Tuesday, January 10, 2012

97. Hockney’s In the Dull Village (NOT ON DISPLAY)

Human rights.
This little drawing, by David Hockney, gives MacGregor a jumping-off point to talk about the horrific human rights abuses and consequent movements that characterize the twentieth century. Actually, he doesn’t say that much about all that, just that, following World War II, suddenly it became very clear to most intelligent people that it was extremely crucial that human beings stop discriminating so much. We’ve already heard a little bit about women’s rights, and about the slave trade (although his attitude towards racial discrimination and its antithesis are amusingly British and un-American: for us it’s a far bigger deal); here he has an object connected with gay rights, something the series hasn’t much discussed since we were in Roman Palestine. But gay rights are a terrific issue, now that we’re racing to the present, since, in the generations that are alive today, everyone has heard and thought a lot about it. I was surprised to hear, on the podcast, that gay sex is illegal in 70 countries in today’s world (when this podcast was released in 2010). So it’ll probably continue as an issue for another century or so, if not forever.

The object here, a sketch of two guys in bed, in a nondescript space but given the title ‘In the Dull Village,” is wonderfully subversive because there’s nothing particularly sexual going on, unlike that Warren Cup. It’s possible that one of them is thinking about coffee, the other is wondering if he’s ready to get up and look at the newspaper yet; and that they’re fond of each other, although we don’t get a lot of specific about the relationship. They’re a little too close to each other to be simply two guys who had to share a bed the night before. (My main point of reference for this “Are they or aren’t they?” business isn’t Sam and Frodo, but rather Ishmael and Queequeg, where it seems Melville really does want to infuriate us, his readers, with uncertainty about the sexual details of a same-sex relationship.) Hockney is in fact illustrating a poem by a Greek poet from Alexandria, Constantine Cavafy, about a kid working as a clerk in a boring village and fantasizing about having pleasure, flesh, a lover. I didn’t get that from the picture (which one is real, which one fantasy?); I got a much more beautiful, because quotidian, image of love, two people enjoying being together. Which takes us all the way back to our very first image of love, back in stone age Judea.

For me, the fantasy story—while true, truer than most fiction, almost omnipresent in my own experience—isn’t quite as beautiful, I guess, because it’s so pointless and frustrating. As is the boredom and lust that causes it. I like what (I think) Wagner had to say about this issue in Tristan und Isolde, that such desire/hunger will forever engender more of itself, so the only thing to do is ‘just say no’. Not that such renunciation is satisfying: it’s just not as endlessly unsatisfying as the pursuit. But this question isn’t a specifically twentieth century one, and it’s neither gay nor straight. The eternal struggle!

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