Until I’ve read this slim edition of Nerve: Literate Smut, I’d been very wary of people who spew nonsensical slogans like “the brain is the sexiest organ.” As far as I know, the brain is mushy and white with a lot of corrugations in it, and it’s best kept out of sight inside the skull. I’d have said it’s pretty obvious, just watching people walk down the street, that there are three to five body parts clearly much sexier than the brain, and possibly a lot more. But Literate Smut has given me pause. Writers ranging from Norman Mailer to Joycelyn Elders to William Vollman explore just how much of our sex lives goes on between our ears, and they demonstrate that it’s quite a substantial amount.
Some of the essays here border on the literate and scholarly, with intelligent, titillating prose — which is sexy — just like the title claims. The short stories, however, are a garbled mess — incredibly shallow and non-erotic. The best thing about them, though, is that you don’t feel like you need a shower after you read them. More than anything, you feel snotty.
This book is correctly subtitled; as far as the essays are concerned, the writing is certainly literate, and, given that it has a sufficient sexual content to offend those with low levels of prurience tolerance, I suppose it must be acknowledged to be smut. Still, for all of that, it failed in it’s implied mission, if not its stated one; I expected (and wanted) this book to be a collection of well-written erotica, unlike most porn, which is written by and for the barely-literate. And while a few of the entries accomplished this, most failed miserably at the task of being erotic. Some were interesting, even thought-provoking. But very few were sexy. I expected better; I expected interesting, thought-provoking, AND sexy. I guess I just expected too much.
Nevertheless this book is full of real sex. It offers provocative-enough insights and observations that are well articulated yet not abstracted from the sweaty, visceral sensuality of what really goes on in most people’s minds and bedrooms.
The word derives from Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and sex. And as with many potential aphrodisiacs, her origins prove disturbing on second glance. Conventional wisdom says she simply appeared in the ocean waves on a roomy scallop shell, but Hesiod’s Theogony reveals a gorier birth: the goddess of sexual desire was born where the severed testicles of the god Uranus were hurled into the sea. Uranus suffered this loss during a heated coupling with his rebellious wife, Gaea, who had exhorted their son Cronus to ambush his father with a sickle. After years of bobbing in the sea water and generating much white foam, the testicles were gone forever but the goddess swam ashore.
Now consider the famed Spanish fly, or cantharides, an erotic treat derived from the pulverized bodies of the North African blister beetle. As the Marquis de Sade and his unlucky prostitute cohorts discovered, Spanish flies can deliver more than a strategically-placed rush of blood: it is an inflammatory agent, the effects of which include irritation, vomiting, and kidney damage. Spanish flies literally create an itch one has to scratch.
Humans have contributed other shortcuts to bliss, but they’re often just as graceless, even crude, whereas nature’s gentler aphrodisiacs are merely direct. Man-made Viagra and other “ED’ treatments go right to the source and engorge it; the commercials are all smug silver-fox boardroom types, waltzing or suggestively hurtling a football through the placid hole of a tire swing. We’ve also come up with pornography, of course, which walks a fine line between the ridiculous and the effective. A few shutters in the brain must close before a dirty film can work its magic, and the effort required to overlook the mullets and simian dialogue disqualifies porn as a transporting sex-enhancer.
Other so-called aphrodisiacs abound, it’s true, but I am sorry to tell you that you probably know them all: time and vacation and doors that lock, a little wine, a few tokes of good weed, but not a stuporous amount of either, a fig and a square of chocolate but not a belly-full. You want that first flush of heat, the hibiscus-flowering of blood vessels. You want the throb that fills the eardrums and everything else. And you can have it, but it’s a bit like when your mother told you Santa Claus is a spirit of generosity that lives in all our hearts. It’s not what we were hoping to hear.