Home / Gettin’ Busy: A Look at Adultery in Fiction

Gettin’ Busy: A Look at Adultery in Fiction

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It seems to me that under the right circumstances, it is possible to fall in lust, love, or attraction with almost anyone. That in some ways, attraction, love, infatuation, crushes, anything having to do with a sexual tension between two people, is possible if you follow the right recipe. There are, of course, many recipes that will bring two people together, a particular combination of situational, emotional, and other factors that come in to play in a particular situation. But it’s important to understand that, under the ‘right’ circumstances, all of us are vulnerable, and love or lust may come along when least expected (or least welcome), and take us away from our ordinary life and its commitments and promises. I think relatively few people actually set out to betray their spouse or lover or significant other, though certainly some do.

I have read many accounts of adultery, affairs of the heart that remain emotional and of physical affairs. I have read that emotional affairs can be just as damaging, if not more damaging, than physical affairs, perhaps because they so obviously must have more emotional content to keep them going – that’s the contract.

Louise DeSavlo in her book Adultery theorized that people are often ripe for adultery just after they have read about adultery. No one would be too surprised to learn that people are more likely to have affairs after reading Madame Bovary or D. H. Lawrence or Henry Miller or his lover, Anais Nin, or a whole host of other writers. These are the books that leave us panting. They make affairs, in all their pain and glory, seem worth it, for the characters all seem to be living their lives more fully than we are. Compared to Miller’s characters, who are we, with our ordinary jobs and our ordinary spouses? Suddenly, everything around us seems more drab, too domestic, and that person at the office who, ordinarily, you would not have looked at twice, looks quite appetizing.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating for a ban on any books that tell of adulterous romance. And maybe this is dangerous territory because there are those who say that pornography leads to rape, and in some ways they’re right (it’s a fact that the awful, horrific rape camps in Bosnia where women were raped multiple times and filmed and photographed against their will, that on the walls the “guards” (read: asshole rapists) had pages of Penthouse and Playboy and Hustler . They used these pictures as a kind of blue-print and took turns posing the women the way the girls in the magazine appeared, and copying simulated gang rapes they had seen in other hard core porn. I’d like to think that those women in the magazines anyway were being paid. The women (and by women I include girls as young as nine) in the rape camps were far from liberated – they were prisoners, they were raped again and again and again, they were filmed, photographed, humiliated, impregnated, and on and on. So, it would certainly seem that in that case anyway, there was a direct link between the rape of those women and what the guards saw in magazines. I doubt that most people who are purveyors of porn would do such a thing, but one can’t get around the fact that in this case, there was a direct link. I don’t blame the porn. I blame the rapists themselves. Let me say that very clearly. But I digress…

DeSalvo theorizes that men are often tempted by Ian Fleming’s books – if they can’t really be 007 and live the life of a secret agent, they can certainly have an affair and pretend to be James Bond, with fantasies of women all around them whispering, “James, it’s too risky!!” in husky voices.. In the very least, they can have a torrid afternoon and sneak about and all of this has a certain atmosphere that is very alluring, enticing. I remember being a kid and seeing The Spy Who Loved Me and I confess, it was the first time I that I really had any idea about what sex was… or rather, the whole thing and atmosphere that surround it. Say what you will, but it’s true. It wasn’t the only thing, but it was a start.

This isn’t to say that any of these books can force you to have an affair. It is absurd to claim, “The book made me do it,” though there are people who have claimed such and will continue to. We’ve all read books of torrid affairs, read the Scarlet Letter and Sons and Lovers in high school and I doubt that it drove most readers to a sexual relationship, let alone an adulterous sexual relationship. Even reading Henry Miller, while interesting to read, if anything to me, is a turn off; all that sticky, difficult emotional crap, all that desperation and heartbreak.

Monica Lewinsky sent Bill Clinton a copy of Vox before they began their affair, but we can not know that he ever read it or that it had any direct bearing on his actions, but can any of us doubt the message contained in the simple gesture of sending him the book in the first place? It, in the very least, set a tone.

At least he was out in the open about it, which I suppose is more ‘French,’ though perhaps that’s a stereotype, but it seems to be generally true that the French are more accepting of affairs. They may not broadcast them. They may be more discreet, but in France, flirting and carrying on and sexual banter are a way of being that is perfectly acceptable. The thing about that is that it’s understood by both parties: both husbands and wives often have long-term affairs, and while they don’t necessarily sit down and discuss the minutae and the rule is to be discreet out of respect for one’s spouse, it is not a clandestine thing full of lies and deceit. I saw much the same thing in my own family in England and I can respect that – in accepting each other in this way, one forges a different kind of fidelity.

As a general rule, my husband and I read each other’s work, since we are both writers and editors and no one can edit their own work; he trusts me and I trust him in this regard. We can be perfectly professional and removed when it comes to our writing. I can say that in almost every book he has translated from the French, there is an affair of some kind going on. It may not be adultery, per se. It may be during a separation when the man is heartbroken and hires a pretty young cleaning woman (innocent enough) and yet somehow blunders into bed with her anyway. It may be a French detective novel, but you can bet that the art-dealer with the secret or the spy who is watching the art dealer with the secret will soon go home or to a hotel and somehow, through various plot and subplot manipulations, someone is fucking someone else and they shouldn’t be. Or they’re fucking lots of people, none of whom know of the others. The point is (and this is a point DeSalvo makes too) is that reading about affairs or writing about them, is dangerous. Does he sometimes, as he works, think of how dull his life is compared to the character’s he translates? I would imagine so, but on the whole, I believe that our very real love is a helluva lot more exciting than any spy novel – French or not.

Sometimes, we get so caught up in our subjects, in books we read, or if we are writers or editors or publishers, books we will print and publish, that we can not just leave them at work. The atmosphere of the book stays with us. This has happened to everyone, I think. It may not have led us all to an affair, but some books are so affecting that we are sorry when they end. We want more. Sometimes the atmosphere clings to us, follows us home and we don’t want to break the spell. So far, I don’t see that translating such books or reading them has affected either of us in such a way that we’ve gone off and had an affair, but knowing what I do know, it will always be in the back of my mind. Expose yourself to such stories long enough, and they become appealing. By contrast, your life seems dull and boring. Why should fictitious characters get to do all the fucking and feel that blood running fast and quick and rich. Ideally, one you’re in love enough that you need no motivation other than the site of your beloved. I can tell you for a fact that simply being with my husband is enough- no other material required. Amen.

Hell, Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair is so deeply erotic and sensual (and all without going too far and being overly explicit), that even though there’s all the good stuff – death and heartbreak – at the end, one wishes to have an affair just to know what it is to live life to have just a few moments like those of Sarah and Bendricks in the sweet little hotel room in the middle of the afternoon on a grey, English day, the sounds of the city unfolding all around them while they fuck and then lay there warm and pink and raw from too much love-making, it just looks sexy. I’m not sure it’s worth the price, in the final account, but to say it doesn’t make your heart race a little faster would be disingenuous.

I suppose the point in all of these books, like Madame Bovary, Crazy Cock, The End of the Affair and countless others is that who we desire is not a choice. We are drawn to whomever, despite prior commitments and promises, at the most inappropriate, inconvenient moments. This happens every day, somewhere, to someone, when they least expect it. One day, you are in love, you are happy, or think you are, then one day, your world changes and not always for the better. In life as in literature, someone always gets hurt. At least one person. In real life, usually everybody gets hurt. As they say in Unfaithful “Affairs always end disastrously.”

For the cheater, the flirt, the adulterer, the one at the office who skirts the edges, it’s all fun and games in the beginning. There’s a little spark that makes our otherwise mind-numbing job worth going to. We tell ourselves, It’s not big deal. We tell our spouse (later) that No, I didn-t think of ___. That S/he never really occupied any of our mental space, but that’s simply not true. The only thing that makes the whole sordid business of lying and sneaking around for months worth it at all is that you do think about it and you do act on it, and in doing so, you get some form of relief from whatever the hell it is you’re trying to escape. What chance does your primary relationship have if you are putting all of that sexual and romantic energy elsewhere? Bleeding it dry…

It’s just stupid to say things like, “I never thought of her,” or “Only when she was in front of me.” Are we really so dumb that I don’t notice that now, our boyfriend has taken to shaving his chest hair, wearing different cologne, caring more about his clothes, just the way he looks generally, and these changes were quick, not a process. That he suddenly has more meetings and was impatient in the evenings and seemed to greet Mondays with almost glee because it meant going back to work, which meant going back to whatever or whoever it was at work that made him feel so much better, lighter, freer. I can’t tell you what exactly it is any given person feels, but to say nothing at all, to simply write it off as “insignificant” is yet another deception, and at that point, then you’re just layering deceptions.

Ah, you say, but it seems so easy in books and in film. So romantic and like noone will ever get hurt. Recently, I saw and read a book called The Monogamy Myth, and true to its title, it tells us that we are not naturally monogamous. I’m not even sure what that means. I mean, I know of several species of animals that are naturally monogamous, including the Arctic gull, certain species of duck, penguins, from what I’ve heard lobster (yes, lobster… apparently they mate for life, until one of them gets eaten or something. In fact, lobster are so highly evolved in some ways that when the parents go out foraging for food, they even leave their little baby lobsterettes with other lobster familys to baby-sit. I shit you not…total non-sequitor, i know.)

And anyone who knows anything knows that it’s not about the fucking, it’s about the lying. It’s the lying that hurts the most, and the incredibly demeaning way in which you’re suddenly treated, as if you turned into some really naive kid over night who wouldn’t recognize the signs of an affair – that you’d just buy some b.s. story lock, stock and barrel. That even though you saw a number on your boyfriend’s cell phone bill and he said it was a wrong number and you point out that he called the number back, that he really expects you to believe it was to “inform the caller that they had made a mistake and dialed incorrectly.” Does anyone, anywhere believe that crap? Or am I just typically cynical, as my Gen X status would mark me, and this is all symbolic of rien, nada,- nothing.

I don’t believe that any of us can really say a book made me do it, or a film made me do it. But what I do believe is that these things give us ideas. That two people with the same idea contrive seemingly accidental moments in which they run into each other that will be intimate by design. That she or he would just “happen to be there” and Lo! They are alone.

It’s not long before she’s telling him of her trip to Europe. How she went there for two weeks to paint. I can almost hear her talk about it. She’s going through a divorce, she’s suddenly free, and just cruising around Europe without any of the constraints that he feels. Never mind that touring around Italy and taking a painting class and setting up your little easel that you bought at the craft store and your beginner’s oil paints– it’s such a cliche, it sounds like freedom to someone who perhaps perceives themself as hemmed in by responsibility, perhaps, but it’s still bullshit.

The truth is, I wouldn’t mind pissing off to Europe by myself like I used to. Renting my little Vespa scooter in Greece and touring around Myconos. I don’t need a lover to do that, I’d rather go with my husband, and more, despite the many books i’ve read and loved that have dealt with adultery, I am not moved to have an affair. So then despite DeSalvo’s theory that reading about it gives us ideas, which I don’t dispute, I can say that it really only succeeds if you are open to it in the first place. It’s like the whole thing with guns: guns are dangerous, to say the least, but only in the hands of someone who is violent in the first place. Yes, people get hurt by accident, and that right there may be an argument against because so many children die every year from finding guys and “playing.” But that’s a whole other article… Back to books.

Monica Lewinsky, knew how to set a good stage, how to prime the ground, that she sent Clinton Vox was a rather genius move. If he didn’t respond, hey, she was just sharing a good book, and if he did respond, well, now he knows what she’s into and how she gets her freak on.

Understand that this is not entirely arbitrary. There must be certain circumstances, as I said.. If the weather is right, if the right song is playing or if you heard the right song on your car radio that morning and it’s stuck in your head, if the lighting is right, and if the weather is one of those moody days, then it is possible to find almost anyone attractive. It’s about environment and it’s about timing.

But like so many people; if you feel the slightest dissatisfaction in your life, with yourself or with your partner, if you feel a lack, then you the ground is rife for someone else to make an entry, for an affair (of the mind or the body) to begin. And if someone comes along and pays the right kind of attention to you, the kind you’ve been craving but didn’t even know you were craving it, then you may find yourself like Alice, falling down the rabbit hole and landing squarely in Wonderland.

They talk, they stand just a little too close, laugh just a little too loud, as Bonnie Raitt sings. I imagine others were streaming out of the room as the meeting adjourned. That he stood with her, shook her hand, stood a little closer than he should have, and that there was an instant attraction between the two of them. She smiled a little too much and so did he, and both wanted to show off how clever they were, so they flirted over whatever passes for foreplay in The White House. He’s thinking, ‘Another time, another place.’ You know how the story goes. He also says he knew as he thought this that ‘this woman’ was in no way better than his wife. Not smarter, not better looking, nothing, and that this confused him because he was ‘viscerally’ attracted to her nonetheless.

All this stuff about how she is not better than Hilary etc. etc, is really silly. First, I doubt he really thought of his wife at all in that moment, and if he did, it was only as a negative force; his needy and nagging and draining and exhausting wife. But even that is too much; that would require some recognition of the fact that he was married and had made vows, and since that would be inconvenient, I think for the most part, that was dropped.

The only way in which the wife or husband factor into the equation at all, is that they arem, in a sense, the motor behind some of this (though not all. Something to be gotten away from. Suddenly you’re not so sure; about all you thought you knew. The idea of sleeping with only one person for the rest of your life, maybe rightfully, quite terrifying. Your days of kicking up your heels and knocking a few back and banging boots with other women are over and this is not exactly what he thought he signed up for.

After Ms. Lewinsky hands over Vox and looks coy in her Gap blue dress (the one that would hold the tell-tale stain a few months later) I imagine Clinton had a bit of a pep in his step for the rest of the day. His feelings may not have been the stuff of Romeo and Juliette, but he felt an attraction nonetheless and he engaged in that attraction by flirting.

Think about it: do you think of fucking people you flirt with? Maybe once in a while, but odds are, you flirt without meaning. Some flirt on another level: in their head, they’re already processing whether or not they could get this person into bed. Could I kiss him/her? How far would s/he let me go before s/he said, Stop. The game is this: if I wanted to, could I? And perhaps we all need this to some extent – to know that our stock is still high.

And though we do this for “validation,” perhaps we fail to realize just how meaningless this is – it’s not hard to get people into bed and basically, just because you can get someone to fuck you doesn’t mean you are a good person or a great lover. Bad lovers get laid, ugly people get laid, losers get laid, murderers, unexceptional people of all stripes get laid. Getting someone into bed just for sake of knowing you can, validates only that. You can. Wow.

Do not confuse this with your real worth as a person. It does not mean that s/he thinks you a good person, or even a good fuck. In this kind of situation, what it most often means is that they are just as bored and fucked up as you, so this is how they seek validation, failing all the while to see that there’s really nothing validating about it.

Why does a man think that because a woman fucks him that there’s some some huge symbolic importance attached to the whole thing. We can fuck men we don’t particularly find attractive – most of us have at some point in our life. And yes, even women can fuck men just for that validation (which as I said, means nothing), so you have a two people who are both too needy, too narcissistic to really care about the person anyway, and all they want to know is how far can I go, and then they attach this ridiculous meaning to it. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes, just because we say OK, doesn’t mean we think you’re so much better, or such a great lay, or any of the stuff that I know so many attaches to this. There are those who figure if they can make a woman have an orgasm and make little cooing sounds that they’re talented. And maybe they are, but believe me, there’s not necessarily any great meaning behind it. There should be – ideally – and sometimes there is. But never think that women aren’t capable of the same perfidy as men. We are, we’re usually just a little more quiet about it (boy, have I blown the lid off that. )

Ultimately, how you feel about yourself has to come from you, and while it’s normal to be affected by people you love – their opinion of you will count, which is normal – but some person you really don’t know but are just flirting with or fucking, how can you allow them to define you in any way, small or large. When you get down to it, this is basically someone you don’t know and a person with whom you’re acting out a totally neurotic need, and who, in turn, is likely acting out her neurotic needs, and neither of you really is looking at the other person. You’re seeing what you want to see. You’re looking for reaction, and in his reaction, you search for a mirror image of you; how you look in their eyes.

Most divorces are acrimonious. They are lovers torn asunder, burning with revenge and resentment. That we overcome these things, that we and our ex-spouses are all four friends is a good thing. When my husband’s ex-wife had cancer, I tried to be a friend, bought silly gifts, flowers, and rang her after every treatment – because in some way, I actually love her. She is part of my family and has been there for several major crises in my life and I hers. When you survive infidelity, divorce, cancer, and when a child is involved, you have the choice to be better than you are. To transcend your ego and reach out to others who are hurting. To me, this is true heroism.

We are all connected, part of a greater whole, part of what Emerson would have called, the cosmic umbrella, or in Taosim just Tao. There is an essence that connects us all, and we all too often lose that thread. That my husband’s ex-wife and I can be friends is almost miraculous, because, after all, I was her husband’s lover and I was part of something that I truly hate. She had every reason to hate me, and she did. And I don’t blame her, because I hate me then. I know I would never do that again, but still, I did it – and this is something of which I am still ashamed. But cancer is the great equalizer and when we both heard the news, I knew what she felt. She too was diagnosed with cancer wiped everything else off the board. And I could relate to her perhaps the way that only another person with cancer can. We became part of a club we didn’t want to belong to. Through all of the emotional and physical pain we both endured, we became sisters united. The past paled in comparison to this. What mattered was this day, was now, and how we treat one another in this moment. No promises for the future, act now.

There’s a song, “Central Reservation” and part of the lyrics read, “and today is whatever I want it to mean.” And I love that sentiment. What does this day, this writing mean. It means I do not save expensive perfume for special occasions, it means using the good silver every day. So yesterday, when Ian and I lived in the moment and hung around his new home in Charlestown, when he napped on the bed and I sat beside him watching a video of The Clash and the London race riots of the seventies (and I was there and remember them well), we lived in that moment. Just co-existing was okay, even good. And at 4pm, the starlings, like clockwork, began to chirp and the cat stretched in the sun, and we accepted that I have cancer and an autoimmune disease it was okay.

There is nothing about that day that I would change, which sounds odd because one would think I would want the cancer to be gone – that that wasn’t part of it – but I have to admit, that it has forced me to grow, change in unexpected ways, see the good that is all around me. And that sounds corny, but I don’t care because I believe it is the small things that are profound.

So, dear reader, read all the books about affairs and hearts breaking and quaking and trembling and legs quivering in a post-orgasmic shiver, just don’t take it all too seriously. Remember, it’s fiction, and you’re more than a bad character in a novel. My advice: read Letters to a Young Wife from an Old Mistress. Get the best of both worlds, and then get on with your life with the one you love, and forget about just loving the one you happen to be with. The real thing is probably waiting right at home, with a warm kiss and a deeper knowledge of what you need. Leave the hurting to characters in books, and keep the love and the lust in a safe, warm place and never let go.

Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

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About Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

  • sadi

    not sure what those symbols in there are. not in the original. anyone know what could be causing those? durrr!!


  • They’re caused by a mismatch in character sets, which is in turn caused by MTAmazon’s insistence on a certain character set. That’s the technical cause, anyway.

    TO avoid them, you’ll need to eschew the use of “Smart Quotes” and other typographical niceties in your composing tool, which I’m guessing is MSWord.

  • Sadi, it is possible to do just about anyone, I suppose. I could probably seduce Andrew Sullivan, though I have no desire to. (His political views are atrocious.) But, I doubt the falling in love part.

    I’m sorry to see the awful ‘A’ formatting problem is back. We had it licked for a while.

  • Eric Olsen

    A seductive and dangerous contemplation that ends well – ultimately it comes down to priorities and a profound connection vs. titilation and nonsense. Very brave and honest, and the conclusion – with which I heartily agree – is the more satisfying for having gone through the journey to get there.

    I fixed the “A” erors bu tthe thought of going back and fixing all the posts that have been published since the “A”s disappeared is just too depressing to even consider. We’ve got to figure it out and get it fixed globally again.

  • I will go back and read this post later because it seems like an interesting intellectual diversion from the usual crap, but I just wanted to add the following comment:

    No one on this site has the capacity to do anyone (much less everyone). I mean, let’s be real. If you did, you wouldn’t write on the Net so much. I can just tell that’s not one of your respective skills, collectively. We’ll play nice and call it sublimation or something, ok? Hell, maybe you could do each other? Somehow, I think MacDiva would be more likely to turn someone to the other team than convert anyone.

    Sadi — I will find the time to look over your recent posts and determine whether you are very crazy or very bright. Either way, you’re different from the other writers on this site, which is good.

    Toodles, poodles.

  • Shark

    hmmmm… should I try to finish my annotated edition of Ulysses — or finish this trite, trivial, rambling, mindless piece of fluff?

    Or better yet, would I prefer to drink hot bleach — or maybe have my fingernails removed with a melon baller?

    Life on BC is full of tough choices.

    PS: I got far enough to learn that her husband is an “editor” who usually reads her work. Apparently, he was “working late” the night she cranked out this Opra-fied version of “On The Road”.

    Maybe a Cosmopolitan Quiz should have accompanied it:

    “Are You a Flirt — or an Adulterer?”

  • Shark

    Oh, by the way:

    For those who were lured to this illicit meeting by the title — and went away with a sense of frustration and an appointment with a cold shower, I recommend Lawrence Durrell’s “The Alexandria Quartet” as the best fiction ever written on the subject of love, adultery, and the human mind.

  • sadi

    Durrell is indeed a great writer. no question about it. thanks for comments -didn’t seem like something oprah would do to me, but then, i don’t watch it so wouldn’t know. alas…. as for very bright or very crazy, i hadn’t heard that they were mutually exclusive. when did that happen? glad that you’re reading though and thx. for all comments. always appreciated. controversy and free-exchange keeps the world a turnin’ folks.



  • Hannah Plunkett

    I clicked on this link because the title intrigued me—I thought, perhaps, the author might have something interesting to say about the ways in which adultery can be written/represented in fiction.

    What I get, instead, is a sort of fluffy, Ask-Aunt-Mamie read that does nothing but assume, I suppose, that all readers are playing some sort of elaborate game of Simon-Says, touching finger to nose, jumping when the book says jump. Perhaps the problem is that the author has not read enough. Not nearly, nearly enough.

    There’s Paragraph 4, where the author goes off-topic to assert that there is a causal connection between pornography and rape because she knows that, at the rape camps in Bosnia, there were pornography photos on the walls. I can’t think of anything more dismissive and historically inaccurate than to imply that those horrible rapes were just rotten men acting out pornography scenes. Soldiers have been raping women, as part of their campaigns, for thousands of years, long before, I assure you, any of them could have been carrying a pocket-sized Hustler around with them. Military methods that use rape as a tool of fear and humiliation “lead” to rape. Mental illness “leads” to rape. Long-term isolation and reprogramming of social norms in soldiers “leads” to rape (we’ve seen this recently ourselves!) Cultures that essentialize women as weaker, purely reproductive/sexual bodies “lead” to rape. The author’s argument is a significant post-hoc/joint-effect causal fallacy.

    Then there’s the author vacillating wildly between implying that she realizes that just reading about an affair doesn’t make someone necessarily HAVE an affair…and then implying, that yes, actually, it’s entirely possible that it does. I wonder. I’ve read a number of books featuring school teachers, but I’ve no desire to be a school teacher. My favorite novel, which I hate to put down, each time, stars a drug-obsessed college student and yet, somehow, I’ve resisted the urge to either become an opium addict, or return to undergraduate studies. My husband reads a lot of science fiction, but so far, he hasn’t tried to build a spaceship, nor does he think that he possesses magical powers. We are exposed to hundreds of stimulating scenes and words every day, that we do not “give ourselves up to.” In spite of the constant appreciation of/for lithe, athletic bodies (at the supermarket register, on television, in literature, in bars, at work, at school, etc), people still gain weight and buy chocolate ice cream.

    But let’s say, for a mind-boggling second (and please, bear with me, I know it’s hard) that we agree that literature DOES have the power to “seed” affairs. Let’s really LOOK at the message that literature sends.

    Madame Bovary is hardly about the garden-of-delights that bursts of adulterous passion may afford. Rather, it’s about the studied self-destruction of a woman confined by her era, by custom, by culture, to a stoic, colorless life that she cannot desire. Her meaningless, disastrous affairs, are merely one of a multitude of brilliant neon warning sign that the literary world provides us with—calculating the whims of human nature, of passion, the fickle heart. Indeed, Flaubert takes it one step further, by showing Emma as deluded by her novels, using them in a sort of mad search for ecstasy. Flaubert is mocking readers just like the author of this essay—who are easily besotted by the affects of novels, who think, for a moment, that these should supplant real feeling, real decisions, or that a novel is anything more than an excuse, or cover, for feelings and desires that already exist.

    In Crazy Cock, Henry Miller’s exposition of his painfully erratic relationship with his second wife, June, can hardly be seen as urging others to experience the jealousy and suffering that affairs can cause (although, of course, his focus on the pull of love and desire are more positive/engaging.)

    Graham Greene’s End of the Affair isn’t about the delights of random, extramarital sexual encounters. It’s a meditation on jealousy and suspicion, about the dark, clutching, possessive power of love…its consuming, and often vicious, hunger. It’s about an incapability to express or fathom love, and how one can become a mere shadow of self, firmly in the clutches of a hunger FOR passion, for love. If what one is pleased by, if what one is excited by, in this book, is a sex scene or two…then they are not only a terrible, terrible reader, but they were probably LOOKING actively, for that particular meaning/diversion in the text to begin with.

    What we have is a case of self-selection. If I, as a person, find myself reading and attracted to reading, a lot of literature featuring hot passionate affairs, it should be a signal to me that there was something missing in my life or my imagination, some aspect of my desire that was not being fulfilled, some passion that I would like to experience, if only by reading about it.

    Because each of these examples, weirdly, seems to be about the incalculable effects of human desire. In none of these selections does the choice, as the author of this article argues, “seem so easy…so romantic and like noone will ever get hurt.”

    I’m sure there ARE books that applaud the wild and sexy world of the affair, but it ain’t those books up there…so I don’t know what Ranson-Polizzotti was thinking when she chose to argue that one should temper one’s feelings about adultery after reading said novels. I think we’d all be in a pretty good place if we TOOK those authors’ feelings about adultery to heart.

    The rest of the article is mindless, new-agey, bad-self-help-book meandering that is of absolutely no literary value. Much surprised to see such bunk posted here.

  • Eric Olsen

    Hannah, The essence of what I picked up from this is that art can be powerful and seductive and that we should be on guard, or at least aware of this, and not find ourselves acting out art in real life without due consideration. I found the logical thread here serpentine but internally consistent, much like the human brain when properly functioning.

  • Shark

    Hannah, nice work. You wrote what many of us were expecting to read when we saw the title of this entry.

    (Maybe a distinction should be made between adultery in ‘literature’ and adultery in romance novels??)

    Anyway, thanks again for doing a quickie on a few classics from the literary category.

    PS: I would have done more on ‘Alexandria Quartet’, but it would taken years — and probably ended up being a blasphemy.

  • Hannah, my mentor Richard Ford writes about adultery in his short stories and novels often and well. (Sometimes, I think too often.) If you are looking for a contemporary writer who captures the complexities and contraditions of that behavior, I highly recommend A Multitude of Sins and Women with Men.

    In regard to classics, my favorite book about adultery has long been Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady. He gets the psychology of the characters so right.

    Sadi, when I edit anything, from news stories to legal briefs to manuscripts, I am known for being merciless. So, with that in mind, you could have said what you are saying here in a more concise way. Doing so will often make one think more clearly about the message, which would may have prevented the failure to make coherent claims Hannah is concerned about.

  • srp

    thx. for all comments. right off, i don’t know that there’s a need to insult the breadth of what i’ve read (or for that matter, the many books i’ve published as an editorial director — maybe you’d put Margerite Duras as “fluff” too. regardless, the point that was made was taken from another book, which i stated clearly, which is Adultery by Louise DeSalvo – and when i read her comments, it actually made me wonder. As for rape camps, you need not lecture me on that either as i’ve written a great deal on rape on pornography and know all too well what rape is about. do i blame hustler? absolutely not. and yes, i know what rape is “really” about — but gee, thanks for the education, shucks.

    don’t presume to know what i’ve read, anymore than i would presume to know what you’ve read. disagree – fine. but you’re not even disagreeing with me. you’re disagrement is really with another book, as noted above. I took the basic premise and explored that – and to me, that’s what it means to really consider a topic; and you’ll note, i also said that a book can’t make you do it, any more than a gun can force you to commit a murder unless you had that intent (and intent is the operative word here). The examples were merely as people have used books to set a certain stage – and that much, i stand by. is it something i do? no. and as for the “books on teaching” you’ve read etc etc., that’s taking a point to an extreme and again, not at all what i said.

    fine to disagree, but at least be clear about what it is that i’m saying inthe first place. if that’s unclear,then fine. then that’s my failing, though it seems that others got something out of it, and at the end of the day, i think they’re looking at the piece in an entirely different way- not as literal-minded perhaps. in any event, disgree all you want, but there’s no need to be so hostile, presumptive about who i am and what i do (because you don’t know) or what i’ve read or how much.

    my god,you might even be wrong. again, disagree all you want, but at least be clear about what you’re disagreeing with. the final point is that no book can make anyone do anything – and that, love, is an argument against DeSalvo’s point – that books can make you commit adultery. Can they set the stage – sure. but only for those who are willing.

    Sorry you felt the need to be so hostile about it all, though. that’s really uncalled for.

    and thanks, Eric, for reiterating what it was i really WAS saying. Appreciated.


  • Shark

    Sadi, I think the “hostility” comes from crawling through your version of “War & Peace” and coming out empty-handed.

    Time is precious, and frankly, I’ve read better essays from Junior High kids.

    BTW: regardless of your own opinion of yourself, you do need some help with:

    * brevity
    * clarity of thought (isolating your essential POINT!)
    * editing (rambling)

    –which, btw, are all related.

    Just tryin’ to be helpful,
    Simon C.

    PS: Best of luck in the future.

  • srp

    thanks so much. i’ll try and learn from you, and for that i am truly grateful, but i think the hostility pre-dates me.

    and thanks for the good wishes. they seem to be already working – too many good things to list, apart from the cancer part, which truly blows, but over all, i’d say i’m doing pretty well. but thanks again, and take good care of yourself.

  • srp

    “This isn’t to say that any of these books can force you to have an affair. It is absurd to claim, “The book made me do it,” though there are people who have claimed such and will continue to. We’ve all read books of torrid affairs, read the Scarlet Letter and Sons and Lovers in high school and I doubt that it drove most readers to a sexual relationship, let alone an adulterous sexual relationship.”

  • Eric Olsen

    I, too, am astonished by the hostility generated by this post, which is full of interesting ideas and writing, and is, at absolute worst, somewhat serpentine in its unfolding. I just don’t get it – this is on a higher level than 90% of our posts, and perhaps that is where the “problem” lies.

  • gees, i thought this was pretty danged interesting.

    some of y’all been drinking too much coffee or something.

  • (Scratching head.) I don’t believe I’ve been hostile to Sadi at all. I said the piece would be better if it were more concise and she expressed her claims with more clarity. Both are accurate. Most good writers get past thinking ‘my every word is manna from Heaven,’ relatively early. I’m surprised she hasn’t done so.

  • Eric Olsen

    MD, I don’t think any of the comments about hostility were directed at you.

  • Perhaps the more interesting question is whether porn or erotic material can serve as a substitute outlet for the titillation and excitement that one might feel from an extramarital affair. Or whether “sanctioned infidelity” (swinging, orgies) can satisfy the need for the new, the flattering, the exciting (and whether the violation of marital boundaries only results in greater injury to the spouse). A new porn sites allows one person to screw a porn star while the loving spouse looks on. It is somewhat dehumanizing, but on the other hand, it’s a way to get one’s rocks off. Can people in committed relationships benefit from this demystifying of physical intimacy?

    I don’t mean to inject morality into all this, but I’ve always lived by this one principle: passion must not cause pain. Maybe I am just risk-adverse, but I can’t afford to take any chances on friendship or romance. If a gesture or erotic act prevents this friendship/love from enduring to the end of my life, I shirk from it totally (though I may dwell on it in the caverns of the erotic imagination).

  • then we are pretty much in agreement RJ on this one. I think as long as a thing is not kept secret and is not a betrayal there are many erotic avenues to be pursued between simply TWO people in a committed relationship. That’s my own point of view but so far, it works for me. If something else works for someone else, then fine, as long as it’s above board and noone gets hurt; i can’t tolerate the justifications that in the end, are used to support a lie; if it were really okay, the offending partner would come home and announce whatever because it is so “okay” and “not a problem.” the fact that they don’t that they often sneak and lie etc. etc is all that needs to be said on the subject. if someone does nothave the courage of his or her convictions, then my feeling is, don’t waste any more of my fucking time. i’m tired of excuses and frankly, if whatever – a piece of warm meat in a microwave is wanted over me – then so be it. go for it, but just don’t tell me that you did it and thought it was okay and that’s why you lied.

    that insults my intelligence abnd that pisses me off. one cannot make an informed decision without all of the information – duh. and when someone lies to you about an infidelity they take away your AUTONOMY and then cry baby about their autonomy (my favorite argument of all). It’s all crap, and if they don’t know it, i do and it sounds like you do too.

    You know where i stand on this; i’ve been on both sides and i know whereof i speak. in the end, any of this stuff is a profound waste of time and god knows, i’ve wasted enough time on it. i write about it to help others or to connect in some way, but that’s it. as for personally, it’s not a thing i will ever tolerate in my life ever again — it’s just that simple. no promises, no threats, just no and no and no and no.



  • You’re absolutely right; it’s the lying and the feelings of betrayal that hurt the most (and that is very hard to repair). A certain amount of self-delusion exists in every relationship, and it can be hard to be open about one’s weakness and admit that one’s love for another is less than perfect.

    Thanks for this provocative essay.