Showing posts with label sexuality. Show all posts
Showing posts with label sexuality. Show all posts

Monday, September 1, 2014

"Expelled from Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader": Review


This 2004 anthology, as introduced by critic Larry McCaffery, presents Vollmann's body of work as if a quirky parallel to a fan's in-depth retrospective on Bruce Springsteen. That is, it shows early and obscure work, unreleased compositions, as well as the hits. Michael Hemmingson's preface shows--as with The Boss--how Vollmann inspired his contemporaries to create and to follow his example, if more on the fringes of critical acclaim to date compared to the #1 success of Springsteen. But, as Bruce was once but a cult figure, so may Vollmann still break through.

Part 1 looks at his background and influences. "The Land of Counterpane" reveals a boyhood fear of "wrinkles" that reminds us of the terror as well as release within our imaginary encounters with tales at an early age. "The Butterfly Boy" finds a stand-in for the bullied young Bill; and "Hanover, New Hampshire, U.S.A. (1968)" charts the death of his sister which marked him while growing up. "Some Thoughts on Neglected Water Taps" respectfully surveys his Deep Springs College years. I think the "List of 'Contemporary' Books Most Admired by Vollmann (1990)" is well-chosen for a smart man nearing thirty, but the editors seem to understate that his father taught at Dartmouth, Rhode Island, and Indiana, and that as a straight-A student at Cornell and a dropout from Berkeley's doctoral program, Vollmann certainly benefited from exposure to "high" culture all his life. His early story excerpt "The Ghost of Magnetism" displays well his talents for the hallucinatory and vivid.

Part II plunges into death, war, and violence. "Three Meditations on Death" from the Paris catacombs, the San Francisco morgue, and the Serb-Croatian p-o-v prove harrowing. "Across the Divide" evenly listens to the Taliban and their opponents. "Regrets of a Schoolteacher" glimpses a Yakuza recruit's troubled career. "Zoya" from Europe Central presents a Soviet woman's hanging by the Nazis. From "The Grave of Lost Stories" peeps into Poe. Vollmann's review of Reporting Vietnam shows influences that marked him in his youth (although he seems a bit too young to have feared being called up for any draft over there). "Some Thoughts on the Value of Writing during Wartime" challenges writers to understand goodness and to seek truth honestly from opponents as well as supporters of state and rebel violence. But a snip from his massive Rising Up and Rising Down treatment of a "tentative ethics" of rationales for violence as "Moral Calculus" needed more context.

Part III dives into another controversial theme, that of love and sex, but mainly prostitutes, and a bit of pornography. The amount of material should satisfy casual readers wondering how and why Vollmann gravitates towards this domain. He tells of a seedy hotel, scuttled with cockroaches and smelling of a crack pipe, and you should be convinced that he knows this realm well. He repeats the familiar argument that in our economic reality, we all sell ourselves for another's gain or pleasure. He encourages as with war reporting that observers promote honesty and try to connect the Self with the Other, a theme that he returns to in the literary criticism that he contributes to through his life's work.

Part IV shows the backdrop as travel for these books. I found his collegiate letters about "the advantages of space" and "a bizarre proposition" jejune. More revealing was "The Conquest of Kianazor" as an early template for his fictional imagination. "Subzero's Debt" from The Rifles serves as a dramatic test of his own Arctic limits, and luckily less life-threatening, "The Water of Life" from Imperial charts his attempt to ride the New River through that polluted, parched, and odd valley.

Part V, on writing, literature, and culture champions his what one piece titles "Crabbed Cautions of a Bleeding-Hearted Un-Deleter" and potential Nobel Prize winner" and despite one's caution at such a claim, if you read Vollmann patiently and deeply, you too may be convinced that this isn't hyperbole. He returns to rally by "understanding without approving or hating. By empathizing." ("American Writing Today: Diagnosis of a Disease" 330)  His "Afterword to Danilo Kiš's 'A Tomb for Boris Davidovich' raises the "unending debate between revolutionaries and conservatives" by asking whether "unavoidable, essential existence" accounted for "beaten wives, perished workers and misled children" or "whether their tragedies, being the results of human agency, may be addressed through a massive change in social structures." (337)  He tackles ideology, and why we rush to a cause. "Maybe in politics as in sexuality, a purity of passion exists in the preconsummation state of half-blind surmises." (339) He reviews his own Argall in jaundiced fashion as he imitates critics of his prolixity and proliferation in "The Stench of Corpses." An appreciation of two influences, one prolix, one populist, enlivens "Melville's Magic Mountain" and "Steinbeck: Most American of Us All." 

Valuable appendices as a thorough and revealing Vollmann-and-more chronology by McCaffery and Vollman's "Seven Dreams: Description of Project" assist any researcher or reader of his vast oeuvre to date. Samples of his working style with collaborators and his CoTangent Press book objects show more examples of how Vollmann goes beyond writing, as an artist and documentarian, to try to, as he sums up in a postscript, remain moral. "I have no trade, make nothing but pretty things which fail against the seriousness of rice." He goes on, half-humbly, and perhaps half-self-consciously in a biblical or proverbial sense (I sense he wears many masks): "When they did me evil, I received it gracefully; when they were good to me, I returned my thanks." (479) While I could do without the photo of young Vollmann with his Beretta as this panders to a voyeuristic sensibility that "Rising" may have tempered, and while the blurbed emphasis on not-yet-published works adds up only to the section from Imperial and the then-about to be released Europe Central, it's for now the only way into so many of his many works. For this, thanks to this author and editors, too. (Amazon US 2-9-14)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "The Royal Family": Book Review

After I read the gloomy obsessions of love or lust in the companion piece for this novel, in the briefer "Whores for Gloria" set in the Tenderloin and "The Butterfly Stories: A Novel" in Thailand, a sustained immersion into, as of the early '90s, the not-quite-tamed streets where Vollmann lived and wandered takes its time as it draws you in. Whereas the two earlier novels followed a misfit narrator into the lairs and bars where women plied their trade and sought to secure his affection, for this 2000 noirish tale, we get a gumshoe protagonist and sly antagonist who are brothers, to square off. 

Yes, Cain and Abel, good and evil, are early on referenced via the Gnostics. Vollmann sets up well in its early stages the predicament of another forlorn woman whom the main character longs to comfort and keep, but cannot. Whereas Jimmy (he gets a cameo here, and so does the author as a "moon-faced" journalist) for Gloria and the "journalist" for Vanna in "Butterfly" found their fevered quests dragging them deep, Tyler (Hank to his louche lawyer brother, John) loses his brother's wife, Korean-American Irene, to death. Her plight, like that of other bereft men and women Vollmann tends to listen to and dramatize (such as John's mistress Celia), lingers. We miss her. Accepting his depictions of these beaten down folks, we side with Hank, Celia, and Irene. These, to me, proved more engaging than the tales of grimy johns.

Into this seedy situation, Tyler's sent by one Brady (a cartoonish conveyance of greed and prejudice, reminding me of the White Power + Light villains in "You Bright and Risen Angels") to seek out the Queen of the Whores; his brother is also hired by the same tycoon, so the two stare each other down. John is a wonderfully boorish greed-is-good type, akin to the photographer in "Butterfly"; against him, Vollmann uses the familiar for him perspective of the bullied boy turned hesitant man as Tyler.

Not only San Francisco's fog and vistas but Sacramento's railyards and dust gain attention, too. There's a pleasure in viewing California through Vollmann's eyes, and after the urban clang and urine smell evoked in the Tenderloin, the Tyler brothers' overlooked hometown (now Vollmann's) gains probably one of its first depictions by a major novelist. He avoids cliché about the Golden State, as one who while born there grew up as a child of a professor in Indiana and New England, so his p-o-v is deepened by his travels and his experiences before he came back to explore Californian byways.

There's powerful moments, often in scenes that may not push the plot along much, but which reveal characteristic observations of the author filtered through his put-upon protagonists and those they seek out for support. In a bridal registry at Macy's on Union Square, Irene and John's brother Hank go to pick out bone china. The oddness of that itself stands for their relationships, and Vollmann enhances this tilt by a matter-of-fact observation about how the acquisition of goods such as porcelain gravy dishes but who cannot enjoy them, no less than any product, dispirits those who value value. John seems to stand in that category; Hank resists this classification; Irene and sensitive souls give in.

Vignettes also help enrich characters such as Beatrice, a Mixteca whom we follow in Mexico before coming to San Francisco establish her survival skills as she is reduced to earn a living by prostitution. The Queen whom she and others circle about gains a predictably (given also Vollmann's knack for insect and biological analogies) hive-like domination, and after she is introduced a fifth of the long way in, the novel invites some allegorical interpretations. It also enters disturbing considerations, true to the nature of Vollmann's moral calculus in "Rising Up and Rising Down", of Dan Smooth's sexuality when judged illegal or immoral, and book X offers a similar sidestep into the injustice of bail, as the author observes in Sacramento. This section could have graced RURD particularly well.

After the bail interlude, we return to the Queen and her minions; Tyler gets sucked into her web, and this section, while less inventive as what preceded it, brings a "false Irene" among those under sway. Two-thirds into the novel, John too finds himself lured to the Tenderloin, as Brady's Boys, a vigilante faction purporting to want to clean up the streets, seeks to take down the Queen and her royal coterie.

Vollmann peeps in, via an aside about his agent's complaints about the manuscript, and in section 476 he provides a clever elaboration of a theme which, by canonical and apocryphal Scriptural colophons he inserts throughout. The Mark of Cain on Tyler and others under the Queen's sway proves their membership in the Canaanites, whose practices the Hebrews and their moral heirs the Christians and in this case, Jonas Brady's capitalists, seek to eliminate as immoral, if only to boost their profits from a strange even by Vollmann standards Feminine Circus in Las Vegas, staffed by freakish sex workers. Some of this set-up never gets fully explained, but its veiled mystery suffices to set up odd scenes.

Near the end, as Henry "Hank" Tyler sentences himself to destitution, selling off first gun, then car, but toting a bible, he roams not the Tenderloin but Coffee Camp near Sacramento's vast railyards. Vollmann's experience riding the rails heightens his scenes set among the migrants and misfits. Tyler's travels take him to Miami, Seattle, and Slab City, where Vollmann explored this desert sprawl later in "Imperial". This last tenth of the book accelerates as Tyler's increasingly unhinged quest finds him battling Jesus, if at a remove, and searching for the Queen, Irene, and his lost sense of belonging. Vollmann will return to this milieu a decade later through his travelogue, Riding Toward Everywhere.

In one of his typically revealing endnotes, Vollmann comments that his editor at Viking, Paul Slovak, advised him to trim the book by a third. He refused, but he took a third cut in royalties. This dogged commitment to ensuring his works, big as they can be, remain faithful to his vision may annoy some with less patience for some of the chatter between the whores and some of the habitual roaming Tyler engages in, but in parts on the vagaries of bail, the chapter on Geary Boulevard and Street's sudden run-in one-way at the Tenderloin, or the Buddhist and Christian-Canaanite allusions, a patient reader will forgive some of the excess. Not to mention fine metaphors--my favorite compares a blackening banana to a "scrambled tiger." Amid yellow hills and fog, this novel pairs off brothers contending for the attentions not only of Irene, but for many women who endure a world that diminishes in its pity. (Amazon US 7-14-14)

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "Butterfly Stories: A Novel": Book Review

This short (for Vollmann) novel displays a mood both frenetic and dispirited. Taking place as much of his early 1990s fiction in the realm where bodies are traded and sex or love is pursued, it shows us within the musky humidity a familiar depiction for Vollmann of loneliness and obsession in a Thai and Cambodian setting. It's another man drawn to risky behavior and danger. But it expands, midway, to provide a bit of the Tenderloin's pre-gentrified milieu, when the streets were still dangerous, and another section drifting through the Canadian Arctic setting where The Rifles took place.

Drifting is appropriate. The third-person narration filters everything through a narrator introduced as the picked-on butterfly boy in school. Bullying and taunts stunt him. He becomes the boy who wanted to be a journalist, amidst restless youths, and then a journalist, paired up with a counterpart identified only as the photographer, on assignment in Southeast Asia to try to drum up a story as the Khmer Rouge apparently soldier on in terror, and as the Thai sex trade flourishes amidst the echoes of yet another war, when tourists seek out the company of girls and boys in desperate conditions. Vollmann does not moralize, refreshingly. He uses instead a focus on the journalist, a loose stand-in for himself as in much of his fiction, an observer who lacerates himself with criticism while attempting to make a practical and ethical contribution to better the lives of those exploited.

A typical comment: "interesting that the photographer, who wanted to break as many hearts as possible. and the journalist, who wanted to make as many happy as possible, accomplished the same results...! Does that prove that the journalist was lying to himself? (loc. 1283) "You boyfriend me, or you butterfly? If you butterfly, we finit." (loc. 1880) So asks a "sweet rice girl" of the caddish photographer, but this metamorphosis, for an author of Vollmann's broadly biological interests, stands of course for the flitting that the photographer prides himself in and that the journalist tries to evade.

The main plot becomes the mad search for one the journalist knows as Vanna, and she seems to have returned to Cambodia from when he met her in Thailand.  After all, in a painfully rendered treatment of the journalist's breakdown of his marriage back home in America, his (ex-)wife complains of his depression and predilections: "I'm normal. I'm tired of being married to a freak." She castigates his friends as more freaks. She cries as tears "were snailing their accustomed way down the furrows in her cheeks which all the other tears had made, so many others, and so many from him-- why not be conscientious and say that those creek-bed wrinkles were entirely his fault?" (loc. 2169) In such moments, Vollmann lets us look at disintegration and self-loathing. His protagonist will become consumed by a quest to find that other woman, and even as he laments his guilt silently, "he could hardly wait to tell the photographer what she'd said and listen to him laughing." There's truth here within the phantasms and fevers that consume the narrator as they did the similarly driven Vietnam vet and alcoholic Jimmy in the streets and dives of San Francisco. The novel ends as suddenly as did Whores for Gloria; like that companion, it tallies unsparingly the costs of desire. (Amazon 6-20-14)

Thursday, August 7, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "13 Stories & 13 Epitaphs"" Book Review

This collection's title, as Vollmann "explains" in an author's note, reverses itself. "These stories are all epitaphs; these epitaphs are all stories. (A good story is only a hearse to carry you to the ending where the epitaph waits." Clever even if the meaning eludes me a bit. I find it noteworthy that over two decades later, he returned to title his giant story anthology "Last Stories and Other Stories," all about the blurred lines between graves and tales told beyond them which hover back over all of us. 

Fittingly, this ends with a Poe-homage, "The Grave of Lost Stories," and it begins with one titled by a phrase Poe might have used well, "The Ghost of Magnetism." These two bookend familiar concerns of Vollmann: prostitution in Southeast Asia and San Francisco, the Afghan-Russian war, and life among the down-and-out not only in S.F. but among those a bit more well-heeled but also filled with sorrow and doubt. "Ghost" shows how the narrator, in an "On the Road"-type of stream-of-consciousness reverie, goes in each compass direction, so you get glimpses of the frozen North, the desert, and Asia along with Hawai'i (not a locale explored in other works I can recall to date), Belize and Central America, Sacramento and Las Vegas (two places he returns to with "The Royal Family"). We glimpse Elaine Suicide, to whom we return in "The Handcuff Manual." That didn't grab me as much as I anticipated, but Abraham's immersion into the subway of "Gun City" may reflect Vollmann's own residence in New York City as this section captures its grit and noise and tension. 

The story "My Portrait, My Love, My Wife" as in "Royal" conveys one of Vollmann's strengths. He characterizes unfaithful men sympathetically and the lonely women they court if in vain movingly. As the wandering protagonist in "Ghost" is told by the omniscient narrator" "everything was nice only because you beguiled yourself into standing, so to speak, on one leg, with the idiotic self-confidence of the flamingo, who will 'not' realize that any passerby could kick the remaining leg out from under him". (24-25)  When the narrator of "My Portrait" confesses "My happiness was as green as English apple juice," we can relate, but we also sense as in many stories here a short-lived joy. Vollmann's concerns in 1991 consistently play out in his work before and since, if with caution.
(Amazon 7-18-14)

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "Whores for Gloria": Book Review

Appearing in 1991, this short novel conveys some of the stories Vollmann gathered during his time among the San Francisco Tenderloin, pre-gentrification, around Jones St. While a familiar topic for this author, and one which his readers will have learned much about given his many stories set in this milieu, this is his first attempt to make a longer work out of episodes. He alludes in the preface that these are true, as told to him by prostitutes, within the fictional framework, typical of Vollmann's blending in much of his books, between fiction and fact.

The grittiness is there. You see via Jimmy, a Vietnam vet on disability living in a claptrap hotel, the lesions and bruises on those with whom he mingles, and while he's out for sex, he's also in search of the titular Gloria. Almost like a sister to him as they grew up, he longs for her and whether he makes up these stories for an imaginary character or a real woman he's loved and lost, this impels him to keep paying for sex and for stories from those around him.

This reminded me of Holden in The Catcher in the Rye, and like that novel, this method Vollmann favors does risk familiarity and sentimentality among the proverbial subjects with hearts of gold. They are tarnished and tawdry here, but Vollmann makes the effort and forces us to take the time to hear their tales from past and present, and we see them as fellow human beings. This intention, the ethical motive underlying his career before and especially since this early novel, keeps him readable even when the material, as here for me, is not what I'd gravitate towards, compared to his historical and political themes in his later books (which I've been slowly reviewing, as this on Amazon 6-1-14).

"The light was very red and warm; the girls were beautiful, and everything was beautiful until later when the girls got anxious and started demanding their tips." That sums up the mood. He and his pal Code Six, also a vet, watch coverage of the past war, with the sound off to block flashbacks for his friend. "The long lean bombs went swimming slowly downward like fish, until they came to the towns and became orange flowers." Not much happens. Jimmy is going downhill, the city draws him down, and everyone's on the make--as the opening vignette with Laredo, who's undercover, introduces efficiently.

His downcast mood permeates this. "He knew life was going to get worse. Maybe stories weren't enough, he thought. But no, they have to be. Stories and hair." He collects both, the latter to make a sort of snipped tribute to the elusive Gloria. This all lacks resolution, and stops suddenly, as if to jar the reader out of a stupor shared by Jimmy and those who surround him. It's a low-key narration, but Vollmann captures the feel of the down and out with his typical mix of detachment and compassion.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

David Goodway's "Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow": Book Review

This fills a need among not only literary critics but political historians. It's an in-depth survey of eleven British-centered thinkers, most of whom attempted to put their written theories and favored tracts into practice. They pursued their commitment to varieties of left-libertarian and anarchist thought--always as individuals, but more often sympathetic to a syndicalist-union or especially libertarian-communist (as in common grassroots management of the resources we hold in common and the means of sharing them equitably) system. Goodway burrows in, and his notes show a meticulous analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of not only the main subjects of each chapter, but of their colleagues, foes, and critics. He calls to task a lazy scholar, he cites a conflicting tidbit in one account that clashes with another's assertion, and his attention to such detail is astonishing. It proves how seriously he takes this enterprise.

Yet, it moves along, given the generally hefty subject matter and the need to cover biography, literary themes, political clashes, economic models, religious and secular contexts, and philosophical digressions of the past century, quite well. This is not light reading, not should it be. It's important as a guide to how crucial ideas energize thinkers and encourage autonomy. It instructs one in many currents of the British intellectual contributions to an encouragement of a truly liberal individual. He starts with William Morris and the guild socialism of his later career, 1880-1920, and then he moves into the impact of Edward Carpenter, the first of a few whom Goodway champions who are now generally neglected by mainstream culture. It's inspiring to find in Carpenter such an insistence on forging and forcing from one's circumstances the means for personal and social transformation. His gay identity means that much of his contribution is seen retroactively by critics since as filtered accordingly through his necessarily then-somewhat circumspect expression of his sexuality, but the larger concerns, as with Oscar Wilde, remain open to all. Goodway delves into Wilde's anarchist statements and by archival investigation uncovers fresh material for research, no easy feat for an author whom, as he notes, has been scoured by respectively gay rights advocates and English Lit scholars, both of whom, one suspects, often misread his admittedly scattershot essay on socialism.

Socialism often tugs away many who occupy left-libertarian niches here. Those who resisted the allure of the new Soviet and survived suspicion or Red Scares remain sometimes on the fringes, at least as far as the once-celebrated lecturer and author John Cowper Powys. He earns two chapters, and Goodway makes no apologies. Originally issued in 2006, this preceded by a year Morine Krissdóttir's biography (reviewed by me), but Powys' novels ("baggy monsters") and prolific career earn devoted attention herein. So does his individualist anarchism, which for this friend of Emma Goldman retreats from the political platforms erected by most in this collection, and whose works (as with Joyce, who Goodway finds shares Powys' predilection for what he called "ecstasies" and Joyce "epiphanies") can be an acquired taste. Powys demands articulation by a patient critic, as evading (not the first or last herein) facile summation. While he claimed to be a "philosophical anarchist" (as did Joyce, according to Kevin Birmingham's 2014 study [reviewed by me] of the impact of Ulysses on the regimes of state censorship), Powys to Goodway appears more of a sympathizer with a delayed encouragement of anarchism as an ideal but an impracticable one for the present time. Powys retreated into a personal stance of defiance. This is what earns Goodway's attention and deep focus.

Herbert Read's similarly long career was even more diverse, as art criticism channeled his talents along with literature and politics. WWI shifted this medal-winning recipient soon after into pacifism: "The whole war was fought for rhetoric--fought for historical phrases and actual misery, fought by politicians and generals and with human flesh and blood, fanned by false and artificially created mob passions..." (loc. 4508 qtd.). One finds when reading Read here a man able to express ideas precisely.

Pacifism gets a separate chapter, if a brief one. Akin to George Orwell here profiled, this stance stirred dissent and debate as another conflict loomed, predicted by the Spanish predicament of the anarchists, trapped in Catalonia between fascists and the Stalinists. Both men have been cursed by some who regard their shifts as untenable or signs of weakness, but Goodway while cognizant always of their inconsistencies allows each critic his fair chance for rebuttal, or clarification, over careers that found them taking on many complicated issues. Same for Aldous Huxley, and the uneven nature of his fiction and the wide range of his non-fiction gain him a central stage in this thorough presentation.

Best known for his Joy of Sex, Alex Comfort is lesser known at least abroad and nowadays for his own commitments to libertarian leftism. Along with Huxley and Bertrand Russell, his high-profile stances gained him notoriety as a proto-countercultural icon before the hippies ever marched. On the CND Committee of 100, Comfort's lifelong pacifism guided him into a recognition of anarchism as the best fit for him, a trajectory shared by many in this collection. He avers that "centralized power should be reduced to the practical minimum and individual responsibility increased to the practical maximum" (loc. 6133), a sensible ambition. I'd have liked to find out more about how his sexual affirmations aligned deeper with his libertarian vision, as this Goodway elides.

E.P. Thompson, Marxist historian of Morris and of the English working class, also worked for nuclear disarmament along with these figures. He also taught often, and to many. Like Comfort, he is taken to task for blind spots. While chastising Orwell for premature anti-Stalinism and the like, this pioneering scholar ignores the many points of agreement he had with Orwell and other dissidents.

Christopher Pallis, as with Comfort, combined a prestigious medical career with a parallel one. For Pallis (whose cousin Marco wrote a memorable travelogue of mountaineering turned spiritual quest in Peaks and Lamas, reviewed by me), he had to disguise his dogged libertarian socialism under pen names Martin Grainger and Maurice Brinton. The excerpts here felt stodgy, more "poli-sci" than his comrades, but it's amazing how he and Thompson and Comfort pursued dual research so prolifically. Here, Goodway observes: "All the ruling groups in society encourage the belief that decision taking and management are functions beyond the comprehension of ordinary people." (loc. 7118).

One problem with anarchism, which flourished 1860-1940 and then, beaten down by Bolshevism and fascism, sensationalized for its violent minority, suppressed by spies and infiltrators in capitalist societies, is that "its numerical weakness inhibits its intellectual strength." (loc. 7389) Even after its countercultural resurgence (part due to Situationists, part libertarian socialists), few thinkers since have applied it to practical rather than historical or theoretical analyses, and few workers apply their leisure to advancing its real-world manifestations, given the great obstacles to implementation.

But, the final subject shows how it can work around us. Colin Ward, whose Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction I have reviewed, gains an affectionate tribute. No surprise as the book "Talking Anarchy" combines the two men's conversations and concerns. Like busy Pallis and Comfort, Ward as an architect recycles (a verb Goodway often uses, as he is very alert to all his subjects' printed records, and how they overlap, clash, and contend) much of his writings, given a demanding career. But this chapter feels ultimately perfunctory. One waits for Ward to step in, as an engaging comrade.

Still, the closing section which channels anarchist theory into current currents, stays fluid. Goodway holds that "a society which organizes itself without authority" always exists, "like a seed beneath the snow, buried under the weight of the state and its bureaucracy, capitalism and its waste, privilege and its injustices, nationalism and its suicidal loyalties, religious differences and their superstitious separatism." (loc. 7469)  Recalling in this titular metaphor Gustav Landauer's vision, which guided Ward, Goodway finds an anarchist today widens the old thinkers' perspectives. It "is selective, it rejects perfectionism, utopian fantasy, conspiratorial romanticism, revolutionary optimism,; it draws from the classical anarchists their most valid, not their most questionable, ideas." (loc. 7644)

In conclusion, I return to Goodway's introduction. He acknowledges his own life spent immersed in Marxism as much as anarchism, and admits his conviction that the latter proves more urgently relevant for our own challenges. Rather than utopian, it is rather "the belief that voting for a political party--any party--" that is unbelievable if one believes that by voting one "can bring about significant social change": after all as he quotes, "if voting changed anything, it would be abolished." (loc. 133)

Nestled near the end, we find a reminder of the modesty and ambition that combine for anarchism: crucial it "is for individuals to be able to take command of their everyday circumstances and determine the course of their lives, almost certainly collectively: to institute personal and communal autonomy, so far as they are possible, and to exercise individual responsibility." (loc. 7956) A little share of property and the control of one's means of production, combined with a social control over resources that all need to share in common: this may appeal to a few and more, if they read this book.
(Amazon US  5-10-14)

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Kevin Birmingham's "The Most Dangerous Book": Review

Not a biography of its author but of his most famous novel, Kevin Birmingham's study of Ulysses emphasizes what nine decades and eight major biographies of James Joyce have not. The "rapture and pain" of its creator and his creation, this Harvard professor avers, energized its modernist impact. The Most Dangerous Book, therefore, skims past much of Joyce's by now exhaustively documented life, to saunter past some of his literary influences, and to connect Joyce vs. censorship to the new century's unrest.

While much is familiar to students of Joyce, Birmingham's endnotes attest to his archival research. He examines eye disease treatments, anti-Catholic tracts, and subversive newspapers, for instance, along with many Joycean contributions, standard and marginal, that help us understand this context. He writes with admirable directness. He efficiently guides readers through the difficulties for Hoyce and his supporters which loomed as the forces of censorship by the various state authorities fought those who challenged pieties and proprieties. For example, Birmingham fills in the early twentieth-century reactions to obscenity by depicting how Britain was under siege, according to the Crown forces, from a violent, bomb-throwing and knife-slashing faction with a dangerous radical ideology. Against this, Scotland Yard invested in the latest technology to keep Londoners safer. The culprits were suffragettes, and the counter-terrorist ploy was the department's purchase of their first camera.

How Joyce fits in, Birmingham shows, comes via not only his patron and inspiration Ezra Pound, as is well known, but by Dora Marsden, whose militant feminism radicalized Pound. In turn, Emma Goldman's anarchism squares off against the publisher of The Little Review, Margaret Anderson, to deepen the tension in the Vorticist (radical) and then the Egoist (apolitical) movements for artists. Pound wrote for that fledgling review, while patron John Quinn had boosted the Armory Show in Manhattan, a vanguard for the forces from the art world parallel to emerging talents within literature. Going beyond the Irish setting for the novel itself, this attention stirs up the ideological debates by which Joyce and his associates took up the protests and demands of their restive, brooding era.

Modernist magazines afforded writers a platform akin to today's blogosphere. Such bold support confirmed Joyce's resolve, as he joined his own "philosophical" anarchism to a "literary" form, in Birmingham's interpretation, to undermine the tyranny of a ruthless state. "Individuals were crushed by big ideas." Joyce countered by obscenity (as defined by the state) apparatus) to protest.

In Trieste, as the Great War broke out, Joyce began his big book, superimposing the Dublin he had left behind on an Homeric grid, and elaborating in increasingly experimental chapters and styles of prose, his take on ancient myth reborn in his home city. Birmingham finds that Ulysses opens with choppy, fragmentary rhythms of conscious awareness. These ebb and flow, as if "a rusty boot briefly washed ashore before the tide reclaims it." As the novel in progress was serialized in the little magazines, large forces grouped against its supposed obscenity, and part two narrates the showdown.

Fearful of Reds and Germans, before the FBI as we know it now, the vigilant U.S. Post Office clamped down on any material deemed dangerous. Joyce's anarchy might be far more philosophical than overtly political, but it fell into the net cast by the Federal trawlers in the wake of the Espionage Act. Birmingham connects the Comstock Law and nineteenth-century jitters about pornography to twentieth-century unease over radicalism: Joyce's work-in-progress appeared to violate restrictions against lewdness in the U.S. Mail, as sent to subscribers of The Little Review, whose editors had defended the reviled Emma Goldman. With Joyce's content flagged, its May1919 issue was banned.

Meanwhile, Harriet Weaver had also been serializing the novel, in The Egoist. T.S. Eliot through Pound and Virginia Weaver through Weaver begin to pay attention to Joyce. They may also be some of the first readers as bewildered by its increasingly daring departures from conventional narrative as generations since--who after all have industrious scholars and encouraging interpreters to guide them. As Birmingham reminds us, Joyce sought to write not a story for a million readers, but one a single reader could read a million times. The playful prose burst forth as its author grew more confident. As the scholar finds in its subject, who began when writing erotic letters to his Nora Barnacle an entry into the "unwritten thoughts that go on in his mind," so Joyce treats "readers as if they were lovers."

Despite Joyce's painful eye surgeries (and see Gordon Bowker's 2012 biography for more of the "pain" that accompanies the "rapture" in Joyce's Parisian and Zurich years in exile as he labors on), success beckoned. In postwar Paris, the milieu of the novel's printing during the Lost Generation grounds it in the Left Bank's "café culture." But America, frightened by bombings, cracked down with a Red Scare. Ulysses would soon be linked not only with obscenity but to "parlor Bolshevism."

Anthony Comstock had fulminated against contraception in the mail, and his successor John Sumner, newly appointed to suppress vice on behalf of New York, extended his control over Red propaganda in The Masses and anarchist rabble-rousing to attack The Little Review for a salacious episode, Gerty MacDowell's "fireworks" on Sandymount Beach in what would be known as the Nausicaa chapter.

The New York City District Attorney's Office required John Quinn, a lawyer too, to mount a defense, but his disgust appears to have overwhelmed his earlier sympathies for Joyce and his disreputable companions. For, Quinn's reservations about the Nausicaa portion notwithstanding, he and Pound had tired of the "unreasonable" stance asserted by a Joyce whom, with his novel yet to be completed, refused to assuage the censors, while incurring legal costs and penalties nobody could easily resist.

"Greenwich Girl Editors" Anderson and Jane Heap were summoned against the State's charges of obscenity for their magazine's contents. Ironically, as Birmingham nudges the reader to remember, those on the stand seemed to have failed to notice that Leopold Bloom was masturbating as he watched Gerty during the fireworks on the strand. Or, they chose not to notice, if they were the editors of the passage. Typically daring, Joyce then rewrote it after the 1921 conviction of the magazine for distributing lascivious material in the mail, to highlight Bloom's surreptitious activity.

On the author's fortieth birthday early in 1922, Ulysses was published by Shakespeare and Company in Paris. Joyce could not stop fiddling with it. Even during temporary blindness a few months earlier as a time away from the manuscript, he kept tinkering mentally with refining its elaborate structures. With the novel out, more troubles rushed in, for now, the typos massed and worried him. But the revolutionary nature of it, which to us dims nearly a century later, cannot be denied: "It demanded complete freedom. It swept away all silences." Shattering verbal boundaries, it rises.

Ernest Hemingway, with perfect timing, enters Sylvia Beach's Parisian bookshop to assist smuggling the novel into the U.S., by way of his contact, Chicago socialist editor Barnet Braverman, who by 1922 under the restrictions of Red Raids had to work at an ad agency to get by. Joyce's patron Harriet Weaver, in London, founds the Egoist Press to print the novel. During 1922, the allure of a censored import, coming from London now and Paris, increases overseas demand for a forbidden book.

Then, the Port of New York authorities swooped in. Customs authorities in London did too. Eight editions followed, but distribution lagged due to censorship. Officials aiding a single copy's importation into America faced a fine of ten thousand dollars and up to ten years in prison. It took Bennett Cerf's Modern Library imprint at Random House--which marketed classics old and new to a discerning readership on campuses and after graduation-- to defend the novel in the U.S. The cover, shown on the cover of Birmingham's book, did not appear until 1934 after another legal battle. Random House took on not the Comstock Act but the Tariff Act prohibiting the importation of obscenity. One charge was easier to disprove in court than the many dangers the Comstock Act listed. Cerf , a wit and a pundit too in the quest (and indirectly his roguish predecessor whose corrupted "Paris" edition was used illegally in the U.S., the literary pirate Samuel Roth), finally triumphed.

Birmingham provides a lively, learned, yet accessible and welcoming survey of this struggle. He intersperses enough of the novel to orient readers, and he blends in the difficulties of Joyce's life as he weakened in vision and endurance, to prove the heroic nature of his artistic achievement despite his personal tetchiness. This may encourage readers to begin or return to Ulysses, their next book to read. (Amazon US 4-28-14 and with some editing and revamping 7-15-14 to Spectrum Culture)

Friday, June 13, 2014

Maebh Long's "Assembling Flann O'Brien": Book Review

This Irish writer combined Joyce's wordplay with Beckett's astringency. However, Brian O'Nolan chose to remain in the nation that his literary forebears fled. Under the guises of Myles na gCopaleen most famously, and eight others (one his given name) by which his fragmented narratives emanated in novels, journalism, and sketches, O'Nolan "assembled" his writing "as a performance of conjunction and interruption, quotation and pastiche". He resisted Ireland; it may have worn him out. His "anarchic and sprawling corpus of work" in Maebh Long's study merits the attention granted earlier to other Irish writers. Marshaling the academic's array of critical faculties and philosophical applications, Assembling Flann O'Brien neither reviews his life (see Anthony Cronin's 1989 biography No Laughing Matter) nor his works.

Judging others have completed these preliminary surveys, Long takes up each of O'Brien's major works topically. She expects readers will be familiar with each, so this is not a book for a beginner. She begins with the fragments comprising the intricate layers of At Swim-Two-Birds (1939; Joyce provided a blurb for it), which sends up medieval Irish-language tales, contemporary Irish identity, the writing of stories within stories, and digressions that delay any resolution of many sundered plots. It's more fun than Long's scholarly mien may betray, but as she shows, it ridicules the Catholic, Gaelic, republican, and patriotic notions of O'Brien's homeland as it struggled to make sense of nonsense, so abundant in this civil servant's scrupulous eye, as he wrote under one of many guises.

To take one of many "fragments of palimpsests", the novel satirizes the Irish Republic's obsession with procreation, but as O'Brien worked for the government and needed discretion, he subverts the official policies with a fictional scenario of rape, masturbation, non-procreative heterosexual sex, and grim marriage to skirt censorship while pretending to celebrate the values of his nation's prudery. Long focuses on eugenics and O'Brien's treatment of gender, subjects overlooked by many of his previous scholars and critics, who have concentrated on this novel's post-modern structure and wit. This section draws on Friedrich Schlegel, Jacques Derrida, Maurice Blanchot, Engels, and Nietzsche, indicative of the range and determination Long brings to place O'Brien within intellectual contexts.

That first novel preceded closely The Third Policeman, which while written in 1939-1940 was not published until 1968, two years after the author's death from alcoholism. "Desire and the death drive" repeat in uncanny, ghostly spaces and infernal circles in this repetitive tale. O'Brien's "modernist hell" keeps happening, as demonic power rather than divine fuels this dark energy, until the unnamed narrator's death cannot extricate him, "as a phantasm within himself". Jacques Lacan's split subject of the unconscious as a "no-thing" receives in this novel its representation. Freud and Slavoj Žižek  expound on the drives generating desire, in Long's reading fitting the narrator's and the narrative's pursuit of a black box. It contains "omnium" as an "unutterable substance" containing destruction, and a power rivaling that of God. Time, space, the libido, and eternity loom as the novel continues. So do bicycles and more rape, and while this short review cannot summarize this complex plot, Long follows its fearful deeds and mechanical revelations into a common experience of disappointment. "There is no tragedy in O'Nolan's works-- his heroes are both too blind and too self-involved." (90)

Repetition returns in O'Nolan's deft send-up of his nation's other, native (and technically "official") language, Irish, in which he was far more fluent than most of his Civil Service comrades (who had to prove an ability to use what many of them might secretly have despised but which quite a few idolized as a symbol of the Irish Republic's ethos). An Béal Bocht ("The Poor Mouth"; 1941; translated 1973). Long opens with Marx's quote about Hegel that history repeats "the first time as high tragedy, the second time as low farce". It's appropriate for a novel that savagely mocks the laments of poverty that Irish schoolchildren were made to study, accounts of real destitution, but by the time they were mandated as set-texts for the classroom, narratives that smacked more of sodden irrelevance than tragic immediacy. O'Brien in his columns titled Cruiskeen Lawn and this novel challenged the early 1940s attempt to revive an Irish Ireland that never had existed. Using a stage Irishman who himself never existed, "we begin in the midst of a cycle of rain, potatoes, hardship and lamentation". (109) The noble savage turns "reductio ad absurdam" as Irish life turns into hyperbole.

This is again complex material; Long links the Irish-language struggle for its own survival with O'Nolan's parody of this, with a well-known 1882 trial at Maamtrasna of an Irish-only speaker who was convicted of murder by an English-only judge and jury, and with Brian Friel's Translations drama. This chapter--which also addresses the tensions within the novel's English translation--flows more accessibly even if the Irish-language snippets are translated only in endnotes. This slight, subtle remove, on the other hand, reminds English-only readers today of the same gaps which the Irish nation continues to epitomize, between an idealized but racist past and a present with a threatened language that transmits much of its heritage and its identity, as its increasingly diverse citizens and immigrants create a multilingual within an English-dominant, globalized future there.

Women never had it well, it seems in this Ireland of fact or fiction, and The Hard Life (1962) captures the relegation legalized by the Irish Republic of women to domestic duties in its constitution. The vexed and vexing issue of Irish attitudes towards sexuality underlies or undermines this outlook. Long avers that "it is hardly surprising that the women and domestic spaces within O'Nolan's works are highly problematic, exhibiting a sustained, misogynistic distaste, escalating in The Hard Life to palpable disgust". (152) As that novel puts it: "They have only two uses for women, Father-- either go to bed with them or else thrash the life out of them". (qtd. 157) Urinating females earn their own sub-section, indicative of the detail applied in his columns and his fictions to O'Nolan's depictions. Long gives short shrift to any defense of him for his chauvinism, discrimination, and his xenophobia.

More misogyny returns, in the "archival fantasies" rummaged and raided for O'Nolan's final, but disordered and abstracted 1964 novel, The Dalkey Archive. Personally, I find its digressions and conversations sometimes intriguing, but critics justifiably rank it far inferior to both Swim and Third. From the latter novel, De Selby returns, and so do Joyce and St. Augustine, the two altered markedly.
Long maps out this final novel's ransacking of Third and its appropriation of Augustine for similarly strange purposes, as the mysteries of God and of life are plumbed, literally, by removing oxygen from the atmosphere, tellingly, to reveal the presence or absence of a Creator within time and space. Heady stuff for a short narrative; but as in the previous novel, so again: radical or "anarchival" change halts. 

After charting Brian O'Nolan's barbs against Jesuits and Joyceans, both targets for abundant satire, Maebh Long concludes her critique by recalling how this final novel "reveals not a single identity, but a man who, by dint of his own fixation with pseudonyms, is multiple and split. Brian O'Nolan is not a stable origin of a multitude, but a fragmentary host of a fragmentary corpus, at times brilliant, at times prosaic, but worthy of a place among the greats of the twentieth cent[ury], and the acclaim he desired and yet deprecated." (219) By elevating him this high, Long encourages more scholarship. Given O'Nolan and his sly guises, one however must wonder what this erudite satirist makes of this. (PopMatters 4-14-14)

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Euripides' "Bacchae": Book Review

This tragedy's all about showdowns. Dichotomies and conflicts, as Daniel Mendelsohn, emphasizes in his preface, create a character unique to the genre. Dionysus "hovering between divine majesty and human weakness, magnificence and pettiness--and between male and female--the teasing, seductive, playful, epicene god is a great study in ambiguity." This god, an effeminate foil for the law-and-order bent, but fatally lured Pentheus, draws him and the audience into a diabolically clever trap. The horror than felt, as Pentheus is punished and then his corpse torn apart, while his own mother than slowly comes out of the bacchanalian frenzy to realize her own complicity, deepens what could have been but a strange depiction of subliminal drives into a portrayal of compassion after cruelty.

Mendelson explains how this drama "explores both the benevolent and the punishing faces of divinity." Ecstasy and terror follow  instead, as the natural wonder and delight transfers through a breakout of the repressed tendencies within us, once under some spell cast, into dread and sorrow. Euripides tells this story swiftly; this can be read in a short sitting, and it moves as rapidly as a well-written thriller might in an short television production today on some "prestige" cable network. Like shows now, the critics stay divided. As Mendelsohn notes, consensus is lacking "because its subject--among other things--is the irrational, and how conventional intellectual resources wither in the face of a wildness, a potency beyond reason."

From Robin Robinson's translation, an excerpt illustrates the swift concision of his rendering. Cadmus mourns Pentheus' end: "If anyone still disputes the power of heaven./ let them look at this boy's death/ and they will see that the gods live." Certainly the reaction of this grandfather captures the human response to the whims and imperatives of a divine plan unfathomed by mortals, yet again.

This edition includes a supplement, complete with a glossary on how to pronounce names, as this assumes we now lack this preparation. A chart of who's related to who, and an introduction to Euripides, about whom we know nearly nothing, helps the reader. It's sobering to be reminded that out of a thousand works performed in the 5th c. BC from Greece, we have only 33 of them today.
(Amazon US 9-12-14)

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Bernard Fauré's "The Red Thread": Book Review

From this French post-modernist professor, it's no surprise that this collection of essays (more than a seamlessly argued or tightly assembled study) roams over not only the map but the territory into his "own private" excursions and byways. Bernard Fauré warns as he introduces "The Red Thread: Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality" that it's not systematic, and that he favors Japanese sources for their own historiographical contexts over those of India and China, unlike many Buddhist or Asian scholars who try to cover this ideological and cultural realm. The result, as he promises, is more his "own private" record of what he finds, often in the nooks and crannies of monastic proscriptions, tall tales of mystics, and transgressive parables by Zen masters (male, at least).

This does drift into engaging moments. The "two truths" theory that ultimate revelation may necessarily override fidelity to the here-and-now conventions allows wiggle room for monks (for better or worse, this book focuses on male and monastic contexts as these tend to survive down to our times as obsessing most over violations of the precepts, sacred and profane). This underlying direction--it bobs up and down, submerged by hundreds of notes which appear to have been built into a chain of associated examples more than a tight thesis--does not prevent Fauré from digressions. These may be underwhelming--much more on Bhutan's Drukpa Kinley appears to be relevant to Fauré's study than the snippet he sums up meagerly. Or, as in the Japanese poet Ikkyu, emotion emerges as we read spare verse to share his bold vision.

Ultimately, after chapters on homosexual behavior in Japanese monasteries, and tales that promote a subversive (or maybe not) male archetype, Fauré's accounts end with more a whimper than a bang. Dutiful research offers few surprises: the yin/yang oscillates as do the Two Truths. Marginal nods to Martin Luther, Alison Lurie, Borges, the classics, and clerical casuists from the Catholic tradition demonstrate his broad learning as fun or sly asides.

However, his "Afterthoughts" allude if in haste to his most intriguing interpretations. He rejects any "'pure,' atemporal, and changeless doctrine." Flexibility rules. As he anticipated in his denial of the easy trope of anticlericalism and decadent monasteries as a reliable genre for East or West, he later opens up for scrutiny a preconception of a normative Buddhism. Given the Middle Way's path between desire and non-desire, interdiction and transgression, Fauré tracks it as itself "double tracked and double edged: maintaining in principle a precarious balance between the the two extremes, yet constantly torn in practice between these two centrifugal tendencies." (279)

Feminists offer a bold alternative. Instead of awakening "as a rupture, a reversal, a social drama" as in hagiographical treatments, feminine practices "tend to insist on the progressive, nondramatic, intimate character of their religious experience." (282) He promises a follow-up volume on this subject.

Finally, what of another direction? Earlier he quotes Georges Bataille's "Eroticism" (1947, p. 42; cited p. 98): "The knowledge of eroticism, or of religion, requires a personal experience equal and contradictory, of taboo and transgression." He muses perhaps both aspects may remain in a fuller consideration of religious impact upon the realms of the red thread which connects us all by blood. (Amazon US 4-7-13)

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Tim Ward's "Arousing the Goddess": Book Review

Certainly this memoir reads as if a novel. A Canadian writer reminiscing on his adventures a decade earlier--erotic and emotional, spiritual and travel--this tale of "sex and love in the Buddhist ruins of India" from the mid-80s recounts in appropriately graphic detail Ward's initiation into what he accounts for as "tantric" experiences. These enter his physical relationship with Sabina, an alluring honey-blonde Indologist from Austria who's researching the earth-touching gesture made by the Buddha to reject the alluring daughters of Mara and his own temptations, the night he found enlightenment under the mythic bodhi tree.

The search for "shakti," the life-force transmitted by a thunderbolt jolt he feels as he makes love to his fiery girlfriend in India, impels the middle of this narrative. It starts in Ladakh with Lama Philippe, who's rather improbably lecturing about recondite Kaliyuga lore at the top of the knife-edged summit they share where they try to plant prayer flags in the harsh wind.  Ward throughout this spirited tale interweaves what seem fictional interludes, or improbably detailed conversations a decade later reported (he does keep a journal, I admit), so I am unsure as to the precise veracity of his recollections. However, allowing for this literary conceit, the results tend to be as exciting as fiction and as engaging as a spiritual and erotic quest can become in talented hands and a thoughtful, and considerably honest and relentless, mind.

As the narrative progresses and his visa circumstances, complicated by the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the resultant tightening of an already recalcitrant bureaucracy towards foreigners, Ward must choose his predetermined itinerary and wish to travel about as a bhikku (wandering monkish sort) in his eagerness to try out the mendicant life amidst his recent fascination with Buddhism and Indian thought. This separates him in more ways than one from Sabina. The tension increases.

With the growing unease, Ward chooses to drift into reverie or nightmare to convey some of his inner turmoil. A Nepali woman in a red vest at a millstone grinding rice, a crammed train, a slaughterhouse by the Calcutta tracks, a visit to a hospice run by Mother Teresa's sisterhood, or a riotously risque retelling of the Mara's challenge to the one who will be the Buddha enliven this direction. "You quit your job. You deserted your wife. You're a deadbeat dad, and you're a welfare bum dependent on handouts." (210)

It may depart from conventional truth for a first-person account, but it enriches it with verve. It may not please purists, and it may draw into suspicion other parts of the narrative, perhaps, as much of this story with Sabina feels very dramatized. But she's quite a force of nature, evidently, and intellect; her emotions are as mercurial as his. Their mutual need for comfort deepens their "tantric" engagement, and complicates their alliance.

She confronts him, but indirectly, as in this internally dramatized passage, via Tim's Belgian lama: "You come to live like a monk but won't give up desire; you pursue Sabina, but turn back because you think God speaks to you." (115) Similarly, when a horrid encounter with an armless boy bound by a leash to his begging elder (grandmother?) haunts him, he ponders: "Pity in Calcutta could only be a means to alleviating one's own suffering: the suffering of the rich, come so unpleasantly face to face with human misery, mass-produced in the squalid streets." (151)

Such predicaments deepen the impact of what begins as a (delayed) coming-of-age story for a Canadian abroad looking for enlightenment. I encourage any reader put off or bewildered by the tone to continue, for Ward knows when to tell all and when to hold back. He also ends it realistically yet gracefully. No easy feat for what appears a tough story to relive and set down on paper years later. (author's website; Amazon US 4-13-13)

Friday, February 21, 2014

Fiona MacCarthy's "Stanley Spencer: An English Vision": Book Review

Having admired Fiona MacCarthy's biographies of bold English artists Eric Gill and William Morris, I anticipated that this shorter overview from a 1997 exhibition of 64 works might reveal insights on a third artist who challenged convention. Fiona McCarthy in sixty pages takes advantage of the larger format to offer an overview which rejects the soft-focus approach even as it accepts that his rounded figures and walled-in "childhood containments" express well Spencer's favorite adjective: "cosy."

As a counterpoint, early on she asserts: "Stanley Spencer looked like a village eccentric. He was not one. There was nothing of the amateur or dilettante in him. His spiritual and personal struggles were in some sense as painful as Van Gogh's." (5) Tough-minded and not as sentimental as may be surmised, Spencer wrote of inflicting "spiritual rape" on everything he strove as an artist to absorb, and that estimation fits him well. "The most impressive of his paintings have the innate gravity that comes from deeply absorbed experience."

She focuses on his earlier career, and the English vision for her appears to be grounded, after his return to Cookham after the Great War and his marriage unravelled, in a plunge from youthful wonder into mature willfulness. McCarthy labels rightly the predicament which found him playing off the resentment Hilda and the calculation of Patricia "alternating tragedy and farce." (42) Out of it, by the early 1930s, his energies seemed to have been warped. Cookham represented to him less the utopia of his late-Victorian formation and more a melange of an existentialist self-affirmation and a pantheistic blood-lust. "Spencer's creative urges seem to feed on emotional and sexual agitation."

MacCarthy, therefore, delves into this period to explore the candor he evoked in his nudes of Patricia, anticipating in their unrelenting exposure of the sagging and dimpled flesh the eye of Lucien Freud. She documents his time "out in the wilderness" after estrangement from Patricia follows a failed reconciliation with the increasingly despondent Hilda. Presaging as well the tragic figures of Francis Bacon, the paintings of Christ in his own wilderness doubt play off their creator's own 1939 solitude.

Of his later career, MacCarthy judges a drop-off in results, whether the Port Glasgow shipbuilding murals which constituted his contribution to the WWII effort (and she notes how he was one of the very few who painted in both wars on behalf of the Crown in an official capacity), or his portraits and landscapes which by the 1950s constituted much of his way to make a living while he contemplated the "Church House, his temple of eroticism" to all the women he had loved.

About the woman who enticed him the most, in her absence more than her presence, in the long run perhaps, MacCarthy calls it "obsessive. Perhaps it was the only means that Spencer had of recognising their tragic incompatability and his own considerable cruelty to Hilda, recycling her so wonderfully in his mind." (57) He could not stop writing to her from beyond her grave, nor could he end the return he made to her embrace in his sketches and drawings for the ambitious chapel of love.

The 64 reproductions feature as captions some passages gleaned from the three million words of his notes and letters at the Tate Gallery Archive. While the editorial constraints may have compressed MacCarthy's insights into a shorter narrative than ideal (it ends suddenly and parts of his life are not expanded), it provides a thoughtful, brief balance to Duncan Robinson's one-volume large-format introduction, Kitty Hauser's monograph, and a transition to Keith Bell's hefty catalogue of Spencer's oeuvre. (All have been also reviewed by me as has this on Amazon US 12-21-13.)

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Kitty Hauser's "Stanley Spencer": Book Review

While a few titles about this iconoclastic English painter introduce him in a short span, Hauser's book combines a convincing thesis with her combination of well-chosen illustrations and incisive, accessible text in this 2001 monograph. She packs a lot in eighty pages, and she places Stanley Spencer firmly within his Cookham village contexts. Neither romanticizing nor distorting his very rooted quality in his native place, Kitty Hauser strives to connect him to his time, his social connections, and his personal experiences during the first half of the twentieth century, more or less.

Of his penchant for integrating the miraculous and the mundane in Cookham, so that Christ, for instance, might blend in with Spencer's neighbors on the high street, so much one may not be able to distinguish Him from them, Hauser emphasizes how subject and purpose joined in Spencer's work from an early age. Even though he appeared when his contemporaries pioneered modernism, Spencer took its elements to blend oddly or juxtapose dramatically with natural and domestic settings. In this "secret topography of Cookham," where railings reveal and cordon off and where skewed angles and foreshortened perspectives reveal angels and curtains as nearly indistinguishable, concealment nestles alongside revelation. From Spencer's walks, his memories stored up from childhood abundantly fertile images, as he took the scenes around him and the figures he passed to populate his canvases.

Hauser shows how in his early biblical paintings "the sacred is perceived in our very midst, as if we might come across the birth of Christ on a walk in the country, or bump into a character from the Old Testament on our way to the shops; as if miracles go on all the time, unregarded, behind the high walls of gardens." (37) The idyll Spencer enjoyed between his stint at the Slade School ending in 1912 and his war service commencing in 1915 appears to have been his happiest time. All he did was wander the village and paint, living at his family's home with no other responsibilities.

The war, of course, changed him, and he returned to Cookham unsettled. Furthermore, after the age of thirty or so, he finally found intimacy with his first wife, Hilda Carline and then the strange obsession with the woman who became his second wife, Patricia Preece. Hauser documents how the latter woman strove to get out of the diligent artist whatever she could in terms of money or frocks, and the subsequent convolutions (as dramatized by Pam Gems in her 1996 play "Stanley), show another aspect in which the transcendental, through sexual obsession and delight and confusion, rubbed up against the quotidian. As Hauser relates in another tie-in, to Spencer's WWI memorial panels at Sandham depicting not battle or slaughter but petty chores of orderlies and a "painter's trick" by which heaven and earth interpenetrate in the unrecognized, uncelebrated duties that consume so much of our lives, the similar blur of insight glimpsed in sex or contemplation of the body, as Spencer's nudes of Patricia unsparingly display, show Spencer's refusal to separate the fleshy tones of his palette from the spiritual suggestions of his themes, enmeshed in the bible, his household routines and/or his neighborhood observations. For, these often conflated into a single expression.

Therefore, his work, where a saint may pop up on the high street and where a house may harbor an evangelical surprise or a naked shock evades the usual modernist rejection of narrative content for formal values. Hauser places Spencer in his material realm, and she concludes that his paintings "are an attempt to demonstrate the double life of things; in a sense they are lessons in seeing." (75)  But this took its toll. What he viewed around him pleased him far more than his lovers could, and he drew contentment from his beloved Cookham best by revisiting it on his canvasses, in his sketches, and in his compulsive letters to the woman he divorced but could never abandon, Hilda, which continued (up to a hundred pages in one example) after she suffered mental illness and then died.

Taking this into account, seeing the costs of Spencer's talent and the impact it had on those around him, Hauser cautions any who would promote him only as a "visionary prophet of love," (76) for only when situating Spencer in his birthplace (where he spent two-thirds of his life) can we understand "the very material contexts that fed him as an artist, the human muddle of bodged relationships, thwarted desires, egotism and social aspirations as well as marsh-meadow visions, religious feeling and domestic bliss." Taking the sordid with the sacramental, the earthy with the ethereal, as Spencer himself for all his failings and pride strove to do, appears the best answer to how we should approach the man in terms of his abundant and sometimes astonishing artistic legacy. (See also Fiona MacCarthy's book with a similar scope and focus. 12-21-13 to Amazon US)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Morrissey's "Autobiography": Book Review

At fifty-four, the memoirs of very few living authors might merit inclusion as a Penguin Classic. Morrissey reportedly demanded that the British publication of his autobiography appear in that august series. Two months later, the American release by Penguin's affiliate Putnam comes out not as a Classic paperback, but as a hardcover keeping the original cover photo and design.

This media backstory plays neatly off of the clever persona and the artful presentation (as with those Smiths LPs adorned with iconic models) Steven Patrick Morrissey has adroitly mastered for his devoted and fiercely loyal audience. Shifting from song to print, he keeps his suave air and deepens, understandably, his cultural allusions. The results, drawn from both popular and erudite sources, may appeal first to his fan base, but this uneven if spirited contemplation of five decades deserves a wide readership. 

Of his birthplace, he begins: "Manchester is the old fire wheezing its last, where we all worry ourselves soulless, forbidden to be romantic." It evokes, from its first rush of images from dank and dim streets where he comes to consciousness doomed as self-aware, the postwar decades when everyday Britons, through pop and rock viewed weekly and played on radio or phonograph, contemplated fantasy in their parlors. Tension between his Irish Catholic heritage and his Northern English residence simmers within him.

"In the midst of it all we are finely tailored flesh--good-looking Irish trawling the slums of Moss Side and Hulme, neither place horrific in the 1960s, but both regions dying a natural death of slow decline." His family, all Dublin immigrants, possesses resilience: "The Irish banter is lyrical against the Manchester blank astonishment." In such measured phrases and careful prose, his childhood unfolds with tyrannical teachers and trudging through warrens of Victorian squalor. As he matures amidst "this race to the grave", the library, a treasured stack of vinyl, and Top of the Pops reveal the influences which broadened his perceptions, and the songs which inspired him, not to play music but to sing. His first 45 is by Marianne Faithfull. He vows to sing or else. "If not, I will have to die."

Sly joshing speckles these revelations. Both the Eurovision song contests and Miss World pageants annually enlivened on air his prepubescent curiosity. "There is no such thing as Mr World, perversely enough." Who knew that not only the dashing debonair secret agents of Department S but the waspish Dr. Zachary Smith (played by Jonathan Harris) of Lost in Space helped make Morrissey circa 1970 aware that "effeminate men are very witty, whereas macho men are duller than death"? 

David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Roxy Music, Mott the Hoople, and especially the "slum of all failures" the New York Dolls enliven Morrissey's teenaged years. Poets, too, play a role: Hilaire Belloc, John Betjeman, W. H. Auden, and Stevie Smith. A.E. Housman and, inevitably, "the world's first populist figure (first pop figure)" Oscar Wilde enlighten him as he flounders at odd jobs and, from the reticence here, suffers a lack of intimacy. 

The mid-70s usher in Patti Smith alongside Lou Reed and Iggy Pop as "a proud sign of bad breeding", and Morrissey lines up alongside Ian Curtis and Paul Morley to see the Sex Pistols debut in Manchester. He tries to tough it out in South London but returns, after a slow musical start, in 1982 to join with guitarist Johnny Marr, bassist Andy Rourke, and drummer Mike Joyce as the Smiths. 

He figures if Culture Club can make it, why not him. (Listen to the harmonica-driven hook on one of the Smiths' first songs "Still Ill": it's always reminded me of that other band.)  Morrissey marvels at what they created: their "sound rockets with meteoric progression, bomb-burst drumming, explosive chords, combative bass-lines, and over it I am as free as a hawk to paint the canvas as I wish". 

Signed to a leading if logically marginal indie label, they don't match its eccentric, dodgy roster. "The vinegary spinster face of Rough Trade was no place for anyone seeking public attention, but it worked because the Smiths worked." Work led to rapid success, and five albums in a row entered the British charts at number two. But try harder as they may, their nation's radio ignored them and the little label labored often in vain to keep up with the demand for their records.

Furthermore, Geoff Travis' refusal, at least in public, to dish out not only sufficient praise but stockpiled royalties justifiably annoys Morrissey. Yet, the joy of hits, so quickly, enlivens this tale. Their first LP stayed thirty-three weeks on the charts. Still, that eponymous debut suffers from weak production and prissy arrangements, as Morrissey laments. Its potentially strong songs became much enhanced through their radio sessions, packaged as the follow-up Hatful of Hollow. 

He moves to London and finds hangers-on, famous and otherwise, soon flocking to perplex him. It's a familiar narrative, as Johnny and Steve find themselves as partners musically and as legal co-creators, but outfoxed by the Sire Records suits and thwarted by the Rough Trade hippies. Morrissey harbors from his childhood a suspicion of authority, while legal matters loom and long persist as his nemesis. The managers and accountants endure in the music business, while stars soar and sputter. He ruefully concurs how the "pop artist who complains about anything at all is universally damned as petty". 

That's why he unravels this meandering, often in turn awkward, loutish, or touching, narrative. Nearly four-hundred-and-sixty pages document his story, and after all, many want to hear it. Joining his voice to the familiar litanies of woe from one rich (despite that slow cash flow) and famous, Morrissey on the road and at his many homes as he roams cannot resist the lure of the stage and the lust for the tune. Tours for "misery Mozzo" in Johnny's phrase (shortened to Moz) cannot dim this. 

He cannot square his inner discontent with his mass appeal. He peers at himself as if a specimen.  "Although a passably human creature on the outside, the swirling soul within seemed to speak up for the most awkward people on the planet." Heaven knows he's miserable now. 

A thrashing punch toughens Meat Is Murder. It knocks Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA off the top British spot. Morrissey praises its clanging title track as a slaughterhouse exposé, and he invites controversy as a vocal vegetarian. (He helped sway me but it took a quarter-century after I bought that LP to summon enough conviction.) He reflects on the delights of being labelled by a hostile press as "bad", as "I sit by a reading light, pawing George Eliot's Scenes from a Clerical Life". 

On this and its follow-up, The Queen Is Dead, Morrissey prefers to relate the fervor of the fans and the fury of the media rather than in-the-studio tidbits. He appears resentful of Travis' incompetence or duplicity, and he chafes at Sire Records' typically conniving bottom-line fine-print machinations. This bitterness will only increase as his autobiography progresses and the impact of the Smiths, oddly at times out of proportion with their album sales (strong as they were) and concert draws, reverberates. 

Lashing out, then caricatured and slandered, Morrissey finds himself the object of bemused contempt. The band struggles to find airplay, labels keep withholding revenue, and his northern-bred loneliness intensifies during the middle of the 1980s. "This, then, was my true nature as the Smiths began: the corpse swinging wildly at the microphone was every bit as complicated as the narrow circumstances under which he had lived, devoid of the knack of thigh-slapping laughter." Johnny, Andy, and Mike jostle and laugh; their shy singer finds few of life's jokes funny in the first place, let alone anymore. 

Feeling pinned and mounted, Morrissey bristles under the spotlight. But he can revel in it onstage. Strangeways, Here We Come benefits from the band's communal spirit, and he considers it the Smiths' "masterpiece". But Johnny wanders off to work with Talking Heads and Bryan Ferry, so the band sputters out, five years on. Nobody else appears quite sure if Marr or Morrissey bears the blame.

The inevitable solo career ensues. Respites from London's grime and noise soften the irritations but even on a trip to Saddleworth Moor near Manchester, the haunted legacy of that expanse where murdered bodies molder and spectral spirits hover jolts him and his friends one horrible night. The "harsher energy" of a natural realm releases its own threats, never far from his habitual urban sprawl.

Within that megapolis, Morrissey tries to comfort. He rescues birds from a marauding cat and releases them in the safety of Hyde Park. Later, he saves a pelican at Los Cabos even as he fears it will wind up on a hotel's dinner plate. He writes passionately about hunted creatures and factory-processed animals too many kill for sport or for sustenance. But this tenderness towards the voiceless and helples jostles against his steady pot-shots at human targets.

Yes, he lets us glimpse his compassion. He finds love at last or first with Jake. (Allegedly a few lines about this relationship have been excised from the Putnam edition compared to the Penguin.) Their affection shimmers for a few paragraphs, shadowed, but then fades discreetly. Moves to London, Los Angeles, and Dublin display his restlessness, and his transatlantic crossings trigger a reader's jet-lag.

Your Arsenal signals the 90s and a crack rockabilly band that backs Morrissey smartly. It sparks violent gigs in "the American madness", as well as "a Beatlemania that dares not speak its name". In Washington D.C., "'Don't let your ego hurt people' shouts one security guard as I pass" but in this rushed telling it's unclear if Morrissey means the moshpit or himself as a recipient of this admonition.

In 1996, Mike Joyce, "a flea in search of a dog", resurfaces to claim a quarter of the earnings from the Smiths, rather than the ten percent Morrissey defends as his proper portion. Making my way through fifty pages of the defense the singer marshals against the drummer (and soon the guitarist and bassist), I thought of Bleak House. A few paragraphs on, Morrissey sagely alludes to that Dickens epic about another case that went on in London's courts even longer. One must admit that despite its value as a celebrity autobiography lacking an "as told to" byline or ghostwriter, one may well counter that Morrissey's pace grinds to its own fact-checked and debate-diligent crawl with his score-settling screed, even if we sympathize. Still, as with Dickens, wry humor leavens this. "Like a well-fed Roman emperor, Andy Rourke took to the witness stand complaining of financial starvation."

Understandably weary, Morrissey leaves England behind. Next door to Johnny Depp in West Hollywood, Morrissey settles down and meets a "lifelong constant", Tina Dehghani. He contemplates having a child with her (we catch this only as an aside, another instance of intimate reserve) but the shocks of 9/11 and Bush's war on terror discourage him. In a destructive decade, he inveighs against violence but brandishes on You Are the Quarry a machine-gun. On the other hand, a few years later on the perhaps or presumably tellingly named Years of Refusal, he cradles a baby.

It's entertaining to hear more about celebrities, renowned musicians, and still more tours, but such musings weigh down the narrative (as they do many who cultivate such memories to regale us) as the years tally. Death among his friends begins to hover, as middle age reminds Morrissey on stage that he's now "avuncular"; he notes the devotion of his Latino fan base in his adopted California and across the border, but he sidles away from any extended self-analysis for this intriguing phenomenon.

Given that the book opened so strongly, with such control, Morrissey's decision to let the flow slacken as his fame grows and the albums accumulate may reflect the verisimilitude of how he views his later life, one more gig, one journalist after another to spar against, one more star to share his sorrows and joys with. The remainder of this narrative runs together in time and space. While this captures the enviable if enervating routine of a celebrity as he jets around the world, it also reveals the tedium that so many rock stars reliably moan about--to their fans.

He faces as he begins one concert "the usual mix of teenage jailbait and superior Smiths scholars". He watches a crowd surge towards him. "Having never found love from one, I instead find it from thousands--at the same time, in the same room." A sweet and tender hooligan, his tenderness jostles against his rueful realization at another venue. "Inside the hall it is Osmondmania, but thankfully with the wasted corpse of Morrissey, in place of the oily Osmonds." Over thirty years at it, he's still ill, this charming man.

As he is driven to a concert, he looks out at his fans in the streets of a small California city. He wonders: "What it must be to be 17 and leading the right life in the right skin." Twenty years famous, Morrissey cannot shake his inhibitions. We close this autobiography knowing less than most of us had surmised about his intimate partnerships, but as with his grandmother and his friendships with an array of celebrated or humbler people, we glimpse his guarded side. The effort he makes will reward us, if we are ready to roll with its harsh or languid flow and rock among its arch, barbed ripostes.

"Finally aware of ourselves as forever being in opposition, the solution to all things is the goodness of privacy in a warm room with books." This elegant reflection demonstrates Morrissey's wisdom, and its grace indicates that, with luck, he may issue a sequel a few decades on for those of us still around.

However, he refuses to remain predictable, let alone sentimental. He ends this boisterous yet often reticent examination of his life in Chicago, on a wintry night. His tour bus awaits in the darkness. A female voice cries out to him after a concert, desperately seeking his attention. Morrissey turns away. (As above to P  ; in shorter and rewritten form to Amazon US 12-19-13)

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Julie Peakman's "The Pleasure's All Mine": Book Review

Last May, the new DSM-V, the standard for medical and psychological professions in classifying sexual disorders, admitted that there now exists "a subtle but crucial difference that makes it possible for an individual to engage in consensual atypical sexual behavior without making being labelled with a mental disorder". This shift away from deviance accompanied a rejection by the American Psychiatric Association of a new category of "hypersexual disorder"; but pressure groups, London-based historian Julie Peakman reports as she introduces her survey of what has often been called perversion, had managed previously to finally remove homosexuality from the list of diagnosed disorders. This struggle to define what is acceptable and what is deviant comprises this study, promoted as the first one-volume summary of "perverse sex".

Following Peakman's scholarship on eighteenth-century British prostitution and pornography, this European-centered presentation peers beyond English shores to look back to classical and biblical reactions to varieties of sex, and--given the limits of firsthand evidence for much of history, often relying upon court testimony and scientific or religious examination--personal accounts when a few dare or boast or are coerced into admitting their own indulgences. Peakman's argument remains clear throughout a dozen thematic chapters. "Normal" does not always equate with heterosexual, male-dominated activities. Standards keep changing. The abnormal alters over time and space.

Despite the unreliability of much of ancient literary or artistic evidence, and the scarcity of trustworthy medieval and early modern accounts for, understandably, a topic prone to secrecy more than display by many of its adherents, the sexual practices uncovered do reveal a similar pattern. For instance, as Peakman lists early on, "oral sex, masturbation, homosexuality, lesbianism, transvestism, flagellation, exhibitionism, voyeurism" all have been accepted by ancient peoples, then condemned by Christian societies, and denigrated by those who in recent centuries began to replace the labels attached to such behaviors. As Western culture secularized, these actions were not so much "sinful" as "irrational"; the medical profession rushed to prevent the acceptance of such activities as normal.

Changes in the past few centuries show this process unfolding. Around 1710, Onania was published. This purported to prove the harm of masturbation. A first, this pamphlet (which by its sixteenth edition tripled in length) warned women as well as men about the practice. Yet, two centuries later, the leading sexologist Richard von Kraft-Ebbing dismissed threats to females. "Woman, if physically and mentally normal, and properly educated, has but little sensual desire." At the same time, Sigmund Freud purported to diagnose women and their orgasm with his own pet theory. After observation and interpretation by Alfred Kinsey and Masters and Johnson by the middle of the last century, masturbation by either sex became classified as normal again. What Greek or Roman doctors recommended to patients, what Christians condemned, what Enlightenment-era or Victorian physicians diagnosed as a physical or mental disorder, and what modern counterparts judge as "a healthy and necessary alternative to procreative sex" typifies the "life cycle of a sexual perversion".

Peakman examines same-sex male and female sexuality, and she distinguishes differences in social or cultural reactions. Men tended to, in the ancient world, be accepted if they dominated the homosexual coupling, while the passive partner was seen as weak, often a slave or a boy trapped, perhaps in a power differential. Women were also regarded as passive, and therefore dismissed as subservient. For lesbians, the sanctioned intimacy many females of any sexual preference tended to demonstrate among themselves allowed women to pursue same-sex relationships with less scrutiny by authorities and less danger than homosexuals. In 1921, an act of Parliament banning lesbianism was never passed. It seemed better to overlook the practice rather than to draw attention by prosecuting it.

A provocative chapter on bestiality enlivens the range of invention. Peakman muses whether this practice was more a question of preference or of opportunity, for what until the last century was a European population with many people growing up much more closely in contact with animals next to them on farms or nearby in villages. Size mattered. Men worked in barns, dairies and fields. As meticulous court documents support, they tended to be caught with their breeches down among mares or sheep, which fit with the males more neatly. Women snuggled in their own rooms in town, cradling smaller cats or dogs. As with homosexuals and masturbators, those who clung to critters were often exposed by peeping Toms and Tammies, who spied through holes in the walls or windows upon their misbehaving neighbors. The crime was often punished by death, both to the creature and the human.

One legendary spin on this, when the fear of the hybrid half-animal/ half-human persisted over many centuries, was the case of Mary Toft. A serving girl of twenty-six, in 1726 she gained the notice of the king's surgeon, who came to investigate. "In search of fame and fortune, she had inserted various rabbit parts into her vagina with the intention of duping her doctor. She had called in her local physician, claiming to be in labour, and, to his astonishment, out popped the various bits of rabbit." Understandably, doctors were puzzled and amazed. She later confessed; she served four months.

Peakman returns at the conclusion of many chapters to the need for consent. This proves the crux of the matter. Partners may be assumed to agree, but in BDSM, can one legally go along with one's own assault? If an animal is a participant in sexual activity, can that creature be said to agree? If so, what does that mean, and how could such consent be determined? As for necrophilia, the dead partner certainly lost any say in the matter. Pedophilia has had its recent advocates who claim consent exists by those who perhaps may be at the legal age of consent (which varies), but as Peakman notes, attempts by that faction to come out and gain acceptance during the 1980s in the wake of gay rights movements only resulted in more persecution, as child-lovers were marched back to the closet.

The Marquis de Sade emerges as an inevitable spokesman in this debate. In his epigram to Juliette (1797-1801), "he defended its publication stating that he saw 'unnatural vices' as 'the strange vices inspired by Nature'. 'Natural' for Sade were all the perversions he described." Peakman sums up this twist: Sadeian philosophy asserts natural origins for all our actions, so they all logically are natural.

But, as the words sadist and masochist capture for two centuries since, those men who originated these terms celebrated a brutality and an exchange of power where consent may not always be arranged. Peakman reminds us of the Roman males who took sex rather than asked for it. She turns to the plight of the Victorian or Edwardian child unable to resist the predicament of his or her exploitation. "Men had no need to rape starving victims; they merely needed a few pence in their pockets and an eye for a starving child." As with the desperate or lonely, the inventive or deluded who sought release or comfort in grasping a horse or a cat, so Peakman draws the reader's attention to those who have been at the receiving end or found a blunt slap regarding bold sexual relationships.

With exhibitionism and voyeurism, the question of victimization now recedes; ironically, Peakman shows how until very recently with the advent of the Internet and mass-media, these two activities often depended on the lack of consent of those on display for the delight of Peeping Toms. Their female equivalents in public (and here we can include printed material--this book itself is illustrated with many period examples--and the media) may increasingly show off their vaginas and labias, Peakman finds, but the respective amount of depictions of the erect male phallus lags far behind. The gender imbalance, she mentions if only as an aside, as to who is looking at whom appears throughout much of the West; one limit of this book is that it does not examine global cultures to offer a broader perspective for comparison and contrast. This is admittedly a hefty volume as it is, yet her coverage for all its lively details rushes by, leaving the reader wanting much more than her many casual remarks when the need to interpret material and not only to collate and paraphrase it arises so often.

As these contents testify, millennia of visual arousal certainly continues to stimulate, even as market demands change and new interests bloom. Research opportunities beckon. "'Chubby-chasing' became a hobby for those obsessed with fat. Whether this has to do with the after-effects of post-Second World War rationing or with the current preoccupation with diet has yet to be ascertained." For all the inherent verve in this subject matter, Peakman keeps a firm control of its impacts, and its contexts.

Near the conclusion, this cultural historian of sexuality wonders if any taboos are left. I learned a new one. Forty or so people, it is claimed, have "loving relationships with objects" and call themselves "objectum sexuals". Two of these "OS" women fought over who deserved the Berlin Wall, and they, being polyamorous, agreed to share the wall "as a lover". Amy had fallen for both the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center, "and grieved the loss of the latter as one would a lover". Peakman records that these women had in common trauma, rejection, and types of dysfunction.

Therefore, as definitions of (arguably) accepted practice expand to include buildings as objects of affection, the challenge for scholars to comprehend sexual behavior which is not nowadays accepted also grows. Peakman avers how it is "now reasonably common for people to incorporate fellating, fetishism, infibulating or fisting (or at least one of these activities) into their usual role play". When (nearly?) no part of the anatomy, the natural realm, or inanimate objects may appear beyond the embrace of somebody needing a catch and release, are any areas out of bounds?

In a too terse but necessary epilogue, Peakman considers harmful sex "to the degree of death or bodily harm between consenting adults (sexual cannibalism or sadomasochism); second, vulnerable adults [e.g., those with learning difficulties or Down's syndrome]; and, third, the age of consent." As I hinted above, the final category has always varied. While she does not delve into some of these areas with sufficient detail, Peakman advises more monitoring of institutions against abuse, and better support for those who may be at risk of coercion or manipulation.

Finally, as procreation at last appears to be "no longer a sexual necessity (or hazard)" for more men and women, sexual acts themselves gain parity. Peakman judges that any kind of sex becomes a matter of preference. We now enjoy freedom of choice, extended and abetted by a mediating Internet. We redraw intimate boundaries, beyond those of one's own body and a willing partner (or two?) close at hand. (PopMatters 12-9-13; 11-19-13 to Amazon US in shorter form)