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  • Condomization in The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes
  • Tom Rice (bio)

Early in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a novel that earned its notoriety by speaking frankly and graphically about sex, D. H. Lawrence’s spokesperson of the moment Tommy Dukes contends “that sex is just another form of talk, where you act the words instead of saying them”—”sex is a sort of communication like speech” (70, 72). But Dukes leaves unspoken the other half of this equation: sex is talk because talk is just another form of sex. Typically, for him, in Lady Chatterley’s Lover Lawrence deconstructs the hierarchies privileging thought over act and oral discourse over sexual intercourse, central to Western philosophical and religious thought, conversely asserting that a sacred communion is embedded in the profane activity of speech. Lawrence recognizes the hierophany—in Mircea Eliade’s terms (11)—already encoded in our language: namely, communication is communion, “intercourse” signifies both verbal and sexual exchange, and “conversation” means both speech and cohabitation (via the French converser, meaning both “to talk with” and “to live with”).1 James Joyce exploits an identical double signification of “conversation” for the conclusion to his story “The Dead” when Gabriel Conroy checks into the Gresham Hotel, expecting “communion” with his wife Gretta. Ironically, before he sleeps, Gabriel does have intercourse, but not sex, with Gretta. T. S. Eliot similarly correlates discourse with intercourse throughout The Waste Land, associating speechlessness with emasculation, the male lamenting “I could not / Speak” in the hyacinth-girl episode, for example, or the female imploring her impotent gentleman caller in “A Game of Chess” to “Stay [End Page 129] with me. / Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak,” just as he associates garrulousness with promiscuity in the same section’s pub scene (Complete 38–39, 111–12, 139–73). Elsewhere in Eliot, J. Alfred Prufrock’s problem seems to be that he cannot converse with his beloved, in either sense of the term. That Prufrock’s internal monologue, however, is more eloquent than anything he might say (“Shall I say [ . . . ]” [Complete 70]), should remind us that the internalization of speech in the stream of consciousness technique, most clearly seen in Virginia Woolf, both emphasizes physical isolation and privileges spiritual, bodiless, telepathic, and definitely nonsexual communication. Clearly, this association of speech with sexuality—discourse with intercourse—is a common subtext among the writers of the early part of the twentieth century. I want to argue, however, not only that this subtext is pervasive in modernist writing, but also that thwarted communication, both among characters in these works of literature and between their authors and their audience, comes to represent a kind of prophylaxis. Modern writing may necessarily be “difficult,” as Eliot contends, because it reflects the complexity of contemporary life (“Metaphysical” 1104). But much of this difficulty results from what we might call the condomization of the text: with the exception of Lawrence, these writers I have cited seem to self-protectively sheathe their texts, shield their words from their audience, not so much from the fear that their words might be made flesh, as from an anxiety that a more direct conversation with the public body might expose their works to some kind of contamination. Edmund Wilson, although speaking of Joyce, could well be describing the effect of several of Joseph Conrad’s fictions when he claims, it’s “as if he did not, after all, quite want us to understand his story, as if he had, not quite conscious of what he was doing, ended by throwing up between us and it a fortification of [opaque language]—as if he were shy and solicitous about it, and wanted to protect it from us” (217). The Italian anatomist Gabriele Falloppio, after all, developed the sheath in the sixteenth century as a protection from venereal disease, namely syphilis, not as a means of birth control.2 Moreover, this figurative condomization of the text approaches the literal in Conrad’s political fictions The Secret Agent (1907) and Under Western Eyes (1911), as this author, a generation older than the major modernists, once again strongly anticipates the defining features of British modernism.

My principal focus in this essay...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1935-0252
Print ISSN
0010-6356
Pages
pp. 129-145
Launched on MUSE
2008-10-22
Open Access
No
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