Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

The Secret Rooms of My Secret Life

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

The Secret Rooms of My Secret Life

Article excerpt

MY SECRET LIFE, A VOLUMINOUS SEXUAL MEMOIR written by an anonymous upper-middle-class gentleman who identifies himself by the name Walter, was published in a very limited and private manner in 1888. As genre, the diary of sexual experience fascinates in a number of different registers. One of its primary interests comes from the collector's impulse. Collectors seek to contain and archive an essentially disorderly world always seeping out of one's grasp and running away into irrevocable decay, forgotten days, a present becoming irremediable past. Collecting might stanch the unquiet flow, create a cleared space which arrests and makes sense of a random heterogeneity. A diary follows the collector's impulse; it is a collection of days and the experiences marked off within the day's space. A sexual diary seeks to hold on to experiences not only by recording-crystallizing them through obsessive inscription--and sharing them with others, but through the repetition of more or less the same experience again and again. Generally the pornographic project is to repeat a series of moments of supersaturated meaning--moments which also mean the same thing, again and again. As Steven Marcus explains in his discussion of Victorian pornography, the pornographer has no interest in generalizing, summary, or even, finally, in concluding. Each little narrative has its temporary and natural teleology in the orgasm. Once this climax comes, the narrative possibilities are limited to retelling the same story, with only slight variation. "Generalization is in fact anathema to pornography;" Marcus writes,

   for what generalization does is to sum up or bring to conclusion a
   train of concrete instances; most of all it dispenses with the need
   for a further production of such instances, for a repetition of
   them. But it is precisely in repetition, in repetition sustained to
   infinity and beyond, that pornography and its allied phenomena live
   and move and have their being. (51)

Pornography in general and My Secret Life in particular are collections of instances rendered with scrupulous and concrete detail.

"The collector is the true resident of the interior;" Walter Benjamin writes (9). Reading My Secret Life, one is struck by the rich detail when houses and rooms are described. For instance, a typical interior of a house of assignation is described as follows:

   It was a gentleman's house, although the room cost but five
   shillings: red curtains, looking-glasses, wax lights, clean linen,
   a huge chair, a large bed, and a cheval-glass, large enough for the
   biggest couple to be reflected in, were all there. (72)

Such mappings are the topoi of Marcus's famous term "pornotopia"--an idealized world where geography exists only to further erotic desire. Interiors are described and plans of houses are laid out merely as sites more or less convenient for various types of erotic positionings, gazes, and fulfillments. To analyze the interiors of any pornographic work is to let the gaze wander from the central theme of the work; it is to soft focus the erection, the movement, and the orgasm and to concentrate on the housing of the activity, the way it dwells in and occupies its space. The materiality of the sexual encounter (already a very material activity) can be defined by taking as part of its very ontology the ways it interiorizes. Intimacy is in many ways always about interiority. To look inside, to penetrate inside, to be inside is topographical as well as sexual. My Secret Life continually explores this linkage of pornography with place, sexual confession with intimate space. The most interesting spaces of My Secret Life, and the ones I will focus on here, are those that trouble the simple binary opposition of inside and outside, centering on the boundary and the threshold.

Walter's interest in thresholds can most easily be understood on the register of sexuality. …

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