Friday, May 25, 2007

Morerotica; dyspeptic Latta; Greenblatt's Shax

That last entry looks a bit cranky, I guess, or a bit – as I think I said – ‘self-interested.’ But ‘erotic,’ as it’s defined on the dictionary packaged with my laptop, does have something to not just with sex, but with “arousal” – so that for a piece of writing to be ‘erotic’ there ought to at gesture towards what one of the Lustbites bloggers Eric cites refers to as ‘one-handed reading.’ ‘Kinetic’ art, pokerfaced Stephen Dedalus calls it in Portrait, & dismisses it (prig!).

So the ‘erotic,’ like the obscene, perforce varies from reader to reader: Alan Davies’s Rave doesn’t qualify for me, while Daphne Gottlieb’s Final Girl often does (tho I think I ought to feel guilty about that). Kathy Acker – almost never, tho some folks seem to get quite a charge therefrom. Cleland, yes indeed, Sade, for a moment – before the boredom & disgust set in.

I recall an odd moment when I was at the beginning of a (scholarly) piece that looked like it might involve a good bit of thinking about desire: I asked a monstrously well-read colleague what he’d recommend on the subject, only to get the conventional brace of Frenchmen: Sade & Bataille (Erotism, Story of the Eye). But what about objects of desire which aren’t a) in pain b) tied up, or c) in the process of being dismembered? Without coming across like James Dobson or some other dreadful retrograde, I can’t help wondering what’s happened to straightforward sexuality in contemporary critical discourse? In a profession that prides itself upon its radical openness to sexuality and the somatic (Terry Eagleton says somewhere – or he ought to have – that there’re more “bodies” at the MLA these days than there were on Flodden Field), how come consensual desire has been almost entirely ignored in favor of discussing various flavors of S/M? It’s almost enough to make one sign on with Eric’s romance bloggistes.

But Michael Moorcock’s The Brothel in Rosenstrasse, which I seem to have acquired almost two decades ago, & only now am actually reading, is proving quite tasty. Don’t get me started on Moorcock, okay?
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Speaking of cranky, somebody’s really peed in John L.’s cereal these days, judging by the frequency & velocity of the missiles he's flinging. Greasy eminences in the business of promoting followers or mythologizing their own past should take note: at least one vox clamantis in deserto is out to puncture y’r pretensions.
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After much kvetching over its first 100 pages, I finished Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare in a state of pretty much surrender. That is, I read the first stretch with the eye of a critic of biography, looking out for the spots when SG built rhetorical certainties on foundations of speculation, moments when he allowed his imagination of what Shax might have done become accounts of what Shax did.

Once SG’s gotten his major biographical project out of the way – as the subtitle indicates, this is an account of Shax’s Bildung, his formation – the book settles into an intricately linked & effortlessly eloquent series of biographical essays: Shax & the formative rivalry with Marlowe & the other “university wits,” the sonnets & their relation to Southampton, Merchant of Venice and the execution of the crypto-Jew Lopez, Hamlet & the invention of dramatic interiority. And I read, I found my reservations about SG’s biographical methods, if not falling away, then at least lessening. Perhaps it’s because he’s on more securely “canonical” grounds here – many, many biographers have written about the connection between Hamlet & Shax’s son Hamnet, between Prospero’s broken staff & Shax’s retirement from the theater, between Banquo & Macbeth & the accession of the witch-obsessed Scot James VI to the English throne.

Which is to say in part that there are no surprises in the last 2/3 of Will in the World, once Greenblatt has gotten the bee of Shax’s possible crypto-Catholicism out of his bonnet. But it is all beautifully done, handled with thoughtful straightforwardness, punchy, sensitive prose, & even occasional wit. (If anything, SG’s greatest fault is an excess of earnestness.)

Will in the World is not the first Shax biography one ought to read; far too much historical, sociological, & literary background is simply passed over or assumed.* It is as it were a meditation on selected themes in Shax’s life & works, best pitched to those who already know something of the play & the life. But it’s a fine book, a study – & this is one of my highest categories of praise – that’s worth the time to argue with.

*My own semi-random recommendations, for what they’re worth, are Park Honan’s Shakespeare (Oxford UP, 1998) and Dennis Kay’s Shakespeare (Morrow, 1992).

2 comments:

Ray Davis said...

"... how come consensual desire has been almost entirely ignored in favor of discussing various flavors of S/M?"

Here's my theory.

Nikki Magennis said...

Hi Mark,

' ‘erotic,’ as it’s defined on the dictionary packaged with my laptop, does have something to not just with sex, but with “arousal” – so that for a piece of writing to be ‘erotic’ there ought to at gesture towards what one of the Lustbites bloggers Eric cites refers to as ‘one-handed reading.’

Nikki of lustbites here.

(- While I'd love to say Eric blogs with us, I'm afraid he doesn't (or hasn't yet!))

This is a fascinating question (at least it is for somebody daily embroiled in the erotic). The whole field has opened up in the past few years, to include both 'sex writing' and 'erotica'. In its pure sense, yes, erotica is intended to arouse. But with any luck, it can arouse more than just the genitals. I think there's space for both now - arousing and thought provoking. Now that readers in general are less coy about wanting writing that makes them horny, it leaves space for sex writing that takes prurience as a starting point rather than the end goal.

Re the S/M thing...like any genre I suppose there's fashions and trends. Lately there's been a lot of hoo-ha over male/male erotica written for women, for example.

As a writer, (in my experience, anyway), S/M is fascinating for a couple of reasons. For one, it formalises power play, and in an erotic novel that's all important. When the plot (don't laugh) centres on sex, tension needs to come from power struggles between characters. S/M provides a great vehicle for exploring that tension. Secondly, it's got lots of great possibilities for description. Accessories, you know?!

Hope that makes some kind of sense!