Closets of Knowledge

Frank Kermode

  • Privacy: Concealing the 18th-Century Self by Patricia Meyer Spacks
    Chicago, 248 pp, £25.50, May 2003, ISBN 0 226 76860 0

Among other books by the author of this study is one called Boredom, hailed by the paradoxophile Adam Phillips as ‘spry’, a description that would just about serve for the style of Privacy, which, though redolent of the privacies of the seminar, is public in the sense that it is reasonably free of jargon and won’t mind much if non-professors choose to read it.

Before she gets on to the 18th century, her favourite period, Patricia Meyer Spacks makes some initial remarks about ‘privacy’ and related words, intending to show that privacy is in our time regarded as wholly desirable, indeed as a human right, whereas in the past it could mean something more like ‘privation’ and refer to a condition no sane person would claim or seek; or anyway that its social disadvantages outweighed its individual attraction. She further remarks that in our day, when the right to privacy is written into constitutions and defended in the courts, we seem to be keener than ever to breach the privacy of celebrities (who actually need to have their privacy breached in order to stay celebrated) and to gloat on the couch while other individuals, seeking their own brief moment of celebrity, retail for television interviewers – without compulsion, without shame – the contents of the sad rag-and-bone shops of their hearts.

Later, Spacks will explain that, television apart, the lust of 18th-century punters for information about the private lives of important people was not very different, though the latter probably lacked the means to breach their own privacy unless, like Boswell and Laetitia Pilkington, whose ‘matchless sauciness’ was so pleasing to her improbable friend Swift, they kept candid journals. Talk of candour quickly leads to talk of pornography, intended, if anything was, for private reading, not group recitation. Spacks has good things to say about pornography. The style, as she observes, is often quite decorous, as it is in Fanny Hill, and the essentially private, guilty act of reading pornography is excused, or perhaps made more exciting, by Cleland’s fluent, upmarket language and abstinence from vulgar expressions.

‘Private’ occupies 12 columns of the OED, not counting its various relatives. Spacks, for her part, finds ambiguity in the uses of the word. It comes from the Latin word meaning ‘deprived’ – that is, deprived of public office – so ‘it originally designated a state of deprivation.’ It can still do so: to be a private in the army is to have no rank or distinction, and very little privacy. On the other hand a private member, who might conceivably be said to be deprived of government office, is still an MP and in some important respects a privileged person. The ‘original’ sense of the word is here a very shadowy presence. To have private medical treatment is not to be deprived of the National Health Service but willingly to forego it. This ambiguity is practically aboriginal, but it is the ‘deprived’ sense that has taken second place, and I think this has been so for longer than Spacks suggests.

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