Saturday, September 22, 2007

Paul Hallam's "Book of Sodom": Review

Readers of my blog, if you exist, may have figured out my revived if longstanding fascination with this trope. Inspired not only by Molly's exhortation to kiss her bottom but Joycean's vague evocations of "Gomorrhean vices" and Leopold Bloom's earlier reflection on the Dead Sea as the "grey sunken cunt of the world," I have long been intrigued by this literary and erotic and biblical confusion of place with transgression with ambiguity. Note, contrary to my spouse, that I only post using four-letter words when demanded by fidelity to original sources. Here, my take (posted to Amazon) on last night's post-Kol Nidre reading of Hallam's compilation of this theological text's fervid afterlife.

The stunning cover photo by Humphrey Spender, 1938's "Newcastle United Football Changing Room," sums up this anthology: a naked, buff athlete is puffing a cigarette lit up by a demonic, shadowed black clad figure behind whom hang white jerseys, as if the latter figure's detached wings, lurking in the otherwise Stygian gloom. Paul Hallam, in his early forties when he compiled this grab-bag of material relating to Sodom, explains in his opening essay "A Circuit-Walk" his fascination not so much with the supposed sin of sodomy attributed falsely but powerfully to the inhabitants who lusted after "strange flesh," but the place of the sin. Hallam's lengthy introduction surveys the acceptance of his own marginal identity as a youth in Nottinghamshire, blended into his own secondhand searches for theological tracts, socialist harangues, and literary forays into the Cities of the Plain. Out of these random encounters in text he has amassed his own collection to commemorate the place that haunts so many denizens of the urban fringes today. As Hallam notes, "the anthology rests with a Sodom rumor." What the actual sin is-- it's left up to us.

Along with the expected entries from Proust, the gleefully depraved celebrations from court transcripts, louche lotharios, and the infamous libertine Lord Rochester, Sade (the selection I found rather limp, if from 120 Days of Sodom), Apollonaire, and 18c London trials of the torture of accused "sodomites," there are a few unexpected and fresher entries. The bulk of the selections concern what we moderns term homosexual activity. But, an evocative few pages from Michel Tournier's novel "The Four Wise Men" show the heterosexual side to the survivors of Sodom driven underground, while John Milton gets a brief entry for his précis of a drama on the cities' fate; Voltaire opines on asphalt and the Dead Seas, while Jonathan Spence's book on the Jesuit missionary to China Matteo Ricci is employed to astute use to emphasize the Catholic fear of non-normative sex in the Middle Kingdom. Joao Trevisan's Brazilian forays play off Sir Richard Burton's earlier speculations on the "Sotadic Zone," while John Cleland in an often-deleted man-to-man chapter from "Fanny Hill" and the medieval theologian "Peter the Cantor" gets his early digs in against the sins of Gomorrah.

Most of the entries, as I mentioned, concern same-sex relations or the accusation of such, but once in a while, Hallam remembers to include the wider applications of Michel Foucault's memorable mention of "sodomy, that utterly confused category." I would have liked more substantial inclusion of not only theological or literary, but historical, travel, and critical texts. Not to mention more "hetero"genous and more eclectic erotica!

The forlorn place itself gains but a desultory visit, if too brief an excursion in a snippet from Andrew Lumsden for a gay newspaper. It leaves you wanting much more from the actual site, or the supposed one--nobody's quite too sure at least of the 1993 copyright date; perhaps Charles Pellegrino's 1994 "Return to Sodom & Gomorrah" could update us? The best entry for me, alongside Tournier's dreamlike and rather sexy, if austere, scenario, is the symbolist tale from 1883, "The Grape-Gatherers of Sodom" by "Rachilde" (Marguerite Eymery), which powerfully and vividly captures the decadence and the debauchery that led to the calumny given this blasted terrain of sulphur and bitumen, boiling pitch and burning desire.

(Image: the book cover, oddly missing from anywhere else on-line, thanks to a Toronto gay bookshop's site. One tidbit Hallam neglects that I discovered only the other day. My religion teacher in high school [later a defrocked bishop for his own sexual proclivities, albeit with a priest he ordained despite lack of qualifications and in compromised circumstances. But I do pray for the man all the more so.] taught us sophomoric "wise fools" the meaning of St Paul's recondite fulmination against one consigned as a "catamite." I also thought it'd be a great website domain, indie band name, or personalized license plate. Turns out it's a corruption of "Ganymede," tainted god with what used to be denigrated as the Greek vice.)

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