Libertinage & libertarianism, individualism & society, the Marquis & me.
The following is the first part of a lengthy essay I'm writing on the above subject, though hopefully I'll find a better title for it before I'm finished.
I’m an obscure individual who once had a book published, a cross between a novel and a memoir, effectively capturing my inability to ever really work out what I’m about. A book that failed financially, though its publication afforded me brief heroic status in my small circle, now much smaller, more like a dot.
From adolescence I’ve always written or thought about writing – but mainly the latter. I spend hours of every day avoiding writing and feeling guilty about not writing more or better.
I was an isolated, timid, passive child, and I suppose I still am, but of course in my luxuriant inner life I’m not timid, I’m argumentative, witty and spirited. I talked to myself like Adam Smith in the Edinburgh streets, but not so much now, I’m a little more complacent, or defeated, bored with repetition. So now I’m writing to shake myself up.
I was given to hero worship and intense identification. My first literary hero was probably Bob Dylan. I tuned out and tuned in, listening on headphones to the dark uncatchable lyrics of Visions of Johanna and Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands from the Blonde on Blonde album of revelations. I was myself this unfathomable seer. I practiced my fathomlessness before the mirror. And then came Jethro Tull and David Bowie and Pink Floyd and Lou Reed, words to music to words to music.
My first hero of the book was Thomas Hardy. Wrenched and choked I was in living the desolation of the Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess Durbeyfield, Jude Fawley, Giles Winterbourne. What emotional depth I felt I had as the tears drenched my pillow.
As I left my teens and started dabbling in writing myself I encountered one Franz Kafka. In three or four days I devoured The Trial, The Castle and America, then discovered his diaries, that fantastical resource book. Here was inspiration, a fellow who’d made of his aloneness an armour of the imagination, all-confining and intriguing. I was dazzled but daunted, and preferred to argue to myself that to be that good would mean sacrificing too much. There were other enticements – the simpatico haze of alcohol, idle fancies, beautiful faces, the anticipation of fleshly pleasures.
I read Kafka and Beckett, and wrote like them from time to time, but they weren’t very sexual, it seemed to me, though no doubt there have been critics who have fruitfully examined their oeuvre through sexual or Freudian lenses.
When I was young I got wind of the Freudian idea of sublimation. The whole of civilization was a channeling of sexual energy into a more abstract, but often quite concrete, creativity. I didn’t look at this idea too closely – I didn’t read Freud himself – but it had obvious appeal. I used fantasies of girls – and boys too in my teen years - to energise myself. When I read a stimulating book, my fantasy one of the moment read it too, over my shoulder, and we were aroused together. I exerted myself on the soccer field when I pictured her on the sidelines. I spoke French with all the romantic resonances and her eyes widened with admiration then narrowed with desire, I spoke obscurely and oracularly and she had the half-disguised hopeful look of wanting the mysterious powers my words might reveal.
The sexual element in Kafka was revealed, surely, not so much in the content of his writing but the fact that so much of it was addressed to women – his voluminous letters to Felice Bauer, and later to Milena Jesenska. Clearly, having someone specific to write to, delighting in the circumspection of flirtation, energized him no end. It’s a phenomenon I particularly identify with. Apart from occasional billets doux, I’ve made an effort to embark on correspondence with three different females in my life, each time with disastrous results. Arguably I’m a victim of the modern age, in which women are far less likely to put up with unwanted attentions, however politely, diffidently or wittily couched. More to the point though, they were all the wrong people for this sort of thing.