Last night, I happened to be rereading a recent essay by Katie Roiphe in the New York Times Review of Books in which she laments the loss of literature written by male writers of the vanguard — like Philip Roth and John Updike — who were flat-out narcissists who took a virile and unapologetic joy in sex. (Today, by contrast, she argues, we have male writers like Ben Kunkel, who are so conflicted about sex, and so ruined by political correctness, that they are not only afraid to write about sex with the ebullience of their forefathers, but, in plenty of instances, they're afraid to even describe their characters having it.)
The question of which writers write best about sex is another question for another day. (Is anyone more hilarious about it — more delighted by the somewhat guilty pleasure — than Roth? Can anyone make it sound more gorgeous than James Salter?)
What I want to focus on today is simply a few lines of Roiphe's essay. At one point, she quotes John Updike's novel Couples, in which one character says adultery "is a way of giving yourself adventures. Of getting out in the world and seeking knowledge."
Now, I despise Updike — I think he, unlike Roth, really deserves the accusations of misogyny — but I want to use that quote as a jumping-off point for discussion.
It's worth noting that Updike wrote his novel in 1968. These days, I think being single is the new adultery. By that I mean: Divorcing — and simply staying single for a long time — used to be a lot less acceptable than it is today. If you wanted to have sexual adventures in America, you didn't have much choice beyond adultery.
But today, if you realize you want to have more adventures and you're married, you can get divorced with a lot less opprobrium than in the past. You can also find yourself an "open" marriage, in which you and your partner agree to have other lovers. Or you can simply wait a lot longer — until you've sown your wild oats — to get married.
Of course, I think it's a lot easier for men to postpone marriage. Men, those lucky bastards, have to be really old (well beyond 60, I'd say) before there's much cause for them to worry about losing their sex appeal. That moment comes a lot sooner for women, sadly — particularly those who want babies.
And yet sometimes, as much as I rationally know it is only going to get statistically harder and harder for me to get hitched as I get older and as much as I know I should be unconflicted about finding a life partner, I'm not. And this goes above and beyond commitment-phobia ... I think.
Now, sure, I want to be deeply loved by someone — to have one person whom I can grow old with, and count on for just about everything (or, at least, sex and moral support when times are tough, and good conversations). Yet I do often wonder if being in a relationship will suffocate me. Mute me. Dilute me. Will I become totally boring if I spend most of my free time with the same person? Will I stop meeting all the cool, new people I meet thanks to my most fulfilling hobby: dating? Will I, as Updike would put it, stop having adventures? Stop getting out in the world and seeking knowledge?
Single ladies (and men): Are you, too, semi-addicted to dating?
For me, it has nothing at all to do with sex — I don't have sex with the vast majority of the people I "date." It's all about encountering new people, understanding how I present myself to them, and simply being free to put myself into all sorts of new situations, unencumbered or unprotected by the psychological comfort of knowing there is someone "at home" waiting for me.
I think being single for so long has, frankly, made me a stronger and more interesting person. (Does that sound a little like I have Stockholm Syndrome — and my captor is me?)
And yet ... I'm also aware that there is a different kind of knowledge that comes from being in a serious relationship. So, all you committed and married readers, I'd love to hear from you about that. Tell me that it's just as good — if not better — on the other side!