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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

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

"Sex, Literature and Censorship" by Jonathan Dollimore

This is not a book I would normally have read except that I had previously read Dollimore's Death, desire and loss in Western culture and loved it. This is a little more academic and challenging for a person like myself who has never studied Gender let alone Queer Studies but Dollimore is a brilliant writer and some of his observations are even more acute and mind-transforming that in that previous book.

His thesis in this book seems to be that we censor too much although the brilliance and scope of his analyses diluted the message for me. He makes three key points:

  • Art is inherently and intentionally dangerous: artists want to change the world and it is disingenuous to argue that a work of art only has power as a work of art. "Human desire will not be contained by safe and reassuring narratives ... desire is perversely dangerous and often the more seductive for being so." (p 73)
  • The world has been changed. "The increase in gay and bisexual people in more liberal climates isn't just a consequence of those who are 'already gay' and bisexual coming out; it's also because many more people are exploring homosexuality who otherwise wouldn't have." (p 102) 
  • There is a fundamental tension in society between society's needs and the individual's desires: "The daemonic ... is powerfully expressed in some of the great mythic oppositions in western culture, including the Greek one between Apollo and Dionysus [he references Medea by Euripedes] , the Renaissance ones between reason and passion, culture and nature, and most recently, Freud's account of human history as the unending antagonism between civilization and instinct." (p 73) It seems unlikely that "liberated desire would, as it were, civilize itself." (p 78)


So censorship, a feature of all societies throughout history, is perhaps essential. The question then becomes at which point on the slippery slope do we draw a line? He doesn't seem to have an answer to this. What he does do is point out that our responses (often in terms of revulsion and hatred) to the inherent dangers of desire are culturally conditioned and he gives compelling examples of that conditioning. For example:

  • "In Ancient Greece the love which a man felt for a boy would disappear abruptly when body hair appeared ... in Greece they were disgusted by men loving boys who were too old, while today most people are disgusted by men who love them too young" (pp 54 - 55)
  • "Forbidden knowledge has always been a feature of human cultures ... Against that, the breaking of the injunction has been regarded as necessary for progress and liberation ... Straddling that opposition are some of the great transgressive figures of myth and literature, including Prometheus, Faust/us, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and of course Adam and Eve." (p 89)
  • Too clever by half? "Nordau's notion of the 'higher degenerate', an individual who is dangerously brilliant because endowed with an intelligence which has evolved too far and at the expense of the ethical faculty" (p 115)

Along the way he is fascinating about many other topics, listed in no particular order below:

Bisexuality
He starts by observing that bisexuality has caused significant problems for homosexuals and it seems to be because of the human tendency to dichotomise: "our current obsessive binary division between heterosexual and homosexual: the classification of people according to the sex/ gender of their partners, or desired partners." (pp 17 - 18). He cites his own experience as a gay man, a pioneer in Queer Studies, who found himself having a sexual relationship with a woman and being condemned by some who even accused him of being gay for his career: "but then I thought, hang on: actually any guy who could spend his life being fucked from pillow to bedpost by other guys ... deserved to have a fabulous career." (p 23)  Gay people in the past, he says, has "theorized the bisexual as the biggest hypocrite of all in the sex arena, a bullshitter, a hedge-sitter, someone who wanted the best of all worlds without committing to any" (p 23) But "it was useful to ... see the judgemental sexual politicians either silenced or having to retool. (That's an unfortunate metaphor, but one which, on quick reflection, I think I'll keep.) (p 23) [You see, he can write beautifully!]

Desire
But he must also consider the "much older idea of desire as inherently dangerous and always potentially disruptive" (p 18).

"Our desire, in all its perversity, is drawn to the very exclusions which constitute it." (p 26)

"There are homoerotic texts which convey even more acutely what it is to have one's identity wrecked by desire" eg Giovanni's Room and Death in Venice. (p 35)

Desire is linked to disgust: Andre Gide (author of The Immoralist), in his autobiography, sees a little Arab lad being fucked by his friend and experiences revulsion, disgust.

Identity
And we must take on the concept of "identity: the source of an essential, authentic selfhood for which we must be prepared to fight and suffer." (p 19)

"An individual identity is composite, a partial organization, more or less complex, and based in part on exclusion" (p 82)

Miscellaneous
"Notoriously in human history, those who have made progress have wanted to deny the same rights to others." (pp 24 - 25)

"Of the vulnerable groups censors have obsessed about the most - women, the lower classes, and children - the first two have been emancipated, but not children, or even adolescents." (p 157)

"Evil is not some-thing, but a turning-away from God, a perverse regression back to originary nothingness." (p 83)

"The extreme contradiction in the anti-homosexual position ... : on the one hand homosexuality is so self-evidently 'hideous', 'loathsome', a 'degeneracy', a 'degradation', a 'debasement' ... that nay right-thinking and healthy person would avoid it like the plague. On the other hand it has this extraordinary capacity to seduce precisely the 'healthy', right-minded boy or girl; to devastate the entire younger generation, in fact." (p 100)

"To be human is to be profoundly non-natural. A child dies: we never forget, and if we loved that child we maybe never recover. And yet nothing is more natural than for an organism to die in infancy. ... Human culture involves an attitude to nature which mixes repression, defiance and forgetting ... all of which are the condition of love." (p 69)

"The Christian god, unlike his predecessors, does not desire. He is complete, wanting and lacking nothing. He absolutely does not desire because to desire is an imperfection and a limitation inseparable from mortality. Being perfect, the Christian god doesn't desire, but then he doesn't laugh, either." (p 77)

"Corrupted reason was capable of an intensity of evil unknown to the non-rational or irrational. Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds." (p 80); ref Angelo in Measure for Measure: it is the virgin Isabella for whom he self-destructively lusts

A brilliant book. December 2016; 171 pages

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