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.

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