| Home | Interviews and Articles About Me and By Me | Audio and Video Files
How to Save Your Own Life
'Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life,' by Erica Jong
In the long annals of the Mini-Me, few have dogged their creators' footsteps or keystrokes with the relentless persistence of Isadora Wing.
Erica Jong's Jong-like character exploded American sexual consciousness when she hurtled into view in 1973 as the heroine of "Fear of Flying." She ripped open the inner world of women's erotic appetites and wounds, a world then terrifying both to men and to many feminists. Breezy, brainy, ironic, truth-telling, her heart boldly on her sleeve when she was wearing a sleeve Isadora catapulted her rather nerdy young poet-author to distinction among 20th-century American novelists. In the process, she permanently liberated the word "zip" from its confining monogamous marriage to "code."
And then she never went away.
Isadora Wing's shadow, a bit more amplitudinous after 33 years, falls across every page of Erica Jong's 20th book, the headlong, disheveled memoir and "fledgling" writer's instructional she has titled "Seducing the Demon." An honest accounting of a life lies half-smothered in these pages: a true fable of a writer whom the gods first made great with early success, and then tormented with the distractions of celebrity, failed marriages, alcoholism, depression and the near-loss of a beloved daughter to addiction.
The smothering comes by way of Isadora's yadda-da yadda-da voice. She has repeatedly shouldered her way back into Jong's work since "Fear of Flying," sometimes to interesting effect; increasingly, not. With each incarnation she seems less exuberant; shriller; more trapped in time. In "Seducing the Demon," Jong is the speaker but Isadora the speechwriter. The serendipity that animated "Fear of Flying" has grown forced; its often inventive imagery has given way to clichι ("Arriving in Venice from Moscow was like escaping to Shangri-La"). Big names (Streisand, Redford, Goldie Hawn and perhaps upward of 200 others) lie flat on the pages where they were dropped.
These and other transgressions have produced a book with a split personality. "Seducing the Demon" is another of Jong's efforts to consecrate the great passions of her life: poetry in its timeless holiness; the exalted rigors of the writer's life; love and sex in all their maddening worth. But Jong's dyspepsia and blowzy sentence-making suggest that on the whole, she'd rather be chilling on Giudecca near the Santa Eufemia vaporetto stop.
"You cannot tell the truth when words are corrupted," Jong avers early on, quoting herself at a commencement speech. "So language matters. It matters a lot." "How true!!!" the appreciative reader is likely to scrawl in the margins one of many "How true!!!" epiphanies this book offers. (Others: "You cannot quote Omar and drink Diet Coke" and showing her Maureen Dowd chops "We live in a time when the most exalted lie most blatantly and nobody seems to care.") This "language matters" sentiment sets a high bar for much of what follows, like Jong's blurt that "the early 70's were all about the clitoris." (Somewhere, the shade of Richard Nixon is murmuring, "If only.")
Zipping seamlessly along to matters sexual, Jong revisits several of her erotic encounters from back in the day; but the glass has grown dark. A literary luncheon at the Algonquin with a lecherous elderly publisher "whom I'll call Wagstaff" (get it?) segues into Wagstaff's private office, with young micro-miniskirted Erica on her knees before the mottled old devil, "somehow, in unison with Walt Whitman." Her fantasy of having sex with Bill Clinton while dressed up like Clinton's dead mother, Virginia, accomplishes the magic of making Monica Lewinsky look by comparison like Belle du Jour.
"Language matters." But Jong natters. She genuflects to poetry; she exalts Sylvia Plath as the muse of her generation; she quotes Plath and Muriel Rukeyser and many others; but when the chalice of words is in her own hands, she is content to describe a lover's teeth as "Englishly crooked" and report that "on our 10th anniversary, we burned our prenup in a wok with all our dearest friends watching." Learning from Anne Sexton that "the point is to reach out honestly," she reaches out, claws first, to her erstwhile dinner-party hostess Martha Stewart by detailing a tryst with Stewart's husband, Andy Stewart, at the Frankfurt Book Fair and quotes Andy's trash-mouthing of Martha during the encounter. But Erica as marriage wrecker? No way! "I was just a pawn in a power struggle, a spear-carrier in her opera." Here is the book's nadir.
And here is Erica Jong's central writerly self-delusion: "What we all live for . . . is what Henry Miller calls 'the dictation.' That's when the words take off on a frolic of their own, when you don't seem to be writing or thinking but rather taking down some divine dictation."
No. How false.
Writers don't "all" live for "the dictation." As advice for "fledgling" writers, the assertion hovers between irresponsible and absurd. Writers, good ones, build their work on a foundation of curiosity and active, patient investigation of their subject. And they build that work word by laborious word. And then they revise it. Two examples among hundreds available must suffice. They involve a pair of writers who interest Jong only as "lovely" dinner partners: Joan Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne.
Didion, a writer incomparably superior to Jong, isn't into frolic. Her beryl sentences, each word exactingly fitted against its neighbor, are the yield of her legendary scrutiny informed by a worldliness more political than clitoral. Her spare precise locution rewards not spectatorship but collaboration: the reader's full discovery of the dread she leaves largely tacit. As for the equally lapidary John Gregory Dunne, he famously wrote that "writing is manual labor of the mind: a job, like laying pipe."
Herein, perhaps, lies the road map to rhetorical recovery, should Jong ever decide to reclaim her voice from the demon Wing and truly write for her life. It's simple: Drop dictation. Take diction.
Zip it, Erica!: Unencumbered sex was a great idea, but Jong has carried it too far
Debra Bruno Special to The Chicago Sun-Times
Erica Jong is a seductress. We know this because in her new book, Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life, she lets us in on a conversation she had with her editor. He announces, "You are a seductress. You always wanted to be a seductress."
Jong's response: " I realize he's right." Maybe that's how she finds herself in so many compromising situations. Don't you just hate when that happens?
For instance, picture the young writer hungrily reading a first edition of Leaves of Grass. Suddenly, she's, well, NOT hungrily reading Whitman. What she's doing is something both inappropriate to discuss in a family newspaper and completely icky since it's being done to the man who published her first novel, Fear of Flying.
Another time, she finds herself rolling on the floor with Martha Stewart's husband. Not only is she surprised to find herself alone in a hotel room with a man who is not her husband, but she also manages to turn the story around so that Martha becomes the bad guy. Martha, Jong tells us, can't seem to let this incident go. Martha is going around blaming Erica Jong for breaking up her marriage. How unkind and petty of Martha.
I never thought I'd say this. I feel sorry for Martha Stewart.
Okay, to be fair, we all owe some thanks to Erica Jong. After all, she's the woman who made the idea of pure, unencumbered sex as open to women as it had been to men for thousands of years. So we thank you, Erica, for the zipless f - - k. As she defines it in Fear of Flying, "It was a platonic ideal. Zipless because when you came together zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff. Tongues intertwined and turned liquid. Your whole soul flowed out through your tongue and into the mouth of your lover." There was another requirement: "It was necessary that you never get to know the man very well." Yee-haw! Girls thought that too? Hello, world. Wake up and smell the horniness.
But today, the concept -- after AIDS, after "friends with benefits," after the Mile High Club -- is worn out. And we're left with a culture that still can't get sex right.
Not only that, but we're left with an author who doesn't seem to have recovered from the blockbuster success of Fear of Flying, published in 1973 when she was 31. It's hard to tell whether Jong became addled by the sudden, overwhelming acclaim or the fact that she seemed to personify sexual freedom and thus became the object of every lustful creature in her orbit. But judging from what we learn in Seducing the Demon, Jong today is a mess, encumbered when she should be free, and unencumbered when she should be leavened with a sense of responsibility.
It's hard to get past this: Molly Jong-Fast, Jong's daughter by Jonathan Fast, confesses to her mother that she's a drug addict, at age 19. Jong says that she knew that her daughter, starting at age 16, was doing "a lot of drugs," but didn't think it was all that serious. Apparently, Jong was too busy in her own zipless world to see a kid in trouble.
Here's another story with an oddly skewed picture of reality. Jong, who does admit to having a drinking problem, gets picked up for drunk driving inCalifornia. Rather than dwell on this illegal and dangerous act, Jong describes spending a lonely night in jail. "Shall I describe the prison cell floor, the flimsy cotton blanket for a pillow, the plastic bedroll and cotton cover, the clock moving through its interminable intervals adding up to the statutory eight hours?"
And then she brings in the clincher. Jong thinks of the humiliated prisoners in Abu Graib: "It made me aware of the mortification of imprisonment, any imprisonment." Oh, these artists -- they can so easily become one with all of humanity.
Best of all is the recurring Sylvia Plath motif, apparently based on the five minutes in which Jong met Ted Hughes. He may even have flirted with her a bit. Jong takes that crumb of an incident and works it up into a full-blown (oops, bad metaphor) fantasy. She pens an imaginary letter to Plath: "Suppose I'd gone home with Ted? Would I have ended up committing suicide?" she wonders.
So not only does Jong put herself in the literary company of a poet like Plath, but she also co-opts, imaginatively, Plath's husband and her mental illness. And she tops it off with the assumption that Hughes is to blame for Plath's death.
Reality check time. There's a difference between creative fantasy and delusional thinking. There's a fine but distinct line between the earthy energy that drove Fear of Flying and the non-sequitur-laden oddball stories that make up Seducing the Demon. Jong says she started out writing a book of advice to writers. Then she decided there were too many books about writing. Instead, she would try to answer the question: How do you do it? I suppose she means to explain her messy, complicated life. But what she ends up doing is giving us the same feeling we get when we see a car wreck -- you don't want to see the carnage, but you can't seem to look away.
Copyright ©1997-2009 Erica Mann Jong