When Harry Fucked Sally
[Pardon the crudity but it is necessary to what follows.]
What happened when Harry and Sally had sex after Sally learned that Joe was getting married? What happened to Sally is pretty clear. She was pleased, content, even aroused, and definitely amorous. On the other hand, Harry was apoplectic, with one leg hanging out of the bed as if he was going to take off. And he says he wants to sleep, while obviously Sally had other things in mind.
So, a question is: What was happening to Harry in the aftermath of his having had sex with Sally? I think a good answer is that Harry had come face to face with a situation he was unprepared for and reverted to behavior he had always engaged in before while having sex.
Harry is a “realist;” that is, a realist in an ideological sense, not in an empirical sense. As a result of his realism, Harry understands having sex as “nailing” women, as something that is pleasurable but only in a physical sense. Thus, Harry de-sanctifies sex. Sex is fucking pure and simple. After having had sex with Sally, Harry tries to de-sanctify their coupling. But something is different for Harry and he senses it. Hence, he is apoplectic, even desperate.
In the movie, So It Goes, after Oren and Leah have sex, Oren, like Harry, flees the scene as Leah cries in the bathroom. Knowing he screwed up, Oren consults his secretary, Claire, for advice as to what to do. Claire asks Oren if he wants things to go back to the way they were before he had sex with Leah and Oren says “No.” Claire says, “That’s good because that wasn’t going to happen.”
And this is what Harry senses but refuses to accept and so he undertakes to de-sanctify his having sex with Sally so it isn’t making love. He leaves as quickly as he can the next morning, perfunctorily asking Sally to dinner that evening. At dinner, he’s distant, closed off and silent after admitting “it was a mistake.” Then sometime later, Harry begins calling Sally who refuses to engage with him, with one exception. But because Harry is obviously trying to move on, put the sex behind them, what might appear to be wooing by Harry is just more attempts at de-sanctification. This culminates at Jess and Marie’s wedding when Harry compares Sally to a dog who can’t put the sex behind them. Harry says, “Why does it have to mean everything?” And Sally responds, “Because it does and that’s why you leave as soon as possible.” Then Harry asks what was he supposed to do, with Sally crying and wanting to be held. And Sally says, “So you took pity on me?” She then slaps Harry and says, “Fuck you!”
Although Harry assumes throughout the movie early on that sex is the problem, e.g., making friendships between men and women impossible, he’s wrong. It isn’t sex but the de-sanctification of sex that’s the problem. And that’s Harry’s problem, not Sally’s. It’s also a problem for others as well, e.g., Catholics and other Christians who think of sex as “dirty” but indispensable to procreation. Or sex is a problem when it is used for “revenge,” which is how Sally characterizes Harry’s sexual activities after his divorce. Or sex is de-sanctified by practices such as friends with benefits or booty calls. And of course, it is de-sanctified when it is seen as “nailing women.”
Sex or making love is one way humans can sanctify their lives, but of course realists like Harry aren’t big on sanctification as a human goal. Sanctification is unscientific, romantic, spiritual. Politically, one can easily imagine a realist responding to someone proposing the sanctification of political life with “Sanctification? Come on, get real!”
But what does life look like without sanctification? Like a war zone. Or like Harry Burns, unable to be friends with women and obsessing about death, having just graduated with a degree in politics from the University of Chicago. Fortunately for Harry, he has an epiphany on New Year’s Eve when the sanctification provided by Eros is revealed to him. And having accepted the sanctification of their love, he now knows that the human quest is for the beauty of sanctification and that that quest may be completed by finding someone you love who you want to spend your life with.