Introducing Mal Picks
We're excited to introduce Mal Picks, our newsletter series inviting Mal contributors to list their top book and art recommendations related to sexuality, desire and the erotic. For our inaugural newsletter, Issue 3 contributor Daisy Lafarge picks her top five, following her reading at our January event Sex Negative at Tate Modern:
Mystery Dance: On The Evolution of Human Sexuality by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan (1991)
Even overlooking the fact that Dorion Sagan co-authored this book with his mum – revolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis – Mystery Dance might be one of the weirdest books on sex I’ve read. Margulis’ eccentricities run unchecked here as the narrative cavorts from the origins of sex in single-celled organisms (spoiler: failed attempts at cannibalism) to the evolutionary impulses underlying desire and sexual morphology, such as the ‘rococo traits and macho ruses’ of sperm competition. Mystery Dance tiptoes around essentialism via a slightly goofy engagement with psychoanalytic theory, and the book’s conceit of beginning each chapter with the figure of the ‘evolutionary stripper’ doesn’t quite work. But the joys of Mystery Dance far outrun its flaws, full of musings that compellingly restore sex to matter and matter to sex: ‘In both a physical and metaphysical sense, human sexual activity returns the body to the softness of its marine origins, to a time when life had not yet hardened, protected, and extended itself by incorporating durable substances such as lignin, shell and bone.’
The Letters of Abélard and Héloïse (1133)
‘The name of wife may seem more sacred or more binding, but sweeter for me will always be the word mistress, or, if you will permit me, that of concubine or whore.’
I would urge anyone who finds the thought of medieval Christianity boring to read the letters of Abélard and Héloïse. Peter Abélard was a renowned theologian who tutored and seduced the prolific young scholar Héloïse d'Argenteuil. Abélard boasted about the affair until Héloïse became pregnant. The Letters recount the catastrophes that followed: Héloïse was shut up in a convent and her allies sneaked into Abélard’s room at night and castrated him, believing he had cloistered Héloïse to protect his reputation (plus ça change). The Letters begin years after, when the dust has allegedly settled and both parties lead devout lives. Héloïse asks for spiritual guidance and Abélard (sanctimoniously) replies. But neither of them can forget what they shared. The Letters are dark and addictive loops of desire and infatuation, shame and sublimation.
The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History by Angela Carter (1978)
When I was 15 or so I found a copy of The Magic Toyshop in a charity shop and promptly became an Angela Carter devotee. The Bloody Chamber and The Passion of New Eve became predictable favourites, but her polemic non-fiction The Sadeian Woman had the most lasting effect on me. In it, Carter attempts to recuperate the Marquis de Sade’s ‘diabolical lyricism of fucking’ to the feminist cause (magnificently pissing off Andrea Dworkin et al. when it was first published).
In Carter’s reading, Sade was among the first male thinkers to see women’s sexuality as political rather than purely biological or moral: ‘Whatever else he says or does not say, Sade declares himself unequivocally for the right of women to fuck.’ I’m grateful to Carter for leading me to Sade, and I also have her short article on Story of the Eye – collected in Expletives Deleted (1992) – to thank for first introducing me to Georges Bataille (who I’m sneaking in here because this list could easily have been Bataille through and through). In the space of just a few hundred words Carter pithily dismisses Susan Sontag’s essay on Bataille as ‘worthy but dull’ and gets to the barbed heart of Bataille’s novel: ‘a marvellous, scatological fairytale about the omnipotence of desire.’
Eros the Bittersweet by Anne Carson (1986)
The first Anne Carson I read and probably still my favourite. It’s dangerous to start quoting from this book because it’s difficult to stop – every sentence is a resinous keepsake. Amongst Carson’s exquisite, compendious readings of love and desire in classical literature, Eros the Bittersweet is replete with the mercurial Erotes of Aphrodite’s retinue (sweet talk, lust, requited love, yearning etc.), who trip you up and make you find peace with stumbling. Eros has the rare quiddity of an inexhaustible masterpiece.
The Whip by Dorothy Iannone (1980)
I found The Whip while browsing in Amsterdam’s artist bookshop Boekie Woekie last year. It condenses the kaleidoscopic sexuality of Iannone’s paintings into a tiny, fetishistic volume. The prose is slight and alluringly provocative, an epistle disguised as harem manifesto disguised as BDSM fanfic, addressed to ‘the Emperor’ on his 39th birthday from ‘his slave, the Empress D’Antonia.’ Antonia’s submission is an ardent and surreal twentieth century philosophy of the bedroom, conducted via a range of figures from Isis to Jesus and Shakespeare, culminating in a Dialectic Caress: ‘Blasted and benighted dualism. Our -ism, chéri, will be monism.’