Boyd Tonkin: Behind our sexy season stirs a yearning to reconnect body and mind
The Week in Books
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Saturday 08 September 2012
To misquote Raymond Carver, do we know what we talk about when we talk about sex? The autumn's crop of "big ideas" books has begun to fall, in the shape of Naomi Wolf's Vagina: a new biography. More literary homages to Eros, both scholarly and confessional, will soon land: next week we taste and judge the season's sexual harvest. Yet behind the evergreen fascination of the erotic life, our own and other people's, something else stirs. Once repressed, the discourse of sex may itself now block out other kinds of feelings and perceptions. Wherever else Wolf's argument may go, she does see this clearly, searching after the old romantic sense of the "sublime" and its "sense of a spiritual dimension that unites all things".
In brief, 350 years after the dualism of Descartes took its cleaver to the Western mind, we hanker to put body and soul together again and look on in wonder or terror when they, irreparably, come apart. And, if sex concentrates mind and flesh on the bliss of wholeness and the pain of alienation, then so – a fortiori – does death. One common motif in the recent clutch of posthumous memoirs is the deeper self-understanding that dawns when great minds - honoured for their talent and intellect - need to re-discover their corporeal nature: their embodiment. Christopher Hitchens's bracing and profound final essays in Mortality (Atlantic) dwell on the shock of awakening that came when, with cancer, the machine that powered the brain broke down. Take the Hitch voice, call-sign of his wit and passion, his learning and mischief. Now "struck dumb" by illness, the mighty organ silenced, he reflects that "To a great degree… I 'was' my voice". For all its free-roaming grandeur, the conscious self nested in a physical home, and now must oversee its dereliction. This isn't any sort of comeuppance, or vengeance, or irony, or fate, but simple human existence. Get used to it.
We can't, of course. I pick up the latest issue of Granta magazine, devoted to "Medicine", and find that the strongest pieces explore not cures and fixes and surgical wizardry but the mystery of the self's incorporation in a ramshackle, ever-failing jalopy of a bodily engine. The novelist MJ Hyland (in a courageous, heartbreaking essay) writes about her experience of multiple sclerosis, and how that slow-burn affliction ruined the "bionic" fantasy of self-creation that she (like all of us) harbours: "preternaturally strong, tougher and smarter than the faulty dictates… of my shabby genes". In the same issue, AL Kennedy introduces the unnerving medical photography collected by Brad Feuerhelm, and confesses that "The bewildering and lovely fact that I am both cerebral and animal pursues me. My body can let my intellect down like a drunk aunt at a party, my thinking can unleash cascades of physical unrest".
Consult Sebastian Faulks's portmanteau novel A Possible Life, its five stories often seeded by doubt about where one consciousness ends and another begins. Or turn to the terrific long-list for this year's Wellcome Prize (for books "on the theme of health, illness and medicine"). It offers a panoply of titles that survey the mind-body borderlands: from my former colleague Nick Coleman's compelling narrative of his descent into an auditory hell (The Train in the Night) to Paul Zak's provokingly reductionist study of the hormone oxytocin as The Moral Molecule, and Rose Tremain's novel Merivel – set, in the late 17th century, just as the scientific revolution nailed our dualism into place.
One way or another, our culture now wishes at least to diagnose these lingering rifts between flesh and soul – and, if imaginable, to heal them too. Meanwhile, I was intrigued to see on the judging panel for the Wellcome Prize someone with more hard-won wisdom than most of us about the emotional outcomes of body-mind dualism: the research epidemiologist Dr Brooke Magnanti, who once used to blog as "Belle de Jour".
Less mouth and more delivery, please
"Tony Blair is all mouth and no delivery." Who endorsed that? Tory activist and ad executive Maria Miller, when acting as a "member of the public" in a party political broadcast in 2000. Now Maria Miller MP has taken over from Jeremy Hunt as Culture Secretary. Library campaigners who have vainly entreated Hunt and sidekick Ed Vaizey to use their powers to save local branches will look for a better mouth-delivery ratio from her. Vaizey this week refused to review library shutdowns in Lewisham, Bolton and the Isle of Wight.
High profile and long tail
In the middle of a downturn, with book-biz balance-sheets hammered by dirt-cheap digital editions, how does an ambitious indie publisher of high-quality fiction and non-fiction turn in a pre-tax profit of nearly 10 per cent? The answer, I fear, is strictly non-transferable: have Andrew Franklin in charge. Franklin's Profile Books – now with the edgy fiction of Serpent's Tail under its high-flying wing - has posted another recession-thumping set of results. Profile turned over £9 million last year, up 23 per cent. The firm notes that the 25 year-long winning streak of Serpent's Tail continues. Lionel Shriver's We Need To Talk About Kevin became a heat-seeking movie; Esi Edugyan's Half Blood Blues reached both the Man Booker and Orange shortlists. For the Tail's next trick (or flick), look out for Attica Locke's Deep South mystery, The Cutting Season.
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