Saturday, December 13, 2008

Bikini Beach Babes; or, Fanny Hill in the Virgin Islands

by Chris Moses

Odd juxtapositions can prove revelatory in the most interesting ways.

While in St. John for the Thanksgiving holiday I read John Cleland’s eighteenth-century classic Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, better known as Fanny Hill. I’ve even got a better excuse than being an odd-ball graduate student: this summer I’ll be teaching a course on “Forbidden Fictions,” an exploration of banned books, censorship and artistic engagement with the taboo.

So set up on the sands of an exotic Caribbean island, I couldn’t help avoiding the uncanny sense that my historical novel proved a better travel guide than anything written by Lonely Planet:

‘Novelty makes the strongest impressions, and in pleasure especially: no wonder then, that he was swallow’d up in raptures of admiration of things so interesting by their nature, and now seen and handled for the first time.’

Now this has nothing to do with national parks, even if tourists might be more stimulated than they realize by taking treks in the lush wilderness as a daytime companion to their vacation’s wild nights of lush-like lovemaking. This scene unfolds as Fanny takes a sly act of revenge: she seduces the young male servant of her client-captor after having caught him in arrears with another woman. Part prostitute, part pariah, Fanny uses this young boy to make her own investment in infidelity.

‘On my part, I was richly overpaid for the pleasure I gave him, in that of examining the power of those objects thus abandon’d to him, naked, and free to his loosest wish, over the artless, natural stripling: his eyes streaming fire, his cheeks glowing with a florid red, his fervid frequent sighs, whilst his hands convulsively squeez’d, opened, press’d together again the lips and sides of that deep flesh-wound, or gently twitch’d the over-growing moss…’

I can’t help but wonder about the mental state of that pudgy fellow down the beach, cheeks red from sun burn and sweet daiquiri, eyeing scantily clad ladies as he massages the sand into a castle-like fortification as ready for defense as for an inevitable watery conquest. Or even his enviable friend, gym-toned and bare-chested with the chance to wrap an arm around the real thing.

But back to the book.

For a novel that endlessly reproduces such loquaciously graphic scenes, it nonetheless does so with a tremendous level of literary and intellectual sophistication. At play throughout, Fanny explores her sexuality as it is exploited by older men and women who too have their doubts and insecurities exposed through the secrets of their business and bedroom dealings. Do we all-consuming readers enable Fanny’s downward spiral of depravity or push her towards redemption and the rewards of virtue? A constant suspense tacks between Fanny-the-innocent and Fanny-the-savvy-narrator, between the perils and pleasures of sex depicted in real-time and the doubts of every morning after.

Just like on the beach.

For every woman taken as that ‘real thing’ of male desire, another walks with ease and conviction—sure of herself, satisfied with her body and certain about the looks she shoots back, of welcome or warning, to anyone that catches her eye. No single wave of feminism crests across these waters.

Sandy shores’ place between sea and land have been a perennial sight for mediating (and meditating upon) the uncertain and unresolved. Since at least Fanny’s time, when Robinson Crusoe’s island isolation ended with his discovery another man’s footprint in the sand, this place of encounter has led to more questions than answers.

Has the bikini, a sign of feminist independence, become a means for infantilizing women? Do the slim trunks, slung below ideally small hips and across a girlishly flat stomach, show off self confidence—or do they sacrifice womanhood to an ideal of pre-pubescent insecurity, as hairless as it is harried to find a man for control and protection?

Even swathed in their broad-covering board shorts, do men fall victim, too, as they invest far more time in the nuance of hard abs as opposed to hard ideas?

However exposed men and women might make themselves on the beach there’s an importance to baring most everything with the chance to think, learn, imagine, fantasize and wonder. For every bit of insecurity that’s provoked by such exposure a sense of normalcy comes from witnessing the imperfection and diversity of our fellow humans. Gazes can go from guys to girls and back again without worry as to the high-tide, low-tide extremes of gay and straight. Young and old alike hide less by fashion than they otherwise clothe through the pretensions of social difference.

No eden-like equality exists on the beach. Bodies carry as many marks of class and culture as do designer labels. The point is that slightly more exposed, we learn more and hide less from this powerful reality. In fact the power of metaphor (and alcohol aided musing) may be the most important tool for greater personal surety.

Take Fanny’s own conquest over the man who offers most in the role of conqueror:

“[C]oming out with that formidable machine of his, he lets the fury loose, and pointing it directly to the pouting-lipt mouth, that bid him sweet defiance in dumb-shew, squeezes in the head, and driving with refresh’d rage, breaks in, and plugs up the whole passage of that soft-pleasure-conduit, where he makes all shake again, and put once more all within me into an uproar…”

By way of florid fiction, is this real? Does Fanny’s coy reluctance prove her forever lessened power as a woman, or does ‘dumb-shew’ have more to do with performance than persecution? This ‘pouting-lipt mouth’ looses control after getting plugged up by the penetrating phallus, but it’s Fanny other mouth that has complete control over every aspect of the story. For all his fury and rage, the man’s the one who ends up with his head in the dark.

The questions raised by this kind of partial revelation are purposefully both prurient and profound. This suspense as to what might lie within—books, bikinis and boardshorts alike—also suspends the inevitability of male dominance and female capitulation, the default story of sex as subjugation. In the land of make-believe we imagine that anything can be possible. Only from here can new alternatives be made real—another sort of naked truth.

So why the rush away from this in-between place, in and out of the water, to the bar and back, off into the hotel bed expectant of anything but sleep? Even as the odd-ball attraction reading an Oxford World Classic in the shade, my time did not lack for wonder. Quite a bit of satisfying fun can be sustained by thinking on the beach, rather than simply thinking of ways to get off.

All quotations are from page seventy-seven of Peter Sabor’s edition (Oxford, 1985).

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