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Archive for August 16th, 2008

on the top shelf

with 15 comments

I’ve avoided writing about this because it makes me angry enough to, well, write more angry, stupid blogposts, but Stephen Michelmore does a nice job on the whole Kafka / porn faux shitstorm that’s been circling around the bowl lately. SM’s piece features a rather nice pull from Milan Kundera’s “In the Castrating Shadow of Saint Garta.”

Masterful as they were at analyzing all the strategies of love, nineteenth-century novels left sex and the sexual act hidden. In the first decades of our century, sex emerged from the mists of romantic passion. Kafka was one of the first (certainly along with Joyce) to uncover it in his novels. He unveiled sex … as a commonplace, fundamental reality in everyone’s life. Kafka unveiled the existential aspects of sex: sex in conflict with love; the strangeness of the other as a condition, a requirement, of sex; the ambiguous nature of sex: those aspects that are exciting and simultaneously repugnant.

You spend your life (as I do) trying to develop ever more complicated theories on and renditions of literary modernism, it’s nice to run into a reminder of some of the baseline but massive innovations of the movement. Kundera’s list of ways that sex appears in Kafka and Joyce is right on, I think.

Anyway, beyond all that Michelmore says about James Hawes’s Excavating Kafka, the thing that drives me most nuts about the whole affair is the way that this book and it’s media life seems to act out all of malign impulses that direct academic literary work today. It is driven by:

  1. big-score research – ridiculous fantasies drawn from A.S. Byatt novels or is it the Da Vinci Code of the, my god, sudden and startling archive find that turns the entire field on its head
  2. prepackaged media pre-positioning made of easy-to-open scandal n’ intrigue for the dummies at the papers swallow and spew up again
  3. something approaching utter disdain for the ethics of this work, for the one thing that we should have left in this business of letters after all else is gone, and that is barebones empathy for the human, a sensitivity to what it costs to be human, an appreciation of what it costs, a tolerance for idiosyncrasy, etc etc.

Why does Hawes keep going around saying things like this? How does he sleep at night after saying it?

Even today, the pornography would be “on the top shelf”, Dr Hawes said, noting that his American publisher did not want him to publish it at first. “These are not naughty postcards from the beach. They are undoubtedly porn, pure and simple. Some of it is quite dark, with animals committing fellatio and girl-on-girl action… It’s quite unpleasant.”

Seems fair, given the circumstances, to do a little sniff-test close reading on Hawes’s own words here – I’ll leave you to fill in the dots about the organization of his psychosexual drives. The “girl-on-girl action” bit is too easy. Um, that’s not how you’d say it if you were on the side of the weird angels you’ve aligned yourself with, James. More interesting is the idea of “animals committing fellatio.” Perhaps this is just a US / UK translation issue, but we Americans save the verb “to commit” for sexual acts that imply a moral trangression. One “commits” adultery. One “commits improper actions upon and with myself, father.” One does not, you know, “commit” getting really nicely laid. Or “commit” a blowjob, especially if one likes giving or getting them. The idea of animals “committing” anything – oooo, those horny, sinful little (or big) creatures, always taking the devil’s lowroad toward the wet and nasty, etc etc – is a bit odd, and it’s hard not to imagine a particularly, um, complicated relationship to animals, their sexuality, and their moral status informing that particular construction. Hmmm….

That’s all for now. I’ve really got to get some work in tonight on my monograph, Joseph Conrad Loved to Touch the Asscrack – Isn’t That Fucking Sick?!?!?!!????!.

[NB: James Hawes defends himself in the comments… He’s got some things to say that seem fair enough… So maybe I was being a wee bit harsh here… Still, still, what I saw in the papers was upsetting and we all need to be vigiliant, very vigiliant, when the reporters come calling… Take a look at what he says though….]

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August 16, 2008 at 9:56 pm

Posted in academia, wtf?