Stereotypes and presumptions about sex have always permeated American culture and society. From taboos to perversions to fetishes, sex and the things that come with it; relationships, marriages, and all else, have been fraught with misunderstanding. For most of history, human sexuality remained an unexplored subject, and many people formed their own conceptions about sex through personal experience, religious teaching, or other methods. However, as people began to become more educated on sex and sexuality, many of those ideas changed. People’s minds were clean slates with no previous scientific sexual knowledge, and this allowed science at the turn of the 20th century to define the idea of sex for generations. Sigmund Freud was one of the first scientists to extensively study sexual behavior in humans, and his psychosexual analysis is the pillar upon which many theories about sex and sexuality in humans were formed. Although many of his conclusions were proven to be incorrect, the influence of his work can still be seen in modern ideas about sexuality. Many of Freud’s ideas about sexual deviance and abnormality can be seen in A.M. Homes’ Music for Torching.
Troubled couple Paul and Elaine have a very unhealthy marriage and inadequate sex life, and they take out their frustrations with their situation by partaking in unusual and unexpected sexual encounters, thoughts, and feelings. Both highly self-conscious and insecure people, Paul and Elaine are constantly nervous about their performance in all aspects of life, especially sex. They see sex as part of a norm that they must abide by, and that their sex has to fit into certain guidelines in order to be acceptable. Because of these high stakes and the pressure to be perfect, Paul and Elaine frequently feel the need to suppress any abnormal feelings regarding their sexual experiences. Sigmund Freud’s ideas of repression and inversion from Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality are exemplified in Music for Torching through Elaine’s lesbian relationship with Pat and Paul’s feminine tendencies. Freud argues that when events or desires are too painful or frightening to process, the human brain will push those ideas or memories into the subconscious so that they do not disturb everyday life. One of the sexual perversions that Freud argues is most repressed is the tendency for homosexuality. Freud makes a particular distinction about the abnormality of homosexual behavior because he views the purpose of sex as to bear children. In a homosexual relationship no children can be created, and therefore Freud argues that it is an unnatural sexual deviancy.
In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Freud states that “The normal sexual aim is regarded as being the union of the genitals in the act known as copulation, which leads to a release of the sexual tension and a temporary extinction of the sexual instinct” (Freud 15). However, in Music for Torching, Elaine has a homosexual experience with her female neighbor, Pat. Although they are both married, they are both greatly satisfied by the experience. Elaine however is terrified that someone will find out not that she cheated on her husband, but that she cheated on her husband with another woman. In Elaine’s case, the idea of having any homosexual urges is too abnormal to process, and she instead obsesses over why the encounter happened. She refuses to accept that she might not be completely straight, and instead tries to find another reason why she enjoyed having sex with Pat. In the society that Elaine lives in, she is surrounded by heterosexuality on all sides. Her neighbors are all straight couples, and she feels that her homosexual behavior is so strange that she would be cast out from her friends and family because of it. During the sexual encounter with Pat, “Everything Elaine thinks about who she is, what she is, is irrelevant” (Homes 105). Elaine has based her entire identity around her sexuality; she has been entirely focused on the idea of marriage and kids, and she has never considered that she could live any other way of life. It is stated that “Elaine is thinking that it’ll stop in a minute, it won’t really happen, it won’t go too far. It’s just two women exploring” (Homes 107). This is a perfect example of repression; as soon as Elaine starts to feel desire for a woman, she tried to convince herself that it isn’t real. When Freud describes sexual deviations, he says that “Some [inverts] accept their inversion as something in the natural course of things… and insist energetically that inversion is as legitimate as the normal attitude; others rebel against their inversion and feel it as a pathological compulsion” (Freud 3). Elaine is certainly rebelling against her inversion. She cannot help but enjoy her experience with Pat, but she cannot accept that it might actually be part of her identity as a person.
After her encounter with Pat, Elaine becomes increasingly frightened and anxious. She thinks to herself “did it really happen? Has Pat done this before? Does Pat think it was all Elaine’s fault? And why is Elaine thinking about fault? Why is she blaming herself?” (Homes 110). As soon as the sex is over Elaine is trying to justify it in her mind, to come up with some reason for it besides the fact that she is attracted to women. For Elaine, a heterosexual existence is key to her lifestyle. This reflects one of Freud’s observations about homosexuality and/or degeneracy which states that in degenerates “several serious deviations from the normal are found together, and the capacity for efficient functioning and survival seem to be severely impaired” (Freud 4). The idea of homosexuality as something shameful that needs to be pushed away is an idea that Elaine has taken to heart. She worries that having sex with Elaine will ruin her identity and prove that she is a bad wife, mother, and member of affluent society. In order to deal with this realization, she pushes her feelings and memories about Pat into the recesses of her mind in an unsuccessful attempt to subdue her desire. Secondly is the idea of Paul’s feminine tendencies. Although he often tries to act like the man of the house, Paul frequently deals with bouts of fear and insecurity that are tied to his sense of masculinity. During their stay with Pat and George, Paul shaves his legs and puts on a nightgown, and when asked about it by Elaine he says “I feel pretty” (Homes 56). Paul frequently challenges masculine concepts in his private life with Elaine, and yet he still feels the need to dominate her and impose his male stature. According to Freud, one explanation for Paul’s behavior could be that he is not finding satisfaction with his current sexual relationship with Elaine, so he is using other tactics to try to find fulfillment. Freud states that “A certain degree of fetishism is thus habitually present in normal love, especially in those stages of it in which the normal sexual aim seems unattainable or its fulfillment prevented” (Freud 20). Perhaps Paul is acting more feminine in order to connect with Elaine, who is struggling with her attraction to women. While this is possible according to Freud, there are other aspects of Paul’s character that suggest his femininity is more than just a phase caused by his marriage. He admits to still being fond of his college roommate with whom he had homosexual relations, but he would never himself admit to being anything other than straight.
In order to keep up appearances, Paul is forced to deny the feminine aspects of himself that we see emerge throughout the novel. In this way Homes’ interpretation of the characters might differ from Freud’s. Whereas Freud promoted the idea of penis envy (a woman is jealous of men because of the phallic nature of the male genitalia that she will never be able to obtain), Homes seems to imply that Paul desires a more female form. By doing traditionally feminine things like shaving his legs and arms, he is displaying the fact that there is a definite female side to his personality. While Freud makes no mention of a male alternative to penis envy, the idea of men having womb envy has been proposed by psychiatrist Karen Horney. She claims that “When one begins, as I did, to analyze men after a fairly long experience of analyzing women, one receives a most surprising impression of the intensity of this envy of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood” (Horney 1967, Horrocks 82), and this could be one explanation for Paul’s actions. Both Paul and Elaine are struggling to fulfill their roles in their home and marriage, and one reason that Paul feels unfulfilled as a father figure and masculine presence might be because he has an inherent jealousy of women yet represses it to sustain his image as a man. From his psychoanalysis, Freud does not usually criticize the shortcomings of men as he does women, as he views the male form as more ideal and desired.
Although a woman might be jealous of a man’s body, according to Freud’s ideas a man would never desire to be a woman. Homes is challenging this idea by presenting Paul as even more feminine than Elaine in many ways. While Elaine works well and is fairly level-headed during the crisis at the end of the novel, Paul is frantic and distraught; something that a traditionally manly character would not display. Rather than being strong and stoic, he breaks down into hysterics while his wife takes on the role of protector and defender. The fact that Freud does not include this stance on a shift in masculinity shows the downfalls of his theories and research. While is appears that Paul is neither gay nor straight, Freud would not likely have classified his as bisexual, as Freud was critical of the idea, referring to ‘a feminine brain in a masculine body’ as being “express[ion] in its crudest form” (Freud 8). Rather than operating from an objective, purely scientific standpoint, Freud was drawing upon his own experiences and behaviors for his research, which often led him to draw conclusions about sexuality that were not applicable to everyone. Homes displays Paul’s character in a way that Freud would never have imagined, and in this way Homes’ fictional text teaches the reader more about male sexuality than Freud’s scientific text. While Freud was correct in that Paul was displaying repression, Freud would likely have associated Paul’s actions with something other than inherent femininity or womb envy. Although Freud’s work can be used to analyze the behavior of real people, it’s important to remember that his research was imperfect, as Homes displays a crucial flaw with his analysis of male sexual desire. Both Freud and Homes suggest different reasons and motivations for the actions of Paul and Elaine. While both characters struggle with their homosexual tendencies and repress unwelcome urges, Freud and Homes provide different reasons for why the character chose to act the way that they did. From Freud’s scientific text we can draw certain conclusions, but we known that Freud’s research was biased and inaccurate.
By drawing upon his own experience as evidence for his conclusions, Freud was really analyzing his own sexuality, and his work would not be useful in examining anything other than what he himself experienced. Those incorrect ideas then took root in society as they were the only popular ideas offered at the time, and many harmful stereotypes and misconceptions were created. Freud also classified everything he didn’t experience as abnormal, which is untrue. Just because Freud never had any homosexual feelings or struggles with gender expression does not mean that those feelings were abnormal. We can see this through the characters in Music for Torching, as they are examples of (fairly) normal people who are struggling with issues of sexuality and gender that we can see today in modern society. Being bisexual is no longer considered abnormal, just as there are plenty of normal men who enjoy feminine things like dresses and nightgowns. In his critique of Freud, author Richard Webster states that “no negative critique of psychoanalysis, however powerful, can ever constitute an adequate refutation of the theories which Freud put forward. For in scientific reality bad theories can only be driven out by better theories” (Webster 597). Homes shows that even in perfect “normal” suburbia, these deviations from sexual norms are occurring in every house with even the most average of families. What better way to show the normalcy of varied sexual behavior? Karen Horney said it best herself when she exclaimed that “A perfectly normal person is rare in our civilization” (Time 1952). Paul and Elaine might not be perfectly normal, but they don’t really have to be. Rather than trying to be normal, they should pursue the relationships and experiences that make them genuinely happy.