From the draft of my thesis: Beginning #47- MASTURBATION

When deriding playful literature, word games, punning, acrostics and the like, it is not uncommon for people to use the term ‘masturbatory’. I’m reminded of a scene in Annie Hall in which Woody Allen’s character hears a work of art dismissed as ‘masturbation’ and replies, “Don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love.” Perhaps in this lineage of playfully (yet not unseriously) taking up arms against derogatory usage, Harry Matthews wrote an entire book devoted to descriptions of self-love.

“Singular Pleasures” is in many ways a classically Oulipian text. The book is structured as a series of short (paragraph long) entries that each narrate an act of masturbation. Every entry in the book follows a series of rules which involve mandates to include the masturbator’s age, gender, location, and chosen method. I suspect there is some kind combinatoric pattern or device used to determine the details of each, but I am not entirely sure.

The triumph of Singular Pleasures is that its form and subject fit each other perfectly. Masturbation is essentially a process of repetition and variation, a mechanical and redundant act buttressed by a series of shifting fantasies. Like the act described, the scenes in SP are alternately (simultaneously?) erotic, dull, depressing, and enlivening. The mechanical nature of the construction feeds the production of Matthews’ self-interested self play about playing with one’s self.

The book also demonstrates another key characteristic of play (self and otherwise). In a number of the scenes, masturbation figures as a shared activity. For example Matthews describes a man and woman who no longer enjoy sex with each other, but have realized that they love mutual masturbation. They travel frequently and in each place they visit, they each find an emblematic local implement to aid their masturbation. In another scene, a man takes his pleasure watching his younger and more attractive partner masturbate at close range. These examples and others demonstrate the potential of play, even self-play, as exciting and pleasure-giving for an observer. Singular Pleasures also shows the potential for play by one to incite and entice play by another. Such a description can quite obviously serve to characterise the functioning of Oulipian works, as they can invite, impress, and participate in a communicative transmission with their readers.

Beyond the masturbatory and the self-pleasuring as subject, there is the masturbating subject. We should note here the practice of masturbation-writing, which, although technically outside of the ken of the Oulipo, maintains a strong a connection with Potential Literature. I’m writing specifically here about one of Kathy Acker’s favored writing practices, which consisted of masturbating and then ‘writing at the point of orgasm.’ At first blush, this kind of practice is wholly an-oulipian, in that it is a writing that comes from the surrender of voluntary control. The ecstatic climactic moment being of course the moment of the body’s victory over the conscious subject, it would seem that Oulipo proper would quickly reject ‘writing at the point of orgasm’ as an heir to the already-rejected Surrealist practice of automatic writing. Still, as I will argue elsewhere, situational, physical and especially body-centered constraints do maintain an important (if under-appreciated) relationship to Oulipian use of textual constraints.


‘Onanism’, which literally refers to the non-procreative spilling of sperm by the biblical Onan, has come to be a fairly common synonym for ‘masturbation’. Onan, and masturbation by extension, is condemned for the selfish act of spilling seed without intention of that semen being (re)productive. To Woody Allen’s “What’s wrong with masturbation?” the critic might say, “You are being too selfish in your love.” And yet such as response fails when put up against the Oulipian (and Acker-ian) conception of masturbation, in which the practice is indeed generative, productive, and sharing; not a mere spilling of seed but a spreading of love.


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