Joseph Lavery, Sex without Victorians: Kate Bush and Historicism
A dreaded sunny day, so let’s go where we’re wanted, and I meet you at Piazza San Marco, by the vaporetto stop. You teach me the word “Risorgimento.” I smile, which changed my whole look from the severe and resolved expression of a man ready to do and dare everything, to the keen honest enjoyment of the moment, or so I hoped. (Afterwards, I worried that my primary affective mode was the amused chuckle.) I point to the statue of Alison Lapper on the other side of the water, and mention that Nigella Lawson once accidentally melted nine pints of that sculptor’s congealed blood by unplugging her freezer at an inopportune moment. Haha. Nigella Lawson, we concur silently, is a Victorian like us.
A British scholar studying Victorian literature and culture in the United States may be embarrassed by the enthusiasm his American colleagues display towards a cultural repertoire of which he cannot but feel, despite knowing he shouldn’t, possessive. He might sit in a bar watching the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympics, and scream NO as the histories of violence that should, surely, be the primary affordances of the word (noun or adjective) “Victorian” are passed over in favor of a sing-along prologue to Britain’s post-political present. (Doctor Who. Sergeant Pepper. Stephen Fry.) He would be screaming into nothing, though, because the British cultural exceptionalism that gets in the way of political feeling is a lie only he was dumb enough to believe, ever. British geopolitical detachment was, for those around him, the point of embarkation; for him, a truth he can still avow only in bad faith. While those around him are attracted to British realism (Early Beatles. The Scottish National Party. Lindsay Anderson.), his Laius will always have been British kitsch (Late Beatles. Kenneth Branagh as Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Voldemort.).
I want to make this feeling (is it shame?) knowable to my students, if only to defuse the Anglophilia that so often brought them into the classroom in the first place. (I recently taught a class on children’s literature, and realized quite early on that the students had cast me as Severus Snape.) The first step is to proclaim that Victorians, far from the prudish shirt-stuffers of stereotype, were at it like rabbits. Just look, I intone vigorously, as I describe the throbbing peristalsis of the In Memoriam stanza; put on your grown-up faces! before I launch into Sport Among the She-Noodles. My students can smell the special pleading. I begin to wish I was bearing an amused chuckle, rather than the desperate rictus of an English professor who’s over-estimated the appeal of his fetish. I’m not down with that: I was touched beyond repair aged 13 or so, when one of my teachers started ‘translating’ the rude words in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, with the manic zeal of a man who often had to stop himself from saying the word “cunt.”
The second step is to pull back, and to preach that the forms of expression, the mediations that governed sex in nineteenth century Britain, were more sophisticated, and therefore more erotic. You kids with your dick pics, listen to this:
Laura stretch’d her gleaming neck
Like a rush-imbedded swan,
Like a lily from the beck,
Like a moonlit poplar branch,
Like a vessel at the launch
When its last restraint is gone.
Look at those alveolar laterals! Feel the meter rubbing against itself in that last line! Listen to Heather Love, as I recite her: “if reading ‘Goblin Market’ as lesbian s/m porn is wrong, I don’t want to be right.” To what the poem gives up for this moment of fantastic, horrifying intimacy, and to what it claims as its reward. No? I’m making it worse, aren’t I.
The pedagogical difficulty of avowing the sexiness of the “Victorian” is, for me, analogous to the central problem articulated by the V21 Collective’s endorsement of strategic presentism as a research method. What are our affective investments in this category, “Victorian,” why do we need it, what do we want from it – and how does what I want from it differ from what you want from it? In her recent review of Victorian monographs – explored more thoroughly in Megan Ward’s excellent V21 blog post – Adela Pinch theorizes our moment’s “engaged presentism” as (at least potentially) an abrogation of responsibility to square up to the “different–even alien” quality of our historical objects. Pinch frames her argument in an institutional context of declining rolls and dissipating professional security, in which setting of course it makes sense to uphold historicity as the guarantor of our discipline, our USP. The STEM fields, so the argument goes, narrate historical difference only insofar as they can control it, and comfortably situate their own knowledge-practices as the “text” to which the past is “para–.” Nobody in any of our disciplines wants to do that, thank goodness. But, entre nous, does historicist critical work really love the alien? The V21 Collective has proposed that it sometimes functions rather as a kind of valve, a tool for minimizing the affects and effects of historical difference. In this reading, historicism sets history in its place through the procedures of “locating,” “situating,” “contextualizing,” and enforces a singular narrative that will license other critical practices only on its own terms.
On the other hand, if plurality of critical approach was the goal, why write a manifesto at all? Surely it’s a literary form more amenable to radical critique than liberal inclusiveness. As Lauren Goodlad, Claire Jarvis, and Talia Schaffer have suggested in their responses to V21, any position-taking of this kind is liable to generate normative narratives, and therefore might work to constrain a loose disciplinary formation, one of whose strengths is its catholicism. And understandable resistance to absolutism.
But: one reason why the document threw me was its association of historicism with pleasure. A jouissance-neutralizing pleasure, sure, but still: “those historicists are having too much fun, and it’s the wrong kind!” Which positions theory, thereby, at the site of responsibility, best practice, manly vigor. This is the opposite of how we usually treat the simplistic but trusty history/theory binary. If Barthes’ epigram about the relationship between formalism and history were rewritten as a high-school romantic comedy, it would go something like: history wants theory, while theory feels obligated to history. V21 has challenged us to think beyond the old paradigm, and to develop a new vocabulary to for this thinking about historicism, or rather this new and symptomatic resistance to historicism, which is, of course, historicism itself – as Kent Puckett points out in his response to the manifesto. I don’t think this is the time to repudiate historically-oriented criticism. I am spurred, rather, to follow Mary Mullen’s recent post, and try to imagine what historicism might look like if it could disarticulate itself from the law-giving, patriarchal position into which it is occasionally placed. And, to be even-handedly descriptive on the question, let’s admit the possibility that perhaps it is only placed in that position by its antagonists: in which case, like any good patriarch, its effects would have to be located first in the domain of the Lacanian Symbolic. I think the intervention would still land in that case. If there’s one thing we should all be able to agree on following V21, it is that some people are nervous about historicism.
Me too, for real: last night (this is true) I had an anxiety dream in which a group of historians beat me up, really went to town on me. I’m evidently anxious that my subsistence within my profession might be held to account by a discipline in which I achieved a Grade C at A-Level. (It’s possible that the manifesto also gives voice to non-disciplinary anxieties about institutional security that it can’t, for obvious reasons, go into in detail; it’s also possible I had the anxiety dream because I knew I had to finish this post.) It’s not really the historians, of course, but the historicist superego that V21 has called out, and that only occasionally adopts the phantasmatic flesh of a dude-historian at a conference where, not unlike David Kurnick, I am challenged for my apparently whimsical or evasive attitude to the past. For myself, though, I hold out less hope of circumventing that superego (though I do think we could all benefit from reading more Adam Phillips) than of learning how to think and feel history differently with it, to mess with historicism lest I become too messed up by it. The question becomes: what would it mean to practice a totally irresponsible historicism? A gonzo historicism, a queer historicism, an extravagant or perverse historicism?
I think one of these is what Kate Bush is after in her debut single, “Wuthering Heights.” Her primary attachment, indeed, was not to Emily Bronte’s novel, but to a BBC adaptation of it (as with howsoever many fans of Pride and Prejudice). That and the fact she shares a birthday with the novel’s author. “Ooh, it gets dark. It gets lonely on the other side from you. I pine a lot, I find a lot falls through without you. I’m coming back love, cruel Heathcliff, my one dream, my only master.” This is not the past haunting the present, nor the equally familiar Derridean “hauntology” in which the future haunts the present: but the present haunting the past. Kate Bush speaks (an inadequate term for that sound, but better than “sings”) from the wreck of ontological depletion, a state into which she was thrown by an inconstant, and indeed fictional, lover. The song performs something like what Love calls “feeling backwards”: its affect is engendered by a sense of loss so disorienting that it can render a then somehow more present than the now. Within the world of “Wuthering Heights” (not talking about Wuthering Heights, but maybe there too), it is the now that is disfigured into caesura and shame, while the “object” that seemed to have disappeared remains not only perfectly intact, but indeed the only viable guarantor of the survival of the “subject”. Accordingly, the voice that sings “it’s me, it’s Cathy,” and is neither, must return to that “lost” object that seemed to have disappeared in order to rebuild its own being.
In an essay on Frank Zappa, the poet-critic Keston Sutherland argues that pop music is often experienced as “anaclitic,” that is, through a relationship of dependence that extends, and thereby confounds, the process of Oedipalization that might have led the subject to stand on his own two feet. Pop music so frequently invests in the language of “need” – the middle part of a Meat-Loafian trifecta that might convey one, ideally, from “want” to “love.” Accordingly, Sutherland argues, we learn to need pop itself, and as we mum silently with hairbrushes in front of mirrors, we’re performing a “taboo” narcissism that allows us to fantasize that we created the sounds that animate us. Sutherland draws an unflattering parallel between the pop fan’s narcissism and the “claims made by post-structuralist theoreticians of reading as a kind of production on the part of the reader.” But without adopting such by-now-unfashionable whiggery, could we not respond that it is precisely in the thrall of such a semi-voluntary mimesis that the pop fan feels most ecstatically dispossessed? Is this model of dependency not closer to self-shattering than ego-appropriation?
In any case, KB knows what she’s doing, and both preempts and amplifies Sutherland’s intervention. Knowing that her ballad is eminently mummable, and therefore anticipating that the song, though not her vocalizing body, will gain access to bedrooms across the world, she fictively identifies herself as the consuming subject, the consumer of a text that, before 1978, was called Wuthering Heights. Yet even within the diegesis of the song, she refuses to allow herself access to that text, rather pleading her spurning lover to let me in at your window; like Peter Pan, or indeed Lacan, she is barred from return to an Imaginary space that nonetheless constructs all her desire. In the face of that rejection, Kate Bush’s voice swoops and repeats, and revels and is owned by the historical spaces into which she has attempted trespass: there is no way to describe the coda that concludes the song except as an escalation of desire without achievement. As in Stephen Best’s reading of A Mercy, this historicism is not melancholic, but accepts the past’s turning away as an ethical condition of the contemporanist’s desire for it. The window is never opened, for her or for us. Consequently, by the time it has escaped Kate Bush’s throat a few times, the word “wuthering” has been stripped of whatever meaning it might have ever had. We don’t know what it means. A trip to the OED might afford some temporary epistemic security, but such labor could hardly dispel for long the Technicolor darkness congealed within those syllables, the shimmering queer vitality of Kate Bush’s enunciation of them.
I want to be clear that I consider myself (a) an historicist critic; (b) somebody who both performs and responds to amused chuckles; (c) often a ‘fan’ of that which I teach and write about, notwithstanding the immense moral and intellectual hazard of such a designation. By “fan” I mean that I wouldn’t have been a Victorianist, and almost certainly not an academic (since I think I am the former first), were I not jonesing to gain access to something from which I feel, structurally, excluded. “History” might be a good name for the force doing the excluding, but what bothers me more, what both inspires and paralyzes me as I try to make sense of my work, is the lived reality of the exclusion itself. From the past, but more pressingly from a present that has forgotten how to narrate that past, and refuses to value attachments, anaclitic or otherwise, that won’t commit to a future that’s nothing much to shout about.
To end with, then, some principles to bear in mind, if we are to construct an historicism with the ability to surprise us:
(a) most people who called themselves “Victorian” have not been British;
(b) in architecture, visual culture, literature, and music (at the very least), “Victorian” names a set of styles, not all of which are proper to either Britain or the period 1837 – 1901;
(c) the period we call “Victorian” had plenty of other names for itself;
(d) everybody who will read this already knows all these things;
(e) we still want to use the word “Victorian”: it names something that brings us together, and sometimes drives us apart too.
So, then, what are we wanting? And who are we to want it?
* * *
Recognizing that one doesn’t usually dedicate blog posts, I nonetheless think I should confess that this was written for Paul Saint-Amour, on the occasion of my having missed him in London. With thanks to Eleanor Courtemanche, Michelle Decker, Devin Griffiths, and Rachel Teukolsky.
 It was already a rewriting of some kind: “On the contrary: the more a system is specifically defined in its forms, the more amenable it is to historical criticism. To parody a well-known saying, I shall say that a little formalism turns one away from History, but that a lot brings one back to it.” Barthes’ remark is now surely better-known than the saying it parodies. Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), 112.