Jong, Erica. Fear of Flying. New York : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973.
Sometimes I wonder if Feminism has done what it needed to do. That sexism is, in many important ways, over.
Then I remember how I felt whenever my father helped me move into my dorm at Dartmouth. In these kinds of situations, my reaction is always the same when he hesitate.
There is a blaze of anger that ignites in my belly and I think, God gave you more muscles and society gave you more fucking everything and you can’t carry a mini-fridge?! I feel the same way when my brother types a restaurant bill into his tip calculator. Move the decimal to the left, Daniel. Just move the decimal to the left.
When I calm down, I realize that sexism is hard for men too. Nowadays anyway. That was not the case in 1978 when Erica Jong published Fear of Flying in 1973. Back in those dark days, it was Eliot, Auden, Pound and a bit of Nabakov that were being taught at Barnard College and women were banished to the periphery of literature to write things like historical novels or mysteries. You’d have a hard time finding any sort of respectable novel written in a women’s voice—you know except for “Zora Neale Hurston, Hortense Calisher, Belva Plain, Rosellen Brown, Mary Gordon and Anna Quindlen”—This list is taken verbatim from Jong’s afterword to the 30th anniversary editiion of her book (p.432). It’s a testament to the fractured nature of the Humanities Curriculum (a lingering sexism?) in America that I had never heard of any of these women except for Neale Hurston.
Nor had I heard of Erica Jong. It’s a travesty really, everyone, man, woman, everything between them on the gender spectrum should have to read this book the way we have to read about the Holocaust: To remember how terrible things can get if no one pays attention.
Jong’s protagonist is called Isadora Wing and her problems are as alien to me as any medieval washerwomen’s. She is smart and literary (I can relate.). She grew up in New York (I can relate.). She is upper middle class (I can relate.). She is of Jewish descent, loves men, has no trouble coming so long as she has access to a penis or a hand. This might be the only thing I do not quite believe in the book: Her utter sexual madness for men.
Men who wipe shit on the bed, men who think they are god, men who knock her around like she is a blow-up doll. Men who are not particularly great or special. Men who just happened to be men—and therefore objects of desire and worship, erotic, intellectual, for young Isadora.
Despite her astounding weakness, I like Isadora, she somehow manages to describe it all in a convincing and charming way—even though she is implicated in the imbalanced worldview presented through the men—“You’re so oral!” Feminine intelligence reduced to a sexually-driven psychosis. It’s cruelty masked as science and she goes alone with it.
How could she believe, even for one second, that to be a woman is to be somehow psychotic and wrong?
At the center of the book is a penis. A penis. The penis. Any penis. Usually two penis—that of her husband and that of her lover, Adrian Goodlove. Her husband’s penis is always hard. Adrian’s is always soft. And she loves the, both! In fact, her husband’s ever-hard penis might be his only good quality. That and a depressive reticence. It seems that the greatest hope for Isadora’s marriage (all heterosexual marriages?) is that her husband support her work, fuck her and generally leave her alone. As a practiquant of disastrous lesbian fusions, I have no idea what Jong is getting at.
The centrality of the penis is part of the drama. If Isadora didn’t have a really big problem, we wouldn’t have a really good book. Still, I can’t help hating her dependence on men: her weakness, her gullibility, her complicity in their illusion of male centrality and dominance.
Maybe I hate this about Isadora because it doesn’t seem unfamiliar. I can’t relate to her penis mania but I believe her total dependence on men because I have seen it so many times in real-life. Men might not be as dominant as they used to be—but they are still very central to women’s lives. Not just for relationships and sex—but for approval and validation. I even see echoes of Isadora’s neediness and contingent self-esteem in myself and my friends. In the way we doubt ourselves, our worth, our jobs, our okcupid accounts.
Jong’s book is dated, but it’s fun too. Reading it is a good reminder that not so long ago, smart, pretty, charming and artistic women could give in to a cruel masculine worldview this fucking easily.
 My mother was 20 years old at the time, 7 years away from marriage and 10 years away from children. So there is a generation gap.