"And then I eat the stick"
Clive in the TLS--On Virility
« : 10.05.16 at 19:37 »
Clive appeared in last week's Times Literary Supplement, with a long article reviewing a French book on virility. The article was freely available online, but the TLS is still revamping its website and content has been randomly going missing. So here it is:
Signs of Virility -- Clive James
A History of Virility
Alain Corbin, Jean-Jacques Courtine and Georges Vigarello, editors
This book is a lead mine of information. There could have been gold in it, but perhaps yellow lustre was thought to be less impressive than grey heft. Only one of a series of volumes published under the general title of “European Perspectives”, the book bulks large as a collection of specially commissioned articles with virility for a subject. Virile itself in its heaps of strenuously acquired science-sounding vocabulary, it shows what can be done when three sufficiently influential European editors marshal the expertise of a phalanx of sufficiently dedicated European sociologists in order to invest a sufficiently important theme with an extra gravitas it doesn’t really need. The result is like the European Union: one searches for the benefits while keeping an eye on the exits.
Most of the Europeans involved are French, and one of the reasons for the book’s ponderous collective tone could be that the already glutinous academic version of the French language has been not very excitingly translated into English: a term such as “structured, normative alterity” might have sounded more sprightly in the original. The exclusive blame can scarcely be placed on the subject itself, which is, by the nature of things, quite sexy. By the time the European experts have worked out their perspectives, however, the kind of urge that once got Peter Abelard into immortal trouble is drained of poetic nuance, not to say truth.
All too early in the book, on the point of whether masculinity is acquired or intrinsic, Simone de Beauvoir is quoted. The quotation is familiar, but stands out among the circumambient solemnity with a startling freshness, which is a bad sign, because in any context where Beauvoir sets the standard for vivid utterance, it is being set low. “A man” says Beauvoir,“is not born a man, he becomes a man.” She sounds more scientific than the social scientist who quotes her, although Abelard, could he speak, might point out to both of them that the idea that masculinity is not an a priori condition attached to physiology starts looking shaky when the knives come out. (“The pursuit of truth hides castration”, said Lacan, to which Abelard might have replied “If only”.) But the book, could it speak in a single voice – most of the time, alas, it does, if only in the sense that so many modern academics in the soft sciences sound the same – might reply that sexuality is not merely a matter of gender, or that gender is not merely a matter of anatomy, and that these things are modalities, with virility yet another modality. As always in any such book of any size, if you hear the word “modality” you can count on hearing it again soon.
One of the greatest of modern French thinkers, Raymond Aron, was a sociologist, and he himself admired the sociologist Durkheim. But Aron knew that some of the merit of those proto-sociologists Montesquieu and Tocqueville had been in their clear, non-technical language. There is not a lot of that here. Luckily the themes are ordered in a roughly historical chronology from ancient Greece through to now; and it would take an encyclopedist of the subject to find every section familiar. An uncomfortable word, though, “encyclopedist”: it reminds you that Diderot could write, and hardly anybody gathered here really can.
It shouldn’t matter, but these are troubled times for France and, by extension, Europe and the world; and virility is a topic that suddenly needs all the historically informed treatment that it can get. If virility is a natural male urge, can kindness to women be part of it, or is violent dominance basic? We need to be sure right now, before the next New Year’s Eve celebrations at Cologne railway station, when yet another bunch of macho dimwits might be self-propelled into obscene action by their supposedly irresistible urges.
To be sure, however, is not easy to decide on the basis of the historic evidence. Aristophanes in Lysistrata seems to argue, or at least joke, that women not only have natural rights, but could assert them if they timed their sex-strike properly. He doesn’t say that the women would have to count on men being merciful. It’s a reasonable inference, however, that the men were: at least in the play. So the Greek concept of masculinity might have included dominance, as the book says; but didn’t necessarily include the likelihood of dominance expressing itself in the form of rape. The masculinity of Aristophanes himself is not in question. He favoured male body hair, we are told, and looked back fondly to the black arses of the good old days, but out of moral conviction, not desire. For the extensive discussion of Greek homosexuality (it’s a word they didn’t have, but they certainly had the thing) we are given a vignette of Sophocles cruising the ramparts, but there’s no news there.
Real news would have been to tell us how any man, of whatever proclivities, got the urge to act gallantly towards women, or even care about them very much. The Greek conviction that true masculinity included a capacity for self-control is canvassed, but not extended into the surely crucial area where self-control might be exercised out of respect for other selves, and not just for immediate personal advantage. Pericles had a long loyalty to Aspasia. How did that happen, when he had so many affairs, thereby breaking the law that he himself had decreed? Where did gallantry come from, in this or any other context where men could do as they pleased? These questions are not dealt with (or even “addressed”) anywhere in the book. Later the omission will become more and more conspicuous, but it’s already pretty radiant early on, hinting powerfully at the possibility that the many writers concerned share the characteristic of not seeing intersexual affection as a pertinent reality. As Roger Scruton has said of all those Marxist thinkers who wasted thousands of square miles of print condemning the bourgeois family as a capitalist control mechanism, they left out love.
But too early to give up yet, and as we move on into ancient Rome and find Catullus having it off with Ipsithilia nine times in a row we can remind ourselves, even if the book can’t, that though we have entered a big-cock culture (hic habitat felicitas, as Biggus Dickus might have said) there are questions about a woman’s desires, wishes and pleasures that a man might not be able to answer at his ease, or ignore at his whim. Juvenal and Martial are cited to prove that cunnilingus was regarded among Roman men as a non-virile activity. So it was among the men in The Sopranos, but Uncle Junior did it anyway.
Did the women want what they got? Martial has a poem about a woman with insatiable desires but her desires are pictured as aping a man’s. The Cynthia of Propertius held him in physical thrall but we hear little about that. Cornelius Gallus, an interdisciplinary powerhouse who took anything he wanted – for his military aptitude he was put in charge of Egypt – was similarly enslaved by his ravenous girlfriend Lycoris but we hear still less. Perhaps we should forgive that omission, because there are only a few lines of Gallus remaining. The book suggests little can be inferred from Roman poetry about what men wanted from women. On this account, a lot more is known about what men wanted from each other. Martial wanted his catamites snow white, in keeping with the general Roman gay principle that a virile man should be dominus, the active partner, and never cinaedus, the passive partner. Romans admired and envied barbarian virility, but the Vandals were praised for curbing their libido. Here again, the desideratum of controlled behaviour was in there somewhere, even as we picture, in our CGI-saturated imaginations, the horizon darkened by hairy-arsed hordes of foreign thugs bearing down on the city gates.
At which point our flagging virility might be restored by the urge to protect the women, but the book never begins to give us enough about that. Perhaps its aim has been deflected in advance by the contemporary agreement that men commit micro-aggression at the very least if they speak of women as frail creatures. But such an agreement can be reached only after a society has done a lot of developing, and at this stage of the book it has miles to go. Onward into the Dark Ages, and enter Guillaume d’Orange, he of the killing lance, the large horse and the nose brutally reconfigured by the sword of the Saracen. Virile, or what?
Here there is a benumbing proof that pseudo-scientific jargon might not be the worst thing that can happen to expository prose: plain language can be worse still. Guillaume’s chunky image having set the mark, the medieval conception of the virile man is evoked through his hand and arm:
It is the hand of this man that handles all the harnesses, that organises the carts. It is the hand of this man that holds the hoe, the scythe, the sickle, the hatchet, the flail, the sledgehammer, the rod, or the piece of wood thrown to knock down the acorns from the oak to feed the pigs. All these movements bring into play the power of the body. The tools are often simply the prolongation or the extension of the strength of the arm . . .
You have to love the precise evocation of that piece of wood: no wonder France produced Flaubert. But although the book’s collective authorship seems dedicated to establishing that it can be mercilessly boring whether its modality of tone is plain or technical, tedium is not the main problem. The reader can overcome that with cognac. There is no antidote, however, for a gift of raising a point only to examine the wrong side of it.
Onward into the era of courtly love, and virility acquires délicatesse. One remembers that Rimbaud thought you could have too much of that, but our authors forget he said so. The idea behind his “Par délicatesse/ J’ai perdu ma vie” is that you can miss out on experience by being too civilized – quite a concession, from a career scumbag who wrote poems on a café table with his own excrement – but our authors, whenever they have a tale of conflicting motivations to tell, prefer to complicate it out of existence before it starts. The possibility that a behavioural refinement might entail losing touch with an essential instinct is one to be treated with the written equivalent of close reading, not with a cloud of squid ink. There is a disquisition on Ronsard’s passion for a sexually ambiguous “indeterminate Venus” that soars into ecstasies of postmodern vocabulary (“loss of virile identity . . . spectacle of alterity . . . phantasmic image of a boy-woman”) without ever arriving at the simpler point that when he wrote his great poems to Hélène she was a beautiful young woman, and he was an old man for whom the staircase in the Tuileries palace that led up to her chamber might as well have been the north face of the Eiger. Undoubtedly he wrote a poem about a girl who looked a bit like a boy, but the poems that called out the best of his genius were about a girl who was all girl, and how time was killing him. There was nothing ambiguous about his longing for her; just everything that was sad and lonely.
Eventually the book makes you impatient with its reluctance to say the obvious thing first or at all, but on the long trek to inanition there are moments where no amount of solemn elaboration can mask the significant. Montaigne, towards the end of his life, not only compensated for the loss of sexual experience by indulging his sexual imagination, he said he was doing so. Our authors are thus at a loss to interpret him, and must report him straight. Elsewhere in his career, in Essais III, 1, he said that women were incomparably more capable and ardent than men in the act of love. (One recalls, although once again our authors don’t, how Karl Kraus said that a woman’s sexual pleasure, compared to a man’s, was as an epic to an epigram.) Montaigne took that sweet knowledge to his deathbed, where the erstwhile sweetness was bound to make the present knowledge bitter. Our line-up of savants are on dangerous ground with Montaigne: he really knew things, and knew how to say them without shutting out the world.
British readers will be flattered to see that some attention is paid to Henry VIII’s virile member, or at any rate to the codpiece that Holbein designed to contain it. But they might be non-plussed to discover that Louis XIV and Louis XV combined get not much more space than Henry VIII. One can understand the book’s catchment area of reference being biased towards France, but things turn strange when France itself gets skimpy treatment. It is noted that Louis XIV lost no points for virility through his being a great dancer – since he more or less invented what we now know as the ballet, it’s a clear line from him to Carlos Acosta – but there is nothing at all about the most interesting thing Louis XV did from the virility angle. Or perhaps it could better be defined as the most interesting thing that he didn’t do. In his position as King he could have any woman he desired, but when he ceased to desire Madame de Pompadour she remained his close friend. There had always been criticism of her influence over his state policies and it might have suited him to restrict her access, but he did the opposite. How did all that happen?
You would do far better asking Nancy Mitford, whose book about Louis XIV, The Sun King, is not only more attractively written than this one, but a deeper work of sociology. If our authors had been serious about Henry VIII’s codpiece they might have thrown in a parenthesis about just why Charles II chose to revive his friendship with Lady Castlemaine so long after they had ceased to be lovers, if they ever did; but to neglect an opportunity to discuss the decent behaviour of a King of France who could have been as indecent as he wished is an insult to French civilization.
Worse, it is an insult to their own calling. They are supposed to be explaining things, not adding to the confusion, especially at a time when the confusion threatens to become a mortal danger. At the rate Europe is getting into trouble, its young men will need to be told why it is a mark of virility, and not of weakness, to be less than fanatically certain about the secondary status of women. Of course it is, you might say; but where did that valuable diffidence come from, and how come all these hairy-arsed bandits haven’t got it? The rage for simplicity is a perverted strength, but there might be no countering it without confident pride in the thoughtful complexities of the enlightenment we have inherited. Among the most vital of those complexities is the language of critical reason, so it can be quite unnerving to see it rendered unfit for its first task: being clear.
With relief the reader discovers that Madame de Staël, in De l’Allemagne, confessed she didn’t know “which combination of force and softness” makes of the same man “the unshakeable protector and the subjugated friend of the woman he has chosen”. True subtlety at last, and something to hold onto when we are simultaneously asked to be gripped by the supposed mysteries in the mind of the Marquis de Sade. There are whole pages devoted to the standard assumption that the poor mad jerk-off was engaged in exploring profound conundrums when he dreamed of torturing women. (“Language rediscovers its force of imagery”, raves Michel Delon while pondering some weary gang-bang in La Nouvelle Justine: “The formula gives rise to a virility of violence”.) Those same pages could have been better used in exploring further what lay behind Madame de Staël’s non-violent question. Did Benjamin Constant choose her, or did she choose him? She so embodied equality for women that Napoleon, who thought she was a damned sight too equal all round, banished her. (On her way across Lake Geneva, she said that Napoleon was a man of such mental scope that he could understand anything, except the behaviour of a man of honour.) Vladimir Nabokov, when praising Pushkin, poured scorn on Madame de Staël while slyly neglecting to admit that Pushkin himself admired her. Why was Nabokov so keen to leave her out? It was ungallant of him, and (there might be a connection) it was stupid.
But Madame de Staël had no man of honour in Benjamin Constant. He is quoted here as saying “I cannot do without women”. We might reflect that no woman wants to hear from a man that he wants women. She wants to hear from him that he wants her. Circles of men commonly exist so that they can complain to each other safely about this irrational fussiness on the part of females. Constant’s show of sexual hunger was a common signalling system among the nineteenth-century male writers and artists who wished to parade their secrets. The justifying assumption behind this unprepossessing consensus was that copulation got a man’s mind off love. (Delacroix is usefully quoted as saying, of one of his models, “I took advantage of her and it made me feel a little better”. Even less winningly, we hear Flaubert saying that this element of distraction is one of the missions of the slut.)
Unusually for a work of history that tends to fade into its own future, this part of the book is alive with exemplary names, and the point about how the roué was presumed to be warding off the perils of love is thoroughly made. But it might have been made less mechanical in advance if the case of Casanova had been properly examined. According to his Histoire de ma vie, he was in love every time, even though he was capable of falling for a shape under a counterpane if it looked curved enough. “I only exclaim against the sexual desire of conquest”, wrote Mary Wollstonecraft, “when the heart is out of the question.” (Here we might take another look at her Vindication of the Rights of Woman and then ask ourselves whether Beauvoir’s Le Deuxième Sexe is really all that brilliant.) But sometimes the heart is in question, even for the rake. The book never gets to Albert Camus, but even the non-French reader is likely to be aware that the great writer was catnip for women, perhaps because, sick when young, he had the chastening memory of frailty to go along with his conquering charm: the softened force, or forceful softness, that Madame de Staël was talking about. In the last weeks before his fatal car crash he wrote letters to half a dozen different women telling each of them that she was the love of his life. There is no reason to doubt that they were: there are always some men who think they are starting life again with each new love. Perhaps Talleyrand was a man like that. Alas, and incredibly, the great stick-man of his time doesn’t get even a mention. Talleyrand had a love affair with three women in one family, each of them of a different generation. Virile, or what?
But we’ve asked that question already, and the book keeps on circling around the answer. As the twentieth century looms in the later pages, there are clear signs of language running short of fuel. The great male artists and writers who got their libidos probed in the nineteenth century might have been succeeded by the great popular artists of the twentieth, but for some reason the opportunity is not taken: here in this age of all ages, when popular culture gets into everything. Couldn’t Jean Gabin have been discussed in terms of his projected image as the ordinary-looking mec made extraordinary by his virility, the muttering man of strength who, just as irresistible off-screen as on, held Marlene Dietrich spellbound for years on end? And wasn’t Alain Delon a flickering symbol of how French virility faded into ambiguity: too goodlooking, the smile too ingratiating, his taciturnity in Le Samouraï all too obviously as bogus as a cheaply copied Louis Quatorze commode? Might not Gérard Depardieu have restored the national virile symbolism to its pedestal if he had not been quoted as having assisted at a pack-rape in his youth? The French verb for having been there is assister but a lot of American showbiz journalists didn’t know that, just as they scarcely know where France is. Well, it was all up for discussion: but not by this cénacle.
They didn’t even get around to the hulking challenge posed by the mere existence of François Hollande. One jests, of course: physically, François Hollande has the same imposing aspect as a myopic penguin in a scooter helmet, but what counts, in the virility stakes, is that at least three of the most beautiful women in France have found it impossible to keep their feet when faced with his charisma. No doubt his being President helps, but he wasn’t that when he was still with Ségolène Royal – in fact she seemed more likely to be President than he did – so his powers of attraction must have at least something to do with his inherent qualities. The same was probably true of Warren Beatty even before he became King of Hollywood. It’s just a fact that all the other men in the world have to live with. Knock ourselves out as we might, there are always the blessed few that only have to stand there, and they will be chosen. In a free society, the women do the choosing, and their power is terrifying.
Typically missing a perfect opportunity, the book has nothing about Marie du Plessis, the Lady of the Camelias. One would have thought she was French enough to qualify for inclusion, and edifying enough to rate a whole paragraph. Wealthy men could choose to keep her company but only because of her gift for convincing them that she had chosen them, for their manliness. Liszt wanted to live with her. In a career cut woefully short by tuberculosis, she had every prominent man in Paris on a string including at least two members of the nobility, both of whom were beside her deathbed: it was a mystery that she died broke. Though she could converse cleverly about anything, the first secret of her appeal was her beauty. If there were to be another movie about her to rival Garbo’s, and to be worthy of Verdi’s opera, French pride might demand that it should star Julie Gayet, a fine actress pretty enough to bring Ronsard back from the dead. No doubt M Hollande is fascinated with her views on foreign policy but he dons his helmet and rides to her side because of the same force that drew Henry II to the bedchamber of Diane de Poitiers, and kept him close to her for the rest of his life. (And they didn’t get into this book either.) Think about it all you like, but love itself is no more thoughtful
than the lightning, and virility – the proof is here – defies analysis by any committee.