Edith Wharton, “The House of Mirth”


Wharton’s novel tells the story of the decline of Lily Bart, a well-bred New York woman climbing the social ladder towards an advantageous marriage who exhausts her possibilities and falls. I’d like to compare this novel to James’ The Ambassadors in the sense that both are concerned with the distinction between sense and sensibility. (Wharton paid for his prefaces in the New York editions.) Whereas in James, the novel plots Strether’s advancement from common sense to sense/sensuality  (sight, taste, touch) to a sensibility of manners (perspective, taste, tact), it seems Wharton is engaged in a slightly different approach – a sort of American Vanity Fair. 

Lily Bart’s extreme tact (in the sense of manners and strategic acumen) bars her from touching (emotionally or physically) any of the people around her. The notion of tact also has to do with her intact and frigid virginal body. The proliferation of money metaphors in the novel demonstrates how not only Lily, but the novel itself makes sense and sensibility part of the same flat surface, confusing literal and metaphorical, material and spiritual. Many of the novel’s main events are effaced – presented to us later in the form of gossip in which they are retold, rather than presented as events when they occur. A major event is Lily’s misconstruction of the money from Trenor as figurative, rather than literal, and some of the novel’s metaphors go so far from the things they represent as to question the alchemical properties of language, as if it were itself an unreliable market. Rosedale “stood scanning her with interest” 17 and “people say Judy Trenor has quarreled with [Lily] on account of Gus” 167.

“It was true that, during the last three or four weeks, she had absented herself from Bellomont on the pretext of having other visits to pay; but she now began to feel that the reckoning she had thus contrived to evade had rolled up interest in the interval” 123.

Much of this confusion seems to stem from Lily’s mother, who tells her that her beautiful face (like that of a coin) will always get her money. As she declines, she does so “at face value,” so to speak – her struggles are not reflective, but reflected outwardly – she is herself a perfect surface. Trenor has “been somewhat heavily ‘touched’ by the fall in stocks” 171, when Lily is repulsed by Trenor, “the words were worse than the touch!” 195, and Lily “gave to the encounter the touch of naturalness which she could impart to the most strained situations” 306. Towards the end of the novel, “the mere touch of the packet thrilled her tired nerves” when she is addicted to sleeping drugs 389 and it is only in this state that she can be “frankly touched” by Rosedale’s kindness, just pages before her accidental overdose (after which Selden finally touches her) 391.

Linda Williams: Chapters 6 & Conclusion, “Screening Sex”



Williams focuses on Blue Velvet and Brokeback Mountain as “primal scenes” in American cinema. “Lynch’s sex scenes are audacious, less for their explicitness than for the unsettling feelings they generate” 223. For young viewers in the 90s, Williams argues, Lynch’s film was a kind of parallel to the European avant-garde films she herself encountered ‘not exactly at the right time.’ She turns to Freud’s focus on the “primal fantasies” of “the child watching parental coitus… the child’s seduction by a parent (usually the son by the mother); and the scene of the threat of castration (usually… the son by the father)… as a kind of prehistoric ‘phylogenetic’ truth (the individual’s ontologenic memory of the species) that underlay psychic reality” 225. “The origin of desire is the enigma around which our Blue Velvet examples circle” 226. “Lynch’s multiple variations on the primal fantasies of the origin of sexuality are a tour de force of a new perverse sexual ritualism introduced into mainstream American cinema” 235 (think of American Psycho).

“Jameson identifies Blue Velvet’s violence and sadomasochism as the postmodern debasement of an earlier 1960s-style transgression… its postmodern play with an evil… that is merely a simulacrum and no longer really scary… a parable of the end of the sixties, ‘a parable of the end of theories of transgression as well, which so fascinated that whole period and its intellectuals.’ In a sense, Jameson is right… films that usher in violent originary fantasies in the late eighties are not politically transgressive in a 1960s, modernist way. But does that mean, as Jameson seems to say, that their sex is therefore pseudotransgressive in a postmodernist way that is historically inauthentic, unimportant, basically not sexy?… In place of Jameson’s dismissal of such films as mere symptoms of the loss of the sixties, we do better to take the primal scene seriously as the popular staging of a new kind of sex scene for a generation no longer aligned with the high-culture Marquis de Sade or with an idea of sexual liberation suited to the antirepressive ideologies of the 1960s. When Foucault writes that ‘modern society is perverse, not in spite of its Puritanism… in actual fact, and directly, perverse,’ he describes a general tedency to isolate, intensify, incite, consolidate, and implant ‘peripheral sexualities’… Sadomasochistic perversions and sexual fantasies that partake of originary fantasies of seduction, castration, and the primal scene begin to become ‘stuck’ in the eighties American popular culture through these films… a new understanding of sex as a desubjectified scene… the injunction to the audience in a film which… forbade a more direct look at sex” 236.

Turning to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, Williams states: “If sadomasochistic pleasures in American movies are now recognized as pleasures, however complicated they may be with pain, anal sex between men has previously been recognized, if at all, as only pain and humiliation, especially to the one penetrated” 237. The film became “something very much like a primal scene’s first witnessing of a sex act initially understood by the inexperienced child as pain and only later as pleasure” 237. Williams cites D.A. Miller’s complaint that the film focuses on scenes of spying by the women as “vitrified” by “views of ‘the Homosexual’ viewed by another character through glass” 238. Perhaps Miller would “prefer this ‘gay love story’ to come more overtly out of a self-recognized gay culture rather than at least partly out of Proulx’s heterosexual female imagination of sexual desires that do not, at their point of emergence, acknowledge themselves as gay” 238. Miller explicitly finds the film far less radical, for example, than European cinema. “I argue, to the contrary, that by staging a mythical primal scene in which homosexual desire emerges from something that does not preexist, and in also staging the threat of castration against which it emerges, that this Hollywood film precisely does not reduce homosexuality to a minoritized problem but makes it a fear, and a desire, sympathetically, and even melodramatically, felt by all” 238. It is, for Williams, about how Americans “paid attention to themselves watching it” 239. (Think of the melodramatic implications of Jack Twist dying because he is more “out,” while Ennis Del Mar lives in a closeted way.)

Williams turns to the 2003 Lawrence vs. Texas case (based on the Bowers v. Hardwick case of 1986), which asserted privacy as a right over the illegality of sodomy. It is interesting that the call of the wilderness in this American film parallels a call to sexuality (my idea: the space is normally free of women – adventure-land of homosociality, versus homosexuality) 242. Their initial seduction involves the masculine tropes of not looking, of not speaking, finally of wrestling and “facing off” that ends in Ennis’ violent taking charge – we hear more than we see of this union 246. In Proulx’s story and the film what Ennis “wants none of” is passivity – he makes himself the “male” in the act accordingly. Daniel Mendelsohn argues that the uniqueness of the film is to highlight the self-hatred in this barrier-crossing that does not occur in films that pose “familial or ethnic impediments” to sexual union 247. Castration figures literally here, not only in the internalized fears of homosexual killings and beatings, but in fact the act of castrating cattle. Proulx writes that Ennis’ shirt is “one inside the other, two in one” in Jack’s in the final trailer scene 249 (also an interesting parallel of the penetrative act). Unlike the fetish of blue velvet, however, these will not stimulate Ennis sexually: “We might call it a fetish that works in the service of melodrama to evoke the acute sense of loss… an avowal of love that is both too little and too late” 251. When Ennis switches the shirts, it acts as a sort of “outing” for Williams, serving as a juxtaposition of Jack embracing Ennis as he breaks down, versus a previously unseen tender scene of Ennis embracing Jack from behind 252.

While critic Daniel Mendelsohn found the marketing unseemly in its avoidance of publicizing the homosexuality in the film, producer James Shamus insisted “that the film is both a love story and a gay story, and that it solicits every audience member’s identification with the film’s central gay characters” 254 (think about Toni Morrison’s similar move?). “In their debate, Mendelsohn and Shamus occupy the two binary positions laid out by Eve Sedgwick’s influential study, The Epistemology of the Closet, the always inadequate either-or of a minoritizing gay desire particular to a specific group of actual homosexuals (Mendelsohn’s claim) and a universalizing view that sees homosexual desire in relation to that of other sexualities (Shamus’ claim)… Shamus’ claim… of ‘shattering the ‘epistemology of the closet”” 254. However, “the closet constitutes a place of deep contradiction not easily shattered,” so if the film is “about the epistemology of the closet, then it cannot be about a proud proclaiming of gay love, a definitive emergence from the closet into the bright light of day. If the film is the product of a postcloset world, it is looking back on an era of the closet… Ultimately, this movie’s depiction of the closet concerns some rather small rearrangements of what hangs inside… important… that it does not aim to show us a bold image of illicit desire, but instead the tension between desire and the fear that inhibits but also eroticizes it” 255. (Me: In other words, it inducts gay love into the same tradition of taboo that heterosexual love has celebrated?) “We do not know how gay desire suddenly becomes speakable or representable in a culture… Human sexuality… seems always to be caught between the too early and the too late occurrence of the event” 257.


Since porn is “now consigned to a space of supposed privacy and is not acknowledged as part of the cultural mainstream, it has become a kind of elephant in the room… treated as unofficial knowledge” 300. The private space of the home has become more public as it is connected to home viewing, the internet, etc. and “Conversely, what was once considered public (the movie theater) can now be brought into the home… a world of many small screens” that are mobile as well 300. Williams returns to Edison’s 1896 film, which received little attention “in the small peephole device of the Kinetoscope” but far more attention when projected on the big screen. If the big-screen movie depends on the “gulf” between viewer and screen necessary to take in the image, what of the small screen’s affordances? “Film-makers love to vilify the small screen experience… solitary, obsessed men become even more antisocial through their absorption into the small television screen” 303 (recall the argument that it is vaginal!). Williams considers how shows like SEx and the City & The L-Word have remade sex on the screen, focusing on TV’s soft-core sex is similar to coitus interruptus. The “hard-core” sex of Tell Me that You Love Me” is “new” – where would we place Girls?

“The onetime ‘vice’ of ‘onanism’ no longer carries the stigma of self-pollution that Thomas Laqueur tells us it quite suddenly acquired in the early eighteenth century… However, event he more recent rehabilitation of solitary sex has been an uneven process,” emphasizing masturbating women, not men 305. TV’s situation in the home invites masturbation, as does, perhaps, its more ‘life-size’ depictions 305. The fear that the internet “user” will replace cyberporn with real intimacy peaked in 1995 in a Time article depicting a man embracing (penetrating?) a glowing computer monitor, whose “lips” seem enormous (SURFACES). “Home screens have grown larger, movie theaters have grown smaller, and mobile screens and now touch screens of laptops, cell phones, and iPods complicate the whole issue by bringing the once private, small screen out into a public space that is simultaneously more privatized” 309 (think about TOUCH/TACT here!).

Williams turns to Sobchack, who “asserts that the only thing that holds identity together in this regime [of the digital] is the ongoing affirmation of our connections to these media themselves. In this flattened, superficial space lacking both temporal thickness and bodily investment, the dominant ‘techno-logic’ or the electronic leaves us diffused and disembodied” 310. However, Williams points out, “we become habituated to this screening and to our sympathetic relations to the sex of others as a kind of carnal knowledge felt in our own bodies. The techniques of cinema have led us to an embodied relation to movies that allows us to play with these moving images even while sitting immobile in our theater seats or holding an image on a mobile device in our laps. My irreducible bodily basis of experience has thus been conditioned by the technical dimension of movies. ‘Mixed reality’ is [Mark] Hansen’s term for the fact that there is no escape ‘into’ the virtual, no leaving the body behind, no complete going through the virtual window – only increased awareness of imaging, and of active relations to images, as an originary element of our organism’s very being” 311 (SURFACES).

Interestingly, in the cyberporn with Jenna Jameson that Williams explores, the Innocent/Nasty buttons seem to denote nothing more than the difference between descriptive (“That feels good”) and prescriptive (“Jam your fingers in”) – in other words, “just polite” and “just a woman who bluntly commands what she wants”) 317. This is free of the linear narrative of porn, but also of Sobchack’s “gravity” of “moral and physical… real-world consequences” 317. (Is this also bizarre in the extent to which it makes a woman purely manipulable, endlessly inexhausible?) Like other porn, it ends on a money shot (click ORG) with CGI’s impossible proportions 318. “It is tempting to agree with Baudrillard and all the other harbingers of the condition of the post-human that such a  patently fake sexual effect mixing real body and CGI cannot be good for real human sex” 320. It is at least true that phallic pleasures continue to dominate on/scene, but free amateur porn is changing this.

For Williams, Benjamin “is the scholar who has most eloquently articulated how closeness and reproducibility work against qualities of uniqueness and aura” 321. Going back to Schauer’s argument, which Williams defended film against, is it true of new media? Are they nothing more than sex aids encouraging mimicry? No, for Williams – the viewer and object are closer, but the divide never closes. “Utopian faith in the possibilities of virtual reality sometimes suggests that a break with the culture of the screen is imminent as once passive, immobile spectators become active and mobile… Whatever mimesis occurs in our bodies is never the kind of slavish imitation Schauer imagines. What we see in that same or other time and distant (but now closer) space may rebound back upon our own bodies in the more solipsistic and masturbatory way Sobchack describes, or it may, as Benjamin held out, offer an imaginative form of play that can lead us back into the world” 324. Williams ends by arguing that

“The publication of sex… has never been a making public of that which properly belongs to the private… Publicity is not necessarily the exposure of something that is more properly private…[it] is promiscuous, it exposes us to, it involves us with, others, even and perhaps especially others who are not physically present to us there with us in the same time and space. The carnal knowledge that we gain from screening sex is, finally, not a matter of seeing ‘it.’ … arriving at an ultimate degree… we cannot cure the dishonesty and bad faith about sex with more explicitness. And however much I would root for the sight of a few more convulsing clitorises to answer the seeming ubiquity of money shots, I do not really believe that more realistic depictions of female pleasure are the answer… the very act of screening has become an intimate part of our sexuality. The point, therefore, should not be to discover that screening sex brings us so much closer, spatially or temporally, to ‘real sex.’ Rather, it should be to discover that viewers, and now users, have become habituated to these new forms of mimetic play with, and through, screens… an opportunity to see and to know what has not previously been seen so closely. This carnal knowledge never fully reveals the scratch we imagine ‘it’ to be, but the itch that keeps us screening” 325.

I love this ending’s play on embodiment, the prolongation of the itch, the Foucauldian implications of proliferating discourse, the never-quite-arrival (comparable to affects like paranoia and the language arts), and also the idea that there is always something we haven’t seen (here’s where Girls & Mad Men seem particularly interesting – one for showing sex now that we haven’t seen, one for imposing – perhaps even problematically – on history a sexual intensity heretofore dissociated with our screened visions of the past.)