April 2009

Elizabeth Bachner

nonfiction

Carnal Knowledge: Baxter's Concise Encyclopedia of Modern Sex by John Baxter

Why read an encyclopedia of sex? The obvious answers would be to learn obscure and fascinating information about one of the most mystified and taboo-addled realms of human experience, and/or to get turned on. Or, maybe you’re doing an intensive research project on furries or paraphilias or fetishism. There’s something a little weird about reading a sex encyclopedia for any reason, but it must be even stranger to write one. What falls into the category of sex, and what doesn’t? Should you be all Freudian about it, and see phalluses in every cigar? Or should you limit your entries to blatantly sexual things, like birdbathing (“Sex act in which the recipient takes not only the penis and testicles into the mouth but also a good portion of the male ass, containing him in much the way a birdbath would if he sat in one. See also TOSSING SALAD.”), furverts, chicken hawks, and blow jobs?

John Baxter’s Carnal Knowledge chooses the former strategy, but his selections raise more questions about the boundaries of “modern” than about sex. Baxter, an Australian-born baby boomer living in Paris, brings enormous expertise on '60s and '70s film to the subject. There’s lots of Woody Allen, Midnight Cowboy and Caligula. But it’s hard for me to understand some of his selections and omissions -- Francis Ford Coppola is included, but not Larry Clark or David Cronenberg. Breast and penis are included, but not clitoris (thanks, Baxter). Bill Clinton is included, but not Susie Bright. Also, the cover rather disingenuously promises that the encyclopedia is “fully illustrated.” Thankfully, it isn’t -- there might be some readers who want visuals of dendrophilia or felching, but most of us would probably rather keep as much of our innocence as Google’s filter options can preserve. Still, there’s giant picture of Woody Allen’s head sticking out of a canon, and a fully illustrated entry on Milton Berle, but we don’t get to see what Nathalie Barney or Henry Miller really looked like. Is that fair?

Carnal Knowledge is a book to flip through between a game of Trivial Pursuit and watching a couple of Oliver Reed movies on your computer. It’s entertaining, but it won’t blow your mind with everything you ever wanted to know about sex, but were afraid to ask. And there aren’t any really arousing images or blurbs in there, although the boob stills from various versions of Emmanuelle might be exciting if you are a straight twelve-year-old boy, and it is 1986.

Part of the trouble is that we now have instant access to the most infinite and horrifying sex encyclopedia imaginable, a creation like some mutated posthumous collaboration between Borges, de Sade, Antonin Artaud, and Ted Bundy: the Internet. If you want to see pictures of real war rapes, or men in Rajasthan sexually abusing their grief-stricken old wives, or real pedophiles, or anything Japanese -- if you want to know what emetophilia or klismaphilia is, or connect with thousands of people of indeterminate age who love to craft stories about Voldemort using a butt plug on Harry Potter, you’re just a click away. Any book on any subject risks irrelevance or smallness compared to this behemoth. Then again, a really magical book transcends the Internet and reminds us of the purpose of books. Carnal Knowledge doesn’t do it. 

Carnal Knowledge: Baxter's Concise Encyclopedia of Modern Sex by John Baxter
Harper Perennial
ISBN: 0060874341
400 Pages