Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Nature or nurture?

In last weekend's New York Times Book Review, Katie Roiphe contrasts two generations of male novelists writing about sex. On the one hand, she gives us Bellow, Mailer, Updike and Roth, who treat sex, and especially adultery, as a grand, quasi-religious adventure, an exploring of possibilities, a carving out of a self from the raw material of animal lust, explicit and satirical, shadowed with guilt, rage, titillation and disappointment. On the other hand, she lists younger writers such as Franzen, Chabon, Wallace and Eggers, who came of age with post-70s feminist friends, who are a little abashed about sex, self-conscious, ambivalent, childlike and cool, stirred by lust, of course, but embarrassed by it too. What the two groups have in common, says Roiphe, Is narcissism, the one taking pride in their daredevil highwire acts, the other in their phallic restraint.

Roiphe, to her credit, gives the old guys their due. "Compared with the new purity, the self-conscious paralysis, the self-regarding ambivalence, Updike's notion of sex as an 'imaginative quest' has a certain vanished grandeur," she writes.

Whether Roiphe is right, you can decide, but she offers up an opportunity to reflect on the twisted threads of biology and culture. What remains constant across the generations is the male sexual circuitry, built into our bodies at birth.

The penis and the brain are in constant communication, exchanging signals up and down the spinal cord. There is something called the "erection-generating center," located at the tail-end of the spine, between the S3 and T12 vertebrae, that can get things going all by itself if provided with the appropriate inputs from above, perhaps triggered by the sight or smell of an alluring partner. The penis responds by releasing pro-erectile neurotransmitters, chemicals that tell the muscles of the penile arteries to relax, causing more blood to flow into the organ, and...

Oh, well, you get the idea. Certainly males get the idea. All that electrochemical traffic up and down the spine over which we have so little control.

But, wait! It seems there's also a specific cluster of neurons in the hindbrain, called the paragigantocellular nucleus, or PGN, that suppresses spinal-mediated erections. The hindbrain is an evolutionarily ancient part of the brain that controls such basic functions as blood pressure and heart rate. It's easy to understand why the "brake" evolved. Even our earliest ancestors presumably needed an occasional rest from thinking about sex.

As the urologist Irwin Goldstein says, a man's sexual response is a delicate, dynamic balance between being turned on and turned off. And that, presumably, is where culture comes in. And where literature finds its niche.

Of all the writers discussed by Roiphe, I am drawn most closely to Updike, no doubt because we are so close in age and background, the same countrified, guilt-haunted religious upbringing, the same unabashed fascination with the feminine, a mysterious continent begging to be explored, a tonic against senescence and death. Bellow, Mailer and Roth -- especially Roth, although his latest books are unbearably sad, embarrassing even -- were part of my intellectual heritage; the new guys are terribly alien.

And so it goes, the unending commerce between culture, the brain, and that buzzing hive of arrant desire between the S3 and T12 vertebrae. It would take a better man than me to sort it out. Meanwhile, I suppose women look on with some mix of amusement, puzzlement and rage.