Reading from Behind
A Cultural Analysis of the Anus
Jonathan A. Allan
(University of Regina Press)
It's just what the subtitle says: "A Cultural Analysis of the Anus." You might guess that a book on this subject - - - can we say? - - - might be a sticky wicket, no? Either gross, or indelicate or . . . or . . .
Well, the writer has figured it out. He's going to turn scholarly on us. Handling the ass with kid (if not latex) gloves, stuffing in lots of footnotes (thirty-three pages worth), along with references to books cited (at least 300). And the whole treatise filled with words like "reparative," "heteronormativity," "affect," "ideological," "deconstruction," "hegemony" - - - along with a mass of high-falutin' connectives, like, "The challenge that we are confronted with, time and again, especially in queer theory, is the persistence of paranoia, 'a negative affect that only ever stimulates and nurtures our fears, concerns, and worries.'"
Its productivity rests on the fact that it is contagious, duplicating, multiplying, never ending, and ultimately, I'd argue, "self-defeating."
Thus, those of us who might be troubled entering into a jungle of speculations, concerns, and possible terrors having to do with your plain old down-home asshole can rest assured. We are in good hands. No fear for our peace of mind; and our backs are well-covered, for Allan has placed a scholarly fog over any possible indelicacy.
This is not to say that there are not a few jewels to be found here around the outhouse, but they can be difficult to dig out of the muck.
The structure of Reading from Behind? During the course of it he is to revisit, in a reparative way, eight books, films, poems, and artworks . . . view them though the lens "from behind."
These eight include a few familiar ones: "Brokeback Mountain" - - - book, story and movie - - - and a recent film from Mexico, Doña Herlinda y su hijo . . . and includes Vidal's Myra Breckinridge along with a lusty romantic novel, Frat Boy and Toppy. There is a formal study, Gay Men and Anal Eroticism: Tops, Bottoms and Versatiles, and a fairly obscure poem from nineteenth century Peru, "El Intruso" by Delmira Augustini.
Finally, there is a fairly obscure Canadian painter, Kent Monkman, whose paintings sport such titles as Cree Master and Ceci n'est pas une pipe. This last, I assure you, is a show stopper. The view is of pastoral Western clouds and mountains and old split tree trunks, setting off a detailed near-foreground study of a Canadian Mountie, pants dropped, bent over, away from the viewer, buttocks well highlighted, apparently about to be mounted (or perhaps beaten) by a Leatherstocking Indian.
Allan's treatment of these artistic works is represented by a quote from this chapter on Monkman:
Silvan Tompkins suggests that the shamed person will drop "his eyes, his eyelids, his head, and sometimes the whole upper part of his body." I am reluctant to read too much into the physicality of shame, but it does seem that the Mountie has dropped not only his breeches but also his head. More to the point, however, is how we as viewers negotiate not only the shamefulness of the scene but also our enjoyment - - - or lack thereof - - - from the scene. Indeed, as viewers, we might feel a sense of humiliation, which "involves a triangle: (1) the victim, (2) the abuser, and (3) the witness." Although I am reluctant to adopt the language of abuse and victim, I am interested in adopting the idea that witnessing and what it means to view a scene such that of the spanked Mountie.
This is all very circular, and indeed, those of us who are in here to find out what is the real skinny on assholes might end up feeling somewhat shafted. It is as if the author, coming upon all this as Official Scholar (he's a professor at Brandon University), gets into considerable detail on these various works, all the while seeking an alternative, being intent on not getting bogged down by such distractions as "abuse" and "victim." But for some of us, just being introduced to Monkman's off-the-wall twisting of the usual depiction of colonial power and its misuse becomes a kick in the pants: to show the much beloved Canadian Mounties getting a well-deserved post-colonial lashing if not a rough mounting from those they lashed so long.
This is not to say that there are not some passages in Reading of insight and lusty humor, even punning, such as "The anus, the ass, the rear, the rectum, and so on - - - all parts of a whole - - - have held a precarious position in the history of colonialism, particularly of the Americas."
Hernán Cortés, for instance, famously declared that everyone is a sodomite in the New World, a sentiment later echoed by Bernal Díaz del Castillo . . . [The] renunciation of the anus as a site of pleasure might well be more intimately connected with colonialism than with any primitive culture.
Allan then tops it off, "Indeed, the anus is filled with erotic and symbolic meaning and the critical assumption that it can only be penetrated reduces the body in these images to meaninglessness."
The author throughout seems to be straining to separate the subject of this book, nicely represented on the cover by a large asterisk (from the Greek "asteriskos" - - - small star, a thing resembling a star in shape) - - - from anything that might limit it, such as being designated as solely the area for gay pleasure. You might say that he is straining to drag the fundament away from the gays, make it - - - as a pleasure center - - - a gift to all of us. What a present in the stocking on the mantelpiece, no?
What Allan is doing is to open it up in the same way that writers as varied as Sigmund Freud, Maggie Nelson, Joyce, Mark Twain and Gore Vidal might have been able to do so; to thus free it for universalization.
We should all forget the vulgarization of this "complex, ambiguous" body part, he is saying, free it from "the very ground zero of gayness."
I suggest that the solution, as it were, is to take the anus head on, to read from behind. Instead of keeping the anus covered and controlled, we can explore why it matters and how it functions in a given text. We can undertake new readings of works that afford interesting, provocative, and important critiques of how we think about the anus.
One of Allan's repeated suggestions is for the reader to go back to such divergent texts as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Moby-Dick to focus on them "from behind." He holds them up as an examples of what he calls "innocent homosexuality."
At one point he quotes Françoise Cusset, suggesting it might help us to "invert the gaze."
Every text is ambiguous . . . [and] our role as critics is "to learn to take the text, turn it over, penetrate it, play with its sex, slip ours into it, follow it to the end of its ambivalence, and force it along the way to assume a position."If we have any doubt that Allan is probably some kind of a trickster, try to relate the subject of the book to his very first quote at the head of the first chapter, one which he has culled from a very innocent place indeed:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.- - - J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit