Sense and Sensuality: A Fine Read

The Ottawa XPress – July 7, 2005

Aviva Cohen’s Sex and Sublimation (Tritonia Press, 213 pages, $19.99)

Aviva Cohen’s “Sex and Sublimation”

Aviva Cohen’s debut novel gives art and authenticity a highly sexualized once-over

Sex and Sublimation is a literary gem that shines light on the role and responsibility of the feeling person in contemporary society. A text both stylistic in its postmodern delivery yet endearing for its simplicity (you can read it in a night), it will satisfy your craving for that long-awaited conversation about art and artists.

Indeed, Cohen’s debut novel is a superior contemporary Canadian contribution to the discussion of creative urge and personality development – a topic that gained popularity in the 1930s through psychologist and writer Otto Rank’s seminal text, Art and the Artist.

Sex and Sublimation is a gripping account of a cynical 23-year-old urban female looking to secure physical and spiritual survival in Brixton, U.K. The story follows Ria in her tight leather jacket as she explores the meaning of love, life and art through conversations in coffee shops, bedrooms, art galleries and in the council estate flat she shares with marginal folks.

Throughout her journey, she experiences a lot of anxiety, arguably because, by Rankian standards, she is the neurotic-artist type who suffers a burning inside: “It is that we have the gift of feeling deeply. Of sensing acutely. A curse when confused. A curse when unable to distinguish.”

Her sore stomachs and migraines are testament to her fight to create a meaningful existence in a power- and money-driven jungle. Her recourse and resulting depression, “punishment for thinking outside of the many labelled boxes.”

The book focuses on the need to sublimate these vibes into something productive or at least socially or culturally acceptable. But only at the end when Ria picks up a paintbrush does she begin to accomplish that.

Until then she has sex with strangers, which brings her little pleasure: “‘Just relax,’ Sandy’s finger on my clitoris. Pushing hard. Moving jagged…” She can’t come. “Then he plunges his body on mine. Inserts his scoop like a shovel in the grotto, scraping.” She’s left feeling used, but considers sex a place where “at least here I find something alive…”

And yet, at the expense of feeling “something alive,” comes disillusionment: “Don’t be naïve girl. Not even here is there anything that isn’t automatic.” Ria confesses, “I don’t want to become hard, closed down,” and hungers for connection. But she later undercuts vulnerability with a quirky, “When in doubt: screw! Like so many before.”

Unusual in the exploration of women and casual sex is Cohen’s substitution of moral judgment upon female promiscuity with a subtext of neurosis, practical discourse on the toxicity of apathy, and Ria’s “desire to see patterns that we are all trapped by.”

These are big topics, but Sex and Sublimation is punctuated by singular humour, that any threat of lofty pretension is blown apart by our protagonist’s candid, and endearing observations-like how she thinks “shitting” is the “last truly creative, independent, act” in a world of pretentious vernissages.

It all boils down to the courage to recreate a happy life. Ria issues a challenge: “Is it so terrifying to look totally afresh at the possibilities of who we are and what we are capable of?” Cohen’s nailed it. Time for you to answer the question.

– Sylvie Hill