‘The Sexual Night’ by Pascal Quignard

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Illustration from “The Poem of the Pillow,” by Utamaro.

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, December 5, 2014

“The Sexual Night” is a damp little relic, the sort of psycho­sexual mumbo jumbo one thought — one hoped — wouldn’t survive Norman Mailer. Alas, the French writer Pascal Quignard, best known for his 1991 novel “Tous les Matins du Monde,” has resurrected the genre in these Freudian disquisitions on classic depictions of sexual imagery.

He summons all the usual suspects: Leonardo’s anatomical sketches; Kali standing astride the body of Shiva; Caravaggio’s “Medusa”; Courbet’s “L’Origine du Monde”; the 19th-century Japanese woodcut “Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife,” which features a woman blissfully entangled with a pair of octopuses.

It’s a glorious gallery of what the Romans called lucubrationes, activities that take place by lamplight — sex, certainly, but also the other great adventures of the nighttime: doubt, prayer, melancholy, crime. Quignard says humans have always had a need for an “enclosure within which images succeed one another on the inner walls” — caves, cathedrals, museums, movie theaters — and this book becomes such a space.

Many of the paintings are half-eaten by shadows; the figures seem spied on through keyholes. Quignard’s particular obsession is with what Freud called the primal scene — a child’s first witnessing of sex, usually between his parents — although Quignard understands it more broadly, and less about sex than epistemology. The primal scene forces the child to confront the mystery of his origins, and of consciousness itself. “I’m trying to take one step closer to the source of the terror human beings feel when they muse on what they were before their body cast a shadow in this world,” he writes.

The trouble with “The Sexual Night” is that we cannot linger on the images forever; we must, at some point, reckon with the prose, where we encounter such silliness it’s almost impossible to stay the course.

There is some unpardonably bad sex writing, most of it unprintable here (and, in a just world, anywhere). We must contend with “uterine” as a favorite adjective. We must contend with a tender, anxious regard for virility and the concomitant dread of the “female sex organ,” variously depicted as cave or coffin. We must suffer nonsense like: “Woman steals sperm as Prometheus stole fire. Stealing what belongs to the gods.” Or, worse, Quignard’s odd ideas about evolution: “There is only one human posture — standing upright on account of the erection.”

But, in the final chapters, the book abruptly hauls itself out of the uterine waters, shakes off and becomes intelligible, mournful and profound, sometimes even for pages on end. The mysteries of infirmity, death, oblivion replace the mysteries of sex. Quign­ard finally begins to tell a story, and we’re finally able to appreciate the breadth of his intelligence.

He roves easily between Goya’s late frescoes, Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” Pliny’s “Natural History” the Chinese painter Shitao’s writings about old age. The language unknots, the ponderous, prophetic voice of the sex sections vanishes. The sentences are plain and beautiful. Some mysteries, it seems, require no embellishment.

Quignard can recall Eduardo Galeano in his talent for distilling myths into their essence and Anne Carson in his zeal to trawl down into the roots of words. He turns out to be the sort of writer who, in telling us about the Greek myth of the origin of the screech owl, elegantly brings in the Chinese version of the story, Hieronymus Bosch, Melanie Klein, fine points of Buddhist doctrine, Sodom and Gomorrah, and West Point.

Quignard concludes by marveling that “the world becomes stranger and more intense” as we age. “The end brings closer the discovery of the world.” Unhappily, in life as in this book, some of the most valuable discoveries arrive all too late.

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