Nobody mentioned Norah Vincent's Self-Made Man (Viking Adult 2006), in which the author describes her eighteen-month experiment in which she disguised herself as a man and spent time in a range of all-male hang-outs (concluding that she preferred being a woman*). Nor did Tiresias come into it. He was the prophet of Apollo who spent seven years as a woman before being turned back into a man. He preferred being a woman, I think I remember. Checking the story with Wikipedia, I find that the first sex change - man to woman - was a punishment (sic) for killing two snakes that he had found, er, making out, while the second sex-change was a reward (sic) for not killing another two snakes found similarly, ah, compromised.
Yes, here we are. One version of Tiresias' story suggests that he was drawn into an argument between Hera and Zeus as to whether women or men got more fun out of sex. This was after all the snakes, so Tiresias could speak with authority. "Of ten parts a man enjoys one only," Tiresias replied (says Wikipedia; I don't stray far for my sources). For that, Hera - yes, Hera - struck him blind. If I've got that right, that means she didn't want to be the one getting more - never mind. No, dear, I'm not complaining. Zeus, by way of compensation, gave him a longer life and the gift of foresight. Thanks, I guess. Although Tiresias should have retired from public life at that point, I think. Look him up.
Where was I ? Oh yes - sex scenes. Depictions aimed at getting them right from the other point of view. We could get into Virginia Woolf's Orlando: A Biography (Hogarth Press, of course; 1928) here, although that's more about having imaginary fun with Vita Sackville-West, over a long, history-rich opulently imagined life, than about the physicality of the, um, act. Or wasn't there a recent-ish Japanese animation...? Hold on a second. Yes, there was. Your Name (2016). But we're dangerously close to watching clips from It's a Boy Girl Thing (2016) on YouTube and losing the plot entirely. Nobody even think of mentioning Franz Kafka's Gregor Samsa, okay? We're talking about switching from one gender to the other, which Tiresias does and Orlando does, and you'll need only five minutes of the several hours you might end up spending on Google to realise that this is a big subject. Gender, generation - Freaky Friday (I argue for the 2003 remake with Jamie Lee Curtis) - we're all interested in the experience of the other.
I suspect the necessary art here is not to get the detail right, actually. It's not to write convincingly about how, er, this goes there, and the going feels good when you're on the receiving, uh, hah! Lovely day. Must go for a walk later. Because if you do get it to sound right, in all its richly detailed intensity, your readers are only going to assume that you asked a few people and took down their answers. [Am I squeamish or childish? I so wanted to type 'trousers' there.] Once upon a time, maybe in the nineteen-seventies, there was a sub-genre of thrillers written by male writers and with female protagonists ... who would invariably, around Chapter Two, strip off in front of a full-length mirror and describe themselves to themselves.
But we're not going there either. Strictly in the matter of writing one side from the other side, so to speak, or any side from not itself, the necessary art is to say as little as possible. Because, if you're genuinely writing about unlived (by you) experience and you want to get it right, the best you can do is conjure up a sequence of hints that enable the reader "on the other side" to conjure up in turn a person in not quite their own image. Whether or not you're writing about sex. Supply nothing that jars, nothing that gets in the way of the imagination, because frankly, nobody can write anybody. Men can't write Women and vice-versa, but if you get the writing transparent enough, conducive enough to the reader's imagination, mainly limited to the externals perhaps, then it doesn't matter who you are.
Men can't - doesn't matter. Women can't - doesn't matter. What matters is that in the writing, Men can read A Man when you want them to, and Women can read A Woman when you give them - just enough. Get the writing transparent, conducive, clear - and they'll supply the detail from their own experience.
Several days after the conversation happened, I have finally made the point that I would have made if I'd thought of it at the time. Subject closed; normal service resumed.
*This from the book's Wikipedia entry: "Vincent writes about how the only time she has ever been considered excessively feminine was during her stint as a man: her alter ego, Ned, was assumed to be gay on several occasions, and features which in her as a woman had been seen as "butch" became oddly effeminate when seen in a man."
Then I went into this further. There’s a Darth Vader “grotesque” on the Washington National Cathedral, in the USA, and the character Gizmo, from Gremlins (1984), is depicted in stone on the 15th century Chapelle de Bethléem in Nantes, France (I found this out here). I think the distinction is that while a “grotesque” is a carved figure, only a “gargoyle” takes rainwater from the roof and projects it away from the walls. There’s a brief film here that convinces me that Paisley Abbey’s alien is engaged in water removal.
I’m delighted. I could probably work up some kind of an argument that we’ve relocated scariness – or anti-scariness – from church teachings to the manifestations of cinema, and I’m sure I could find some kind of significance in that, but why bother? It’s a shame we can’t buy gargoyles alongside the pipes and joints at DIY stores, because they’ve clearly passed the test of time, but hey – there’s one of H R Giger’s aliens on the side of Paisley Abbey, and this time it’s on our side. Things ancient and modern.
Concluding his 1927 essay Possible Worlds (which is the title essay in a collection; search online), the scientist J B S Haldane writes: “I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” I remember once discovering that an argument for “intelligent design” (in the sense, somebody had to have made this, it can’t just be chance, so that proves the existence of God) is that the universe is complex – the complexity of a Bee, say, is such that it can’t have occurred by chance (or, you know, evolution).
An argument for queerness, in its 1927 sense of strangeness, is easier to make. Today, for example, we have a Swiss artist’s design for an extra-terrestrial monster featured in a 20th Century Fox production of an English director’s film starring an American actress now protecting a 12th Century Scottish abbey. Quod Erat Demonstrandum is probably the Latin phrase I need at this point. You could make it up, but you probably wouldn’t.
*By me, among others. Many years ago, I wrote an article under the title How Not To Be Eaten By A Lion. The Jersey zoo’s lion man was working at home on the day I phoned, I remember. I sometimes wonder what work he took home with him.