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Unless you consciously (or unconsciously) want to jet-propel yourself into committing adultery, reading about it isn't such a good idea. Because reading about it, I can assure you, will almost certainly result in your thinking about doing it, and perhaps even in your doing it.
(Dante believed this too. For in the Inferno of his Divine Comedy, he recounts the story of the beginning of the adulterous affair between Paolo and Francesca. Francesca explains to Dante that one day, while she and Paolo are reading about Lancelot and Guinevere, their erotic desire becomes so uncontrollable that they drop the book and yield to impulse. Francesca explains: "He kissed my mouth all trembling:/A Galeotto was the book, and he who wrote it; /That day we read no further."
And Madame Recamier, best known for her love affair with Chateaubriand, also believed that reading about adultery, even the troublesome variety, caused it to happen for her. When she started reading the novels of Madame de La Fayette [according to Dan Hofstadter in The Love Affair as a Work of Art], she observed: "This sort of reading is actually rather dangerous, because it makes the reader accept the struggle between passion and virtue as something natural .... Though I did not miss the pleasures of love, I missed the pain. I thought I was made to love and suffer, but I loved nobody and nothing, and suffered only from my own indifference." What to do but to go out and find someone to love so that she could live a life of emotional distress?)
Then after you readabout adultery, and after you do it, or think about doing it, you might find yourself writing about it (in your journal, in torrid love letters). You might even write a book about it—a novel, most likely (because you can change the names, disguise the circumstances), or a chapbook of poetry (you can pass the poems off as being about your partner or as poems you wrote years ago about a boyfriend or girlfriend you had in high school). And then perhaps some other on-the-fence-about-adultery person will read your work, and the whole cycle of reading about adultery, and committing adultery, and writing about adultery, will begin all over again.
An example of this cycle of reading about adultery, committing adultery, then writing about adultery exists in the life and work of Edith Wharton. Wharton, whose marriage to her husband, Teddy, was a sexual disaster, began an adulterous relationship in her mid-forties with W. Morton Fullerton, an American journalist and intimate friend of Henry James. It was her first passionate love affair. This relationship, though it lasted a short time, taught Wharton much of what she had always wanted to know about the human heart and about the body's capacity for ecstasy and the soul's potential for despair.
Before she met Fullerton, according to one of her biographers, R. W. B. Lewis, the image of "a dream-ridden woman trapped in an unhappy marriage" in Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary had captured Wharton's imagination. So too had the unconventional and passionate sex life of the writer George Sand, especially as it had been described in her Histoire de ma vie. Wharton made a pilgrimage to Sand's country house, Nohant, during a motor tour of France. In seeing the place where Sand had lived, where Sand had loved, Wharton believed that she might capture something of Sand's free-spirited nature. Her behavior with Fullerton was, in part, patterned upon that of Sand, though Wharton herself could never manage Sand's emotional insouciance. (Years later, though, Fullerton described her as an uninhibited erotic sister to George Sand, so Wharton appears to have learned something from Sand.)
Wharton read, too, the novels and letters of Hortense Allart, a little-known nineteenth-century French novelist, whose robust adulterous life—Chateaubriand and Bulwer-Lytton were among her numerous lovers—Wharton admired even more than her works. But it was Allart's sexually explicit letters that most fascinated her. Henry James, Wharton's friend and confidant, confessed that he couldn't understand Wharton's interest in Allart's endless descriptions of "copulations." Where else, though, could Wharton learn of such matters? Wharton's social position precluded the possibility of her learning what she wanted to know about sex through conversation. And Henry James surely was in no position to answer her questions about eroticism. So it was precisely Allart's detailed renderings that Wharton relished.
She had no model in her life, other than literary ones, for a woman who obeyed her sexual desire. When she married, Wharton was almost entirely sexually ignorant. As Lewis reports in his biography, when she gathered courage to ask her mother "what marriage was really like," her mother impatiently answered, "I never heard such a ridiculous question!"
After Wharton and Fullerton began their adulterous affair, Wharton took him on a pilgrimage to see Allart's home in Herblay. That evening, she wrote a sonnet called "Ame Close," which she referred to as her "Herblay sonnet," to commemorate their visit to her adulterous idol's home and their complex and compromised passion.
Gloria C. Erlich, in "The Libertine as Liberator" (Women's Studies 20, no. 2 (1991): 97-108) describes how, at forty-five years of age, Wharton was introduced to Fullerton through Henry James. She was, at the time, actively seeking love, for she had been living in an "emotionally stagnant" marriage that would soon end with an emotionally disturbed, adulterous man. Fullerton, at forty-two, had just ended a marriage to a French singer, and had become engaged to an adoptive sister. The prospect of an adulterous affair with Wharton appealed to him because "he could indulge his predilection for ... eroticism without risk of commitment." Wharton seems to have known something about Fullerton's reputation as a sexual gadfly but she apparently didn't know about his engagement. Still, like many others, she relished their "unique, transcendent love."
Their intense, passionaterelationship lasted only several months when Wharton moved to Paris in 1908; but they corresponded for the remaining thirty years of Wharton's life. Though brief, the impact of this affair on Wharton lasted a lifetime, for she learned that she was capable of a wanton passion that was, for her, also an intensely spiritual experience. She did not regret the pain she suffered when Fullerton withdrew from her. She understood, too, that it had given her material for a multitude of artistic works. For, as she observed, "Ordinary troubles dry one up; they're as parching as the scirocco; but in every heart there should be one grief that is like a well in the desert."
Wharton understood her love in literary terms. She called him "Friend of my heart," which is what Clelia Conti says to Fabrizio del Dongo when she invites him into her bed in Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma. She gave him a copy of Flaubert's letters to George Sand, and Benjamin Constant's Adolphe, the story of a seducer who is pursued by the woman he abandons.
At first, she claims she was unable to read much after they began their affair. "For the first time in my life," she wrote, "I can't read." But this didn't last long. For like so many others, Wharton needed reading to inflame her lust, to ignite her desire.
Soon after their affair began, she was reading voraciously, and about adultery. Paul Marieton's account of George Sand's affair with Alfred de Musset. William Morris's "Defence of Guenevere" for an understanding of how another woman "slip[ped] slowly" into adultery. John Donne's "The Extasie" ("to our bodies turn we then, that so/Weak men on love revealed a look;/Love's mysteries in souls do grow,/But yet the body is his book"). And the works of Nietzsche for his theory of how heeding animal instinct undermined traditional culture and values, and how this was sometimes good and necessary.
After they became lovers, Fullerton told Wharton that their affair would be good for her writing, and, according to her biographer, Shah Benstock, it was. Wharton began writing a love diary, called "The Life Apart," which reads pretty much like anyone else's love diary (yours, mine) would read. "Sometimes I think that if I could go off with you for twenty-four hours to a little inn in the country, ... I should ask no more." "You ... have given me the only moments of real life I have ever known." "I appear to myself like a new creature opening dazzled eyes on a new world."
And like many another foolish lover, she told Fullerton how much she needed him, and she gave her diary to him to read. He learned that she was so smitten with him that he had the upper hand in their relationship. This hastened its end, for Fullerton preferred his lovers to be unavailable, unobtainable, which is why he initially chose the married Wharton.
Wharton wrote letters to Fullerton which read pretty much like anyone else's love letters, especially the pained ones written when it becomes obvious to her that, although he might be the most important man in her life, she is but one of many women in his. "If when you hold me, and I don't speak, it's because all the words in me seem to have become throbbing pulses, and all my thoughts a great golden blur." "Sometimes I feel that I can't go on like this." "Yesterday, in my despair, I very nearly cabled you the one word: Inconsolable." "You woke me from a long lethargy." "If I could lean on some feeling in you—a good and loyal friendship, if there's nothing else!—then I could go on."
Of course, there was poetry. She wrote about him in a sonnet series called "The Mortal Lease." She wrote about him, too, in fiction, in stories exploring her favorite themes of the entrapment of a woman in marriage, thwarted desire, and lifelong yearning for something unknown and unattainable. In "The Choice" (about an adulterer who wants her husband to die but whose lover dies instead); "The Letters" (based on their correspondence); "The Pretext" (about his infidelity to her); and, ultimately, in the novels The Custom of the Country and segments of The Mother's Recompense.
Reading about adultery is dangerous. But writing about adultery also has its perils. For let's say that instead of doing it (committing adultery, that is), you decide to write about it, without doing it, as Robert James Waller did when he wrote The Bridges of Madison Country, to channel your illicit desire.
After Waller wrote the novel (which launched, I suspect, scores of affairs between middle-aged farm women and cigarette-smoking, boot-wearing, camera-toting Robert Kinkaid wanna-bes), Waller found himself in the middle of an affair with the woman who worked for him as a landscaper and handyman. It ended his thirty-five-year marriage.
Or maybe, like Sylvia Plath, or like Henry Miller, your marriage has broken up because your husband or your wife has had an affair and decided to leave you. You write about it, you can't stop yourself from writing about it. You write enraged poems, as Plath did, about your husband's behavior and his abandonment. Searing poems. Angry poems. Poems like "The Other," "Burning the Letters," "For a Fatherless Son," "A Birthday Present." Poems that explore the suicidal despair that all too often follows adultery's betrayal.
Writing about adultery like Plath did is dangerous; it might even be deadly. For dwelling on the fact of betrayal can make you feel worse, not better. It helped propel Plath into her final suicidal despair; it might have even hastened the end of her life.
Perhaps you plan a novel, or two, or more—like Henry Miller's Crazy Cock or Tropic of Cancer or The Rosy Crucifixion—about how your wife has left you, and you write about this your whole writing life. You think that this is helpful; you believe that it has healed the greatest psychic wound you've ever suffered. Still, because you're always writing about the woman who deserted you, you can't seem to find another woman beautiful enough, sexy enough, commanding enough, to replace her. At the end of your life, you are still writing about her. At the end of your life, she still holds you in thrall. You realize that, because you've written about her your whole life, you've loved her your whole life.
Writing about someone, then, might help you get over a love affair. But it can also keep you bound to a lost lover.
Annette Lawson, in her definitive Adultery: An Analysis of Love and Betrayal, discovered, to my mind, something wondrous. That many of the people she talked to for her study (adulterers, all living in England during the 1980s) said that their decision to embark upon their infidelities had been greatly influenced by the books and other writings (like magazine articles) that they had read. What they were reading mattered more than their upbringing!
Gustave Flaubert knew this. For in his novel Madame Bovary, the properly raised Emma's reading about "love, lovers, sweethearts, persecuted ladies fainting in lonely pavilions ... and ... gentlemen brave as lions, gentle as lambs, virtuous as no one ever was, always well dressed and weeping like fountains" leads her into clandestine love.
And what had Lawson's subjects read? Not the Gothic romances Emma Bovary preferred. The works most frequently cited may surprise you. For the infidelities described in the novels most frequently mentioned (except, perhaps, for Lady Chatterley's Lover) aren't Harlequin romances. Neither are the love affairs especially romanticized or idealized. In fact, many of them turn out to be downright awful.
What the women had read were the novels of D. H. Lawrence (especially, of course, Lady Chatterley's Lover); those of Margaret Drabble, Fay Weldon, and Rosamond Lehmann; Marilyn French's The Women's Room; and the (nonfiction) sexual study of Shere Hite.
For the men: the novels of D. H. Lawrence and Fyodor Dostoyevsky; the works of Freud, Jung, Havelock Ellis, Albert Ellis, and (though I can't imagine why), Alvin Toffler's Future Shock and The Third Wave.
(No one, it seems, mentioned Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.)
American readers, contemporary readers, of course, would choose different books. The dangerous book, for me—some years ago, I confess—was Virginia Woolf's Orlando. A friend to whom I once admitted this, suggested that it was surely Woolf's satiric detail about the cucumbers growing to absurd lengths during Victorian England that probably did it. Perhaps. But I believe that it was Orlando's equation with living a full life and taking a lover, or several lovers, that did it.
"`Life! A Lover!' not `Life! A Husband!'" Orlando cries, and Woolf tells us that (in mockery of her own polygamous lover Vita Sackville-West, upon whom the character is based) "it was in pursuit of that aim that she had gone to town and run about the world."
Certainly, the way to start an affair is to read about one. The path to becoming a paramour (or into an intended paramour's bed) might very well be through a discussion of a book about sex or about adultery.
Monica Lewinsky sends Bill Clinton a copy of Vox. Which was, considering her motives, an excellent choice, I can assure you, if you yourself haven't read the book. For although Vox has been simplistically described by journalists (who probably haven't read it) as "about telephone sex," it is a superb and ironic critique of the depersonalization of eroticism in our time. Paradoxically, it's also very erotic (and not in the least pornographic—and I, for one, have no trouble telling the difference between the two, which doesn't necessarily mean that I am a critic of pornography).
I will admit that I spent one compelling night on my sofa in my study, while my husband was away on a business trip, reading Vox when it first came out. And being titillated beyond what I ever thought possible by the very good telephone sex in that book, something that I myself hadn't yet (unfortunately) experienced, though I had surely had my share of "hot" though anxiety-ridden telephone conversations. (I grew up in the days of the party line, and I still assume that every telephone conversation I have is either being overheard by someone or recorded by someone. A few times in my life, I haven't cared. Given recent events, it's an attitude I'm glad I've retained.)
The night I read Vox, I even went so far as to flip through my Rolodex for a few maniacal minutes looking for a few men (married, unmarried, it didn't really matter) to call. For telephone sex? No. To set up an actual, hands-on, belly-to-belly assignation, if you want to know the God's honest truth. I had a few candidates in mind. I can assure you that if I used their names here, they would be shocked to learn that they were ever the object of my "venomous lust," to borrow the phrase Henry Miller uses to refer to a lust other than his own. I was shocked to discover that they had become the objects of my desire.
Fortunately (or unfortunately) for me, no one I called answered the phone. And I knew better than to leave a breathy message. And so, what did I do after this hypersexualized experience? I went to sleep and dreamed adultery dreams. They were (perhaps) better than the real thing would have been; they surely got me in much less trouble.
Exactly what Bill Clinton did after he read Vox (if he read Vox) I have not as yet learned, though I feel sure that I soon will learn this and much that I want (or don't want) to know. (I don't mind telling you that I do like knowing that Monica Lewinsky told Linda Tripp that she used her affair with Bill Clinton to get over an affair she was having with some guy named Andy who lived on the West Coast. Imagine. Using the President of the United States to get over someone else. What chutzpah! This Andy was also married, and I wondered how he felt when he found this out, and whether his wife knew, and how she felt, and whether they're still married.)
And what was my husband reading before he started his affair? Why, the James Bond novels of Ian Fleming, of course. And how could his life—working every other night and every other weekend as an intern and living with a new baby and a depressed wife on very little money—compare with that of James Bond?
But if he couldn't be 007, he could, at least, fuck around like 007.
The cycle seems to go something like this.
You read a book about adultery. Maybe you stumble into reading it. Maybe you seek it out to juice up your life. You start reading the book and it captures your fancy. You find this curious. Still, there is something about the book that grabs you. You become obsessed by it and can't put it down. You try to read it whenever you can, ignoring the sexual signals your partner may be sending your way. ("Not tonight," you may even say, as you turn your back to her or to him, and clutch your pillow, and continue reading.) Reading about clandestine sex is ever so much more exciting than having sex with a familiar partner.
You tell your friends about the book; you insist that they read it; you even buy a copy for your best friend. You want to talk about the book more than anyone wants to hear you talk about it. When you tell your partner about it (for you do tell your partner about it), her or his eyes glaze over or they look at you strangely. (This should be a danger signal to them, but sometimes they're too wrapped up in their own life to notice.)....
Soon you begin to measure your own humdrum life against the passionate and dangerous life depicted in the novel. The clandestine meetings, the risky phone calls (with the partner in the next room), The fabulous sex (positions you haven't tried; acts you haven't performed; places you haven't used for the act of fornication). The intimacy (eyes locking, fingers touching or brushing, tongues licking). And you find your life wanting.
Suddenly, you find your partner boring, and her or his heretofore little endearing habits (the way he sucks his teeth, the way she twirls her hair) revolting. You find yourself unfulfilled. Your job sucks. Your life sucks. Your clothes suck. You need a complete makeover. A lifestyle change.
You realize that you've never lived fully, or freely, or completely, or erotically (whether or not you have, in fact, lived fully, freely, completely, or erotically). No. You've done what you're supposed to do, what your parents programmed you to do, what your partner wants you to do. You've never done what you want to do. Not once. Not ever. Hell, you don't even know what you want to do.
Unless you begin to find out soon, you tell yourself, you may as well not bother trying. Life is passing by too quickly. You're twenty-five, or thirty-five, or forty-five, or fifty-five, whatever. You tell yourself that you don't have that much more time left, so you better start living life to the fullest. Now. After all, you only have one life to live, and this one isn't a dress rehearsal.
Everything that, a few days before, seemed wonderful (your partner, your home) and meaningful (your life together, your job) and adorable (your kids, the dog, the cats, the guppy—well, maybe not the guppy, who has always had this terrible habit of shitting long strands while you're having your dinner), everything that, at the very least, you thought was bearable and tolerable (the condition of marriage), now seems trivial and meaningless: a compromise, a trap, even.
You feel caged. You feel suffocated. You need to find a way to get out of this cage. Soon. Now. You want romance in your life. You need romance in your life to come alive. Without it, you will continue to feel dead inside. This is, you tell yourself, the first day of the rest of your life.
A couple of days later, you see someone you know, someone you may have been introduced to once or twice before, maybe someone you work with, and that person suddenly looks different, has an aura, where previously the person was just someone else you worked with or for. And (if you're a woman), before you know it, you're batting your eyes, and tossing your hair, and making very many trips past his desk to the bathroom, and you're wagging your ass a lot more than usual on the way there, and you can't believe you're doing it, because this isn't at all like you, and he notices you. Or (if you're a man), you're puffing out your chest, you're exaggerating your gestures (and knocking things over as you do so), and you're laughing louder than you've ever laughed before ("Har, har, har," you hear yourself chortling in response to some idiot's stupid joke at the water cooler which just happens to be situated close to her workstation), and she notices you.
You meet for lunch. You talk. You lock eyes. She patterns your movements; you pattern hers. You repeat the above behavior a few times or a great many times. You tell him (or her) that you've never felt like this before, that this has never happened to you before (and you believe it). You tell him or her that you like the way you feel, that you don't like the way you feel, that this scares you, that you really don't want to change your life, that you really respect your husband/wife/partner and you wouldn't want to hurt them.
You debate the pros and the cons. You can't shut this off, even though you won't let this overtake your life. Suddenly, you know what to do. You can compartmentalize this relationship, you tell yourself, keep it in its proper place. After all, you're grown-ups, not kids, and you can control yourselves.
Finally, you arrange a meeting. At her place (when her partner is traveling on business) or at your place (when yours is) or at a motel or hotel that is about three-quarters of an hour away from where you work. Maybe you go to a business conference. Maybe you yield to impulse.
The sex is fantastic, or great, or good, it doesn't really matter, because it's the thrill of what you're doing that you're not supposed to be doing that's really so fantastic.
Soon, you discover that it's not the sex that glues this thing together, it's the talking about sex—about whether you're going to have it, about when you're going to have it, about how good it's going to be when you can have it, about how good it was the last time you had it, about whether you should stop having it, about how you can't stop having it (even though you're not having it all that often), about whether you can live without having it.
If you're smart, you only say these things to each other face to face (preferably after requesting a full body search of the other person to see that there are no hidden microphones). You do not whisper these things on anyone's message machine. You do not send e-mails. You do not write letters. You do not keep a love diary in which you sound like a moron (as Edith Wharton did after she started her affair with Morton Fullerton). You do not write a memoir (as Louise "Ludovica" Pradier did—she was Gustave Flaubert's sometime lover, and he cribbed parts of her story for Madame Bovary).
In short, you control yourself. You try to act reasonably. You try not to leave a paper trail. You try not to leave an auditory trail. Still, there are a few lapses. You tell her or you tell him that ,f anyone asks whether you've done anything, to deny it. Unless you're stupid enough to confess, no one will know.
Still, you sometimes realize that many people will learn exactly what you said and what you did. Your lover, in a moment of boasting, will tell one person, and they will tell a few, and those few will tell a few, and so on, and pretty soon, thousands of people who don't even know you will know. (Remember the lessons you learned in mathematics about geometric progression.) You repress this.
(Remember, please, to make a full disclosure of whatever illicit moments there have been in your private life, no matter how insignificant they may seem to you, before running for public office. Realize that, as Kinsey observed, people who know your private business won't talk about it publicly unless they have a political reason or a vengeful reason to do so. Realize that, as Kinsey observed, even if they have done the same kind of thing themselves, especially if they have done the same kind of things themselves, they won't be empathic toward your transgressions. If you point out to them that they are as flawed as you are, they will accuse you of blackmail.)
Adultery stories have a life of their own. They are passed from person to person. They are traded like precious baseball cards. People would rather hear an adultery story than hear about the stock market, war, drought, pestilence, plague, the destruction of the ecosystem. Rome did not burn as Nero fiddled. Rome burned as Nero listened to a story about who was doing what to whom.
Although people begin their adulteries to take control of their lives, to author their own existence, people, you must understand, almost always eventually lose control of their adultery stories and they lose control of their lives because of their adultery stories. As my husband has lost control of his adultery story. As Bill Clinton has lost control of his adultery story and, it seems, lost control of his life.
Other people take possession of the narrative. The narrative becomes public coin.
Because of this inevitable fact, there are many potential denouements—so many, in fact, that it would be a mistake to try to list them all. They do, however, fall into a few general categories.
The adultery that ends tragically. This variation is the most common and it entails discovery, disgrace, the breakup of families, the end of presidencies, and possibly even death—murder and/or suicide. It is the kind most commonly found in fiction—William