A heretofore unrecognized trend in CanLit: the pornographic potential of produce
As Katherine Monk points out in her book Weird Sex & Snowshoes, Canadian filmmakers are notable for their interest in outré forms of passion. Think of the acrobatic sexual positions displayed in the movies of Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg, and Denys Arcand.
I’m wondering whether a similar fixation on erotic outrageousness isn’t also a running theme in Canadian literature: after all, the Governor General’s Award has twice been given to novels that feature a woman having sex with a bear (Marian Engel’s Bear and Douglas Glover’s Elle).
In many ways, bears make a natural sex symbol. With their hairiness, burliness, and wary aggression, bears embody a certain ideal of rugged Northern masculinity (notably among a subset of husky gay men). The image of ursine/human mating is redolent of both folklore (Beauty and the Beast) and mythology (the many occasions when Zeus took an animal guise in order to seduce a nubile maiden).
While the connection between bears and sex is easy to make, it is harder to suss out the erotic appeal of fruit.
My thoughts in this direction were prompted by the fact that I’ve recently encountered two separate short stories, both from first-rate Canadian writers, featuring sex and… cucumbers.
In Cynthia Flood’s “Watching,” from her 1992 collection My Father Took a Cake to France, the narrator recalls, “Hands. Allan’s fingers. He did that for me maybe seven times in seven years. Once I took a real cucumber.” Lisa Moore offers an even steamier scene of cucumber arousal. In Moore’s story “Granular,” from her 1995 debut collection Degrees of Nakedness, we’re told of this memorable event: “You move the cucumber down the ridges of my neck, chest bone, circle one nipple, a shiny snail’s trail down my belly. Icy on my clitoris, numbing. You hold it gently down against the opening of my vagina.”
Of course, Canadians are not alone in getting an erotic charge out of plant life. As long ago as the 17th century, Andrew Marvell was wooing his coy mistress with the promise that “My vegetable Love should grow / Vaster then Empires, and more slow.” Scholars say that Marvell was making a metaphorical mind-bender, as was the wont of metaphysical poets. Still, the phrase “vegetable love” is suggestive, especially when linked to the provocative verb “grow.”
More recently, Philip Roth has also explored the pornographic potential of the garden. In Roth’s 1974 novel My Life as a Man, we’re told of Nathan Zuckerman’s youthful adventures with Sharon, a young lady gifted at “introducing various objects into herself.” Here is Roth’s account of Sharon’s talents:
“Transfixed… Zuckerman would stare down the hallway at the nude girl writhing, just as he had directed her to, upon the plastic handle of her hairbrush, or her vaginal jelly applicator, or once, upon a zucchini purchased for that purpose earlier in the day. The sight of that long green gourd (uncooked, of course) entering into and emerging from her body, the sight of the Zipper King’s daughter sitting on the edge of the bathtub with her legs flung apart, wantonly surrendering all five feet nine inches of herself to a vegetable, was as mysterious and compelling as any Zuckerman had ever seen in his (admittedly) secular life.”
A full academic analysis of cucumber love would discuss why these delicious edibles, so essential for salads and sandwiches, are also so sexy. Partially it has to do with their organic nature and vaguely phallic form. If you think about it, the grocery store offers more sexual aids, natural and cheap ones too, than the adult toy shop. Also, eating and sex are overlapping activities. Many sex acts are described by metaphors taken from the kitchen and dining table.
Some attention, too, would have to be given to national differences. Why are (at least two) Canadian writers so taken with cucumbers? Why is the American Roth more passionate about zucchinis? This is a fruitful topic which I hope others will examine in greater detail.
There might also be neurological and cognitive factors at work. Judy Dutton, author of Secrets From the Sex Lab, has cited research which shows that the smell of cucumber, when combined with other appealing odors such as Good & Plenty candy, has a measurable effect in arousing women. Could it be that in depicting sex with cucumbers, Flood and Moore were anticipating the latest findings of sex researchers? It wouldn’t be the first time that imaginative fiction prefigured scientific discoveries.
Ogden Nash once offered this advice to men on the make: “Candy is dandy / But liquor is quicker.” A modern-day versifier would have to find a rhyme for garden.