In the final chapter of his Greenwich Village memoir Kafka Was The Rage, Anatole Broyard describes the aching, joyous condition of sex in the years immediately following the Second World War. Even in a neighborhood we associate with sophistication and robust experimentation, sex in 1947 was baffling to the longing, fiercely private girls and the roving, generally respectful boys, each operating under the twin demands of culture and hormones. For Broyard, there was as much drama and psychic weight in the prelude to sex as there was in the act itself. From the hindsight of the late 1980s, he writes:
One of the things we’ve lost is the terrific coaxing that used to go on
between men and women, the man pleading with a girl to sleep with
him and the girl pleading with him to be patient. I remember the
feeling of being incandescent with desire, blessed with it, of talking,
talking wonderfully, like singing an opera. It was a time of exaltation,
this coaxing, as if I was calling up out of myself a better and more
deserving man. Perhaps this is as pure a feeling as men and women
I can only wonder what Broyard would make now of the ease with which adolescents carry and view in their heads and on smart phones explicit sexual images and texts, unburdened by prohibitive, taunting imaginations and mid-century decorum. “In 1947, American life had not yet been split open,” Broyard writes. “It was still of a piece, intact, bounded on every side, and, above all, regulated. Actions we now regard as commonplace were forbidden by law and by custom.”
* * *
“There is an unseemly exposure of the mind, as well as of the body,” says William Hazlitt, the oversharer of the nineteenth century. This sentence is in my head now as I consider the emotional condition of the essay, its neediness, the way it might embarrass itself or its reader, the way it says too much, the ways it insists on the explicit details at the expense of evocation. I’m thinking of autobiography that leaps to the end of disclosure without the drama, suspense, or the what-if of slow revelation, humility. I’m thinking about the last tramp stamp that anyone will notice. TMI. I’m thinking about an essay that drops trou and thinks that that’s an epiphany.
* * *
For Broyard, a woman on a street smiling flirtatiously at him was “the incarnation of meaning.” The first female nudity I glimpsed felt similarly weighty, not intellectually so much but as a kind of a token, a prophecy—it must mean something, this shiver of body parts.
My own body I’d grown accustomed to by adolescence. My relationship to my nakedness was common, predictable: equal parts fascinated, private, and befuddling. I’m of average height and size, and for the most part blended in among my male friends at Saint Andrew the Apostle and Our Lady of Good Counsel schools. I was a bit shy and embarrassed by my puny shoulders and chest, and for one Christmas received from my parents a tension-spring chest expander that I’d earnestly squeeze each night before bed, shirtless in front of the mirror, one eye trained hopefully on the Charles Atlas ad opened on my bed. Not much happened there—certainly not relative to my friends who bulked up at the school gym. But apart from raging acne and an irrational concern that my left arm was grotesquely thinner than my right, I didn’t suffer unduly. I tanned nicely in the summers, rode swiftly on my ten-speed, and perspired pleasurably shooting baskets through dusk, even when puberty’s hormones raced in and dramatically changed the landscape.
Girls’ bodies were far-away countries bragged over by rare, conquering boy-men. Hillocks and knolls. Bra straps ghostly white through uniform blouses, an elevated pitch to suddenly foreign voices that were somehow both more excitable and more mature than last summer. Nudity was an abstraction, a sister glimpsed in a foggy bathroom mirror, a peach-colored Barbie with a complicated look on her face. It was only when I accompanied my older brother into his friend’s basement, where awaiting us was a cardboard box stocked with mustyPlayboys, that I saw a nude woman in full, posed glory. One afternoon, years later, in the woods behind Equitable Bank, my friend Paul and I discovered a porno mag (Club, I think, or maybe it was Swank) stuffed underneath a wet log on a wet day.
And here—as my younger self is about to stand in those woods and figure out what to do with his hard-on—I’ll pause. I’ve written in the past about my juvenile experience with pornography, the snares, thrills, the shock of it. Writing about nudity—a pull that feels somehow both essential and superfluous—is tough: one’s balanced between decorum and vividness, language and longing, the mind and the body, and, well, cliché and cliché. How to artfully render the private (the sexual, the sensual) in public language? The autobiographical essay seems an ideal form, with its casualness and its personal address to the reader, with the shared head-nods of empathy all around.
I’m thinking of the clothed essay versus the nude essay. The clothed essay prizes craft and subtlety, evocation and song. “Nakedness is uncomely, as well in mind as body,” Francis Bacon wrote four hundred years ago, “and it addeth no small reverence to men’s manners and actions if they be not altogether open. Therefore set it down: That a habit of secrecy is both politic and moral.” The vulgar, nude essay has no secrets, is uncomely not in an other-century modesty or prudishness, but in its artlessness. An autobiographical essay moves from private to personal, but the nude essay is too private and too personal, smirking that its nakedness is subject enough, its tan lines and scars and piercings doing all of the work. The nude essay says, I see you gawking at my flesh and curves, my sinew and sex, what else do I have to do but preen. The nude essay spreads its legs and the gesture of seeming confession is mistaken for content.
The clothed essay demurs, covers up, led by the voice’s intimacies and the sensuality of contemplation. The clothed essay doesn’t keep secrets—it’s not coy—the clothed essay evokes, believes that abstraction and consideration can be hot. The clothed essay, layered, offers a wealth of ideas, reflection, doubt, patience, uncertainty, less the hot now of the nude essay. It doesn’t shy from writing about nudity, but it keeps its dress on, and wonders how. The clothed essay might offer you its jacket, saying It’s too large, but it will fit. Clothes, carefully selected, aesthetically pleasing, shape and form, are a kind of craft against the nude essay’s raw data. The clothed essay might think about flashing, but doesn’t. The clothed essay’s privacy settings embarrass the nude essay. The clothed essay doesn’t Tweet. To excess.
* * *
My first blowjob, the first time I got in, the porch light switched on in warning, my first hard-on, her first tan line, the first time I beat off, the differences among [ ]’s, [ ]’s, [ ]’s, [ ]’s, and [ ]’s bodies, the tautness, the sweat, the abundance, the leanness, I could write about fucking at the drive-in, about heartbreaking, clumsy hand jobs, the first night of nude scents, about slipping on cum on the floor of the Gayety Theater on 9th Street in Washington D.C., about the twelve-foot-long girls up there on the shabby screen, about porno video booths in New York City and grainy nudes and muffled groans, about a circle-jerk as a foreign language I’ll never comprehend, about up-skirts and down-shirts, about sky-blue panties, about the scene in M*A*S*H when they pull the shower curtain down and Sally Kellerman falls in agony and humiliation and how the scene thrummed in me for months, the pleasure nauseating and sadistic, about yanking her shorts down, about how he got his hand down her white hip-huggers, the (imagined) image tattooed in me like topography, about skinny dipping at Golgonooza, scandalously pale among friends and strangers, about keeping our clothes on later, there under the chastening moon, about spying through the apartment window at the dark woman putting on her bra as we drank wide-mouth Mickey’s in the woods, about that disturbing dream concerning X, about lovely pale moons, and beaver shots, and his mammoth chest, I could write about my sister, I could write about those books and those magazines in that box, I could write about feeling disappointed. I’ve got stories. I could write about nudity and its tartness and buzz and revelations and throat-tightening sagas down the decades.
* * *
A conversation I imagine overhearing:
When you get the personality, you don’t need the nudity, purrs Mae West.
Chuck Palahniuk mumbles: The most boring thing in the entire world is nudity. The second most boring thing is honesty.
* * *
My laundry list above of Great Nude Moments matters to me, is a slide library of indelible images, and it documents both the sincerity and the banality of the naked human. These are shaping, everlasting moments with iconic figures from my past, in various stages of undress. Who cares? I do. Shouldn’t you? You care. Shouldn’t I? I’d love to see you naked, but that doesn’t make this an essay.
Autobiographical writing requires a voice that’s both singular and emblematic—and that’s a tough shimmy for the nude, whether basking or bashful. On the one hand, nudity is easy to write about: the sensual details of the body’s narrative lend themselves to language. We all have bodies, we’re all nude, we’re all fucking: the stories tell themselves! But: the everydayness, the sameness of nudity made toxically numb by blaring soft and hard pornography muscling its way into the mainstream. (Or maybe it’s here already. Are we post-porn yet?) As culture becomes more comfortable with broadcast nudity, an autobiographical writer’s compulsion to disclose, to confess, to share his figurative nudity might lose its energy, may cease to matter, or will matter differently. What do I have to disclose now?
We live in the age of the body exposé, afternoon side-boob and genital tattoos masquerading as talk shows, the age of the nude essay. How old-fashioned, how 1.0 the clothed essay looks, with her modesty and languorous pacing, with her subtlety and skepticism.
* * *
As a kid I wanted the X-Ray glasses advertised in the back pages of my Archie and Sgt. Rock comics (“Only $1.00”! The ad promised that the “Scientific optical principle really works.”). The happy guy wearing them and the alarmed, silhouetted girl he’s leering through are stock figures from my adolescence. But even trapped as she is in his penetrating smirk, she’s outlined by her clothing still, the darkened suggestion of what’s beneath hotter than the literal and exposed.
Throughout seventh and eighth grades I’d imagine swiftly, if shakily, whipping out those glasses, feigning laddish disinterest, and then secretly training them on W. or J. or C. or S., their prim uniforms vanishing under the high sun. The girls’ rounding bodies at Saint Andrews were hidden by plaid skirts and white blouses, and I longed for the X-Ray specs to take me under. The girls are posed forever now in memory, turned or semi-turned away from me on the blacktop and in the hallways. I didn’t care if the glasses were a novelty gag, an optical illusion. These girls were tugged between holiness and hormones, burning girlishly in the middle, fighting against the compass pull of my helpless gaze. The specs showed me where I shouldn’t be, where propriety forbade me, where what’s conjured and clothed is as priceless as what’s known. Story, fantasy, desire, truth, myth: an imagined and sustained world of body and romance moves mysteriously, insistently, in that infinite space between the line of her skirt and the line of her thigh.