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on the top shelf

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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….]

Written by adswithoutproducts

August 16, 2008 at 9:56 pm

Posted in academia, wtf?

15 Responses

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  1. 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?!?!?!!????!.

    Haahahahahahahahahsplutterchokesnorthaahahha. ha. (wipes a tear from her eye.)

    No, I like you angry. Stay angry. Satire is better with teeth.

    Of course, the title of your work in progress shows exactly how Hawes has the whole point of the scholarship backward —- the point is to show it to the students completely straight-faced, have _them_ give that reaction, and then while that is keeping them awake and interested, prove that you actually have A Point and are Going Somewhere with this.

    Sisyphus

    August 16, 2008 at 10:47 pm

  2. Ah good. I made someone happy tonight. I think, yes Sisyphus, I’ll stay angry for awhile. Like so many other things (things FK no doubt possessed pictures of) blogging gets a lot more exciting and, well, feelingful when you’re posting things that you know five minutes later you’re going to regret posting but, ohmigod, you can’t help yourself and post them anyway.

    CR

    August 16, 2008 at 11:09 pm

  3. with animals committing fellatio

    But what drives me nuts about it is that it’s illiterate. He didn’t even mean that. He meant zoophilia–animals and humans. He didn’t mean it to be foreplay as one might imagine practised by 2 elephants George Page once showed fucking on PBS’s “Nature” (not that even I’d imagined that the elephant’s wife had ‘committed’ it on her husband till now). And Page was most impressed with the performance, calling the elephants ‘magnificent’. I thoroughly enjoyed that moment of Elephant Pornography on Channel 13, and loved soothing old George saying it So I can’t even get to Hawes’s psychosexual drive you’re talking about due to the fact that he meant ‘people committing fellatio on animals’. Of course, you could still say that he should have said ‘performing’ and you would be right, but the other at least would be who was ‘doing it’. I mean–you can see these still on old VHS or DVD covers in the dirty book stores, more often with women or trannies, sometimes with a gay man. Not that I am any more impressed with his bad sex life than you, but are the editors scared away with clarifying just what the pornography, in fact, was? And although zoophiles exist–they are on the web–the porno is, I think a matter of drugging the animals, or it surely might be, since horses and big dogs get involved, but that’s another matter. The worst is that his phrase indicates porno with ‘animals having sex with each other’, and there is no porno sold like that (at least I don’t know of any, and I don’t think that there’s a lot of oral sex that goes on with adult animals, although someone told me puppies do that.)

    Patrick J. Mullins

    August 17, 2008 at 1:34 am

  4. It seems obvious FK would like the dirty pics (and if Hawes knew anything about vintage porn would not be remotely surprised by its ‘hardcore’ content). Sad story: I was once infatuated with a FK-loving pretty boy who loved to go out with, but not sleep with, er, me, I took fashion cues from Kafka’s texts to see if I could you know, enthuse him that way. What was striking was the level of detail – the shoes, the skirts, the blouses, the buckles – Kafka was seriously into the fetishy side of women’s dress. The porn thing just doesn’t seem all that astonishing with that in mind.

    It didn’t work, though, unfortunately.

    infinite thought

    August 17, 2008 at 5:14 pm

  5. Patrick,

    Yeah, if it’s on channel 13, it doesn’t really count, whoever it is that’s committing what upon whom.

    IT,

    Um. I think he was probably, um, not right in the head, if what you say is true. I mean, given your efforts. Or something.

    Perhaps, though, you in that bind would have been in fact the perfect reader of Hawes’s book – though I’m sure shoes and skirts and buckles are easier to manage that the suggestions you’d have found there.

    CR

    August 18, 2008 at 12:08 am

  6. I’ve heard that James Joyce liked to smell his wife’s farts.

    Adam

    August 18, 2008 at 6:39 pm

  7. you’re jumping the gun, Adam. I’m still working on my post on (my ex)Roman Catholicism and, you know, stuff like that. Only different.

    CR

    August 18, 2008 at 8:24 pm

  8. I was just looking back through the exhibition catalogue _Surrealism: Desire Unbound_ and I think the pornography chapter would be interesting to hold up to this discussion.

    Seriously, Surrealist porn —- it’s about as weird as you think it would be.

    Sisyphus

    August 19, 2008 at 10:57 pm

  9. “I’ve heard that James Joyce liked to smell his wife’s farts.” Always a risk worth taking while engaged in ‘prolonged, provocative, melonsmellonous osculation’ (if memory serves).

    Bill

    August 20, 2008 at 6:58 pm

  10. Well, I said that because the whole of German academia closed ranks before even reading the book to deny it was porn at all – somewhat curiously, since Klaus Wagenbach wrote in his seminal 1958 work “Kafka: Biography of his Youth” that this was “a collection of the finest – and often coarsest – erotica”. Everything anyone can find about Kafka is published – just not this. Which is why I use it simply as a little push of reality on the first domino, to get the Kafka-myth falling. And the “girl-on-girl” was clearly a joke, for God’s sake.

    james hawes

    August 28, 2008 at 2:28 pm

  11. James,

    Thanks for stopping by.

    I’m not sure the way you phrased it made “girl-on-girl” sound much like a joke. But whatever. I’m not sure what I’m worried about is your fight against the German Kafka industry. What I’m worried about are the dumb things you keep saying in the papers. Self-serving, they were, and rather silly sounding. Not the sort of thing that I usually say, but here goes: try being a tad bit more scholarly about it, and maybe I’d believe that your issue here was a scholarly, rather than PR, one.

    CR

    August 28, 2008 at 6:37 pm

  12. CR, the sad and boring truth about all this is that The Times’s sub-editors’ caused the who row to erupt by making it sound like I’d claimed to discover this erotica, which I very plainly don’t – indeed, the whole point of my argument is that this stuff has been lying around, known of by experts for decades but unpublished. Yes, I suppose I wasn’t that careful about what I said on the ‘phone in and I can’t prove I didn’t use the actual words assigned to me later. I didn’t say no to the Times when they called and I’m here again today simply because I believe that there’s a genuine issue of what amounts to gatekeeper-censorship in Kafka studies: NOT about the porn (which is, as I say clearly in the book, just a bit of Nietzschean hammer-philosophy dynamite to get things going) , but far more importantly about the realities of Kafka’s social position, his political and cultural identifcations etc, many of which are deeply unwanted by modern scholars, who have invested much in the notion of Kafka as a sort of Good Multiculturalist (and even proto-feminist) avant la lettre. Having been a paid-up Kafka Academic, with articles in the best UK and German peer-review journals in the 1990s, I truly believe the who field needs a radical opening up. And as I said to my publishers: don’t worry about seeming sensationalist, because our job is to get the book into people’s hands where they will see what I mean (as did the Chair of German at Oxford Uni, who kindly leaped to my defence on the BBC World Service).

    Anyway, you seem a decent man genuinely troubled by what I’ve been quoted as saying, so I just hope my theory aboutj getting it out there and into people’s hands works on you…

    james hawes

    August 29, 2008 at 10:03 am

  13. That is a remarkably generous and sound response from Mr Hawes. What I really want to know is – has he seen the porn? The fact that Kafka was looking at the stuff, as unsurprising as that is, only makes me like him more as a writer.

    infinite thought

    August 29, 2008 at 12:12 pm

  14. OK. OK. I hear you. I’m going to buy the book and read it – sounds interesting. I wish what you just said was the pitch that we were hearing in the papers, but of course that’s not front section news the way that “Kafka the Perv” is….

    I’ll post a little pointer in the main post to indicate that you’ve got interesting things to say in response here.

    (sorry so late – I was away and mostly without internet….)

    CR

    September 5, 2008 at 3:35 pm

  15. Does the book actually contain some illustrations so that we may also judge for ourselves?

    Sdruso

    September 20, 2008 at 8:41 am


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