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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Monday, 10 October 2016

"Death, desire and loss in Western culture" by Jonathan Dollimore

Dollimore's thesis is that, in western culture (and beyond?) eroticism is fundamentally bound up with the death wish. His starting point is a novel about a gay man who enjoys unsafe sex, contracts HIV, and then deliberately spreads it. Homosexuality, says Dollimore "is seen as death-driven, death-desiring and thereby death-dealing." (p xi). But this is not a modern phenomenon; for Dollimore it is intrinsic to western culture.

Western culture has always thrived on dualities and one of the most significant is that between "the world of appearances, the domain of unreality, deception, loss, transience and death" and "an ultimate, changeless reality ... said to be the source of the absolute, as distinct from relative, truth, and even of eternal life." (p xiii) eg the world of the Platonic ideal. Dollimore points out that Socrates committed suicide; later on he contracts the artistic Platonic love which the protagonist of Death and Venice believes in to the catastrophe when he falls in love with the smile of a boy.

He makes the point that carpe diem is over-optimistic since "time and change, driving us towards a horizon of oblivion, make it hard to seize anything, let alone the day." [My favourite version of carpe diem appeared as the name of a bar in Sorrento; presumably they believed that alcoholic stupor improves productivity.]


Greek love
"Male sexuality is especially and inherently insecure, always haunted by the prospect of failure and humiliation ('a flop is a flop'), and even when apparently successful it is inherently mutable, going from erection through orgasm to detumescence" (p xxv)

"The Greeks revered youthful beauty" (p 16) and mourned its passing even more than they mourned death: "To die young in battle weas not only to be immortalized as a hero, it was also to escape the decline and decay of old age." (pp 17 - 17)

"The Sirens are said to sing from within a flowering meadow [a Greek word also used for female genitalia]" (p 18) and seduce sailors with the "mortal (sexual?) desire for immortality. But these mouldering remains tell us that this overwhelming desire leads not to an exalted, immortalizing death ... but precisely to a death of the kind which the Greeks feared most: without funeral. without tomb, and rotting anonymously on the shore, indistinguishable from the other corpses in the pile." (p 19)

"For Lucretius ... sexual desire in the male is compared to dying, or at least injury, and warfare ... blood spurts out towards the source of the blow, and the enemy who delivered it, if he is fighting at close quarters, is bespattered by the crimson stream" (p 22)

The Bible is an early source of the idea that "death and loss simultaneously drive and frustrate desire" (p xix) since Adam and Eve's discovery of sex led directly to the loss of Eden and their condemnation to death. Ecclesiastes (which derives from "the so-called wisdom movement of the Near East; p 39) goes on about vanity which comes from the Hebrew word for "vapour - that which is unsubstantial, momentary and profitless, fleeting as a breath, and amounting to nothing." (p 36) Human life is like a shadow.  "It is as if an inscrutable God has deliberately created a universe devoid of himself; one in which there is no discernible moral law, and where eternity is ultimately the darkness of death and, more immediately, the permanent, restless yet monotonous movement of inanimate nature, whose immense scale only emphasises the brevity and insubstantiality of human life" (p 39)

Shakespeare
Dollimore asks whether Romeo had a death wish; certainly in Romeo and Juliet "an adult fantasy about adolescent desire ... adolescent sexuality contains a powerful erotic charge for the adult, regardless of sexual orientation" (p 109)the star-crossed lovers mingle sex with death. And Shakespeare makes Hamlet suggest that death is a "'consummation' ... the word is precisely significant, meaning both satisfying climax and being consumed or vanished into nothing" (p xxi). And in Measure for Measure Claudio is condemned to death for promiscuity.

More recently, Bataille said that "Eroticism is inseparable from repugnance ... this is not simply danger ... excessive horror paralyses desire ... What most repulses us is putrefaction" (p 253); "It is the fragrance of death which gives sexuality all its power." (p 254)

His analysis of the homoerotic Death in Venice is excellent: Thomas Mann the author had in later years become more and more aware of his attraction to male beauty, including his own son in swimming trunks. Aschenbach is Mann, trying to rationalize his passion in terms "by comparing the latter's physical beauty with his own art. Nature, like the artist, works with discipline and precision to create perfect form, and the boy's beauty is the physical counterpart of the spiritual beauty which is the artist's province. In pursuit of this idea, Aschenbach invokes its Platonic origins." (p 281) But the plague raging in Venice "works as a metaphor for the resurgence of the primeval in and through the decadent, and homosexual desire is its trigger." (p 290) And "Decadence was always there; Tadzio radiates a beauty which is said to be noble, and austere, yet almost immediately he is observed to have unhealthy teeth. ... Aschenbach reflects that the boy will not live to grow old ... the decadent and perhaps vengeful pleasure of realizing that the object of his desire will succumb to an inherent degeneracy." (p 289)

Not just sex and death
Dollimore is good about things other than just (?) death and sex. He tells us that "Thomas Browne speaks of the importance of knowing oneself but also of the difficulty of doing so." (p 84); that "Augustine [in the Confessions] suggests how individualism was from the beginning energized by an inner dynamic of loss, conflict, doubt, absence and lack, and how this feeds into our culture's obsession with control and expansion - the sense that the identity of everything, from self to nation, is under centrifugal and potentially disintegrative pressures which have to be rigorously controlled. This is a kind of control that is always exceeding and breaking down the very order it restlessly quests for, and is forever establishing its own rationale even as it undermines it."; and that "David Hume reconceptualized the self as completely mutable and entirely the prisoner of time. Even the meditation upon the self is pointless, according to Hume, since the kid of self which meditation presupposed is non-existent. ... during introspection one's attention is always caught up in the transient, fleeting impressions of consciousness itself. ... we are 'nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement' ... There is absolutely nothing within us that remains unalterably the same through flux and change - certainly not a soul, and not even an unchanging self. Nor does the mind have an unchanging nature or essence; it too is essentially discontinuous. We are nothing more than the movement and flux of consciousness." (p 93) [This made me think of Andy Clark's, Surfing Uncertainty]

Baudrillard sees "culture as a macro-conspiracy conducted by an insidious ideological prime-mover whose agency is always invisibly at work (rather like God)." (p 124)
"It is a function of myth ... to provide a disguised or obscure expression of what can no longer be said openly. Typically, the expression will conform to socially acceptable conventions - here, in the romance, chivalry is the convention - in order to explore an antisocial content." (p 65)
The lumpenproletariat are "not a class so much as a motley, uprooted and, in many instances, itinerant mass of people"; Marx included among them "decayed roues, vagabonds, discharged soldiers and jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, beggars ... 'scum, offal, refuse of all classes'" (pp 215 - 216)

A fascinating and beautifully written book. October 2016; 327 pages






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