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Friday , November 23 , 2012
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Vagina: A New Biography By Naomi Wolf, Virago, Rs 550

“I have always been interested in female sexuality, and in the history of female sexuality,” writes Naomi Wolf in answer to the discerning question “Why write a book about the vagina?” with which she begins this book. The tone of the answer would suggest that “female sexuality” is something out there, something in which one can be “interested”, instead of, say, being involved. This was surprising, coming as it did from a female author. But the book is full of surprises, mainly because Wolf herself is perpetually surprised at the audacity of the theory she propounds here, even if no reader shares this sense of amazement. But I certainly had one or two revelations after reading Vagina. Among other things, I learnt that there is a “female soul”, that there is a delightful exercise called “yoni-tapping” undertaken to release “trauma stored in the genitals”, and that the tasks of scientists include tickling female lab rats with tiny brushes to give them sexual pleasure.

The book is overrun with rats and mice because they help validate, rather than test, the author’s thesis about the interconnectedness of the female brain and the vagina. There is a distinctly Wordsworthian quality to Wolf’s quest, not the least because it was intimations of mortality (read midlife crisis) that caused the author to undertake the odyssey. She had woken up one fateful day to find that “I increasingly did not experience sex as being incredibly emotionally meaningful. I wanted it physically — it was a hunger and a repletion — but I no longer experienced it in a poetic dimension... colors were just colors — they did not heighten after lovemaking any longer”.

To bring the colours back to the rainbow and the rose, she travels down to the deep romantic chasm between female legs, where she successfully hears ancestral voices from Tantric India and Taoist China telling her that the vagina is the cup of amrita, of “hope, creativity, confidence”. But so far as Wolf is concerned, this is a foregone conclusion. She had decided at the outset to attribute every joy and sorrow and each outburst of creativity that haunt women to the vagina. In the course of this book, she just lines up a series of doctors, frustrated, wide-eyed women, porn addicts, sexual healers, and lab rats, and shakes them up vigorously, as Wordsworth had done to the leech-gatherer, so that they unanimously agree on the issue, one feels, to escape further harassment.

Once Wolf gets the required confirmation, her faith in her dwindling creative juices is restored and the book ends with a shudder. But before that there are appropriate fireworks to celebrate the occasion. Author and family go to the Minoan islands, where they watch a devouring forest fire, masticating she-goats, busy bees and blooming flowers, all lending credence to the existence of the “undimmed, unsullied feminine energy, creating and giving”.

The book is corny from start to finish. Women utter “Oh my God” with abandon, are supposed to melt all over their male partners if the latter address them as “Goddess”; the author sheds copious tears at regular intervals, the most when she hears insensitive men making “rape jokes, those pussy jokes”; an actress experiences “transcendental” orgasm on stage as she enters deeply into her characters; the world “glows” after Wolf reads Anaïs Nin. It is pop philosophy at its mawkish best: one can almost imagine Wolf sitting Oprah Winfrey-style on her couch, handing out wisdom on healing sex as her audience gawps and gulps and sobs in obliging reverence. Amidst this charming show of female bonding, one begins to feel a twang of pity for heterosexual males, on whom rests the onus of making the vagina throb with life. In the penultimate chapter, “Radical pleasure, radical awakening: the vagina as liberator”, Wolf belts out a series of instructions on how men can make their women happy. The strictures range from “value her, help her”, “gaze into her eyes” “tell her she’s beautiful” to “ejaculate”. Is there anything “radical” in all this? Any standard ‘wellness’ book, dishing out cutesie sex in shades of pink, would sizzle with such advice. Besides, in a complete swing from the “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” stance of the new feminists, women now become dolls, to be petted and cosseted constantly by men so that they learn to love themselves. While men surely need to value, and not rape, women, they also have their own poor selves and bodies, and perhaps those of other men, to attend to. A man cannot possibly spend his life lighting candles for his woman, as a woman cannot spend all her life having orgasms.

Vagina is one of those few books which is what it is, like the “God” with whom Wolf makes a wager, which occasions this work. It begins and ends in the vagina: for all her talk about the brain-vagina connection, Wolf never gives the impression that she has travelled upwards from the nether regions. Although Wolf apparently won the bet with god — that if he ‘heals’ her (that is, makes her regain the “poetic dimension” of sex) she would write about her experience — the nature of the healing would suggest that god has been devilishly cunning with her. The author’s sex life is back on track, thanks to the clever ministrations of the surgeon, Dr Babu. But her creative and intellectual spark has gone out — possibly smothered by the darkness of the vagina.