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WIM 5: Really Bad Readers, Nutcase Division

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I think we left off, the other day, talking about sex–about censorship as a way to target what one group or another thinks of as “deviant” forms of sexuality, on the assumption that if we can absolutely forbid anybody from mentioning them, we can also stop people from engaging in them.

And it really is all about sex.  Even censorship battles that seem not to be about sex are about sex, to an extent that’s really rather hard to fathom.

Maybe the point here is this:  from the very beginning of human society, from the moment human beings tried to form themselves into groups with common cultures, the impetus has always been not just to define what it means to be human, but to define it in such a way that it distinguishes the human from the “merely animal.”

This is as true of people and societies claiming to define the human as “MERELY animal” as it is of those who see human beings as children of God, or not much lower than Gods.  We’ll go in to why people who claim they see the human being as “just another animal” are always lying later.  At the moment, I want to note that the biggest issue in distinguishing the human from the animal is, and has to be, sex.

Let’s face it–I don’t expect my cats to control their sexuality.  I figure I’ve done a pretty good job if I can stop Creamsicle from breaking down the screen door in his determination to get to the cat in heat on the other side of our road.  Animals engage in sex when the opportunity offers itself.  They don’t know kinship degrees from the Eiffel Tower, and they don’t care.  A tomcat will screw anything in heat that presents itself, and if nothing of that kind is availble and he has he urge, he’ll screw Teddy bears.

I’m not making that up.

It’s only human beings who expect to be able to determine codes of sexual behavior and then get themselves to follow them.  A tomcat can screw anything in heat, but a forty-year-old man damned will better not screw his fifteen year old student, even if she comes on to him like a house afire.  What’s more, even if he’s dealing with a forty-year-old woman, he’d damned well better get permission.  If he doesn’t, we’ll lock him up, label him a sex offender, and make his life a complete hell forever afterwards.

What’s  more, human beings develop complicated ideas about sex and sexuality,  It’s not just what we do, but what we think about what we do that matters.

And the further fact is that the one sure way to destroy the prestige of anybody, no matter how important, is to have that person caught in a shameful sexual act.  What constitutes “shameful” is not as elastic as we like to think it is, either.  I have no conscious objection to mastrubation.  My head tends to think that I’d rather teen-agers engaged in that than risk getting AIDS or making a baby when they’re not ready for either.  But a while back I read the autobiography of a literary critic I have always admired greatly, and there, in the middle of it all, was a short chapter on his forays into various masturbatory adventures.  I’d seen this man speak, which meant the image in my mind was very clear.  And the only way I can still read him is to consciously push that image out of my mind, to deliberately try to blank out the space in my head where I have a picture of this man doing really odd things with oranges.

Maybe because sex is the activity in which we are least differentiated from our animal nature, it has the power to diminish us.  Making sex something other than diminishing takes a lot of work:  poetry, art, the theology of the body.  And, people being people, most of us have sexual impulses that lie outside the respectable outlets of sexuality.

It doesn’t matter that what constitutes “respectable” or “elevated” sex, that what comes under the heading of “making love” instead of “screwing,” changes from society to society and even generation to generation.  The fact is that every society and every generation feels the need to make such distinctions and then police the borders of them. 

It is making such distinctions and policing such borders that Bad Readers, Nutcase Division, always take out on literature–on art, of all kinds.  One side wants to assign Heather Has Two Mommies and ban excerpts from Leviticus.  The other side wants to assign Leviticus and ban Heather Has Two Mommies.  Both sides are trying to construct a barrier that will keep “good” sexuality in and hold “bad” sexuality out.

And that means that Bad Readers, Nutcase Division, often can’t see anything else in a work of literature except the sex, even if they don’t call it sex. 

On the left you get sillinesses like the speculations about the sexuality of Clifford Pyncheon in The House of the Seven Gables.  I think I mentioned, a couple of posts back, that I’m rereading that.  I’m rereading it as part of the run-up to writing an essay about the literature of New England.  Clifford Pyncheon is an interesting character, at the very heart of the novel, and a literary and social type that pretty much died out after the Victorians.  The House of the Seven Gables was published in 1851.

Clifford is “artistic,” without actually being an artist.  His health is “delicate.”  His constitution is “weak.”  And he is nearly supernaturally senstive to beauty and ugliness in the world around him.  This makes the fact that he has just been released after spending thirty years in prison for a murder he did not commit all the more horrible.

It’s also the case that any modern writer who presented us with a character like Clifford would have presented him as gay.  Hell, I’ll go farther than that.  My guess is that such personalities, when they appeared in the society of the time, actually were gay.  Male homosexuality wasn’t invented at Stonewall, or even by Oscar Wilde.

To claim, however, that Hawthorne knew that such a man would be gay, or that he subconsciously or unconsciously must have harbored tendencies towards homosexuality himself (or he wouldn’t have done such a good job on the character), isn’t just wrong, it’s destructive of any attempt to understand the book.

Hawthorne had a lot of obsessions, and especially an obsession with the legacy of Puritanism in New England, but if you had asked him about Clifford’s relationship to sex, he would have said that Clifford had no relationship to sex, that Clifford’s constitution was so delicate, and ethereal, he had nothing corresponding to a human sex drive in any part of his nature.

If Hawthorne had thoought that Clifford was gay, it would have been a big deal.  For a man of Hawthorne’s era, even a “liberal” man, with friends among the Transcendalists, such sexuality would have been nothing but absolute proof of irredeemable moral corruption.  In Hawthorne’s era, homosexuality wasn’t just “bad,” it was unthinkable, and a homosexual Clifford would not have been an injured innocent, a lamb sacrified on the altar of Pyncheon greed, but a foul and loathsome thing barely able to lay claim to the title of “human.” 

I doubt if Hawthorne would even have been able to see homosexuality as redeemable.  For most men of his generation, even Thoreau, if the subject came up at all, it would simply have been alluded to as the very depths of depravity, from which no one ever returns.

The point about Clifford Pyncheon is exactly that he is disembodied, ethereal, “too fine” for the vigorous give and take of ordinary human life–and not necessarily to be applauded for that.  A lot of The House of the Seven Gables, like a lot of Hawthorne’s other work, is taken up with examining the difference between the old aristocratic society and the new republican one.  Hawthorne is a very committed republican.  One of the sins of the Pyncheon family is precisely that they have ambitions to become aristocracy, that they have pretentions to being more than equal to the men and women around them.   The kind of man Clifford is is essentially aristocratic.  This is not the kind of man the new republic can, or wants to, produce. 

Injecting sex into The House of the Seven Gables is like injecting a car chase into Sleeping Beauty.  It’s not possible to know what you’re reading when you read through a prism that distorts so much.  Really bad readers of the second variety, the ideologically fanatical, as I called them at first, are always reading through distorting lenses of one kind or another. 

They also need something that literature cannot, and should not, give them:  the proper little moral at the end of the tale, upholding Right or rejecting Wrong.  There’s a reason why we tend to think of stories written in this way as being for children.  It is children’t literature, and only children’s literature, that exists to teach moral lessons directtly.

Real literature teaches moral lessons indirectly, and sometimes at variance with the moral codes of the writers who produce it.  It does so by giving us a picture, as Trollope put it, of The Way We Live Now.

Written by janeh

October 16th, 2008 at 11:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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