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Xavier Pons. Messengers of Eros: Representations of Sex in Australian Writing

Jean-François VERNAY
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Xavier PONS,Messengers of Eros: Representations of Sex in Australian Writing,Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, viii + 362 pages, 2009. Isbn13: 978-1-4438-0523-0

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1Back in early 2005, I was loitering in the NSW Art Gallery and I remember coming across a charcoal white chalk sketch of a Standing male nude, back view (c.1867) by Hugh Ramsay, along with the following comment: “On the verso of this drawing is another life study of the same male figure from the front.” Whether art lovers were supposed to take this piece of information at face value and muse over such prudishness or read it as a witty, if jocular, note pointing to ludicrous forms of censorship of the Bill Henson kind and – in keeping with the Ars est celare artem principle (i.e. art lies in concealing art) – suggesting nudity could be raised to the rank of art has baffled me for a long time. It is not until recently when the curator of this exhibition sent me an email substantiating that there was actually a sitting male nude overleaf that I felt there was no room left for gleeful speculation. It is funny how interpretative our brain can be just for the sake of bridging the anxiety-provoking knowledge gap, isn’t it?

2As I perkily strode out of the Domain down to Circular Quay and jostled my way through the bustling cosmopolitan crowd, the haunting sketch made me linger on censorship issues until an observation from Helen Vnuck’s introduction to Sex and Censorship in Australia (Sydney: Vintage, 2003) dawned on me. Former editor of Australian Women’s Forum recalled how the Office of Film and Literature Classification would classify her magazine Category 1 because of the anatomical illustrations of a “healthy story” on vaginoplasty she wanted to release in February 2001. Vnuck was thus compelled to publish another version “with the offending vaginas covered by strips reading ‘censored’” (p.xi). “The OFLC had also decided that there was too much detail in some of the stories sent in by female readers about their sexual fantasies. However, they didn’t have a problem with our article on men who could perform fellatio on themselves. And the photos of naked male models with their penises in full view were also fine”, she quipped. (p.xi) In December 2005, when I roamed the Museum of Contemporary Art to check their current exhibitions, I started suspecting that Australia was likely to have a fraught relationship with sex-related matters along with an inconsistent censorship policy at the very moment I was gaping at a Kienholzpriapic figure on public display for anyone to enjoy.

3I say for anyone to enjoy because – to poach the first line of Xavier Pons’ introduction to Messengers of Eros: Representations of Sex in Australian Writing – since the late 1960s sex is meant to be enjoyable even though “The appearance of AIDS put paid to the joys of promiscuity” (1). There is no denying that the pandemic has given sex a certain topicality and prominence in Australian literary criticism as of the 1980s. I, myself, can only plead guilty for having indulged in exploring representations of sexuality in gay and grunge fiction in a couple of articles. While essays of all sorts flourished thanks to the subject matter offered by a growing pool of fiction writers like Linda Jaivin, Elisabeth Jolley, Justine Ettler, Christos Tsiolkas – to name a few, it seems astounding that Pons’s in-depth study is prolem sine matre creeatam.

4Some readers might object that I brush up on my Latin and say this monograph is the first of its kind. To be sure, Don Anderson’s Text & Sex(Sydney: Vintage, 1995) that repackaged a selection of his popular media articles did investigate sex politics and stylistics but without narrowing down the focus to Australian writing. Like Anderson, Pons has recycled some of his publications (he acknowledges the reprint of three journal articles plus a book chapter, and he also blended in some material which originally appeared in 2001 in “Erotic Writing in Australia: Then and Now”, Changing Geographies: Essays on Australia), but the rest of Messengers of Eros is definitely unpublished food for thought that testifies to an infectious love of literature and literary theories.

5Weaned on psychoanalysis, as reflected by his first literary monograph Out of Eden (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1984) which launched the pathography trend in Australia with a psychoanalytic study of the life and works of Henry Lawson, Pons shares the liberating vision of Sigmund Freud for whom sex is more than a byword for genitalia and copulation. Messengers of Eros runs the gamut of sexual human behaviour (heterosexuality, same-sex rapports, extra-marital affairs, sexploitation, interracial sex, deviant practices, etc.) because, as the author has it, “eroticism comes in all shapes and colours […] and its protean nature goes a long way towards explaining its enormous influence on human behaviour.” (19) Like sex, Pons, who was never backward in offering his left-wing opinions (hence his critical approach to the Howard Government in his last two books and on page 347 of Messengers), embraces democratic diversity, even though some might think he occasionally stretches his egalitarian beliefs too far. One prime example is his turning to Wikipedia to detail the Sisyphus myth when Robert Audi’s The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999) could have done the trick.

6Thanks to his French background which provides – among other things – an enlightening reading of Justine Ettler’s The River Ophelia, Pons is able to ground the literary demonstrations he pursues with unflagging thoroughness in a more international context, by sometimes drawing on theoretical discourses from non-Anglophone traditions – a feat that would probably make Robert Dixon beam with joy. As David Macey has it in his Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory, “theories are never politically innocent.” (v) Writing mainly at the nexus of postmodernism and postcolonialism, Pons has devoted to postcolonial theory more than its fair share of analysis with almost one third of Messengers (chapters 8, 10, 11, 15 and 16) dealing with the sex-gender-ethnicity triangle. One of the reasons for overdeveloping this line is that “In a postcolonial context, the way individuals relate to each other in sexual encounters is often a metonymic representation of the colonial process itself, whereby one group imposes its authority and culture on another, drawing responses that range from resistance or helpless victimization to enthusiastic or resigned complicitness.” (197) By bringing migrant and multicultural writers like Lillian Ng, Simone Lazaroo and Christos Tsiolkas to the fore, Pons lives up to his equity principles while voicing his humanistic concerns in the same breath: “The basis of multiculturalism is precisely that no culture can boast of being intrinsically superior to other cultures, or claim to embody an essence of humanity which other cultures distort or travesty. All cultures have their limitations, their blind sides, if only because they can only be viewed through a cultural prism – whether from within the culture or from the outside – which makes any pretence to objectivity untenable.” (298)

7While postcolonialism gives Messengers of Eros its very substance, postmodernism stands for its skeleton and even its joints. In the “Conclusion” section, Pons nevertheless claims that “It is in the nature of this book, and of its topic, to find no real conclusion” (341) and that he has “rather little faith in the ‘big picture.’” (341) This is why Messengers, which could well be used as a course reading brick for students, does not purport to be taken as a literary history of sex in Australian fiction, a genre that would inevitably need to comprehend aspects that have been omitted in this study. For instance, a section comparing Helen Garner’s depiction of libertarian and hedonistic sex in Monkey Grip with that of the Balmain writers would have been welcome to discuss the works of Michael Wilding (only mentioned once) as generously as those of Frank Moorhouse. Another chapter on self-censorship issues would have explored why Kerryn Higgs first published All That False Instruction: A Novel of Lesbian Love (1975) under the pen name of Elizabeth Riley before it got reprinted in 2001 under her actual name, or why Nikki Gemmell published The Bride Stripped Bare (2003) anonymously. While some readers might be content with not getting a bird’s eye view of sex in Australian texts, they might still query whether there is a particular reason why novelists like Thomas Keneally, David Malouf and Richard Flanagan, whose books are not renowned for their sex-packed contents, come under Pons’s close scrutiny when writers specialized in the trade like Peta Spear are simply not tackled. And I feel that Pons’s open-mindedness invites, if not support, these observations that fit well with the realities of postmodernism – which, he explains, “does not object to judgments about right and wrong – it simply leaves responsibility for them to the people who formulate or endorse them.” (346)

8Much to the chagrin of those who assume that Messengers of Eros could be read single-handedly, the sensuous lips on the front cover invites no more than textual pleasure and the contents will fail to arouse readers, but not their interest. Having said this, I am in no way implying that Pons has written a sanitized account of Representations of Sex in Australian Writing. Being the call-a-spade-a-spade type, this Toulouse-based scholar does not quail before using erotica terms. He argues some writers like Tsiolkas “choose to be starkly confrontational” (345) when others opt for the oblique way in various guises – by playing down the importance of sex with lightweight humour, or else by beating about the bush with “metaphors, allusiveness and understatements” (345). Incidentally, critics should thank these authors from the bottom of their hearts for allowing ample room for gleeful speculation. Given the saucy subject matter, you would think that any market-sensitive Australian niche publisher eager to make a profit would know that a sex-ridden book (even a non-fiction one) usually generates wider interest and high-volume sales and therefore would seize this opportunity to rekindle national enthusiasm in Australian literature; but no, Pons was apparently found standing under a cloud. The silver lining, on the other hand, is that Messengers now partakes in the global dissemination of Australian Studies through the brave commitment of a European publisher like Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

9In “Lost for Words”, Rosemary Neill’s controversial article published on 02 December 2006, Peter Pierce ventured “that a vigorous interest in and enthusiasm for Australian literature, including the teaching and translation of it, is to be found more offshore than onshore.” France was listed as one of these remote countries that were taking up the cudgels for Australian Studies. No doubt that Australia owes a lot to Xavier Pons who after three decades of extensive research and intensive teaching has staked out a position as Australia’s major cultural ambassador in Europe. More than once did I dally with the idea of writing about sex in Australian fiction as I felt – like Pons perhaps – it could be utilized as a clever lever to bring people to take a vested interest in Australian fiction. As to whether this shrewd strategy of promoting Australian studies is likely to pay off will largely depend on Messengers of Eros becoming a word-of-mouth sleeper success, and there is nothing for it but to wait and see.

10I hope that Pons’s ninth authored non-fiction book will not be his farewell publication on the eve of retirement. Predictably, success will attend Messengers of Erosin which thought-provoking analysis, competent scholarship, an eclectic mix of theoretical frameworks, witticism and clarity of expression coalesce. I therefore suspect thata leaf will be taken out of Xavier Pons’s book – and I don’t mean a fig leaf, even though it would be the most appropriate bookmark.

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Jean-François VERNAY, « Xavier Pons. Messengers of Eros: Representations of Sex in Australian Writing », E-rea [En ligne], 7.2 | 2010, mis en ligne le 24 mars 2010, consulté le 23 juin 2017. URL : http://erea.revues.org/1007

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