‘I’d like to drop my trousers to the queen’ – The Smiths ’Nowhere Fast’
‘To define is to limit’ – Oscar Wilde A Picture of Dorian Gray (in Kemp, 2013:71)
‘Hocquenghem argues for anal pleasure not as a specifically homosexual activity, but as a way of undermining all sexual categorisations’ (Kemp 2013: 8)
Punctum Books, an independent open access publisher, describe their work as ‘spontaneous acts of scholarly combustion’. The Penetrated Male by Jonathan Kemp certainly lives up to the billing. I am already a fan of Kemp’s work. His debut novel London Triptych, about masculinity and (homo)sexuality in three different eras, is well worth a read. This time Kemp, who also lectures at Birkbeck university, is exploring similar themes in a more academic format.
The book consists firstly of a literary analysis of some interesting modernist texts. These include Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1903), Baudelaire’s 19th c essays collected in The Painter of Modern Life, Genet’s Querelle of Brest (1947) and Ulysses by James Joyce (1922). But what makes the book ‘pass’ the PhD test of producing ‘an original contribution to knowledge’ is the way Kemp both applies and critiques ‘Queer Theory’ (e.g. Foucault, Bersani, Deleuze, Barthes). In doing so he presents ‘the penetrated male’ body in representation as a radical way of dismantling the well-worn assumption that a ‘penetrated’ male body is necessarily ‘feminine’. Here I am going to look briefly at Kemp’s commentary on Joyce’s Ulysses. Because, as Kemp says, ‘if Genet buckles that metaphor [of the penetrated man as ‘feminine’], Joyce will be seen to tear it to pieces’ (Kemp 2013: 164).
‘Ulysses is a prime example of how the body, when it emerges within discourse, often does so in explicitly or scatalogical ways. It is as if these two functions were, by virtue of their supposedly secretive or private nature, outside of the public law of language; as if out of sight is out of mind held true for the body. Or, as if the tabooing of certain words not only excised them from so-called decent or proper language, but excised the very body parts and functions to which they refer. To refer to them thus implies discursive impropriety or indecency’.
Ulysses was published in the early 20th century to the horror of many. I am reminded here of Anthony Burgess’s marvellous book of Joyce appreciation/criticsm: Here Comes Everybody (1965). Burgess describes how Ulysses was first thought of as a ‘dirty’ book. Although it is now considered a literary ‘classic’, Kemp’s observations about certain words, topics and expressions being ‘taboo’ is still relevant in 21st century, ‘sex obsessed’ culture. Nowadays some heterosexual people are enjoying anal pleasure, for example. But is this kept ‘secret’ on an individual level? In my article entitled We need to talk about bumming, I described feeling unable to discuss my own adventures in (hetero) anal with my straight friends. And, whilst gay ‘liberation’ has moved on in leaps and bounds since Joyce’s time, it can be argued that contemporary ‘gay’ culture, which validates ‘respectability’ via e.g. marriage and parenting, reinforces some sexual taboos and puts actual (homo)sex back in the shadows.
Maybe this is partly why I found Kemp’s unearthing of Joyce’s ‘dirt’ so refreshing. He says:
’Joyce does not present his characters at stool, or micturating, masturbating or copulating, simply in order to shock, but to present life more fully as it is lived. As Joyce himself remarked, ‘if Ulysses isn’t fit to read, life isn’t fit to live’ (cited in Ellman, 1982:537)’. (Kemp 2013: 171)
I think Kemp takes the view that one of the ‘radical’ aspects of Joyce’s Ulysses in the context of sex and the body, is that it presents humanity in all its glory, and does not sanitise sex or elevate it from other bodily functions. This is in part what made the book so unpalatable when it was first released, even for literary types.‘The disturbing quality of what HG Wells called Joyce’s ‘cloacal obsession’ is indicated by most critics’ dismissal or avoidance of it, as if to talk about shit were tantamount to playing with it, as if there were no space, no difference at all, between words and things. Carl Jung called Ulysses the ‘backside of art’ (cited in Heath 1984) while Ezra Pound urged Joyce to remove most of the scatological references. John Gross avoids the subject altogether, claiming ‘at this hour in the day there is nothing new to be said on such a topic’ (Kemp 2013: 172)
I love this notion of the way people can treat words as if they were the thing they represented. It goes quite a long way to explain why we have all got so screwed up by ‘gender’. Words such as ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘male’, ‘female’ have been somehow taken and treated as accurate, whole ‘signifiers’ of whole populations of hugely complex and diverse human beings (and indeed animals). No wonder we’re in such a mess!Kemp discusses elegantly and clearly why Joyce’s Ulysses can be seen as a ‘way out’ of this bind of gender, and gendered language. In refusing to automatically ascribe ‘femininity’ to the penetrated male body (specifically Bloom’s body in the book), Joyce uses it as a symbol of something different, something new, a departure from the binary. Kemp identifies this ‘departure’ as being possible in and expressing ‘Modernism’. He says:
‘Joyce’s modernism allows for a certain queering of masculinity that doesn’t try to avoid or erase the body’s penetrability; but rather uses it to critique gender dimorphism in interesting ways’ (Kemp 2013: 172).
This ‘modernism’ does of course evolve and morph into ‘postmodernism’ and many of Kemp’s ideas, that emerged from reading Ulysses, are still relevant today in the fully fledged postmodern era. You will have to read Kemp’s book (and ideally Ulysses itself – I confess I only managed up to about page 40 when I tried) to find out more about those ways in which Joyce ‘critiques gender dimorphism’!