Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Brigid Brophy: Black Ship to Hell (1962)

Brigid Brophy, photo by Jerry Bauer



The urgency of Brophy's writing springs essentially from this: she accepts Freud's account of the death wish as a fundamental truth about human nature, at any rate in modern times; then combines that fact with the existence of weapons of mass destruction: we all basically wish to destroy everything, and now we have the means, so we will. This leads to (among other things) a violent assault on religion - based not so much on its claims being untrue (that's merely a given) as on denying that religious belief can ever be sincere or morally unreprehensible - these are formidable, in-your-face polemics and I'm shaken and impressed. And yet it isn't difficult to see why her books aren't in print any more. Brophy's passionate admiration for Freud leads to many pages of unparticularized generalities like this, sampled in mid-torrent:

She [the prostitute] has, in fact, improved on the tragic conception of fate by adding to it the numerical idea of chance. The male sex is a lottery, in which the prostitute has bought the highest possible number of tickets. Any one in her holding may be the winning number, the father she is seeking; but since no one knows which is he, it is the series as a whole which becomes the object of her sexual and aggressive desires. For the prostitute, every professional act of intercourse is an act of incest and, at the same time, an attack on her father. In exercising her profession, she gratifies her incestuous wish (and its murderous companion), yet the fact that it is a game of hazard allows her to plead not guilty to incest. Just so, if one member, no one knows which, of the firing squad has drawn a blank cartridge, all may feel innocent of the killing but the execution none the less gets done. The same psychology is manifest in the very usage of modern European languages, where the plural you, vous, sie is a politer way of addressing one person than the singular thou, tu, du. ...

This jostle of ideas is dazzling, but I feel like it was even more dazzling to write than to read. So much seems to be being forcefully asserted, (and yet, in a sort of mode that suggests that it isn't really being asserted), and it's so heavily bolstered by impatient logical expressions like "just as", "of course", "in fact", that I keep wanting to call out: Hold on there! Just let me get it straight, what (or who) actually are we talking about right now? Are you claiming that every prostitute... ? In what useful sense is this an account of prostitution (or warfare, or education, or artists, or elections..)? This was a fashionable style of its era - displaced at some time in the 1980s by the style of theory (revulsion from the post-Freudian style when I was at university led to me wrongly supposing that this was also how Freud himself must have written, thus putting off discovery of my own passionate admiration for Freud for a further twenty years). The passing of time reveals violently hostile contemporaries to share as much as they disputed - Brophy often reminds me - at any rate, so far as her language strategies are concerned - of C.S. Lewis in his populist defences of Christianity (another blatant misuser of "in fact", "of course", etc). Both made, in passing, exactly the same unanswerable protests about the practice of vivisection - protests that were complete failures and now excite surprise; in our own time intellectuals are conspicuously silent about this, it is only the emotive masses who think there is something not quite right about what is euphemistically known as animal testing. (More generally, Brophy also reminds me a lot of Germaine Greer - the same enormous learning and the same admirable assurance of being able to cut through it to what other learned people don't see at all.)

(2008)



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