Thursday, June 10, 2021

Clive Bell and Philip Roth


Clive Bell in chapter two of Civilization chose to look at clearly uncivilized societies.  If he found there a characteristic some assert is or ought to be a characteristic of a civilized society, he will rule it out because if it is in uncivilized societies, it can't be peculiar to a civilized society.  The first such characteristic he looks at is cleanliness.  He finds several primitive societies that wash themselves more frequently than Europeans do and so rules that out.

The next characteristic is "sexual morality." He finds that in this regard the practice of many "backward peoples may well provoke our envy.  Like Boswell they 'look with horror on adultery.'  The forest tribes of Brazil, for instance, are inflexibly monogamous, and so are several of the tribes of California."

He goes on for quite a bit in this vein and then sums up: "Socrates and Shakespeare, Raphael and Titian, Caesar and Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington and George Eliot herself appear to have led lives that would have rendered them unfit for the best Igorrote society in Luzon.  In the great periods of Chinese history things, I fear, were no better.  So, as the natives of Kar Nicobar look upon unchastity as a very deadly sin, we are forced to conclude that chastity is not one of the distinguishing characteristics of civilization."

As I recall from previous readings, Bell isn't going to end up finding that we here in the U.S. or anywhere in modern Europe are civilized at the time he wrote his essay.  But if he were alive today and just now writing, I wonder if he would draw quite the same conclusions he does about sexual morality.  This is because I have been reading the after-death saga of Philip Roth.  I don't know what California tribes Bell is referring to, but I suspect the majority here would disapprove of Roth's behavior and might even choose not to read his novels. While I have not yet read one, I have a couple of them in the Franklin edition and am working my way up (or perhaps I should say "down") to them. 

Roth chose in his own biographer, a man after his own heart, Blake Bailey.  Bailey's biography was published this year in the midst of a hue and cry over Bailey's own sexual immorality.  "In a statement provided to the Associated Press on April 21 by W. W. Norton & Company, the publisher announced it had "decided to pause the shipping and promotion of Philip Roth: The Biography pending any further information that may emerge." On April 28, W. W. Norton announced that it is taking the book out of print. Three weeks later, in May 2021, Skyhorse Publishing announced that it would release a paperback, ebook, and audiobook versions of the biography."

So not only do I have copies of Roth's novels that I am putting off reading, but prior to W. W. Norton's "pause" and removal from print, I acquired a copy Bailey's biography from them and have decided to put off reading that as well.

I've reconsidered what Bell said about the "tribes of California," (and apply it to others living in California).  He doesn't specifically say that we are uncivilized (although he would say that for other reasons), merely that our prudish views on sexual morality are not necessary characteristics of a civilization.

No comments: