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Twist and Shout: Sex as Metaphor

Jayne English

21 Samson_and_Delilah_by_Rubens

When the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan in 1964 singing “Twist and Shout,” the veins in John Lennon’s neck bulged as he screamed the lyrics above the noise of the crowd. There were 700 in attendance that night, but 50,000 people had requested tickets to see the Beatles perform and 73 million people watched from home. What did the Beatles tap into that wrung screams and tears from their audience? It was something a little unexpected: metaphor. Metaphor has two parts: tenor, which is the subject of the metaphor, and vehicle, the way that subject is delivered. While teens around the country were over the moon with the Beatles’ sexy looks and lyrics – the vehicle of their art – what hit a nerve and gave them lasting celebrity was their tenor of longing. Sex is reflected everywhere in our culture; music, films, TV shows, books, and a lot of times, there is no metaphor, just sex. But many artists know that sex is an apt vehicle for longing.

Doesn't Mad Men show us this? Is it really just sex that Draper, in all his dalliances, is after? We know by now he’s plagued by a confused sense of identity and feelings of abandonment. We’ve seen Draper’s longing surface as he reads Dante’s Inferno, takes his kids to see his childhood home (a brothel), and when he finally tells the truth (when “it wasn’t the right time”) even though it resulted in being put on indefinite leave. Sex, the vehicle, in Mad Men is everywhere, setting us up for the metaphor’s tenor of longing.

Sex is also used as a metaphor in the Bible. Jesus is the Groom, the church is the bride of Christ. In fact, the Hebrew reverses our sense of longing with God’s longing for us. The word used for sex in the Old Testament is yada, used to “describe God's knowing and his longing of his people.”1

When John Updike published his first novel, Rabbit, Run, Knopf had him cut out some of the more explicit scenes (though they were restored in later editions). In a 1960 New York Times review, David Boroff predicted that some of the descriptions would “shock the prudish.”2 Updike was a professing Christian. Did he intentionally write a book to scandalize people? How do we know if there is a vehicle of metaphor in play or if it is just sex? In Updike’s case, he placed a signpost at the start quoting Pascal in his epigraph: “The motions of grace, the hardness of the heart; external circumstances.”

How can we differentiate sex as metaphor in films we see and books we read? Sex is pervasive in our culture’s art. What does that say about our longing?

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