Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #248: Is Sex Necessary? by James Thurber and E.B. White

I'm always heartened at reminders that people and times don't change all that much. There have always been quickie cash-in books looking to jump on some fad, from Naked Came the Stranger to Bored of the Rings to whatever's next to the cash-wrap today.

And I have one of those books today: one with a much higher pedigree than most. In the mid-1920s, the fad du jour was sex books. Now, since it was the 1920s, they were very declaredly erudite, serious sex books, full of Freudianism and circumlocutions and deep thoughts, and absolutely no pictures.

Then as now, there were jobbing writers who look at a market like that and see something they want to make fun of. Two of those jobbing writers got together, and Is Sex Necessary? came out in 1929.

We care about it ninety years later because it's still pretty funny in its very arch way, and because Freudianism never quite goes away. But, mostly, we care about it because those two jobbing writers were James Thurber and E.B. White, before those were names to conjure with.

Is Sex Necessary? is a parody of erudite pseudo-Freudian sex-books of the interwar era, written by two guys who were moderately erudite, not at all Freudian, but as interested in sex as anyone else. Modern readers might not think it's all that much about "sex" at all -- there's not a moment in the book when Thurber and White talk about anything that men and women might do together with their clothes off. Instead, it's about the desire -- or, since we're being fake-Freudian here, more often the psychological complexes causing problems with desire -- that arises between men and women. [1]

So they start out with a discussion of "Pedestalism" -- the supposed male tendency to view women as better, purer beings -- and how that led the sex-impulse to be sublimated during the recently-ended "Ubertragung Period" into sports like baseball and boxing. Charmingly, and like most writers of most eras, Thurber and White assume their society has achieved an unprecedented and uniquely high level of knowledge of and experience with their chosen field of expertise.

They go on, in the same vein, to discuss the different kinds of women in modern American society, the Sexual Revolution [2], what the clearly more sexually knowledgeable teenagers should explain to their parents about the facts of life, and the sources of frigidity in men. It's all in that fake-respectable tone, saying entirely silly things that are only slightly different from the actual silly things that the serious books of the day were saying.

Some people may not be able to detect the humor at this late date: it's no knock on them. Many readers won't recognize what's supposed to be funny here, and Thurber and White are deep in the parody weeds, writing almost completely straight-faced about things that won't seem all that different from actual kooky '20s theories.

If you're up enough on the history of the various sexual revolutions, or particularly fond of aged parodies, you might find a lot to chortle at in Is Sex Necessary? If you just live your life in the modern world, though, you probably won't get it at all. (Which is not at all a bad thing.)

And, to answer the title, Thurber and White basically decide that, on balance, Sex is necessary, and maybe even somewhat pleasant, once in a while.

[1] I hope no one is going to be shocked or appalled that a parody of Freudianism from the late Twenties is totally hetero. But it is.

[2] I was surprised to see it referenced this early, but my guess is that, like the Communist Revolution, the Sexual Revolution was called for and announced and declared won many times before it actually happened (if it ever did, in either case).

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