Lola, Unbound

by Denise Lovett

“Casaubon’s impotence,” declares Hot-Cleavage-Babe, “can, it seems, therefore, be read as an aspect of the novel’s rejection of or its collusion with the repressive bourgeois forces of the emergent capitalist order—” Her red-clawed fingers clutch the sides of the faux-wood lectern. “Which position is sustainable? It is clear, as Professor Lebowitz has pointed out,—” Hot-Cleavage-Babe nods reverentially at The Grand Vizier.

Every head in the room turns toward him and Lola has a few terrible seconds, for she is sure she is about to giggle. She coughs and concentrates on the lined notepad on her lap. The Grand Vizier has told Lola that academic conferences are self-aggrandizing celebrations of irrelevancies and wishy-washy thinking by backbiting narcissists. He said this as he peeled away the grey trousers she had bought at the Gap, pushed her onto the aluminum countertop surrounding an industrial-sized sink in a cleaning closet in the Cincinnati Convention Center, and pulled off her black lace panties with his teeth. Lola glances at him, a Roman-nosed gnome, strands of gray hair curling over his collar, the temples of his blue Andy Warhol glasses wrapped around his large ears. He does not acknowledge the reference to his work on George Eliot in any way. Lola wonders whether he might, as tonight’s key-note speaker, probe the problem of the sustainability of positions involving a sink. Whatever he says, she knows that he will include one of two signifying phrases, in media res or proto-Derridean——the meanings of which they agreed by email two days ago.

Hot-Cleavage-Babe pursues her two-pronged, rejection-or-collusion argument and Lola realizes that she’s hungry. The mid-morning break (stale blueberry muffins, lukewarm coffee, herbal tea-bags, a few brown bananas) feels like a long time ago. Lunch will be either Chicken à la King, Swiss Steak, or vegetarian, which, Lola knows by now, means overcooked pasta, just like on an airplane. Lola glances at her watch and wishes The Cleavage would wrap up. She and The Grand Vizier planned to rendezvous in the fifteen-minute interval between this talk—Casaubon’s Impotence: Does It Matter?—and lunch, but their window of opportunity is closing fast. She reaches into her attaché case for the manuscript of her own talk (Alterity, Gambling, and the Eroticism of the Jewish Subject in Daniel Deronda), which she will give tomorrow afternoon. Nestled between the pages is the map The Grand Vizier drew on a napkin. She has no idea what place the X represents, but she can see that it’s close to the Sunshine Room, where they now sit. The Grand Vizier has been going to conferences for as many years as Lola’s been on earth and he has an uncanny knack for timing their meetings, finding deserted spots, and avoiding conference attendees and hotel staff.

For a few minutes, Lola is so absorbed in contemplating The Grand Vizier’s scrawled X that she ceases to listen to The Cleavage’s analysis of Casaubon’s impotence. Her body and mind travel through time and space to the sink in the cleaning closet in Cincinnati last March—the conference was Missionary Positions: Empire, Knowledge, and Enlightenment. She had bought the black lace panties (Calvin Klein, on sale at Marshall’s, $9.99) after the previous conference (January, Chicago, Transformations: Fantastic Bodies from Romanticism to the Belle Époque), where The Grand Vizier asked her what word they might use to signify the concepts of not-white, not-opaque, not-male, and not-outerwear.

They lay, at that moment, in a hot, soapy bath in his hotel room. She had been washing his back and now he rested against her, his shoulder blades pressing into her breasts, his head against her collar bones, her legs wrapped and crossed around his torso, his fingers kneading the muscles of her thighs. She considered his question for a moment and, reflecting that whatever this was between them (An affair? An arrangement?), it seemed to have no rationale beyond desire and the experience of pure sensation, and said, “Liminality.” It was a word she had first heard as a college senior in a graduate-level seminar (Queer Theory and the Politics of the Body). Liminality made her think of twilight, like the “luminous halo” to which Virginia Woolf compared consciousness.

The thought of consciousness brings Lola back to the present, a June morning amid rows of mauve-upholstered straight-back metallic chairs in the florescent-lit, windowless Sunshine Room of the Holiday Express Hotel in Phoenix. She feels the black lace between her thighs and realizes that The Cleavage is talking about Barthes’s idea of jouissance. Quoth The Cleavage, “The text of bliss ‘unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of her tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis her relation with language’.” The phrase text of bliss reminds Lola of The Grand Vizier last night. He let himself into her room just after midnight. She had left the curtains a few inches open: there was enough light to see his erection parting his white terry-cloth bathrobe. She lay on her stomach, watching him. As he approached the bed, she thought of Jonathan Harker’s encounter with the female vampires in Castle Dracula: The fair girl went on her knees, and bent over me, fairly gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal…

This is the thing about The Grand Vizier: he both thrills and repulses her. Yet, these sensations not only pull her in different directions; they also, somehow, transcend mere reaction and produce something more elusive and powerful. After the second conference with The Grand Vizier (November, San Diego, Blood Exchange: Vampire Economies, Commodification, and Hunger), she decided that what she feels is utter, overwhelming, insatiable, all-consuming – fascination. Now, here, in Phoenix, she wonders, can words even touch the hem of the garment of this experience? Text of bliss indeed: it’s not just Lola’s relation to language that’s in crisis mode. It’s everything: there’s not a single assumption in her –about her body, her career, her intellect—that The Grand Vizier has not unsettled.

The Cleavage’s voice fades into the background of Lola’s consciousness, odd phrases registering in her mind before dissolving like sugar in water. Instead of listening, Lola watches The Grand Vizier, imagining him working his fingers underneath her thighs and then pressing them apart. She wiggles a little in her seat for his benefit and her own—a motion designed to suggest impatience and horniness. The Grand Vizier sees her and clears his throat. She thinks about Barthes’s word crisis, which she considers more accurate than affair or arrangement. What else, she wonders, could explain why she is driven to concoct one conference proposal after another, stay up late writing papers and articles, double up appointments with students, and take on extra committee work to clear her calendar in order to rendezvous with this short, balding, pushing-sixty, haphazardly groomed scholar in the bathrooms, bedrooms, cleaning closets, kitchen pantries, and fitness center changing rooms of conference hotels and fuck him in every which way they can devise?

It’s not about power. There’s nothing Monica Lewinsky about this relationship: The Grand Vizier is a well-known, well-respected post-structuralist and has written hundreds of articles and over a dozen books, but he’s an ordinary, tenured academic, for Christ’s sake, and no celeb on the order of a West, a Greenblatt, or a Fish. He’s hardly ever mentioned outside of the academic media and hasn’t even got a blog. And, it’s not as if he regales her with stories of intellectuals behaving badly or intimidates her with Casaubon-like stores of knowledge or punctures for her pleasure the posturing of pretentious literary critics. He’s not a big talker, not even during sex, although sometimes he sings, Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets…

No, it’s not power or language that’s driving this. It’s not ideas. It’s what they do with his body and hers. She’s thirty-two years old and she only began to understand the first thing about bodies when she met him. The word fuck doesn’t even begin to describe what they do together. And yet—why is it that within days of seeing him, she’s not too exhausted to bang out another conference paper? As if The Grand Vizier, the antithesis of the Casaubon-ian intellectual and sexual impotence, ejaculates steroids that seep out of her in the form of text.

The Cleavage has left bliss behind and is moving on to the commodification of the literary text, and Casaubon’s publication phobia and authorial anxieties. Poor Casaubon, Lola used to think, lovelessly guarding his volumes of worthless knowledge. Casaubon’s lifelong ambition, to finish his Key to All Mythologies, a project that consists of countless never-to-be-published notebooks of dry-as-dust, epistemologically archaic, assorted historical minutiae, once seemed to her the worst of fates: obsession without love or acknowledgement or reward. Now she’s beginning to understand the pleasures of deferral, of putting off the finalization of writing, doing, feeling. It’s not that the game she and everybody else in this room is playing—publishing for tenure—doesn’t matter or isn’t intellectually interesting; it’s that, since the onset of the crisis, she’s begun to see that the tangible rewards of any game are far less pleasurable than anticipation.

Lola looks up in time to see that The Cleavage’s discussion of textual commodities has caught the attention of Red-Paisley-Silk-Cravat, who casts himself as a cultural materialist in a Terry Eagleton-wannabe mold. He’s sitting in the front row and his face is flushed, beginning to blend into the paisley. The Cleavage’ll get what she’s dishing out back in spades, Lola knows from experience. Already Red-Paisley-Silk-Cravat (sometimes he wears blue fleur-de-lis and at the November conference, he wore a pink geometric pattern) has pricked up his ears, like Scooby-Doo, and leans over his notepad. Lola is waiting for The Cleavage to say market ideology, at which point Red-Cravat will scribble furiously on his note pad, and the nanosecond that Q&A begins, his hand will skewer the air above his head. He loves nothing better than a pissing contest.

But The Cleavage is taking a different tack, to Red-Cravat’s visible disappointment. She’s no longer interested in whether Casaubon’s impotence is an aspect of the novel’s rejection or collusion with the repressive bourgeois forces of emergent capitalism. Instead, she’s pursuing the linguistic angle: “We are taken into the realm of the ineffable, into experience which cannot be articulated, when the narrator tells us that Dorothea quote ‘had no distinctly shapen grievance that she could state even to herself’ end quote. It is precisely Dorothea’s inability to name her experience—the sexual barrenness of her union with Casaubon—that suggests—”

Lola switches the crossing of her legs (reliving the feeling of The Grand Vizier’s hands stroking them as he tells her that they are among her best features), wondering whether Dorothea is really unable to state her grievance. Is her sexual disappointment, in fact, an indescribable state? Or is she—or her creator—simply too cowed by Victorian notions of middle-class femininity to call a spade a spade? Surely, after ugly, self-aggrandizing, impotent Casaubon finally croaks (the first time she read Chapter 48, Lola heaved a sigh of relief: no more Casaubon!), and Dorothea marries Will Ladislaw, there must be a post-coital moment in the newlyweds’ marital bed when Will and Dorothea acknowledge her virginity. Surely Dorothea is capable of saying something—however coded and ambiguous and understated.

Perhaps, Lola muses, Dorothea says, Oh, Will, never before have I experienced such a stunning example of unbounded rhetoric. Unbounded is The Grand Vizier’s word for Lola’s black pencil-skirt with the two-inch side slit, which she is wearing today. He texted her the night before her arrival in Phoenix: I look forward to hearing you explicate your concept of unbounded rhetoric.

“For George Eliot, the sustaining power of nomenclature constitutes—,” The Cleavage continues. There’s that word sustain again. What, Lola wonders, are she and The Grand Vizier sustaining by meeting at regular intervals and going at it as if they’re characters from a pornographic novel? She lives in a perpetual lather of excitement. She cannot help but check her email and voice mail dozens of times each day to see if he has sent one of his cryptic messages, to which she replies in kind. She doesn’t know how many people he has done this with, but there certainly isn’t any gossip about him that has passed her way—which is saying something, considering how many male academics are rumored to have sexually harassed their graduate students. It doesn’t matter, anyway. Lola doesn’t care whether The Grand Vizier has fucked, licked, sucked, poked, prodded, caressed, and examined the body of every female academic under the age of fifty on the North American continent. This is the first time in her life that she has felt anything like this and she’s damned if she’s going to stop before she gets to wherever it’s going—and to see what she’s capable of on the way there.

Lola met The Grand Vizier when she was still a grad student. They were at a conference called Literary Approaches to the Thinking Body, which turned out to be prescient, for when she is with him, her body seems to think for itself. Is this—this self-propelling, thinking body, seeking what it wants, knowing what it feels—an example of what the presenters at the conference called embodied cognition? Can what she does, feels, tastes with The Grand Vizier, she wonders, be named? Can it be sustained by naming it? Might what she experiences with him, when she wraps her legs around his plump, hairy torso, be called spirituality?

The Thinking Body conference was in New York City—at a small mid-town hotel she had never heard of—and she was so bored that she longed to slip away and go to the MOMA. At the afternoon “tea,” she found herself next to The Grand Vizier in the queue for grocery-store crumpets, miniature foil-topped plastic boxes of strawberry jelly and Smart Balance Light Margarine, tea (Earl Grey or Chamomile), and a selection of Yoplait yogurts. The top of his head was about level with her chin. His blue Andy Warhol glasses needed cleaning. He had, apparently, forgotten to shave that morning, for grayish bristles gathered in the creases of the corners of his mouth. He wore brown corduroy trousers, a blue flannel shirt over a white t-shirt, and scuffed leather boat shoes without socks.

He took in her outfit for the briefest of moments—black gabardine trousers, knitted blue pullover, light blue cashmere scarf—and then examined her face as if he were trying to place her. He glanced at her name-tag without interest and said, “You know, in the days before psychoanalytic criticism, deconstruction, post-colonialism, Foucault, queer theory, etc, etc, there was just a boys’ club called New Criticism.”

Lola took this to mean that he considered the increasing prominence of women in literary studies over the past twenty or thirty years A Good Thing.

“And before the New Critics, there were other people, other theories.”

Lola nodded, a little intimidated by this short, reputable scholar, and yet also recoiling from his dirty glasses and gray bristles. She wondered why he was speaking to her, whether he had noticed from her name tag that she was just a grad student.

“But there is no formula for reading. Just as there is no formula for love. No rules.”

Lola had never heard an academic say anything like this. In her experience, academics loved formulas. They couldn’t live without an epistemological framework that told them how to interpret what they read, that told them what to feel, say, and believe. Frightened of seeming an intellectual light-weight, she nevertheless hazarded a response: “But there are conventions, methods.”

He looked at her and said, “Exactly.”

They came to the head of the queue. Lola extended a trembling hand to select a blueberry Yoplait. The Grand Vizier—although at the time, she thought of him as Professor Lebowitz—took a crumpet, two strawberry Yoplaits, and a box of jelly. He murmured, as if to himself, “What does this food say, I wonder, about the body’s ability to do anything, including think?”

She edged away, as if to move quickly would be rude. The last thing she needed to do at the beginning of her career was to insult somebody of his stature. Was he talking to her or himself? What did he mean by “Exactly?” Was he being ironic? Was it simply one of those automatic, meaningless responses that people exchange every day?

Later, at the prospect of enduring a buffet dinner without company—for she did not know a single Thinking Body attendee and, lacking that coveted title Professor, she was shy about approaching others, who, in turn, were not inclined to befriend her—she thought of slipping away. She was about to attend the final talk of the day, Neuroscience and the Literary Text, when Professor Lebowitz appeared next to her outside the meeting room. “I happen to know a wonderful restaurant near here, which has the best filet in New York. Would you care to eat something more—” He hesitated, as if consciously deciding not to be rude: “—interesting than a conference dinner?” His tone was fatherly, as if he had decided that she needed a mentor, a stiff drink, and some red meat.

At dinner, she did almost all the talking and he listened gravely. Afterwards, they went for a walk. They came upon a small hotel and went to the bar. He chose a table in a quiet corner. Within minutes, she found herself pouring out her fears about her upcoming dissertation defense, her worries about getting a job, her anxieties about publishing, her insecurities about her intellectual abilities. She realized, with the kind of unstoppable horror one feels at the apex of a roller coaster, that she was now talking about her childhood in northern Connecticut, her working-class Italian-Irish family, her Year Abroad in London, the novel she started and never finished, the last man she had loved.

When their coffee arrived, he picked up both cups and laid them gently to one side as if they had become irrelevant. He took her long, olive hands in his small, dark ones. His hands were beautifully shaped, neither young nor old, and the fingers hairless, long, and fine, the nails clean and trimmed short.  She looked up and saw that his eyes were slate-colored and flecked with blue. And then something inexplicable happened: he pulled her toward him and kissed her on the forehead. It felt like a benediction.

The next night he took her to dinner at the Algonquin because she had mentioned Dorothy Parker while they queued at the lunch buffet. At the Algonquin, she steered the conversation away from her personal life and toward what she thought would be safe topics: history and literature. Yet, to her horror, she found herself again exposing her deepest fears. She admitted that she did not understand Habermas, hated Chomsky, and found Bhabha unreadable, Bourdieu pretentious, and Foucault misogynistic. When she finally finished her rant, she gasped in embarrassment and clapped her hand over her mouth. She felt as if she had committed a terrible blasphemy in the presence of a bishop.

He said, “The problem with most literary criticism is that it does not elaborate or enhance, it merely trumpets its own crude devices.”

Lola bit her lip. She found this comment—its easy confidence, its certainty— suddenly, strangely sexy. She suppressed an urge to run her hand through his thinning, gray hair.  It occurred to her that he might be flirting. She was not averse to a harmless flirtation with a man twice her age and probably no longer sexually active. She was lonely; she had nobody to talk to. She had been immersed in her dissertation for over four years, and had no time for romance or friendship. She thought he might be looking for a disciple.

When they returned to the conference hotel, they took the elevator, their magnetic keys in hand. They were staying on different floors. After the doors closed, and they were alone, surrounded by mirrors, he faced her, his nose not more than a foot from her breasts. She could not help but glance in the mirror and smile at the pair they made. When she looked back at him, he was watching her. She hesitated, then reached for his tie, pulled him toward her, and when they kissed, she felt her body come alive in a way she had never before known.

Lola realizes that Hot-Cleavage-Babe is wrapping up, concluding that Casaubon’s impotence matters a lot for a whole host of reasons that half the audience, Lola suspects, will forget as soon as lunch is served. The room begins to clear even before the perfunctory applause has dwindled. Lola sees that the moment The Grand Vizier gets up, he is surrounded by The Cleavage, Red-Silk-Cravat, and assorted groupies. She heads for the buffet queue, disappointed that she will now have to wait for him to devise another meeting place and time. She tries to think about food—she is hungry, after all—but the words Chicken à la King bring to mind phallic images, the merging of bodies, the sensation of the Grand Vizier’s tongue circling her nipple. The idea of eating settles on her like dry, black dust.

They do not cross paths for the rest of the day. But that night, at the key-note address, the Grand Vizier works proto-Derridean into his speech, which signifies the following: she is to leave her hotel room unlocked, wear the unzipped black pencil-skirt over a leopard-skin print thong and nothing over the matching, low-cut bra, and stand with her back to the door as he enters.

When, some time later, as she lays face down on the bed, The Grand Vizier holding her legs together while he fucks her from behind, he says, “Sex is like the plot of a Victorian novel. The goal is to defer the end for the length of time that the pleasure can be sustained—the three volumes or some given number of installments.”

Lola does not respond, for her face is pressed against the white hotel sheet. Anyway, he doesn’t seem to expect a response. He continues: “Deferral of life and death. The end of the plot is the death of those who must be sacrificed for the marriage of others: an ending is always also a beginning. Sex must lead to death, and death creates life.”

Lola thinks, Perhaps he will die while we are fucking. The thought terrifies her, not because she finds it repulsive, but because she realizes that she does not want to live without him.

He says, “Similarly, sex can only produce a renewal at the cost of sacrifice,” and then he comes.

From that point on, she would never again think of a Dickens or Eliot or any other Victorian novel without remembering the words Sex must lead to death, and death creates life and feeling his flesh against the soft, red walls of her inner body.

After he leaves, she does not shower. The next morning the conference ends with breakfast. She dresses, omitting underwear. She packs, checks out, and, skipping the breakfast, takes the shuttle to the airport with several other conference attendees. She feels the seam of her jeans press against her unwashed genitals.

On the airplane she drifts in and out of consciousness, immersed in an in-between space in which thoughts, words, and feelings mingle, each feeding the other. Liminality: she caresses the word in her mind, feels it on her tongue. Memories rise and fade. She thinks of the romances she had with fellow undergraduates and then, later, with fellow graduate students. Until meeting The Grand Vizier, she imagined that her life-long relationship—marriage—would be like these: based on shared intellectual interests and professional aspirations, tame sex, spaghetti dinners, Scrabble and crosswords, jogging, museum-going, intellectually or artistically gifted children, family vacations to culturally stimulating places. It was reassuring to know that her life would be safe, if not scintillating, a life of work, routine, a home and family, tenure, a bookshelf of publications. These were the things she thought she wanted.

Now, she realizes in the airborne plane that she wants nothing but him. She takes an inventory of the outrageous fantasies that furnish the gaps in her daily mental space. She wants to suck his cock like a baby at the breast. She imagines enclosing his entire body within hers, as if to absorb him—a reverse birth. She wants to turn him inside out, to know every molecule of muscle, blood, and tissue that make up his body. She wants him to adopt her—or her him—so that they can experience incestuous desire. She understands for the first time why love-crazed teenagers create suicide pacts. Her eroticized body has taken on its own logic, spreading its desires according to some mechanism she cannot identify, as though she’s channeling some other Lola, an edgy Lola who lives in a parallel universe, a Lola who no longer fears obsession, or worries about being inferior, or takes titles seriously. It’s as if her physical and mental absorption in him has freed her, as if through this erotic obsession, her body, not her mind, is writing.

When she gets home, she undresses before the bathroom mirror and examines her image. She still smells of sex with The Grand Vizier.  She walks around her apartment naked, something she has never done before.

She knows that if gossip about this crisis/affair/arrangement—whatever it is— gets around, she will be mocked, that it could even jeopardize her chances of tenure. The academic world imagines itself as a place of liberal thought, open-mindedness, and daring argumentation, but it is, she knows, as rigid as any seventeenth-century Puritan village. The main difference between the two worlds is that academia does not celebrate, but pretends to flout, convention; it fixates on its own narrowly conceived notions of monogamy, equality, consent, non-violence, discretion, and appropriateness. A young Assistant Professor at a staid liberal arts college fucking a near-retirement Full Professor from a top Ivy League university at academic conferences—with creative abandon that sometimes borders on ferocity—is not appropriate. Just as, she knows, there’s a fine line defining edgy scholarship. Self-censorship is a prime virtue for an academic. She thinks back to the Missionary Positions conference in Cincinnati, imagining conference papers titled The Strategically-Placed Pillow, Uses of Near-Violence in the Pursuit of Pleasure, and Playing with Consent.

Later in the week, a man in the history department that Lola knows slightly asks her out on a date. He has a sweet face and wears open-necked shirts with buttoned collars, pleated khakis, and polished loafers. His name is Bryan and he invites her to go to a poetry reading followed by dinner. “Do you like Indian food?” he asks hopefully. She looks at him and wonders whether he’d be interested in tying her hands over her head and fucking her on the kitchen sink of a nearby hotel.

At the restaurant, she refuses to read the menu. “I don’t know the dishes. The names mean nothing to me,” she tells him, although this is not true. When the food arrives, she asks him not to identify each dish: “I want to taste the food without knowing the names.”

She eats slowly, experiencing the spiced meat and vegetables and rice on her tongue: she wants them to take on their own life in the world of her body. The sting of a chili sets off a tingling in her neck. The cardamom filters down her arms. The lentils melt on her tongue. She thinks of The Grand Vizier inside her, of the feeling that she is both a part of him and yet separate from him. She has never before felt like this, as if she can be herself and yet also be another creature: a version of Schrödinger’s cat.

When she looks up, Bryan begins to talk about his research on Thomas Jefferson’s papers. He is not, he explains, interested in what he calls his subject’s “personal relationships” and she knows he means with Sally Hemings and her children. He tells her he is looking at Jefferson’s foreign policy. He says this in a tone that indicates that personal matters are slightly prurient, as though there were a clear line between what can be analyzed fruitfully and the parts of life that should be left undisclosed and unanalyzed or, at least, the analysis of which should be left to lesser minds. Jefferson’s voracious desire for a black woman he owns is not, Bryan evidently believes, relevant to foreign policy.

Lola knows that there was a time last year when she would have found Bryan attractive, a potential lover, and even a potential mate.

When she gets home, she lies on her bed naked and examines her body with her hands, wondering what The Grand Vizier feels when he touches her. She wonders whether she can ever have a relationship with a man that is not secretive and defined by ambiguous, coded language, one in which nothing matters more than the rhythm of a probing finger, the pressing of palms against buttocks, the pulling of flesh between lips. She falls asleep and dreams of Hot-Cleavage-Babe uncovering her breasts at the podium and demanding of the audience whether this matters, at which point Red-Paisley-Silk-Cravat rushes up behind her, throws up her skirt, and thrusts himself into her from behind.

The next day Bryan appears outside her office; the door is partly open. She is standing next to her desk, face to face with The Grand Vizier, who has flown here, he claims, expressly to see her. She does not know if this is true and does not particularly care. She glances through the doorway at Bryan. He is taking in the short, balding man in a worn corduroy jacket, baggy trousers, and boat shoes without socks, and, in his face, she sees that he senses the intimacy of the scene.  He says, “Am I interrupting?” His tone is polite, but there’s also an element of challenge, the voice of a male confronting another male over the possession of a female. It’s as if he’s asking, What exactly is going on here?

Lola is annoyed. She could pretend that this scene is about nothing at all, that whatever is going on here is appropriate, that The Grand Vizier has dropped by to discuss her conference paper, say hello, speak a few encouraging words to a young scholar on his way to a more important meeting. But she cannot. She says, “This is not a good time.”

Bryan stares at her as if she is mad. He says, “I’ll wait outside.”

But Lola turns on him. “No. No.”

He steps backward, into the hall, and closes the door.

The Grand Vizier touches Lola’s cheek. This single touch sets off sensation in her spine, her neck, her shoulders, her nipples. He says, “We can end this right now.”

Lola slips the first button on her shirt from its buttonhole.

The Grand Vizier says, “You can have this young man—or another. You can have the life you must have imagined for yourself.”

Lola continues to unbutton. She takes The Grand Vizier’s hands and places them on the black lace bra that contains her breasts. Both know that the door is unlocked. Both know that Bryan or a student or a faculty member or somebody else could knock and walk in at any moment. Both know that this is now out of control, that this is in no way sustainable, that there really is no end except the end that is also the beginning of something else—something that they cannot think of now. They are incapable of stopping, of escaping the freedom that binds them.

As The Grand Vizier slips his hands inside the black lace bra, his words Sex must lead to death return to her and suddenly Lola understands why Casaubon’s impotence matters: it is because the jouissance of the text, of the body, and of life itself is not the background, but the real thing. Jouissance is all that matters. Without it, Dorothea is less than ink on a page and everything people like Lola and The Cleavage and Red-Silk-Cravat and The Grand Vizier write about her and Casaubon and every literary text is disembodied, cold ash. The work of words, the struggle to name, the ability to sustain meaning—none of this has any jouissance without the body, without the reader’s belief in the living text.

Lola hikes up her skirt, leans back on the edge of the desk, and wraps her thighs around The Grand Vizier. He enters her and she revels in the unnamable.


 Denise Lovett is the author of two novels, The Love of Women (1993) and The Christening (1996) (both published under Denise Neuhaus). She has also published short stories, journalism, and literary criticism, and worked as a copywriter and editor. She lives in Westport, Connecticut, where she is working on a collection of stories and a novel, teaches creative and academic writing, and works as a freelance editor. She recently finished a PhD in English at the University of Connecticut in response to which she wrote Lola, Unbound as part of her ongoing recovery.

Founder and Editor in Chief Barney Rosset worked ceaselessly on the Evergreen Review until his death on February 21, 2012. This story was among his final selections for future publication.