Castration on the Tube
Why, asks Geoff Dyer, do smart young psychologists write such nonsense?
Saturday 10 February 1996
Faber, pounds 9.99
The genre of the unsent letter might reward study," notes Janet Malcom in her book, The Silent Woman. Has Darian Leader taken her at her word and responded with extraordinary alacrity to this suggestion? Not exactly - his title is primarily an attention-grabber, an indication of the style rather than the substance of his investigations.
You and I might never have guessed that women were more prone than men to writing more letters than they send but if it were true - or so this prospective punter reasoned - then it certainly would be interesting find out why. Especially since this is just one part of a "collage of observations and explanations about the sexuality of men and women."
Leader warns that his method depends on an "abundance of generalisations" but even where these are doubtful, he tells us, they can still be illuminating. The problem is that so many of them are dubious and unilluminating.
For those happier with a narrower aperture, Leader focuses on more specific matters: how did Claudia Schiffer and David Copperfield ever get to be an item? Why is it we feel a slight unease when, on exiting the London underground, the barriers consume our single tickets? In the latter case, it's because of castration, apparently, and the reason people cheat on the Underground is ``because of their unresolved relation to castration."
As it happens a (French) tennis partner of mine used to run a variant of this riff by me: the smash, in this context, being a way of castrating your opponent or something. It was fun learning this between points and Leader's book offers diversion of a similar order. That is, it is full of little routines we can serve and volley across the dinner table to impress our friends and seduce their spouses. Whether they explain the phenomena they purport to is neither here nor there: the important thing is that they sound smart, glossy. Hence the feeling that the book aspires to the condition of a psychoanalytic column in one of the better-paid monthlies.
Like his Faber stablemate Adam Phillips (and it's only a matter of time, surely, before he takes over from Anthony Clare in In The Psychiatrist's Chair), Leader is urbane and literary, possessed of a range of cultural reference that takes him beyond a narrow circle of initiates. He shares, too, the same quiet, so to speak, listening style of exposition (this similarity was so striking I found myself wondering if it were not a product of the Faber typeface, the typographical equivalent of a mild sedative) that leaves one sympathetic but unpersuaded. I am drawn to these fashionable books on matters psychological but emerged from this one feeling that I had sampled an unusually enjoyable blend of the usual frothy nonsense.
As a writer Leader has considerable charm and seems sufficiently untroubled by doubts about his procedural tools to begin sentences with a robust, "This is why...". Thus the reason why men often find it difficult to urinate in a public convenience is because a symbolic phallus, "forever out of the subject's reach, will necessarily make the real penis smaller."
The hostility of many fathers to their daughter's first boyfriend is likewise due to the fact that he expects "from his daughter the love which he did not receive from his mother."
Well, useful, as Larkin said, to get that learnt. But is the world really as fraught and fascinating as all that? Since, from an early age we keep our genitals hidden and urinate, in the main, behind closed doors, it is not surprising that whipping out one's pecker and hosing down the porcelain in front of total strangers actually takes a bit of doing. Similarly, if my early girlfriends' fathers are anything to go by, their hostility to me had nothing to do with their mothers' love and everything to do with my being a lank-haired upstart with dubious personal hygiene, foul table manners and a conviction for criminal damage.
That is a far cry from Leader's take on the world. "This is why" it comes as such a surprise to find that he shares this scepticism. In his closing pages he reverts to women's love letters, as a way of clarifying some of the differences between the sexes. When a man receives a love letter, writes Leader in an unguarded moment, he strives to understand it, "to read into it, to find metaphors and hidden references." Leader goes on to offer a satirical decoding of such a letter before advising that "the letter might not mean any of this." The real problem, he goes on, is "the resolute search for meaning and the refusal to let anything not mean something." Whoops!
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