If semi-autobiographical confessions with explicit sexual content are no longer shocking, it is in large part thanks to Philip Roth and Erica Jong. But where Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint seems like old news, Jong’s Fear of Flying retains an electrifying jolt because her authorial voice, even forty years later, is so confident and emphatic about female desire–HER desire. It saddens me that critics still have to ask whether this hilarious, rebellious, brilliant work “deserves to be treated as great literature.” WTF? I don’t say that every woman should read this book. I say that every man should read it.
Isadora Wing, the narrator of Fear of Flying, is a woman in her late twenties, navigating the feminist and sexual revolution circa 1970. For the first time, women have a chance to claim sexual freedom for themselves, the kind of freedom men have always enjoyed.
Isadora has a raging libido, and she fearlessly uses a man’s sexual vocabulary in a way not seen again until Samantha in Sex and the City: Prick. Balls. Cunt. Fuck. In keeping with the cultural shift of the 1970’s, most of the characters place sexual freedom above marital fidelity. People are experimenting with “open marriages.” Everything is questioned: the value of monogamy, the value of motherhood, woman’s place in society. In 1970 there are no female Supreme Court justices, no female CEO’s of big companies, no female astronauts. A female President of the United States is unthinkable. It is a world where brilliant, college-educated young women like Isadora are given a choice of three careers: secretary, teacher, nurse.
Like Portnoy’s Complaint, the book locates, limits, and dates itself by the prominence it gives to psychoanalysis. Everyone in New York in the 1960s and 70s, it seems, was on the couch. The male psychoanalysts around Isadora assume that all female problems are caused by penis envy or a daddy-wish or both. But they’re way off base.
Roth uses the couch as a device to permit Portnoy to talk dirty, revealing his obsessively horny inner monologue. Jong needs no such device for Isadora to do the same. Fear of Flying opens with Isadora sitting on a plane full of analysts en route to Vienna. One of them is her husband Bennett Wing, a morose, emotionally withdrawn man who nevertheless loves her (and is good in bed).
But Isadora gets the seven year itch two years early. She’s ready to become infatuated with the first sexy Englishman who grabs her ass and playfully calls her a cunt.
That scene caught me off guard. “Cunt” is a good old Anglo-Saxon four-letter word, but it’s mostly used by men in a demeaning way, as a more obscene and hostile alternative to “bitch.” For me, this fact renders the word a turnoff. But Isadora Wing’s sexuality is not politically correct. She gets excited when a man becomes erotically dominant. As she says, quoting Sylvia Plath, “Every woman adores a fascist.” And yet, only if he’s the right fascist at the right moment. The book illustrates a great truism of female sexuality, one which is often misunderstood by men. The famous “zipless fuck,” for example, is Isadora’s fantasy of a perfect sexual encounter, one with no impediments (even clothes magically fall away), no guilt, no strings. An uncivilized stranger on a train, an exploring masculine hand touching a female thigh just above the stocking, a long, dark tunnel (psychoanalysis again).
But to balance this picture, Jong adds a scene later in the book where Isadora is nearly raped by a porter on a train. The zipless fantasy doesn’t work –in fact it goes horribly wrong– unless it’s the right man. Compare Alexander Portnoy, who had a habit of accosting women in the streets of New York and asking if they’d like to go home with him. He really didn’t give a damn who they were, as long as they had a cunt.
That’s the crucial difference between the two books. Portnoy desperately needs the female body, but he not-so-secretly despises women. Isadora Wing has an equally compelling need for sex, but she loves and appreciates men in all their grunting, farting glory. She finds something attractive, sympathetic, even noble in every lover, even when she’s well aware that he is all too human.
Both books are about being Jewish, but Portnoy’s Complaint often feels like little more than a rant (if a clever and amusingly written one) against the domineering, overprotective, guilt-tripping, smothering, demanding personalities of his parents, especially his mother. Roth/Portnoy’s inability to settle down, his selfishness, his narcissism, his contempt for women and his aching, monstrous need for them–all are put down to his Oedipal desire for, and consequent hatred of, his mother and his Jewishness (which become one and the same thing). In Fear of Flying, this aspect of family life is portrayed with a lighter and defter hand:
Isadora’s Jewishness shapes her personality and her ideas in sometimes negative ways, resulting, for example, in fear-born prejudices against Germans and Arabs. The confessional genre rises to the level of art in part because of its authors’ fearlessness in scrutinizing and revealing the least flattering aspects of themselves. Isadora also reveals, from time to time, her contempt for uneducated people and a blithe sense of entitlement, a lack of empathy hinting at the silver spoon. But these themes never take over the story or spoil its pleasures.
The greatest irony of the book is that Adrian Goodlove (yes, Goodlove), the sandy-haired Englishman who lures Isadora away from her husband, turns out to be impotent most of the time. (And has dirty toenails, ugh.) It doesn’t matter, because Isadora is in love with him. She has to face the fact that for whatever reason (nature? nurture? culture?) her greatest need is not perpetual sexual novelty, but the intimacy and security of being in a committed relationship. No, she rages, why can’t I have both? As one of the first women to taste true sexual freedom, Isadora faces an age-old conundrum that men have always known. And what have the male solutions to this problem been?
A. Subjugate women in harems, polygamous marriages, etc. so that men can enjoy both intimacy and novelty.
B. Define “marriage” as sexual freedom for the man and sexual fidelity for the woman.
Women have rarely (if ever) had a chance to exercise Options A or B. Option C is risky and ethically out-of-bounds. Until Vienna, Isadora never cheats on Bennett even though she is sorely tempted. Finally, however, she allows him to see that she’s canoodling with Adrian, and she shuttles back and forth between the two men for a few bizarre days, sleeping with both of them and trying to make a choice. She wonders why Bennett doesn’t run out and deck Adrian, why he doesn’t fight for what is his. Why, that is, doesn’t Bennett claim her as a possession and strip her of her newly-won freedom?
Bennett assumes it is her right to go. He treats Isadora as an equal. It’s not as romantic, not as gendered, not as sexy as if he had flattened Adrian with a knockout punch, then thrown Isadora over his shoulder and carried her squealing back to his cave. But that’s what real freedom and equality looks like.
Ultimately, Isadora’s “fear of flying” is the fear of being alone, being her own person rather than one half of a couple. Men have always (at least potentially) had to face the loneliness of this, but at least the culture respected them as men. A woman with no husband and no children was assumed to be nothing and nobody, a pitiful, contemptible thing. In the end, Isadora is forced to face her worst fear when Adrian the Bastard dumps her to go back to his wife, leaving her to navigate her own life as best she can, alone in Paris with a suitcase full of dirty clothes and no Tampax. She gradually makes her way back to Bennett’s hotel room in London, where she blissfully submerges herself in his bathtub, washing away the literal and metaphorical grime of her adventure in freedom. She doesn’t know whether she wants Bennett back, and she doesn’t know whether he will take her back. The one thing she does know, finally and with certainty, is that she’s a person, a woman, who can stand on her own two feet and fly.
Essay copyright by Linnet Moss 2015