"An important work of literature by one of the most consequential novelists of our time."Carl Freedman, author of The Age of Nixon
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IN HIS UPSTATE HOMETOWN, Bithynia, New York, a twelve-year-old African American, Adrian Rome, discovers a carton of pornographic magazines and paperbacks in the rear of his older cousin's van. The chimerical cover of one book, Phallos, ignites his curiosity, but, before he can read it, his cousin catches him and drives the van away.
Ten years later, in 1994, on finishing college Adrian moves to New York City's Greenwich Village. In his new Charles Street apartment, among some books left on a shelf, he recognizes a copy. Intending to read Phallos on his first night in the city, that evening Adrian takes a walk. When he returns, however, the books are gone. Adrian's landlady has been in, and, in an illconceived attempt to finish cleaning the place, she's thrown them out, and homeless folk have filched them from the alley's green trash receptacles.
Adrian becomes fixated on owning Phallos. He contrives to meet an elderly black man of letters, presumably the author of the anonymous text. He even goes to observe a statue that provided the artist with the idea for the cover. But though, in the course of his adventures at a pornographic movie house, the Columbia, he meets his life partner, a white ex-convict, Shoat Rumblin, the closest he ever comes to reading Phallos is a synopsis he discovers on the Internet.
SYNOPSIS OF A GAY PORNOGRAPHIC NOVEL
PUBLISHED BY ESSEX HOUSE PUBLICATIONS, LOS ANGELES, 1969, BY RANDY PEDARSON, MOSCOW, IDAHO
* * *
Downloaded from a website at www.threelegs.com/wonkers/~phallos/pornsite.html "My Three Favorite Gay Male Porn Novels: The Gaudy Image by William Talsman, Mr. Benson by John Preston, and Phallos."
Yet there is nothing more fascinating than secret wisdom: One is sure that it exists, but one does not know what it is. In the imagination, therefore, it shines as something unutterably profound. Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language
There is always more surface to a shattered object than a whole. Djuna Barnes, Letter to Emily Coleman
LIKE MANY SUCH NOVELS, PHALLOS was published anonymously — in 1969, by Essex House Publications of West Hollywood, responsible for much of that decade's most literate pornography, straight and gay. An equally anonymous editor's "Introduction" discusses the text's history, telling of nineteenth-century manuscript copies owned by Walter Pater, by Lionel Pigot Johnson ...
States that "Introduction," a copy was rumored to have been in the possession of German classical antiquarian Johann Joachim Winckelmann in 1768 — an item that the nineteen-year-old murderer Arcangeli presumably made off with, along with the golden medals, after garroting the fifty-one-year-old scholar in a pensione just outside Trieste.
Arthur Symons was supposed to have had a copy stuffed into his boot-top ("not above the size of our current edition today") when, during his October 1908 collapse into dementia, he was arrested in his deranged wanderings on the roads 'round Ferrara and dragged from the streets to a basement cell in the Ducal Palace dungeon, with its wooden bed — and its wood pillow! — and its "Judas" slit in the oak door through which the jailors peered in at the mad miscreant.
Earlier that same year Frederick Rolfe (better known today as Baron Corvo) and Professor Richard MacGillivray Dawkins (polylingual Oxford don, redheaded, left-handed) carried a manuscript copy with them to Venice, we are told. It was August; and the supposed purpose of the Venetian "vacation" was to have a deluxe edition of Phallos printed by Italian typesetters who presumably would be unable to read the scabrous text, which would then be sold to certain wealthy subscribers in England and on the continent. The two men's September break-up came because of arguments over both the proofreading of the wretched galleys the non-English speaking typesetters returned and the photographic illustrations they had begun for the project with their adolescent gondolieri, Carlo and Ermenegildo (or "Gildo," pronounced "Zeeldo" in the Venetian dialect) — and, as was always the case with the impecunious Rolfe, money. Whether the manuscript went to Athens with Dawkins or remained in Venice with Rolfe is not known. Although, as with so many of Rolfe's projects, the Italian printing came to nothing, Phallos was the direct inspiration, says the "Introduction," for Rolfe's next novel (written in 1909, published posthumously in 1934), The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole.
Historian and aesthete John Addington Symonds discusses Phallos in five of his letters (claims our "Introduction") to sex researcher Havelock Ellis ...
No existing biography of the Napoleon-sized poet Lionel Johnson is extensive enough to mention such a manuscript — given him, the "Introduction" says, by Austin Ferrand — even had he owned one. Nor is any such manuscript mentioned in Benson's authorized biography of Pater (1906). No one would expect it. But neither — more surprising — is there any mention in the more sensational and unauthorized two volumes with which Thomas Wright answered it a year later (1907). And Denis Donoghue (Walter Pater, 1995), with access to Benson's papers, where the juicy bits had lain entombed for near-on ninety years (Going into an Oxford barber shop, suddenly and unaccountably, Pater seized up a young barber's foot — a youth of nineteen, he wore only slippers — and, before customers and employees, removed the cloth covering to caress instep, toes, and heel for twenty minutes, while apostrophizing on their Hellenic perfection — followed by an invitation to the young man to come, later in the week, to tea. Twenty years on, the otherwise unknown tonsorialist told Benson: "If I'd 'a known 'oo he was, I mean 'im bein' a genius and all, I'd 've taken 'im up on it. But I never even seen the gentleman before!") cites it not.
One understands why no such item is mentioned in Pater's own account (from the Westminster Review for January l867) of Winckelmann's murder — a pattern to be replayed across the centuries (older, naïve homosexuals; avaricious, predatory boys), now with the death of composer Marc Blitzstein, now with the murder of art critic Gregory Battcock.
Pater's essay sits today as the most eccentric contribution to his perennially popular Renaissance (1873), though readers seeking both style and substance, from Hart Crane to Harold Bloom, have, with reason, preferred his Plato and Platonism (1893). Nor is it in any other account of Winckelmann's life — or death.
Although the incidents marking Symons' precipitate plunge into syphilitic delirium have been recounted in many literary sketches, Symons' own memoirs, put together after his partial recovery, were not readily available — at least in this country — till George Beckson's 1977 edition. They state that, when the greatest of those English critics of the 1890s was taken into custody, he was barefoot — that, indeed, when our madman attacked his jailors, under their retaliatory brutality (and the studded boots with which they stamped on them once our man was downed), Symons' feet bled so badly that, on the jailors' departure, blood jellied half the cell's stone floor.
So much for booted copies.
From Symons (1934) to Weeks (1971) to Benkovitz (1977), Corvo biographers seem unaware of Phallos. Nor is it mentioned in Rolfe's Venice Letters from those years, first published complete in 1971.
And what of J. A. Symonds — at work on his sonorous five-volume historiography, The Renaissance in Italy, when he become the model for Henry James's "The Author of Beltraffio"? In 1969, the year of Phallos's publication, the third and final volume of Symonds' complete letters also appeared, edited by Herbert M. Shueller and Robert L. Peters. The indices to the three fat Wayne State University Press volumes include no reference to the novel. The Symonds/Ellis friendship has occasioned several published studies. Yes, I've read them. No, none mentions it.
The same "Introduction" speaks of a subscription edition of Phallos put out by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, this in the 1920s. As far as I have been able to learn, no such edition exists. Over more than a dozen years now, I've consulted authorities on pornography, from Yale's Beinecke to Lockhaven State's Stevenson Library. None is aware of any mention of Phallos before 1969.
Finally, back from three weeks in London at the British Museum, researching something else entirely, my old friend Binky (before he had a single piercing) says there is no listing for Phallos in any of the three Henry Spencer Ashbee (the pixyish, if perspicacious, Pisanus Fraxi) volumes — neither in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum of 1877, nor in the Centuria Librorum Absconditorum of 1879, nor in the Catena Librorum Tacendorum of 1885. Having buried herself nine weeks in the Bibliothèque Nationale for like reasons of research and returned from Paris last winter, Phyllis assures me it is not cited either in the 1861 edition, in the 1864 edition, or in the six-volume 1871–73 expansion of Jules Gay's Bibliographie des ouvrages relatifs à l'Amour; nor is it anywhere catalogued in the whole of the Enfer — a treble blow that reduces any possibility that Phallos dates from the eighteenth century or could have been well-known among the "Other Victorians" of the nineteenth. All this leads me finally and firmly to believe that, at least as it is spelled out in its "Introduction," Phallos's provenance is a hoax.
While a hoax its history may be, the novel's style is rich and vivid — sometimes to the point of turgidity. But though from time to time passages have a rhythm and lilt that move from the middle seventeenth to the early nineteenth century, the diction and (especially) the syntax — lush, gorgeous, and even baroque (some of its more recondite vocabulary — "incrassate," "uliginous," "paralogical," "expilator," "diuternity ..." says Binky, surely borrowed from Sir Thomas Browne) — is much too modern for any such composition date.
PHALLOS BEGINS WITH a Greek epigraph, set on a page apart:
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]
Part I and the first of the novel's fifty-one chapters (none less than seven and none more than eleven printed pages) begins:
THE GLITTERING SEA; the stony shore; the friable, yellow cliffs; behind them scrub forests with green-gray leaves, where rarely a tree grew more than a foot, a foot-and-a-half higher than a man, and all threaded by thin, bright, brackish streams; the sunlight through the thatch, dappling the poles of my father's porch, on a house five of whose walls were white-washed stone, making our four rooms minutely grander than some houses closer to the road, though not so fine as others further off. Such memories return from southern Syracuse, where I was born.
Though my mother was a part-Egyptian slave, brought to those hills and freed years before by a rich family in the area, my father's folk had lived in that landscape time out of mind. However strongly the blood of Africa beat behind his thoughtful features, he gave me a Greek name, Neoptolomus, as did many under Rome in those years, in hopes I would aspire to a life more than mere toil for grain, cheese, mutton, and onions. He got me well along in the language, too, for he had a Greek text of the first seven books (you would call them chapters), the first of the three sections — on physics and natural philosophy — of Heraclitus's great treatise, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]. As well, he could recite, in Greek, a dozen of the slave Æsop's tales of animals and ethics. Thus, between them, I learned my first hundred or three hundred words in that language — fire, river, resin, rust, life, copper, fish, bread, wine, site, salt, garlic, honey, song, vision, rain, bird, history, drinkable, discourse, barley, poet, laughter, belief, now, undrinkable, then, gods, treaty, nation, change, grain, cricket, necessity, mountain, astonish, commander, beauty, thunder, all, hear, steersman, nothing, love, freeman, pain, water, good, wet, weep, slave, night, tomorrow, suffer, justice, moon, rest, sorrow, up, down, no, yes, sun, tree, branch, head, hand, clitoris, earth, body, jar, breast, bad, wisdom, city, road, root, cattle, common, dawn, tomb, none, day, when, urine, measure, gold, horse, create, deathless, shit, experience, laughter, destroy, eternal, opposite, blade, on-the-one-hand, shield, on-the-other, wasp, finger, penis, people, eye, peace, battle, journey, pleasure, exchange, strife, star, foot, sleep, sand, rectum, remain, mud, and death — the ocean of ideas and sounds from which the learning of the language itself lifted, like a wave over sand and shells and sea grass, flooding confusion with comprehension, and upon which my name was the merest foam. Often my father said he hoped I'd get to see a bit of the world, as had he, before I settled down to farming, though how I was to do this, at the time I had no notion.
As a child I fished off the rocky coast and herded our own and several other farmers' goats on the cliffs above the sea. In my fifteenth year, while I pastured our flock among isolate cypresses and beside the profusion of sumac, repeatedly I'd meet a Roman gentleman, who, repeatedly — first weekly and soon daily — cajoled me to lie among my charges, bleating raucously around us, and sucked my cock to one and another pleasurable eruptions, while I grunted and whinnied and finally fondled his bald head in thanks. Soon he became my friend. Shortly, through his recommendations, I was working on the estates of several wealthy Romans and some somewhat less wealthy (but far more interesting and friendly) Greeks, who had taken refuge in the neighborhood for political reasons.
I used to make their servants laugh, reciting the Æsop tales, which they understood better than I, even as they taught me their tongue. A bright and curious boy, soon I could speak and write informatively, if without polish, in both Greek and Latin.
In my seventeenth summer, a fever took many in my village and sent many more wandering. At August end it killed my father. My grief was intense and total — three days of sobbing exhaustion. On the fourth, when I awoke to hear a bird, to see the sun on the edge of my blanket, to smell the goats passing by the house, even as I realized how much of it had abated, I realized too that much of that intensity had been fear at what might now befall. Three months on, when my mother sickened and died, I realized, however unfairly, that I felt far less strongly than I had before. First, my emotions had been blunted by all the misery around us. Also, the way silver alloyed with gold makes electrum, this bout of sorrow was mixed with relief. For now I had only myself to fend for, which was beginning to seem possible. Yet I wonder if, finally, I was not more affected by that second passing. From time to time, even today, I recall her, turning to face the sun and uttering a little cry ... When as a boy I had questioned it, she'd told me it had been a surge of emotion for her birth land, Egypt, which she would never see again.
While I am endlessly grateful for what my father gave me, my mother seems to have given me that memory alone — the one from my childhood than can still grip my heart and shake it. As well, when I think of the part Egypt, her home, eventually played in my life, it is almost as if her yearning were quietly passed to me at a level far deeper than my father's seemingly more valuable gifts. But these are speculations of my age, not observations of my youth.
Aware of my orphaning and feeling for my plight, a powerful merchant in the area — yes, it was my rich Roman friend of the fellatial mountain idylls, though I had not seen him for most of a year — took me onto his columned estate. Beside his own cushioned and canopied bed — frankly too soft for me to sleep in with any comfort more than an hour — I slept on a padded rug, stitched with red and gold, where a slave changed the straw beneath it each week. Through the summer he kept me for companionship and pleasure, while he entertained a succession of men and women, who, evenings after our supper, talked of great theaters and moving performances at Delphi, Athens, and Epidauros, or, sitting in the villa gardens of a morning, recited bloody speeches from Seneca or comic ones from Plautus.
Once someone recited the "Pervigilium Veneris," whose lines sound like singing even when they are not sung. On other evenings, still others recited equally musical poetry and philosophy from Homer, Sappho, Euripides, Virgil, Horace, Longinus, Plato, Isocrates, Diotima, and Archilochus, and even stretches from Suetonius or magical adventures from Apuleius's Golden Ass, as though all these authors were friends they'd known in their youth, and the pieces recited had been recent letters sent them personally.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Phallos"
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