‘confessional’, these critics are really accusing Jong of not adhering to the patriarchal expectation that women be shy, modest, passive, and quiet about female sexuality. However, this is not the worst criticism that Jong has received. Though not about Fear of Flying, a review by D. Keith Mano demonstrates how Jong’s transgressive explorations of female sexuality plucked a violent nerve in the patriarchal psyche. In his review, Mano writes:

 

“I’m treed; it irks me to no end. I have to-have to-ravage Erica Jong’s new book. Irksome, because this is just what Erica wanted all along: the barracuda treatment. I mean, a man and a Gentile blitzing her: oh pogromsville and joy… She’ll relish this flop the way Al Goldstein secretly relishes going to Leavenworth for public lewdness. Discipline is love; American society has been too permissive. Erica, I love you; How to Save Your Life is Christ-awful. An aphid could have written it” (Templin, 4).

 

The violent sexual undertones to this review are disturbing. From writing about a violent, uncontrollable urge to “ravish” her book, and the insinuation that she “wanted all along” to be assaulted sounds like the patriarchal rape narrative. The threat of sexual violence is a long known tactic used to oppress women and to discouraged assertive female sexuality, a tactic Mano appears to use in his literary critique. Another example of the way Jong was dismissed as a writer, is how in an early Playboy interview Jong did in 1975, both her personal sex life as well as the novel were asked about in equal measure (Templin, Conversations with Erica Jong, pg. 36). People seemed to have a hard time taking a woman writer seriously, in particular a woman writer who wrote so frankly about sex and who was also very attractive.

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Some knowledge of the political context in which Jong wrote Fear of Flying as well as how her novel was received by contemporaries will be helpful in contextualizing the following analysis.

 

A Transgression of Genre and Ideology

 

Jong’s novel is the antithesis of the woman’s silly romance novel. Rather than perpetuate destructive romantic ideals, Jong’s novel rails against these conventions. Fear of Flying is like many traditional romance novels in that it recounts a woman’s sexual adventures. However, it does not romanticize men or portray them as the keys to Isadora’s sexual liberation. In fact, the men in Fear of Flying are sexually dysfunctional, either because they are impotent, rapists, or otherwise sexually predatory. Her husband, Bennett, while a talented lover, does not fulfill Isadora. Her first husband, Brian, rapes her in a psychotic episode. After divorcing her first husband, her rebound lover, Charles, is frequently impotent in bed. Her brother-in-law attempts to force himself upon her, and finally, her new lover, Pierre, is frequently impotent as well. The novel rails against the socially imposed construct of women as relational beings. And so, the impotence of the men as well as Isadora’s sexual anxieties and lack of fulfillment in her relationships may symbolize a crisis in gender relations. Jong criticizes how women are taught to turn to men for fulfillment (sexual or otherwise) and selfhood. Isadora goes back and forth between men in search of a stable identity, however these men are both literally and symbolically impotent. They cannot and do not fulfill Isadora or lead her to sexual liberation, even if, like Bennett, they are good lovers, or if like Adrian, they are forbidden and sexually excite Isadora greatly. The reader begins to question normative, even feminist-ly normative, ideas of what it means to be sexually liberated if it does not mean having sex with multiple partners or having sex outside of marriage. Jong, however, recognizes how terrifying it is to be a woman alone. An exchange Isadora has with herself is particularly revealing on this account:

 

“ME: Why is being alone so terrible?

ME: Because if no man loves me I have no identity

ME: But obviously that isn’t true. You write, people read your work and it matters to them. You teach an your students need you and care about you. You have friends who love you. Even you parents and sisters love you-in their own peculiar way

ME: None of that makes a dent in my loneliness. I have no man. I have no child.

ME: But you know that children are not antidote to loneliness.

ME: I know

ME: And you know that men and women can never wholly possess each other.

ME: I know

Me: And you know that you’d hate to have a man who possessed you totally and used up your breathing space…

ME: I know-but I yearn for it desperately.

ME: You want contradictory things.

ME: You want freedom and you also want closeness.” (Jong, 277)

 

Jong’s novel has a surprising ending. Isadora returns to her husband, Bennett, after a long experiment in sexual freedom with her lover, Pierre. Jong recognized that a lot of women would object to this ending. She notes that the text’s ending transgressed the “twentieth century shibboleth about liberation. Splitting is liberation right? Divorce is liberation… The Victorian novel always ends with marriage. In the twentieth century novel, divorce is the end point, the beginning of the new life. The way we plot our novels reveals something about our world view” (Templin, Conversations with Erica Jong, pg. 27). Isadora’s return to her husband challenged normative ideas about sexual liberation. In this way, Jong further rails against strictures that would define women as relational beings. The ending of Fear of Flying asserts that women’s sexual liberation is not primarily about their relationships to men, but first and foremost about the relationship they have with themselves. Indeed, in the end, Isadora believes “whatever happened, I knew I would survive it. I knew, above all, that I’d go on working. Surviving meant being born over and over. It wasn’t easy, and it was always painful. But there wasn’t any other choice except death” (Jong, pg. 311).Here we see Isadora learning to become her own mother, to give birth to herself “over and over” to define herself anew whenever necessary. She has returned to Bennett, but she is no longer dependent on him. Isadora’s desire for both freedom and closeness is no longer a contradictory impulse now that she has recognized that sexual liberation is a state of mind and not contingent upon the kinds of relationships she has with men.

 

New Perspectives on Sexual Objectification

 

Both Jong’s Fear of Flying and Oscar Wilde’s Salome provide new frameworks for problematizing sexual objectification. Jong’s Isadora is in pursuit of the ‘zipless fuck’, a terms she uses to refer to non-committal sex that is “free of alterior motives. There is no power game. The man is not ‘taking’ and the woman is not ‘giving’… Not one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone… it is necessary that… you never got to know the man very well” (Jong, pg. 14, pg. 7).

This ideal of non-committal sex based purely on carnal lust, and devoid of a meaningful human connection but empty of sexual power dynamics inherent to the gender hierarchy, imagines a healthy kind of sexual objectification. It challenges pre-conceived notions about what is problematic about sexual objectification and suggests that the problem lies not in the reducing of someone to their body parts but in the power imbalances of the gender hierarchy that infiltrate into everyday people’s sex lives. This contradicts ideas in Salome about the destructive consequences of sexual objectification and causes us to question whether Isadora fails to achieve the zipless fuck in part because she lives in a society not conducive to her having such an experience or because there is something inherently wrong about sexual objectification regardless of the existence of a gender hierarchy.

Wilde’s Salome, perhaps inadvertently, confronts the reader with the destructive consequences of sexual objectification in a way that contradicts Wilde’s glorification of a purely, sensual and aesthetic Sublimity. Though some argue that the eroticism of Salome was part of what made the text transgressive, I argue that the sexual dynamic between Salome and Jokanaan in the play is not erotic but pornographic. I borrow from Audre Lourde when I distinguish the erotic from the pornographic and categorize the erotic as sensation with feeling and human connection and the pornographic as sensation without feeling and human connection. Wilde’s known commitment to the glorification of a purely sensual, aesthetic Sublimity seems to support a pornographic experience of sexuality that objectifies. And, this philosophy seems to be inadvertently problematized in Salome. In Salome’s lustful appeals to Jokanaan she says “I am arduous for thy body Jokanaan… There is nothing in the world so white as thy body. Suffer me to touch thy body… There is nothing in the world so black as thy hair… Suffer me to touch thy hair… Thy mouth is like a brand of scarlet on a tower of ivory… redder than roses… Suffer me to kiss thy mouth” (Wilde, 208-209). Throughout the text, Salome continues to appeal to Jokanaan this way. She reduces his desirability to his body parts, objectifying him with a pure carnal desire wholly sensation oriented. And it is not necessarily this purely carnal desire without the need for human connection with the lust object that is most disturbing, but rather her insistence on possessing his body. She repeatedly asserts “I will kiss thy mouth Jokanaan” (Wilde, 209) despite his protestations. And it is in this way that she de-humanizes him. Her insistence is deeply disturbing, not because she is a willful woman who is openly pursuing the fulfillment of her sexual desires, but because she is pursing them in a particularly patriarchal manner by objectifying the lust object and sexually exploiting him, pursing him with no regard for his desires.

ImageShe ultimately gets her wish as she kisses his decapitated head. However, upon kissing his mouth and finally physically possessing him, she cries “Open thine eyes!… thy tounge… it moves no more!”(Wilde, 234) and is dismayed that he is no longer animated. If we come from the premise that to objectify someone is to sever them from their humanity, then in beheading Jokanaan, Salome commits the ultimate act of objectification because she severs Jokanaan from his humanity (i.e. she kills him) in order to gratify her corporeal desires. This sequencing of death following this ultimate act of objectification may unintentionally comment upon the destructive and unsatisfactory consequences of the pornographic being substituted for the erotic. Her possession of Jokanaan is ultimately empty in the end. This problematizing of objectification and the pursuit of the purely aesthetic argues that objectification is ultimately unsatisfying and destructive, killing the desired object by severing it from its humanity and making the sexual possession empty. Jong and Wilde’s texts provide new frameworks for problematizing sexual objectification. Jong frames this problem in terms of the gender hierarchy while Wilde frames this problem in terms of the de-humanization and emptiness inherent to objectification.

 

Telling a Different Story, Creating New Myths

 

Jong’s novel attempts to create a new myth regarding female sexuality. This is important for conceptualizing the transgression of Jong’s novel. Jong challenges the institutions of marriage and romantic love, but most importantly she challenges the notion that the story of female sexuality was primarily a man’s story to tell. Indeed, when Jong’s novel first came out “women [were just beginning] to participate in the discourse on sex”, challenging the stereotype of passive female sexuality which maintained that women “had nothing to say [about sex because]… whatever they felt was the product of male effort” (Templin, pg. 40). Isadora search for female autonomy in sexual liberation “deconstructs fundamental verities: the natural ‘roles’ of men and women and the ‘natural’ institutions of a mythic past” (Templin, xii). She reveals the dark underbelly of marriage when she describes becoming a stranger to her husband and engaging in a passionate love affair (one that is fundamental to her growth as an autonomous being), and she reveals the destructiveness of the search for romantic love when she has Isadora conclude that the search for the romanticized “impossible man was nothing but our own yearning” (Jong, pg. 24)and that the search for the impossible man distorted women’s yearnings for autonomous, fulfilled selfhood into romantic fantasy. Our day-to-day experiences are constructed, shaped by both the stories we tell ourselves and the stories our culture tells us. Jong transgresses upon institutionalized myths. Jong’s challenging of the myths surrounding female sexuality was so troubling for many readers and reviewers because she transgressed upon patriarchal constructions of reality and female sexual subjectivity. Jong also transgresses upon a popular literary trope for the sexually independent female, one that we see play out in Madame Bovary. Jong’s “heroine does not die at the end, nor does she lose a child for her transgression-another common formula. She lives on despite having reached out for sexual pleasure- a thing usually punishable by death in women.” (Fear of Flying, xi). Emma, by contrast, dies a grisly death. One consequence of this transgression of a common formula, is that it leaves the ending of Fear of Flying very open ended. We know that Isadora returns to Bennet, however the books ends with Bennett walking in on Isadora cleaning herself in the bathtub, a symbolic moment that may allude to some sort of ritual cleansing or re-birth. However, we are left to our own devices to imagine where this new life will lead. Perhaps Jong purposefully left this story open-ended because it is difficult to know how such a story will end, or even how it should end. We have neither a literary nor a real life formula for an appropriate ending yet.

 

A Link to the most recent interview of Erica Jong on “Fear of Flying”:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TfF1X54J9UM

Concluding Remarks

 

Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying challenges both the normative ideological notions about female sexuality of the 1970s as well as the normative ideological notions about female sexuality present in the second wave feminist movement. In this way, Fear of Flying was doubly transgressive. However, though Jong’s novel was radical for it’s time period, it also resonates with modern readers. The kinds of questions it asks about what it means to be a sexually liberated woman are questions we still ask today. The ending to Jong’s novel is just as unsettling today as it was forty years ago. We still don’t know for sure how to end the story even in our imaginations.

 

Bibliography

 

“The Believer Logger – The Believer Interview with Erica Jong.” Www.believermag.com/logger. The Believer Mag, 17 Oct. 2013. Web. 06 May 2014.This is the source for Erica Jong’s picture.

 

“Fear of Flying Movie.” Film School Rejects. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 May 2014.This is the source for the picture with the horizontal zipper.

 

Jong, Erica. Fear of Flying: A Novel. New York: New American Library, 1975. Print.

Lorde, Audre. Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power. Brooklyn, NY: Out & Out, 1978. Print.

 

Napikowski, Linda. “Women’s Liberation Movement – A History of the Name.” About.com Women’s History. About.com, n.d. Web. 05 May 2014.

 

One to One: Erica Jong “Fear of Flying” 40th Anniversary. Perf. Sheryl McCarthy and Erica Jong. CunyTV, 2013. Youtube Video.

 

“Salome.” Pittsburgh City Paper. Pittsburgh City Paper, 19 June 2008. Web. 06 May 2014.This is the source for the picture of Salome touching Jokanaan’s shoulder.

 

Templin, Charlotte, ed. Conversations with Erica Jong. Mississippi: U of Mississippi, 2002. Print.

 

Templin, Charlotte. Feminism and the Politics of Literary Reputation: The Example of Erica Jong. Lawrence, Kan.: U of Kansas, 1995. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. Salome. N.p.: n.p., 1905. Print.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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