Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Jean-Luc Hennig's "Rear View": Review

A thin, naughty book you pick up for two hours' dalliance at an outdoor cafe in a slightly seedy but raffishly charming market town. This is a collection of feullitons-- short essays that wear their learning lightly if ostentatiously. It's written by a scholar who's also a journalist. He also penned, the jacket flap tells us, an erotic history of fruits & vegetables. Rather than a theoretical tome or an array of pictures for a mature audience, "The Rear View" compiles his reflections, a commonplace book about an overlooked body part and often disdained foundation of yourself that you are probably sitting on as you read this review (posted today on Amazon US).

It's difficult when writing about erotic and sexual constructs not to slip into fulsome metaphor. This book shares a coyness blended into a more explicit entry into the nether-realm of the senses, Toni Bentley's (2005) "The Surrender: An Erotic Memoir." (Also reviewed by me recently on Amazon.) Strangely, Bentley does not mention this earlier account, the only other survey even skirting this topic from a mainstream American press which I have found.

Jean-Luc Hennig, a professor of "grammar," a former editor at Libération and Rolling Stone, occupies the intersection between academia and left-leaning popular journalism, so the erudite mixes with the familiar knowingly. He carries that Gallic "je ne se quoi" which in translation English-speaking readers may be titillated or annoyed by in equal measure. 32 short chapters follow the style and tone of Roland Barthes' "Mythologies," as they ponder the derriére from anthropological, historical, literary, and especially aesthetic points of view. The early Christian classification of this as a no-man's zone, and repressive medieval social and theological reactions (perhaps for their scantier extant testimony if no less outraged coverage), do suffer considerable neglect here. Rabelais, de Sade, and courtesans all jostle, but edge others aside. For instance, the calumny that toppled the Templars and the alleged derivation of "bugger" from a heretical movement: both are missing from a chapter on the diabolic associations. Chaucer and Dante are absent; likewise Joyce and Lawrence.

Mark D. Jordan's 1997 "The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology" examines, if from a homosexual rather than heterosexual concentration, the misreading of the Genesis story that led to identification of the crime of Sodom & Gomorrah with neither inhospitality to strangers nor possibly gang rape but a canonical insistence that the sin of the townspeople referred to same-sex penetration. Jordan addresses, however, a learned readership within a narrower scope; Hennig appeals to a casual reader looking for thoughtful but lighter diversion. The learning's easygoing.

This topic, as well as the heterosexual experiences Bentley refers to in passing, lumbers about culturally weighted with considerable baggage ever since the Christian condemnation of this activity consigned those who investigate it into furtive pursuits. While queer theory and gay-oriented readings have dominated emerging study in the past few decades, the heterosexual contexts remain far less scrutinized in detail. Bentley documents her skill at the game, rarer her fellow fans; Hennig admires the crowd more often than play-by-play action. Lately, the topic's habitually consigned to queer theory or gay-themed cultural studies. For a male-female dynamic fully fleshed out, this androgynous "contested space" demands a mass-market study pitched beyond pathologists-- or perhaps psychoanalysts-- as far as I can tell!

However, considering the lack of competition, this jeu d'esprit, a witty bagatelle of 32 variations on an often furtive sight well lure you, as Hennig reminds us, to gaze with renewed interest at each other's passing by. It's full of suggestions and possibilities that leave you, as the book's only 180 large-type pages, with curious details and a sense that there's much more to be found about this subject. Perhaps this is the nature of any study of what appeals to the erotic sensibility and, for this topic, the conventionally forbidden expression of its fulfillment.

I wish the book had footnotes, as the references cannot be traced without any paginal documentation. No bibliography, either. Monochrome photos exist, but they were torn out of my public library copy before I checked it out, so I cannot comment. The examination of Hennig's sources, those earlier loving looks and hateful stares, remains superficial. This weakens the usefulness of this text beyond one man's heap of wit and arcane learning.

Nevertheless, it's a quaint perusal despite its often superficial array of ideas arranged more to graze among for a few minutes rather than to nourish into a more sustained examination of the subject. Hennig, like so many smart writers, makes an obvious point-- but one that you and I may not have expressed so precisely. The area of our own body least easily viewed by me is that open to your visual scrutiny-- and possibly the erotic attention of everyone else who follows us. Unless we look back, perhaps we never know who's taking the measure of our own rear view.

No comments: