She's Gotta Have It
Feminism in the 1970s had a hard time reconciling these two ideas. You could have an empowered life, or you could have sex with men, but probably not both. Kate Millett, Andrea Dworkin and other movement leaders were skeptical about the heterosexual dynamic. But most women weren't. While they might be sick of the tyrannies of married life, they weren't sick of sex.
Jong's reflection of this reality won her readers where no one had thought to find them. She describes going on her first book tour and meeting "blackjack dealers in Reno who never read a novel until Fear of Flying." Itchy women who didn't know what they wanted found it in Fear of Flying, and what they found was, in the end, feminism. It was a feminism that wanted to look pretty. It was a feminism that gleefully had sex with men. It was a feminism that admitted to not being a tower of strength.
In fact, Isadora's feminism looks a lot like the twenty-first century. Passages from Fear of Flying sound so current they could be script treatments for Sex and the City. You can just picture Carrie pacing around in her boy-cut underpants, musing, "I could easily see the sterility of hopping from bed to bed and having shallow affairs with lots of shallow people. I had had the unutterably dismal experience of waking up in bed with a man I couldn't bear to talk to--and that was certainly no liberation either. But still, there just didn't seem to be any way to get the best of both exuberance and stability into your life." Then there'd be a subplot where Miranda sleeps with a bike messenger.
Fear of Flying both captured and propelled an important cultural moment. But it did not repeat itself. Jong's later Isadora books are marked by an obsessive self-regard. Once Jong had a notion of herself as an important representative of women's true feelings, she was doomed. The feelings she reported on began to seem constructed, premeditated. Critics were generally unimpressed. Here's Janet Maslin in a 1977 Newsweek review of Jong's second novel: "Isadora purports to be a fictional character, but she and Jong do seem to have been married to the same Chinese-American psychiatrist and engaged in the same well-publicized feud with that very same Hollywood producer who wants to film her first literary triumph.... 'How to Save Your Own Life'...is little more than a series of mean-spirited attacks on the author's own enemies."
Jong's historical novels have been more ambitious: Fanny retells Tom Jones, with a female heroine; Serenissima sends a movie star back in time to sixteenth-century Venice. These books are intelligently made, with lots of sprightly writing, but they always seem to be about the same full-speed-ahead, hypersexual woman: Erica Jong. She has gone out of her way to find heroines who embody the Jongian virtues of self-determination, keen sexuality and deep ambivalence, not least in her latest novel, Sappho's Leap. In Jong's fictional biography of the poetess, Sappho flees her native Lesbos and travels the ancient world from Egypt to Delphi, encountering seemingly every classical freak on offer, including Pegasus, the Amazons, the sirens and even Aesop. Sappho's Leap is deeply reminiscent of the Isadora Wing books: Sappho is yet another woman balancing motherhood, art, fame and a letch for younger lovers.
The book, lively throughout, works best when Sappho finds herself among the Amazons. Here Jong takes the opportunity to skewer the feminist debate she herself helped to engender. At first the Amazons seem to live in a kind of womyn's utopia: the beautiful warriors share childcare, ride winged horses and, like good liberals, cultivate peace within their ranks. But Amazonia holds up to investigation about as well as any collective. Closer examination reveals fissures: The Amazons kill off their boy babies; they're ruled by a bossy lady dictator; the horses' wings have lately shrunk to mere vestigial winglets. Sappho's solution? More lovin'! She tells the Amazons, "When Aphrodite inspires us, flowers bloom and maidens laugh and mares give birth to winged foals.... Without her mischief, nothing flies." This was the same message Isadora brought to the dour precincts of women's lib years ago. It's nice to see Jong still worrying the knot of feminism. On the other hand, recasting the most celebrated female poet of the ancient world as yet another Isadora demonstrates a certain presumption, or at least myopia.