Into the Heart of Lust with Toni Bentley
(translated by Sara Triulzi from the Italian)by Emanuele Trevi
September 24, 2005
A meeting with the author of The Surrender, an erotic memoir published here in Italy by Lain a year after the scandal it caused in the States. A novel on anal sex, whose physical and graphic writing is intertwined with echoes of mystical treatises.
Here is someone who is not looking for roundabout phrases, for mitigations, for oblique expressions. The Surrender, the “erotic memoir” by Toni Bentley now published in Italy after the scandal and success it met in the States last year (Lain Editions, translated by Anna Mioni, 217 pages, Euros 12,50), targets the body. The core of this self-portrait is what we generically call guts: the anus, the rectum and the specific kind of perception that comes from down there, from in there. But this perspective, this form of self-consciousness is not stated as a matter of fact but is the fruit of a revelation, of a discovery, of an erotic encounter: The Surrender is a hymn, a prayer, a meticulous treatise and a book on anal sex, not on the anus itself. Correcting Darwin’s axiom, according to which it is the function that creates the organ, in Toni Bentley’s anal autobiography the organ is created, made visible to conscience, by this relationship. In the book, the telling of this revelation often assumes the tone of a geographical discovery, echoing the times when the sea still held hidden islands and continents. We thus witness the taking possession of a space that, at the start, is not less unknown or remote for the sole fact of being an internal space. It’s a latency which truly comes into existence, only through penetration: pain which transforms into pleasure. And what is at stake is Paradise: within Bentley’s peculiar “mystical materialism”, (she must have read her Bataille), paradise is “the land of lust, where things are visible and tangible” but also “completely unreal.” Yes, here is one of the many mystical paradoxes of this direct, corporeal, coarse form of writing that fears no comparison with the memory of saints’ biographies and mystical treatises, which the author read when still young and never forgot.
Today, Toni Bentley is a young, attractive woman, whose body is still that of a professional ballerina, even though she has given up her brilliant career (culminating at the New York Ballet with Balanchine) years ago, after an accident. In relating to others, she has an ironic attitude and a certain resignation to an initial embarrassment. We start our meeting, held in the inner garden of a Roman hotel, amid traffic noise, by praising together the great sodomy scene in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. “For Lady Chatterley, as for the narrator in my story and for me, that experience had the meaning of a true revelation. In D.H. Lawrence, this is made more powerful by the different social classes of the two partners, the lady and the gamekeeper.” Lawrence’s narrative genius traced a sketch of the ecstasy of submission that has always seemed to me something different from sadism. Toni Bentley agrees. “In my book I use both terms, submission and masochism, but the two are not complete synonyms; I feel a difference, they apply to different fields. Submission is tied to losing control, to letting down your defenses, to the collapsing of one’s will. The pleasure I speak of is a victory over pain, it comes only after pain and it can’t be avoided. For me, there is no beauty without pain - this is just the way I am. My experience as a ballerina might have something to do with it, because in dance you obtain beauty only when you succeed in accepting pain and overcoming it.”
We comment on how the Italian publisher maintained the English title, because it would be difficult to find an exact equivalent of The Surrender in Italian, without resorting to an unfortunate paraphrase. But this woman, who surrenders, submits to the force of the male’s phallus, releasing hidden energy and awareness and redefining her identity’s boundaries, is also the one who finds the right language to tell her story. We can’t avoid speaking about this language, so precise in its scurrilousness and so scurrilous in its preciseness, because it is the aspect of the book that assails the reader from the first lines (“His was first. In my ass. I don’t know its exact length, but it’s definitely too big: perfect.”). “Well,” Bentley jokingly says, “it’s definitely not a ladylike language! But this language, so direct, turned out to be the best one to talk about sex. There’s an issue of visualization: it’s not easy to make the reader imagine what is actually happening . . . The interesting thing was that, at the beginning, I wasn’t less shocked than others by this language. I didn’t even know I had this voice inside me, this specific tone that I tried to express in writing. It’s a kind of metamorphosis I experienced which went beyond my writing this book; I was surprised myself when a friend of mine pointed out to me that, after having written this book, I laughed in a different way . . . I have come out of this experience with a deeper tone, it seems.” And laughter, in The Surrender, is one of the signs of approaching ecstasy. “Yes, together with tears. Laughing and crying, the true expressions of joy.”
Every confession, especially if entrusted to a high-temperature lexical and emotional monologue such as this, carries within itself the risk and possibility of falling into solipsism. However, The Surrender is not only a self-portrait: it tells the story of an encounter, and the narrating voice - which always does speak about itself - nonetheless succeeds in making way for the other as well, as a circle, which multiplying its focus points, turns into an ellipse. On condition that the loving and the loved share a fundamental separateness, symbolized by the bedroom, always the same bedroom, where their meetings take place, year after year. “That’s true” Bentley explains, “and it’s an old idea; in John Donne’s poetry, for example, there is the same separate dimension, the lovers’ room encompasses the whole universe. And this is connected to the end of that relationship, which ends with the book. Strong relationships such as those are often the ones that can fall apart suddenly, because the two protagonists are always only having sex: no everyday life together, no habits, not a movie or a dinner out. And so what happens, sadly, is that when the pressure of the outer world enters that room, the relationship is over.”
And this just might be the most successful aspect of this unsettling book, which cannot leave you indifferent: under the appearances of a treatise-novel on sodomy, we catch a glimpse of a meditation on time. Erotic bliss shrinks from continuity and duration: it is unpredictable and irrevocable. It is an inevitable paradox: that which should - and does - bind two human beings together more than anything else, gives no guarantees on the future of that bond. The more the two lovers live their passion deeply, the more they have no tomorrow, as the title of a famous French libertine novel says. “Nonetheless,” Bentley adds, smiling sweetly “there is an advantage in walking out on a love story when it’s at its climax: you take with you the precious things, just as they are. Things that would otherwise be left behind.”