Is the ‘F’ Word Necessary? A Look at HBO, D. H. Lawrence, Colette, Doris Lessing, and Erica Jong

“Fuck!”  – The Last of Us (HBO)

“I don’t over-eat myself and I don’t over-fuck myself.” – Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D. H. Lawrence

My husband and I canceled HBO Max, not for the first time. I assure you, we found nothing worth watching this spring, certainly not The Last of Us, a much- lauded rehash of the American obsession with zombie films.  In a post-apocalyptic, post-plague America, human survivors battle zombies, who were infected by a fungi plague and now share a common root system.  But, alas, the humans are less believable than the zombies:  they are so fearfully athletic and skilled with assault weapons that they are a bit zombie-like themselves.

We learned one thing from The Last of Us:  the post-plague human beings say “fuck” constantly.  And we wondered, Do the zombies attack the humans because they hate the f” word?

Mind you, I don’t philosophically object to the word “fuck.”  It seemed to be a radical breakthrough in the late 20th century when radicals and university students began to say “fuck,” “prick,” and “cunt” in an attempt  to defuse the language of sexuality.   But HBO is not about defusion: it is about profanity, shock value, and sales. 

For me, the word “fuck” plays a more vital role in literature than TV.  Naturally, one turns to D. H. Lawrence, whose books were banned for their lyrical descriptions of sex long before his famous novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, was banned in 1929.  His two best novels, The Rainbow and Women in Love, were banned in 1915 and 1920 respectively for “obscenity,”  which often took the form of  conversations about sex.

The Rainbow and  Women in Love are a duology.   The former tells the story of three generations of the Brangwen family, spanning sixtysome years from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. In the sequel, Women in Love, two couples battle to find balance in sexuality, Ursula Brangwen and Rupert Birkin, a teacher who philosophizes about what their relationship should be, and artistic Gudrun, Ursula’s younger sister, with the wealthy Gerald Crich, whose father owns the colliery.

Everyone knows Lady Chatterley’s Lover, whether he or she has read it or not.  Though far from his best work, it is crucial to understanding Lawrence’s literary role as a pioneer in changing sexual attitudes. Lady Chatterley was banned in England from 1929 till 1960. 

Lawrence vigorously, perhaps too vigorously, uses the word “fuck” throughout the novel.   At one point, the sexy gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors, says, “I don’t over-eat myself and I don’t over-fuck myself.” Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a brave book about sex, albeit with  unintentionally funny bits that make me giggle and question my sanity.   For instance, Lady Chatterley (Connie) and her lover, Oliver Mellors, refer to their genitals as Lady Jane and John Thomas.  May I just say, What the f?   In one particularly ridiculous, unerotic segment, Oliver decorates their bodies with flowers, and “wound a bit of creeping-jenny round his penis, and stuck a single bell of a hyacinth in his navel.”  He prattles  about “the wedding of John Thomas and Lady Jane.” 

Still, this novel is  powerful in its way, full of anger, sex, and  the breakdown of class. Sex is the framework for the healing of Constance Chatterley and  the  gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors. Constance is lonely, because her husband. Clifford, once a fine, strong soldier, was  crippled in World War I and is now a paraplegic. Their sex life is over.
So it is no wonder that this vibrant young woman falls for the gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors, a working-class bloke who is virile and independent while the upper class is apparently crumbling. But he is harsh when he speaks of Clifford’s paralysis.  Though Lawrence  used Oliver as a mouthpiece for his own views, and Clifford’s paralysis is, I suppose,  a metaphor for the iniquitous nature and downfall of the upper class,  I find Oliver a completely unsympathetic character – except sexually to Connie. 

In Doris Lessing’s introduction to the Penguin edition of Lady Chatterley, she analyzes Lawrence’s repeated use of “fuck” and “cunt.” She says he “wanted to rescue [them] from the lexicon of ‘dirty words.'”  Lessing writes,

And now, what would poor Lawrence say if he could see us now, where ‘fuck’ can be used casually and unthinkingly, having almost lost its power to shock?  And ‘cunt’ is not much better?  And the sex may be not much more than a glass of white wine?

Oddly, few women writers of the 20th century used the “f” word in their novels.  I think of Colette, whose writing is lush, lyrical, and sensual, who wrote about love affairs but did not feel the need to describe sex explicitly. .Doris Lessing wrote brilliant sex scenes but certainly did  not use the “f” word.  And yet we are thrilled when Martha Quest in Landlocked, the third book in The  Children of Violence series, finally has a skillful lover and leans about good sex when she is nearly 30. In The Four-Gated City, the last book in the series, Martha has more sex, and the sex scenes, good and bad, are more explicit.

(N. B. Doris Lessing did not use the “f” word in her writing, but when she received the Nobel, journalists caught her getting out of a taxi and the first word she said was, “Fuck!”)

The woman writer best known for using the “f” word in the 20th century is undoubtedly Erica Jong, the author of the best-selling novel, Fear of Flying,  and several other books, including volumes of poetry and three sequels to Fear of Flying.

 Influenced by Henry Miller, the American writer whose novel, Tropic of Cancer, was banned in 1938 for sex scenes, Jong writes in great detail about sexual desire and sexual satisfaction. That said, the  narrator, Isadora Wing, is the doppelgänger of Jong, a poet married to a Japanese psychoanalyst. We empathize with Isadora’s fear on the plane as she and her husband fly to Switzerland for a psychoanalysts’ conference:  there are 117 psychoanalysts on the plane, Isadora tells us wryly. 

Being a psychoanalyst’s wife is not enough for Isadora, who is dissatisfied with her marriage and bored with  her husband’s profession.. She fantasizes about finding the “zipless fuck,” as she calls her fantasy of great sex without commitment.  And we read on, wondering, Will she get it?

I was not a great fan of Fear of Flying, her first novel, but some of her later novels are elegant, especially Fear of Dying, in which she explores a woman’s sexuality in old age.  And that, we will agree, is seldom written about in novels, and  is all but banned from human consciousness.  Kudos to Jong, the female Henry Miller, who fortunately was not banned for her work, though there is a lot of that around these days.

And I really must reread Fear of Flying, which I was probably too young for when I first read it!