Grub Street Snob

Terry Eagleton

  • Fanny Hill in Bombay: The Making and Unmaking of John Cleland by Hal Gladfelder
    Johns Hopkins, 311 pp, £28.50, July 2012, ISBN 978 1 4214 0490 5

Sex began in academia a decade later than it did for Philip Larkin. From the rise of the women’s movement to the postmodern cult of the perverse, few themes have been more persistent in literature departments than sexuality. For most people, writing about multiple orgasms is known as pornography; in academia, it can win you a chair.

Sexuality is not to be confused with sex. Sex is what most people do, whereas sexuality is largely the province of the intelligentsia. Sex can be fun, but sexuality is serious stuff. Academic writing about it hardly ever captures its amusing, even farcical dimensions, whatever it is that makes it such a perennial subject of curiosity and intrigue. Hearing that two people are sleeping together can often provoke a spontaneous grin, provided neither of them is your partner. Even so, sex and sexuality are hardly on different planets. Most of those who write on sexuality have sex lives themselves, and thus tend to practise what they preach. Studying sexuality is always at some level self-study, rather as writing about popular culture, for most of the students who do it these days, involves watching movies and TV shows they would have watched anyway. There is thus a convenient continuity between one’s academic and one’s actual life, as with a psychiatrist who is an expert on his own psychosis. This is not true of working on line-endings in Swinburne or desire in Deleuze; but in the long trek from Foucault to Family Guy, literary studies have moved closer to the everyday experience of their practitioners, even if so much of their talk is of otherness. This is also the reason so many students write about fanzines or Madonna in such alarmingly uncritical terms. Some of them would no more speak disparagingly of their own culture than they would insult their mothers.

Just as pornography is notoriously clinical, so it is hard to write analytically about sexuality without a certain sensationalism. The works of Freud are the thinking person’s pulp fiction. Fanny Hill in Bombay is a title designed to catch the eye of more than 18th-century scholars, and there isn’t much in the book to justify it. It is an impressively learned, scrupulously detailed study of John Cleland, author of one of the most salacious pieces of fiction in the English language; but it is no disrespect to Hal Gladfelder to wonder whether the Johns Hopkins press would have been quite so eager to take on an erudite study of an obscure 18th-century hack were he not renowned for having written an exceedingly dirty book. Most publishers run a mile these days from such single-author studies. They do not sell, unlike postcolonial anthologies and bluffer’s guides to Virginia Woolf.

In the prelapsarian 1960s, a typical critical essay might be entitled ‘Window Imagery in the Later Pasternak’, while in the theoretico-political 1970s, ‘Class Struggle in The Divine Comedy’ was a more predictable topic. By the 1980s and 1990s, conference papers with titles like ‘Putting the Anus back into Coriolanus’ had arrived on the scene. The shift from class struggle to the anus was not one from the political to the erotic, but from one kind of politics to another. Marxists for whom sexuality was as embarrassing a subject as sanctifying grace were reminded that labour meant producing babies as well as chocolate bars. A theory so high as to be well-nigh invisible to the naked eye was summoned sharply back to earth. Politics and sexuality formed some potent alliances, as they continue to do today. Gay and lesbian politics are among the most precious legacies from this period.

Yet as radical hopes faded in the late 1970s, sexuality came to displace left politics as well as to deepen them. With the advent of postmodernism, sexuality became largely depoliticised. Passions once invested in the question of sweatshops or chemical warfare were gradually transferred to fisting and nipple-piercing. We had moved from Trotskyism to transgression. Publishers began to reject critical studies that did not contain the word ‘body’ in their titles. Gendered bodies were acceptable, but sick or labouring ones much less so. Sex was packaged and peddled in the seminar room as well as on the streets. In some quarters, forms of sexuality that had been previously gagged and hounded became the loves that dared not stop speaking their names.

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