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Singular Pleasures.

The British novelist and essayist Brigid Brophy considered masturbation an invaluable spur to the imagination, pointing out that masturbation fantasy was the nearest most people got to the invention of narrative fiction. She would certainly have approved of Singular Pleasures, Harry Mathews' stirring tribute to this ancient and beneficial practice.

There are 61 scenes, each involving persons of different ages masturbating in far-flung places (from "a ravine outside Erzurum" to "somewhere north of the Bering Straits"), using different techniques and appliances. Among the latter there are conventional dildos, an electric toothbrush, and the bow of a cello. There is music, poetry, and longing; in Managua a man attempts to recapture the blissful if socially embarrassing moment when he involuntarily ejaculated during the final bars of Schubert's Octet; in another scene an anthropologist approaches a 17-year-old Fijian male who is masturbating peacefully into the sea and asks him to name the activity he is engaged in: the youth replies that it is called Tokolano, which translates as "keeping the moon under."

A little over two-thirds of the way through the book we encounter "a quasi-subversive organization" called MAID (short for Masturbation and Its Discontents), whose members specialize in devising and overcoming obstacles to masturbation, for example achieving orgasm "while reciting Milton's Il Penseroso to no less than three listeners." The members of MAID experience triumph, tragedy, and strange disappointments that readers must discover for themselves.

Mr. Mathews' charming inventions are accompanied by watercolors by Francesco Clemente. His images, which range from a medieval siege to a long-eared bat, from rodents to castanets, seem to bear no direct relation to Mathews' text, and this may be the point. In the past Clemente has not exactly shied away from eroticism, but here he has ignored the many opportunities presented to him. A literal "illustration" would have been pornographic, but there is nothing pornographic, in the strict sense, about Mathews' text, since it does not seek to arouse the reader: its tone is cool, humorous, and affectionate. His intention is to leave us deeply impressed by the ingenuity, tenacity, and inventiveness with which humans in all places and at all ages have pursued their own pleasure. He succeeds completely.

John Ash is a writer living in New York.
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Author:Ash, John
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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