‘My body shall be all yours’: the startling sex letters of Joyce, Kahlo and O’Keeffe

Published in The Guardian on May 2, 2017

“I did as you told me, you dirty little girl, and pulled myself off twice when I read your letter.” He might be celebrated for his epic and allusive novels, but James Joyce came straight to the point when writing to his partner, Nora Barnacle. This was the opening salvo of a letter from 1908 and is just one of scores of explicit missives he sent her.

A new stage show is celebrating such letters of desire sent by famous figures through the centuries, whether explicit or coded, erotic or romantic. Theatre-maker Rachel Mars is curating a selection to be read aloud in the performance which is part of the Hotbed “festival of sex” at Camden People’s theatre in London. These will be interspersed with anonymised modern messages: texts, tweets and dating app sexts.

If emails have done away with the fine art of correspondence, then what future is there for the sex letter compared with the instant gratification offered by a flurry of Tinder messages? There’s a certain sensuality that is surely lost when long-awaited love letters are replaced by auto-destructing Snapchat messages.

“The form of sexting is so immediate,” says Mars. “I am nostalgic for letters. There’s a craft that’s been lost in expressing some kind of desire or passion or bodily experience for someone else.”

Mars isn’t the only one who has recognised the power of a good letter in recent years. Blogger Shaun Usher collected correspondence for his website Letters of Note, which became a publishing phenomenon and spawned the hugely popular Letters Live events. Mars’s show will feature about 15 letters, ranging from the sublime to the “pretty grubby”. On the one hand, artist Frida Kahlo’s love letters to Diego Rivera are a thing of fecund beauty. She rhapsodises over “the green miracle of the landscape of your body”, using lush, natural imagery to convey physical desire: “There was all manner of fruits in the juice of your lips, the blood of the pomegranate, the horizon of the mammee and the purified pineapple.”

Many of the letters convey intense yearning for an absent lover, such as artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s letters to photographer Alfred Stieglitz in 1922: “Its [sic] my body that wants you and it seems to be the only thought or desire that I have – it even seems to be my only memory of you – two bodies that have fused – have touched with completeness at both ends making a complete circuit.” In another, she writes: “I am on my back – waiting to be spread wide apart – waiting for you to die with the sense of you – the pleasure of you – the sensuousness of you touching the sensuousness of me – all my body – all of me is waiting for you to touch the center of me with the center of you.”

Novelist Radclyffe Hall’s letter to Evguenia Souline in 1934 is full of the bitter sweetness of separation, too: “I wonder if you realize how much I am counting on your coming to England, how much it means to me – it means all the world, and indeed my body shall be all, all yours, as yours will be all, all mine, beloved.” You also get a sense of the precarious secrecy of a letter, here used not only to conduct an adulterous affair, but a lesbian one.

On the other hand, some sex letters are funny. Consider the desperation of Marcel Proust begging his grandfather for money so he can go once more to a prostitute to cure his “awful masturbation habit”, after he broke a chamber pot and got too flustered to perform the first time.

But it is the Joyce letters that form the skeleton of the evening, with Mars and other performers including Brian Lobel, Rachael Young and Naomi Woddis all reading his scatological messages. And they really are very rude, full of enthusiasm for anal sex, in particular. “You had an arse full of farts that night, darling,” writes Joyce to Barnacle in 1908, “big fat fellows, long windy ones, quick little merry cracks and a lot of tiny little naughty farties”.

“I was thoroughly shocked by the Joyce ones,” confesses Mars. “He’s obviously massively into anal stuff and scat. To find the specificity of pleasure in that kind of non-normative practice, over a hundred years ago … I found that delightfully shocking. It shook me out of my nonsense view of these practices being new.”

The project began when Mars was feeling depressed after the Brexit vote, far from home on an artists’ residency in upstate New York. A US academic came out on the porch and, promising to cheer her up, read Joyce’s letters aloud for half an hour. It did the trick – and now she wants to share this cheering potential. “There’s something joyous about making something personal and taboo into a communal activity,” she says. “I want to talk about bodies … I want to talk about pleasure.”

Sharing the very private form of a sex letter in public will certainly prompt sniggers. But these letters also deserve to be celebrated because they remind us of the varied ways people have always experienced sexual pleasure – and because writing about that can be its own work of art.

Your Sexts Are Shit: Older Better Letters is at Camden People’s theatre, London, on 4 May

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