[CATEGORIES: Literature, Lapham’s Quarterly, Reading, Book Review]
[Click HERE to see my previous posts referencing Lapham’s Quarterly.]
[Some of LQ’s contents are available free.]
[L.Q. cover and art from L.Q. Fall 2016: Flesh.]
In it’s nine year, 36 issue history L.Q. has an issue titled EROS (Winter 2009) but not one titled SEX. How will FLESH differ from EROS? Am I presumptuous to analogize flesh with sexual love or desire? Will FLESH touch on, if not wallow in, sex or erotica? L.Q. is always adult but rarely salacious or even risqué.
On the cover is pictured a somewhat lewd, lustful, licentious, libidinous, lubricious cross-section of a fig. (My skewed perception?) It is hardly external flesh but contrary to the crayon box color of my youth (known as “Flesh Tint” (1903–1949), “Flesh” (1949–1956, 1958–1962), and “Pink Beige” (1956–1958) (Ed Welter, The Definitive History of the Colors of Crayola, CrayonCollecting.com ) (Wikipedia) ‘flesh’ by definition is “the soft part of the body of a person or animal that is between the skin and the bones, or the soft inside part of a fruit or vegetable” (Cambridge Dictionary, UK definition). The fig leaf has become a symbol of sexual modesty but that is not what is pictured here.
Who in the Table of Contents will sate my curiosity this issue?
Elias Canetti catches my eye in the first section (Appetites) mainly because I don’t recognize any of the other authors except him and Denis Diderot. Canetti is the aphorist last heard expounding on flight crowds in the Spring 2016: Disaster issue.
Section two of Voices in Time, Metamorphoses, has names more familiar. Chekov, Sylvia Plath, Herodotus, Kafka, Helen Keller, Shakespeare (he had something to say for everything), regionally rural-esque Flannery O’Connor.
Section three Vital Signs has Sartre, Plato, Melville, Joyce Carol Oates, D.H. Lawrence (who on a recent visit I discovered lived in Taos, N.M. for a time), Annie Dillard, and Whitman. There are still a large number of authors that are new to me. What wisdom will they impart?
I started to read Flesh in mid-September but life intervened as well as the L.Q. issue on Alexander Hamilton (see my Hamilton reviews). Starting this issue again I re-read Lewis Lapham’s Preamble and wholly smoke (!), it is shades of the Hamilton issue, class division, and rigors of the flesh.
“The circumstance of superior beauty is thought worthy
attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and
other domestic animals; why not in that of man?”
“Jefferson was a philosopher, politician, and gentleman farmer who answered
his uplifting question with the drafting of the Declaration of Independence,
the founding of the University of Virginia, and the begetting of his image on
those among his slaves he deemed worthy of attention. Live births to black women
in his possession increased the extent and value of his property, and the master of
Monticello was not alone among the founding fathers in viewing human flesh as
a consumer good and service. The point bears mentioning in the context of this
year’s presidential election. On the campaign roads to life, liberty, and the pursuit
of happiness, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump juggle the weights and measures
of the flesh—its color, cost, gender, sell-by date, and stereotype—that ground the
election on the divisions of race and class.”
“The divisions were present at the American creation. The planting of colonies
in seventeenth-century America conformed to the design of Europe’s medieval
socioeconomic structures, feudal arrangements of privilege and subordination, not
to an originalist democracy. The aristocratic promoters of the project received land as
a gift from the English king; the improvement of the property required immigrants
(God-fearing or fortune-seeking) skilled as fishermen, farmers, salt makers, and
mechanics. Their numbers were unequal to the tasks at hand, and in both the plantation South and merchant North the developers imported African slaves as well
as “waste people” dredged from the slums of Jacobean England—vagrants, convicts,
thieves, bankrupts, strumpets, vagabonds, lunatics, and bawds obliged to pay their
passage across the Atlantic with terms of indentured labor on its western shore.”
“The prosperous gentry already settled on that shore regarded the shipments of
“human ﬁlth” as night soil drained from Old World sewers to fertilize New World
fields and forests. By the time the colonies declared their independence from the
British crown, the newborn American body politic had been sectioned, like the
carcass of a butchered cow, into the pounds and pence of prime and subprime ﬂesh.”
“Few signatories to the declaration were of the opinion that all men are created
equal. Maybe in the eye of God, but not in the bestowing of pews in Boston’s
Old North Church, in the streets of Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia, on George
Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. The Calvinist doctrine of predestination
divided the Massachusetts flock of Christian sheep into damned and saved…” (pp. 13-14)
The first extract in the issue gets your attention and makes no mistake about the subject matter. The author discusses acquiring and using the sexual organs appropriate to your avatar’s gender in the role-playing computer game Second Life. Does this help one’s role-playing in their first life? One can only hope.
Four extracts in and we are downright prurient (my perspective again?) about a young man’s first sexual experience, with a prostitute as the case may be. Well, as noted we are all adults here and it is well written (by Bohumil Hrabal, with whom I’m not familiar). I may not pass this issue along to mother however. At 95 I’m sure she need not the edification.
There is gluttony, fictional and real (via consensual cannibalism the result of which one party is serving a life prison sentence, the other party having been consumed by up to twenty kilos). There is child torture. It is well written in terms of translated eloquence and grammar, but would I read an extended version even so? No. I don’t care to have read an abbreviated one. This is a very strange issue.
These two extracts, along with a general meandering attempt to adhere to the broad theme throughout, lead me to give this issue an unusually low 3 stars on Goodreads.Com. Good writing is not an excuse to wallow in the depths, dregs, and muck of bad thinking. I read LQ to be exposed to great thinkers who convey their thoughts with great writing, not to be reminded of the unfathomable depths to which mankind can stoop. Any random glance at a modern news medium will remind me of that.
There is good in this issue. Can we find it? In the very next extract after child torture porn, Plutarch contemplates why we eat meat. We jump from sexual appetite to nourishing appetite. (Section one is Appetites, you recall. When did Man stray from nuts and berries?)
“Can you really ask what reason Pythagoras had
for abstaining from ﬂesh? For my part I rather
wonder both by what accident and in what
state of soul or mind the first man who did so,
touched his mouth to gore and brought his lips
to the ﬂesh of a dead creature, he who set forth
tables of dead, stale bodies and ventured to call
food and nourishment the parts that had a lit-
tle before bellowed and cried, moved and lived.”
“Why slander the earth by implying that she cannot support you.”
“You call serpents and panthers and
lions savage, but you yourselves, by your own
foul slaughters, leave them no room to outdo
you in cruelty; for their slaughter is their liv-
ing, yours is a mere appetizer.”
“We declare, then, that it is absurd to say
that the practice of ﬂesh eating is based on
nature. If you declare that you are naturally
designed for such a diet, then first kill for
yourself what you want to eat.”
“But if you wait for what you eat to be dead, if you have qualms
about enjoying the ﬂesh while life is still pres-
ent, why do you continue, contrary to nature,
to eat what possesses life?”
As the after-description notes: “They just don’t come any better than old Plutarch,” said Harry Truman. “He knew more about politics than all the other writers I’ve read put together.”
Captain James Cook comments on cannibalism observed in New Zealand, several years prior to his demise at the hands of native Hawaiians. Marquis de Sade fails to entertain with accounts of degrading sex.
Mercifully section 1 concludes with redeeming social value in John William’s paean to love found later in life:
“In his extreme youth, Stoner had thought
of love as an absolute state of being to which,
if one were lucky, one might ﬁnd access; in his
maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a
false religion, toward which one ought to gaze
with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar con-
tempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in
his middle age he began to know that it was
neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw
it as a human act of becoming, a condition that
was invented and modified moment by moment and day
by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.
Metamorphoses (section 2) (bear with me, I won’t trudge through much more of this issue for both our sakes) starts with a 2012 personal account of transgender surgery. It is neither heartwarming or encouraging. Why.. would.. you.. ever? Her (Juliet Jacque) series of articles can be found at The Guardian newspaper website if you are so inclined.
There’s an account of a 1952 abortion, fictional or autobiographical I’m not sure. Isaac Bashevis Singer and Herodotus expound on religious sacrificial slaughter, Upton Sinclair on stockyard slaughter. Remember Plutarch, “…first kill for yourself what you want to eat.”
Kafka on starvation as earning a living, Alec Kuczynski on buttocka liposuction, an accidental scalding in a skinning cauldron (survived). Amputee sex, quadriplegia and the accompanying mental impact, tattoos. Hilary Mantel’s controversial 2013 critique of Kate Middleton entertains, to a point”
“Last summer, it seemed to me that Kate Middle-
ton, the Duchess of Cambridge. was becoming
a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung. In
those days she was a shop-window mannequin,
with no personality of her own, entirely deﬁned
by what she wore.’Ihese days she is a mother-to-
be and draped in another set of threadbare attri-
butions. Oncc she gets over being sick, the press
will find that she is radiant. They will ﬁnd that
this young woman’s life until now was nothing,
her only point and purpose being to give birth.
Kate Middleton, as she was, appeared to
have been designed by a committee and built by
craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the
spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-
varnished. When it was announced that Diana,
Princess of Wales, was to join the royal family,
the Duke of Edinburgh is said to have given
her his approval because she would “breed in
some height.” Presumably Kate was designed to
breed in some manners.”
To read this online google Royal Bodies by Hilary Mantel, look for the London Review of Books site.
There are no breaks in life. No one gets out alive anyway.
Jean-Paul Sartre abstractly expounds on the distance between parts of his body and his point of observation thereof. I liked the after-quote: “The philosopher turned down the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964 arguing that a writer must “refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances.”” (p. 159) I like to think Bob Dylan had a similar disinclination when reluctant to acknowledge his own Nobel recently.
Plato is noteworthy on truth and beauty. Likewise the after-quote: “Plato… wrote in The Republic, “Excessive emphasis on athletics produces an excessively uncivilized type, while a purely literary training leaves men indecently soft.”” (p. 163)
Melville on whale flesh, Joyce Carol Oates on alcoholic obesity. Good authors D.H. Lawrence, Annie Dillard, and Walt Whitman conclude section 3. The fun never stops, but I do.
This is the strangest issue.