Daemonic desire in the bedroom, or just consumer choice?

Sex, Literature and Censorship
September 6, 2002

In certain circles, high-risk unprotected sex has become all the rage. Known as "barebacking", it involves deliberately courting the possibility of being infected with HIV.

Barebacking is held up by Jonathan Dollimore as a fine but rare example of the association of sex with death in a culture where the close connection between desire and the daemonic is being lost, censored or theorised away.

The proponents of the new queer theory might maintain that their version of sexuality is radical, but according to Dollimore, it merely trivialises the notion of radicalism, making it a "consumer choice". Those who want us to tolerate all types of sexual behaviour and to make freely available literature and other art forms that were previously censored are in danger of downgrading precisely the transgressive nature of what traditionally has been condemned.

So hitting out less at the traditional moralists and bowdlerisers and more at what we might think were his natural allies - the theorists, the liberals, the postmodernists - Dollimore seeks to bring back a sense of the real danger and dissidence in sex. Revisiting some of the themes of his more academic Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture , he highlights the relation between sex and death, the intimate connection between desire and disgust, the frequently unattractive politics of the aesthetic. If dissidence is really a force to be reckoned with, it should challenge and repel all of us not just "the repressed".

The book raises provocative questions in a year when several French films have been drawn to the attention of the British Board of Film Classification and the problematic distinction between pornography and erotica is much debated. The standard defence of literature or film against the censors is that it is only art and will not harm the reader or viewer. Dollimore argues, however, that art has a powerful effect on its audience and that reading or theatre-going is a potentially dangerous experience. The western artistic canon is "pornographic and perverse at its heart", and readers must be prepared to be both attracted and repelled by it, to develop "self-challenging identification".

Dollimore's repeated recourse to the process of "identification" in the book leads to some bizarre conclusions. Shakespeare reveals his own pornographic imagination in dramatising Iago's simultaneous desire and disgust following Othello's mixed-race marriage. And Freud's repressed homosexual tendencies are exposed in his erroneous identification with Dora, during her recounted seduction by Herr K. The biographical interpretation comes across as naive and itself perhaps a victim of what Dollimore calls "wishful theory".

But biography and autobiographical anecdote are one of the chief amusements of this book. Dollimore tells us of his first gay affair, his subsequent relationship with a woman, his particular sexual preferences. It is calculated to shock, performing the dissidence it preaches. Indeed, if I have a criticism of the book, it is that it has nothing to say about the tenderness of sexual desire, but that probably reveals precisely how unradical I am.

Jennifer Wallace is a fellow of Peterhouse College, Cambridge.

Sex, Literature and Censorship

Author - Jonathan Dollimore
ISBN - 0 7456 64 1 and 63 3
Publisher - Polity Press
Price - £50.00 and £12.99
Pages - 206

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