Extreme Solitude

Internet Histories

10.08.2010

Extreme Solitude

From Jeffrey Eugenides’ short story “Extreme Solitude” in the New Yorker:

Almost overnight it became laughable to read writers like Cheever or Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeleine and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about anally deflowering virgins in eighteenth-century France. Madeleine had become an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read. The university’s “British and American Literature Course Catalogue” was, for Madeleine, what its Bergdorf equivalent was for her roommates. A course listing like “English 274: Lyly’s Euphues” excited Madeleine the way a pair of Fiorucci cowboy boots did Abby.

“English 450A: Hawthorne and James” filled Madeleine with an expectation of sinful hours in bed that was not unlike the sensation Olivia got from wearing a Lycra skirt and leather blazer to Danceteria. Right up through her third year of college, Madeleine had kept wholesomely taking courses like “Victorian Fantasy: From ‘Phantastes’ to ‘The Water-Babies,’ ” but by senior year she could no longer ignore the contrast between the blinky people in her Beowulf seminar and the hipsters down the hall reading Maurice Blanchot.

Going to college in the moneymaking eighties lacked a certain radicalism. Semiotics was the first thing that smacked of revolution. It drew a line; it created an elect; it was sophisticated and Continental; it dealt with provocative subjects, with torture, sadism, hermaphroditism––with sex and power.

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