Jack’s Naughty Bits: Harry Mathews, Singular Pleasures

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Jack's Naughty Bits

a little closer, I want to whisper something in your ear: I play Scrabble — alone.
Frequently, joyfully, almost compulsively, I take out my dictionaries, set up the board,
draw the tiles for one side (leaving the other side’s tiles undrawn until I’ve played the
first side’s — so as not to “cheat”) and shift the letters in my mind until the near-certainty
that I’ve extracted as many points as humanly (or cybernetically) possible from the move
tells me I can place the tiles out on the board. Then it’s the competition’s turn, and I do
the same thing. An hour later, the game is over. The score is astronomical; my mind is
calm. And I’ve successfully kept for myself something that’s supposed to be shared with


And that, in fact, was the crime of the biblical father of masturbation, Onan,
who, when he was supposed to impregnate his brother’s wife, pulled out instead
and spilled his seed on the ground. So the word “onanism” — though it’s come to mean
masturbation — really just means wasting. Perhaps, then, the mental masturbation of
abstruse art and writing is so named not because of the pleasure it gives the practitioner,
but because it breaks the promise of communication.


Harry Mathews has no such problem. The lone American member of the group of
mathematicians and writers known as Oulipo (short, in French, for “workshop in
potential literature” — they are dedicated to the creativity fostered by formal constraint),
Mathews composed a book of sixty-one prose poems about masturbation. And though
the collection is titled Singular Pleasures, it shares its gift most readily. Each
poem presents a different scene, in a different locale, of a different person of varying age
(from nine to eighty-one) masturbating in imaginative, telling, poignant and playful
ways. After reading the entirety of Mathews collection, you begin to get a sense of the
limitless possibilities, and want to add new ones to his list. “There was a man of thirty
in a squalid walk-up in Little Italy, leaning naked over a Scrabble board . . . ”

* * *   

From Singular Pleasures by Harry Mathews

A man of thirty-five is about to experience orgasm in one of the better condominiums in
Gaza. He is masturbating, but neither hand nor object touches his taut penis: arranged in a
circle, five hairblowers direct their streams of warm air toward that focal point. He has
plugged his ears with wax balls.

* * *   

While the Aeolian String Quartet performs the final variation of Haydn’s “Emperor” Quartet
in the smaller of Managua’s two concert halls, a man of three score and four summers sits
masturbating in the last row of the orchestra, a coat on his lap. Thirty-three years before,
after relieving himself during the intermission of another concert, he had returned to his
seat with his fly unbuttoned. Unconscious of his appearance, he had become erect during a
scintillating performance of the Schubert Octet and actually ejaculated during the final
chords. The house lights had come up to reveal his disarray; he had fled; ever since, he has
been laboring steadfastly to recreate that momentary bliss.

* * *   

As he masturbates, a forty-five-year-old man in Pretoria is standing in front of a full-length
mirror watching himself. On the far side of the two-way mirror, a woman of eighty-one
sits looking at him, one hand busy beneath her skirts. The man ejaculates onto the mirror:
she mutters, “Too soon!”

* * *   

Inmates of the pensioners home in Constantia, Romania, four women (aged seventy-one,
seventy-three, seventy-four, and seventy-six) and four men (seventy, seventy-two,
seventy-five, seventy-eight) conceive and execute a plan for independent, simultaneous
masturbation. Each agrees to aim for orgasm, in the privacy of bed, on the twelfth stroke of
midnight every Saturday night, after the weekly bingo and dancing. — The director of the
home will later be struck by the particular vivacity of these eight as it grows from week to
week. They will refuse, however, to divulge the reason for their zest.

* * *   

Sitting on an overstuffed chair by his bed, a boy of nine is masturbating near Stamford,
Connecticut. He does not ejaculate, but a pearl of sperm gathers at the point of his still-childish
erection. He knows what’s going on.

© Harry Mathews reprinted with permission of the author