Fifty Shades of Grey (Review)

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I just finished the Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy, a long Romance novel. It stands apart from other works in that genre by the nature of the erotic dimension of the.

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY (Review) I just finished the Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy, a long Romance novel. It stands apart from other works in that genre by the nature of the erotic dimension of the relationship between the main characters. The man has a predilection for BDSM. He enjoys sexual games that involve tying his women up and subjecting them to corporal punishment. Anastasia, his latest conquest, feels ambivalent about that treatment. For one thing, it can hurt. For another, her lover's desire to inflict pain on her and his enjoyment of her suffering put her off. They suggest to her that something is badly wrong with his sensibility, or at least his sexuality. The story is mostly about how Anastasia and Christian negotiate their way out of this predicament. They feel compelled to do so because they love each other. With her help, he gradually becomes more normal in his desires and pleasures. Through his inspiration, she becomes progressively more adventurous in hers. They end up happily married. Virtually all the possible reasons for liking, or for disliking, this book are cited multiple times in the 18,000+ reader reviews of it on Amazon. The reviewers appear to be mostly women. Those who like the book – the majority – say they enjoy the story, the emotional realism of the author's portrayal of Ana, and the engaging depictions of sex. Those who dislike it complain of bad or repetitive writing, of the lack of realism, and, well, of the depictions of sex. Those depictions strike those reviewers as either boring or as over the top in their deviancy. I did not read all 18,000 reviews, but I did roughly 100 of them (50 of the fivestars and fifty of the 1-stars) – enough to get the picture. As I read the book, some of the criticisms struck me as apt. The writing is indeed repetitive, sometimes to the point where noticing that got in the way of my enjoyment of the story. But the ultimate test of good writing is whether the reader keeps reading. Apparently even the fiercest critics kept reading. So did I. As for the sex scenes, it is true as well that there are so many that they tend to blend into one another. By the time the reader reaches Anastasia's twenty-fifth impending orgasm, s/he may be forgiven for thinking that s/he has read this scene before, and then skipping it in the interest of keeping track of the story. I personally thought the complaints about deviancy, perversity, pornography, abusive relationships, etc., were somewhat overstated. In 1500+ pages, there is only one scene where the pain that Christian inflicts on Ana is intense. He hits her six times on the buttocks with a belt, and this, moreover, at her request. She wanted to test how much she could take. Apparently not quite that much, she

concludes. She then lets him know that if that is what he needs to be happy, their relationship ends there. He never hits her hard again. I found myself intrigued by the story and eager to see where the author would take it. That was true both in a straightforward sense and in a conceptual sense. The first requires no long explanation. Two people are attracted to each other. There are large obstacles to their getting together. Let's see how they manage – and how the author enables them – to overcome those obstacles. The second is a little more complicated. In the first book of the trilogy, the author tries to make BDSM comprehensible. I thought she failed in that effort because the story she tells about it struck me as implausible. In a nutshell, it comes down to the idea that under the right circumstances, pain can be pleasurable – pleasurable to inflict as well as to bear. Because I found that contention absurd on the face of it, I was interested in seeing how, and whether, the author could find a way out of the nonsense that she was serving up. I found the book ultimately disappointing because, to my mind, the author never did find a way to deliver the goods on that front. I came away understanding neither the aberrant initial dispositions of the male character nor the eventual partial receptivity of the female character to the charm of punishment games. In the story, Christian was badly abused as a small child – neglected, not fed, burned with cigarettes by his mother's pimp, and so on. Eventually adopted by caring people, he somehow overcomes the emotional damage done to him through a flight into BDSM. When he is fifteen, a female friend of his parents seduces him and introduces him to punishment games. Though that, too, is a kind of abuse, the experience turns into his salvation. Reading that, I found myself wondering how that works. How does a man get from painful abuse in childhood to taking sexual pleasure in inflicting pain on women? The story offers the explanation that Christian enjoys beating women because he sees them as serial stand-ins for his mother. Each of them is an opportunity to punish his mother for what she did to him, or allowed others to do to him. That sounds vaguely plausible, except that it leaves totally opaque why this vengeful activity provides him with sexual pleasure. On a more modest scale of the same problem, it remains opaque what Ana gets out of being the recipient of Christian's peculiar ministrations. She enjoys being tied up. And provided that he does not hit her too hard, she also enjoys being beaten. It arouses her sexually. Well, how does that work? The issue is papered over in the story by the author's combining “discipline” with enjoyable sex. Every time Ana is “punished”, the transaction culminates in a sex scene so exquisite

that it takes her breath away. It may be true, as I have heard some women say, that a kiss tastes better after a slap. It is not on that account true that a slap – never mind a whipping – feels good. In other words, I expected the author to shed some (conceptual) light on sexual predilections that involve a connection between inflicting, or bearing, pain, on the one hand, and erotic pleasure, on the other. The connection apparently is real enough in some people's experience. Its explanation is another matter. In a book so tightly focused on this dimension of sexual experience, it makes some sense to expect a better explanation of it than that pain can be fun. Now it is not a conceptual mystery per se how pain might feel good. Like some pleasures – the taste of ice cream on your tongue, for instance, some pains are local. They are those about which it makes sense to ask where it hurts. But when you tell me that you enjoyed your walk in the woods, it makes no sense for me to ask where you enjoyed it. In the soles of your feet? Some pleasures are not local. Just so, some pains are not. This basic fact gives rise to the possibility of local pains being non-locally enjoyed, or local pleasures causing non-local distress. Sex that is physically gratifying, but emotionally distressing for some reason, may be an example of the latter. A beating, though locally distressing, but emotionally gratifying may be an example of the former. Add to this that the line between sensation and emotion is not inevitably that clear in experience, and it becomes conceivable that a gratifying emotion may mingle with painful sensations to the point where pain is no longer exactly pain, or at least not just pain. The question is what sort of emotion has the power to make possible that sort of phenomenological alchemy or feat. The book offers no answers, none either to the question how one might come to enjoy beating someone, which, on the face of it, seems like a disagreeable business. The reply that the beater overcomes his distaste for the exercise by recognizing it as the giving of pleasure leaves rather a lot be desired. Yet that appears to be the author's answer in the first book. I would have liked to see a more subtle one, at least as the story evolved. The only emotion that I can think of that might do the trick is passionate love conceived as a self-sacrifice that gives pleasure to another. Because A knows that B intensely enjoys whipping her, she subjects herself to it as a gift to B that she enjoys making. And precisely because this is not an easy gift to give, it is the more valuable and a commensurate demonstration of her love. To be fair, that too gets mentioned in the book. Christian wants Ana to consent

to suffer at his hands because her doing so gives him pleasure. Unfortunately, he does not seem to understand that such gifts cannot be extracted, nor that they loose their value if they are. He does not seem to understand either that they are not exactly everyday gifts. In addition, gifts that hard to give are equally hard to accept. A's gift puts B into a fix. If he accepts it and fully appreciates it for what it is, chances are that beating A will not be all that much fun. How beat someone who loves you that much and whom you cannot but love on account of her devotion to you? Do you make yourself beat her, as a way, so to speak, of living up to the transaction? Not likely! In other words, there has to be a thrill involved the nature of which is not reducible to the fact that you are being made the beneficiary of someone else's self-sacrificing generosity. That extra thrill is the pleasure B expects to derive from beating A in the first place. How understand that pleasure? With that question, we are back to wondering what makes Christian tick in the story. Why does he derive sexual pleasure from inflicting suffering on women? When he is not deluding himself with talk about how what he does to them does not really hurt, what is he up to? He wants to hurt Ana, but not to harm her. In fact, when he is not engaged in hurting her, he is absurdly solicitous of her wellbeing. Finally, it is not even true tout court that he wants to hurt her. He only wants to hurt her in a particular way, one that is focused on her erotic physicality. He is not interested in slapping her around, for example, or in giving her a black eye. So what precisely does he want? Venturing a guess, I'll say that it is the sight and sound of suffering that mimics the manifestations of sexual transport, at least up to a point. Assuming that is true, the next question is why he wants those manifestations in that inauthentic form when he can have the real thing? The answer, I suspect, is that he cannot have the real thing absent his own arousal, and that for him the primary road to that arousal leads through the sight and sound of her suffering. In other words (and at the risk of being too vivid), Ana will not respond to him appropriately unless he himself is sexually excited by her, and he can't get himself excited without making her suffer. He needs her to be excited first, or at least to look as though she were, in order to start his sexual engine. If that is true, then there is something wrong with the way the author portrays Christian's reactions to Ana under normal circumstances. She (the author) has him constantly aroused by the mere sight of Ana, chronically ithyphallic in her presence, so to speak. So perhaps I am wrong in my diagnosis of his problem. Or perhaps, despite the fact that she tells a good story, the author is confused about some things having to do with love and sex. Well, who isn't?

© Serge Kappler 2013