[Roth’s novels] were also paeans to masculine sexuality, which remains potent long after the ravages of the body have removed the ability to do anything about it.
That Shakespearean Rag’s review of Philip Roth’s The Humbling made me think of the notable old white guys whose work addresses the perceived injustice of the failing body with the active sex drive, whether through wish-fulfilling narrative fantasy or cruel mockery, and contrast them with the fewer instances of older female writers exploring the same situation.
Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins looks at (among many other things) the fading sexuality of an older women who cannot enjoy the present without a painful awareness of her own age and future asexuality. Diana Athill’s latest biography, Somewhere Towards the End, deliberately takes a rather sensible and unapologetic view about her own independent sexuality, its final flowering (if you will pardon the phrase) and its ultimate and total disappearance.
Which is crueler? The male body that, once developed (over, on average, eight gawky and masturbation-filled years), never loses its sexuality and urges, only weakens their potency and lessens their frequency, or the female body, that enters fecundity in a maelstrom of hormones (the rapid four years of sudden breasts and awareness of the lunar calendar), whose development is quicker but whose peak is later, and who later returns to the asexuality of youth, but for the memory of experience, after another short and unpleasant hormonal battle?
Ultimately, the desire is for the same thing – the possession of the young body. I was going to say the young female body, but one must except the homosexual men in this case. However old the male body becomes, it is still capable of arousal, still, then, susceptible to the attractions of the young and nubile. The female body, on the other hand, has a greater disconnection between the mind and body. While the mind may crave or pine or what have you, the body cannot respond.
One sex has an ever-responsive libido (however incapable of action the rest of the corpus might be), and the other with a body that returns to the disinterest of childhood, without the curiosity.
Of course, the medical community has found ways to work around this – with the male, rendering him capable of performance, and with the female, producing a steady dose of hormones that stave off the rapid aging that comes with the stoppage of natural hormone production.
One could ask why aren’t we all on the same timeline, and be met with the biological determinists who would point out that the male body producing viable sperm until death is more likely to succeed genetically, whereas the female body, who, with age, is less and less capable of enduring pregnancy and childbirth, is better off without the strain after a certain point.
But I want to know which is better or worse – or if we must simply shrug our shoulders and label it different. On the one hand, one always has hope, and on the other, one has a kind of freedom, but a freedom that entails exclusion.
With the literary evidence mentioned, I have to say it is the women who seem the most calm and accepting, whereas the men seem to be in the grip of an epic tragedy which involves a significant amount of embarrassment. And yet, what is there but acceptance when hope is gone?