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Fear Factor

Erica Jong’s classic novel about passion, sex, and the true self has something to teach contemporary writers who have lost their humanity

Liel Leibovitz
September 14, 2011
(Illustration: Tablet Magazine; images: iStockphoto)
(Illustration: Tablet Magazine; images: iStockphoto)

When I first read Fear of Flying, in 1988, I didn’t like it at all. Looking back, there are several plausible explanations. I was 12 at the time: too young to find anything amusing about the novel’s abundance of amorous psychoanalysts, and taken aback by the armies of stiff cocks standing at attention on nearly every page. Expecting terrific masturbatory material, I was saddened to see the smut diluted by so many thoughts of wounded egos. Above all, I could sense that the book’s author, Erica Jong, was engaged in some strange activity that seemed a lot like writing but was, in fact, not.

What was it? In the free spirit of Fear, a book that frequently borrows from cinema whenever mere words fail it, allow me the following anecdote: It was 1975, and John Schlesinger was shooting Marathon Man in midtown Manhattan. The film revolved around one particularly effective scene, in which the sadistic Nazi dentist, played by Laurence Olivier, tortures the intrepid doctoral student and amateur sleuth, Dustin Hoffman, with a large drill. Schlesinger, Olivier, cast, crew, were all ready to begin shooting, but Hoffman was nowhere in sight. An hour passed, then two. Finally, late in the afternoon, the young actor emerged, hair unkempt, eyes enflamed. Briefly, he explained that, being a Method actor, he needed to work himself up to the frenzy demanded by the scene. Hearing this, Olivier snickered. “My dear boy,” he’s rumored to have said, “I suggest that you drink a nice cup of tea, take a nap, then wake up and start acting.”

I wished I could say the same to Jong, whose prose is to literature what method acting is to Hollywood, namely an exuberant but ultimately erroneous conviction that one cannot do better than to reach deep within oneself for pure emotion, and that when said emotion is discovered, it needs no further refinement en route to becoming great art.

Take the way the book’s heroine, Isadora Wing, reacts shortly after meeting the charismatic British analyst Adrian Goodlove:

“My name is Isadora Zelda Stollerman Wing,” I write, “and I wish it were Goodlove.”
I cross that out.
Then I write:
Adrian Goodlove
Dr. Adrian Goodlove
Mrs. Adrian Goodlove
Isadora Wing-Goodlove
Isadora White-Goodlove

And on it goes for an entire page. Not for Jong this business about the right words in the right order. Instead, Fear operates on two principles: first, that an emotionally honest novel is a novel dedicated to revelation and that any suppression of puns, asides, or even sophomoric scribbling of maiden and married names is therefore oppressive and unwelcome; and, second, that demands for order or structure or commitment—from heroine and author alike, in the novel or in real life—are likely motivated by male desire to classify and control. “I started out being clever and superficial and dishonest,” Isadora confesses midway through the novel. “Gradually I got braver. Gradually I stopped trying to disguise myself. One by one, I peeled off the masks: the ironic mask, the wise-guy mask, the mask of pseudo-sophistication, the mask of indifference.”

Such a sentiment should appeal to anyone at 12—an age in which fidelity to the authentic self stands alone atop the heap of desirable virtues—but I never bought it for a moment. I knew then, as I know now, that art is artifice, and that we admire the writers and the sculptors and the musicians we single out for posterity not for their candor but for their craft, and that craft requires discipline and the sort of self-inflicted deprivations that are anathema on the therapist’s couch but indispensable in the artist’s studio.

Revisiting the novel this month, I expected to dislike it all over again. I didn’t. I found it charming, through no fault of its own. While Jong’s prose has not risen to new heights in the nearly four decades since the book’s 1973 publication, the literary landscape around her has sunk. Graded on a curve, Fear of Flying is today a delight.

Which, of course, invites commentary on the curve. Jong herself is fond of such sport. “Sex is discombobulating and distracting,” she wrote in a recent op-ed in the New York Times. “It makes you immune to money, politics and family. And sometimes I think the younger generation wants to give it up.” Jong is right for lambasting the youth, but mistaken in her reasoning; one need only occasionally glance in on the joyful antics of the Kardashian sisters to know that fucking is alive and well in America. The real problem is metaphysical and far more profound. It involves an utter lack of anything remotely resembling a self, a condition afflicting our young, ravaging our literature, and jeopardizing our future.

Like all far-reaching statements, this one, too, will be best served by an example. Among Fear’s most potent chapters is the one in which Isadora, living in Germany with her second husband, stumbles upon an abandoned Nazi-era amphitheater, an architectural wonder that’s been scrubbed from the town’s official tour guides and allowed to fall into disrepair. Intrigued, she researches its history and ends up publishing a scathing essay denouncing Germany’s inclination to repress its past. The discovery transforms her; it’s shortly after publishing her essay that she sounds the aforementioned cri de coeur about peeling off masks and becomes a writer in earnest. In a book so enchanted by thumping cunts and playful ids, it’s terrific to witness a moment in which the world is once again drawn to scale and the inherent insignificance of individuals once again recalled.

The passage put me in mind of another instance of a fictional young American visiting the old continent, in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated. Foer’s narrator is a writer named Jonathan Safran Foer, who travels to Ukraine to search for the woman who saved his grandfather during the war and to write a bombastic work of magical realism about her village, pieces of which are strewn throughout the book. Foer’s other narrator is Alex, a local tour guide with a compromised command of the English language and American popular culture. Both men are hyperverbal, yet neither is capable of communicating clearly and honestly. Everything is a conceit.

Here, for example, is Alex boasting of his sexual prowess: “Many girls want to be carnal with me in many good arrangements, notwithstanding the Inebriated Kangaroo, the Gorky Tickle, and the Unyielding Zookeeper.” Even if one overcomes the character’s incurable monotone—Alex is not so much a person as a book-length misnomer or the world’s longest ethnic joke—one is still left with little more in hand than ribald names for preposterous sex acts, the sort of stuff college freshmen love discussing shortly after perusing Internet porn and just before beer pong.

Compare Alex to Isadora. Here she is on the occasion of finally having sex with the dashing doctor Goodlove: “Adrian was like a new country. My tongue made an unguided tour of it. I started at his mouth and went downward. His broad neck, which was sunburned. His chest, covered with curly, reddish hair. His belly, a bit paunchy—unlike Bennett’s brown leanness. His curled pink penis which tasted faintly of urine and refused to stand up in my mouth. His very pink and hairy balls which I took in my mouth one at a time.”

This is not great prose, but it’s not a gag, either. It’s a straightforward description of the great discoveries and the small disappointments we stumble upon when exploring a new lover’s body for the first time. To feel this way, to write this way, a writer must be present, unafraid of embarrassment, eager to connect. In other words, she or he must possess a true self, must be a human subject reluctantly seeking out other human subjects, craving love but ready for rejection. There’s none of that in Foer’s work, a tiring and heartless torrent of wit and whimsy. There’s none of that in most contemporary young writers, Jewish or otherwise.

How we got this way is a longer, more complex question. Technology is one culprit. As computer scientist Jaron Lanier argues, we live in the information age, but we don’t always understand that we, human beings, are more than information; we contain multitudes, most of which contradict each other. “You have to be somebody,” Lanier wrote, “before you can share yourself.” But we’re nobodies, and not in Emily Dickinson’s gloriously reticent sense. We’re nobodies because a piece of software now remembers our friends’ birthdays for us, and because we see so many virtual, perfect pricks and tits and cunts that the real things, so beautifully imperfect, no longer thrill us so much. We’re nobodies because most of us sext before we ever get to know real intimacy, which means that we’ll never get to live life like Isadora Wing and make the sort of sweetly ruinous mistakes that helped her soar. We’re nobodies because we took from Erica Jong all of her stylistic affectations and none of her warmth.

And the warmth’s the thing. Decades after its publication, young readers are still turning to Fear of Flying to understand what it’s like to be human and female, confused and in love, hopeful and afraid. The answers they find there aren’t always perfect, but they’re a start.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.