Book Reviews, Love, Sociocultural Phenomena

Erica Jong (born in 1942): Fear of Flying, 1973 

«I was wearing a black tank suit with a V-neck cut down to my navel, and everyone kept staring at me: the women in disapproval and the men in lechery. I could feel Adrian’s semen slimy between my legs and leaking out into the chlorinated pool. An American donating English semen to the Germans. A sort of cockeyed Marshall Plan. Let his semen bless their water and baptize them. Let it cleanse them of their sins. Adrian the Baptist. And me as Mary Magdalene. But I also wondered if swimming right after screwing would get me pregnant. Maybe the water would push the semen up behind my diaphragm.» (Erica Jong, Fear of Flying, Glasgow: Grafton, 1974, p. 116)

Porn? No, lib!

Polemical and cheeky, infused with the deepest, most refreshing irreverence, Erica Jong’s 1973 bestseller Fear of Flying has sold over 30 million copies and has been translated into over 40 languages. A ravishing novel written with great political and social chutzpah, this «liberation book» created a scandal in the Western world and turned its author into an icon of the women’s movement overnight. Puritan U.S. society perceived the book as an impertinent and brazen breach of taboos. Similarly, in Europe, it was frequently considered pornography, or even dismissed as «housewife fantasy». 

Erica Jong certainly didn’t mince words. With sensual pleasure and explicitness, she talked about «flying»—her metaphor for women’s self-determination in sexuality, for creativity, and for women’s autonomy. Dishonest as patriarchal male-dominated society was, it was unable to forgive Erica Jong her self-exposures, her admissions of weaknesses, and her confessions of her most secret thoughts. These were, after all, the very symptoms of female self-confidence—something that was absolutely unwanted.

Wisdom and wit

The frame story takes the first-person narrator on a trip to Europe for a psychoanalysts’ congress in Vienna, which she attends with one of her husbands. It is packed with her successive kiss-and-tell stories, which she narrates and attempts to interpret full of wit and esprit. The book is ultimately an autobiography—certainly embellished here and there—that is written with utter honesty and total unpretentiousness and therefore absolutely enjoyable to read. Besides sex, she takes aim at her Jewish background as well as at psychoanalysis (both of which she is the offspring, so to speak), and she doesn’t stop short of sarcastic remarks about German (Nazi) culture. Nothing is sacred to her, and the amount of wisdom and life experience exhibited is amazing, especially considering the author’s age at the time of writing. Henry Miller once compared her Fear of Flying to his Tropic of Cancer—although Erica Jong’s book is by far wittier…

On images of women: «So I learned about women from men… I learned what an orgasm was from D.H. Lawrence disguised as Lady Chatterley. I learned from him that all women worship ‹the Phallos›—as he so quaintly spelled it. I learned from Shaw that women can never be artists; I learned from Dostoevsky that they have no religious feeling; I learned from Swift and Pope that they have too much religious feeling (and therefore can never be quite rational); I learned from Faulkner that they are earth mothers and at one with the moon and the tides and the crops; I learned from Freud that they have deficient superegos and are ever ‹incomplete› because they lack the one thing in this world worth having: a penis» (p. 145).

On marriage: «Even if you loved your husband, there came that inevitable year when fucking him turned as bland as Velveeta cheese: filling, fattening even, but no thrill to the taste buds, no bittersweet edge, no danger. And you longed for an overripe Camembert, a rare goat cheese: luscious, creamy, cloven-hoofed» (p. 16).

On the limp prick: «The ultimate sexist put-down: the prick which lies down on the job. The ultimate weapon in the war between the sexes: the limp prick. The symbol of the apocalypse: the atomic warhead prick which self-destructs. That was the basic inequity which could never be righted: not that the male had a wonderful added attraction called a penis, but that the female had a wonderful all-weather cunt. Neither storm nor sleet nor dark of night could faze it. It was always there, always ready. Quite terrifying, when you think about it. No wonder men hated women. No wonder they invented the myth of female inadequacy» (p.88–89).

On Germany: «All the potato-shaped ladies would stand around me, forming a gray wall of loden cloth. Germany is patrolled by armies of gray-coated ladies in Tyrolean hats and sensible shoes and jowls crimson with exploded capillaries. Up close, their cheeks seem laced with tiny fireworks caught, as in a photograph, at the moment of bursting. These sturdy widows are everywhere: carrying string bags with bananas sticking out, riding broad-assed on narrow bicycle seats, taking the rain-streaked trains from München to Hamburg, from Nürnberg to Freiburg. A world of widows. The final solution promised by the Nazi dream: a Jewless world without men» (p. 61).

On writing: «How can I know what I think unless I see what I write? My writing is the submarine or spaceship which takes me to the unknown worlds within my head. And the adventure is endless and inexhaustible. If I learn to build the right vehicle, then I can discover even more territories. And each new poem is a new vehicle, designed to delve a little deeper (or fly a little higher) than the one before» (p. 194).

Her grandfather’s favorite joke:

Q: «Why does a Jew always answer a question with a question?» 

A: «Why should a Jew not answer a question with a question?» (p. 14).

Coda: «Life is wonderful and ridiculous at the same time—don’t you agree? Feminism needs humor, too, in order to endure.»[1]


[1] Erica Jong in an interview with Susanna Petrin in New York on January 6, 2023, and published in Tagblatt (accessed on November 2, 2023), https://www.tagblatt.ch/kultur/portraet-us-ikone-erica-jong-auch-der-feminismus-braucht-humor-um-bestand-zu-haben-ld.2395518

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