Tuesday, 16 February 2010

We, Poor Victorians

Smut: the characteristic humour of the British. Whereby grown men and women (but mostly grown men; women are not expected to be humorous here, nor to harvest a great deal of pleasure) relentlessly expose random words and their phrases to the most tangential of sexual association, and derail what might otherwise have emerged as conversation. One had best have one's say here as fast as one can, for the time one will get is curtailed: by the fact that most no word will not speak of sex and the fact that most no one forgets it. All the better, indeed, to throw off for all time the last vestige of awkward commitment; it will not get heard and will fit, in the effort, like a grand old square peg in the round holes (ahem) through which social intercourse (dear me) here must so labour (now, really).

"We, Other Victorians," Foucault names us, in describing that ambiguous transformation from the nineteenth century's apparent repression of flesh and its sex, infamously represented by their enthusiasm for drapes of all shapes and sizes, all the better to camouflage those wood legs and brass feet whose inanimate natures were still insufficient guarantee against the natural drive of the body. They dared not to speak out its name, of course, but did so in every piece of their dress, every sweep of their limbs, every trope of their speech; the walls of their hospitals, houses and schools no longer had ears but loud mouths shouting out, in the careful divisions of women from men and of girls from small boys and of sickness from health and of mind from the flesh, that sex is our innermost truth, our deepest dark secret, that which we must take great care to suppress and then take great cares to look into.

But what cunning and skill there grow up around this curious pincer-like move, which at the same time says that sex is our secret and endlessly that it's our truth. For guilt is its primary product, and guilt makes not one kind of pleasure but all of the ways in which pleasure is felt. And it's oh! such a genius inventor: wily and sly in the placing of byways around the main business of sex, we are told, but really the business of sex lies no place than the byways that guilt builds around it. The richness of fabric and deep swathes of colour and curved, fulsome folds which Victorians swirled around even their solid oak limbs are not richer, nor deeper, nor rounder and full than the sacred rites by which we learned not to show and the ceremony that, at great volume and length, spoke so softly and short of our secret. The East has its nuggets of erotic art; we stored our riches in guilt.

But smut knows not how best to wear this bequest and runs naked without its rich robes; it blusters about on the empty town square when the pleasures are had on the sidestreets; it has at the most but a scanty loin cloth, which it pulls back again and again in one gesture whose sameness is poor, so poor, of the art, the deft touch, with which pleasure arranges the folds of its heavy and much-patterned guilts. Now, here, that damned puritan impulse, the loathing for form and for image, the fervour for literal truth, means that even our guilt looks us straight in the eye.

If pleasure is the endless saying what is not said but said, then so, exactly, be it: here, pleasure is endlessly saying what is not said but said; take a word - any word - and enjoy saying it said what it didn't.

Thus, rich folds of flesh are stripped down to a figleaf by we, oh so poor, Victorians.

Friday, 12 February 2010

A Friend

"She's my friend, Rose, she's my friend": thus Gilbert Markham to his concerned sister, in explanation of his visits to Mrs. Graham, an apparently widowed woman, recently moved to the village, and around whom there has crept an air of scandal attributable by her neighbours to nothing more concrete than an enthusiasm for living alone and a marked protectiveness over her only son. Gilbert's protestation rings false in the ear of the uninitiated: here is a man who has lived on, and worked, a farm in the village for all of his life, whose father did all this before him, who appears even to be destined for marriage with the rector's daughter, and whose relatively open, somewhat careless, nature cannot have prevented these circumstances from having generated a wide circle of true, of lifelong, friends, to supplement the support of the mother, brother and sister with whom he appears to live on good terms. Are we to believe that such a one can, over the course of the very few meetings that have taken place between Mrs. Graham and himself, have formed a friendship, of any significance in comparison with those he already enjoys and of sufficient substance to merit the setting of village convention at nought? The reader of Anne Bronte's Tenant no doubt shrugs her shoulders in disbelief, divines that our Gilbert has fallen in love, and anticipates his progress to greater self-knowledge.

But this would be going too quick and roughshod over the frequent and curious mentionings of a friend in the novels of Victorian Britain. Lizzie Hexam clings to her Jenny in defiance of brotherly advice, and protests, in justification, that Jenny is her friend; and Betty Higden in the same novel wards off the attentions of the townsfolk she meets on her travels with assurances that she does have some friends, whose names she carries on a piece of paper in her dress. Jane Eyre, for her part, denies having a friend in the world; and hers is a condition almost definitive of the nineteenth-century protagonist, for whom a friend in the world is something to be fought for and won, irrespective, mind you, of her having a family living: whether one's family provides one with friends or does not is entirely a matter of circumstance; if it does not, then it seems to have little of comfort to offer on its own accord.

One has no grasp of this state of affairs until one lives for a time in Great Britain, and sees for oneself that a friend there is rare - for reasons perhaps of the Protestant ethic that sets one alone before God; for reasons, perhaps, of those "liberal" codes that seem to allow little merit to that which does not produce "value"; for reasons, maybe this most of all, of that terrible system of class, which strips all encounters of all but those small, mindless details, lest one reveal (oh! so gauchely) one's level, or inquire (oh! so offensively) too close into that of the other; for reasons, the effect of such stripped down sociability, of the trend to crawl early and irrevocably into a mania for this or that thing (this music, this lifestyle, this dress code, this accent), in which nutshell such souls as are possible here are kept in a kind of half-life, but which shuts out all casual common rapport, gives hellos! on the street existential effect, and dissolves all those ties that might be assumed between those by and with whom one grew up.

In a place such as this, a friend is uncommon indeed, and worth courting censure to find and to keep.