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‘A Brief History of Nakedness’ Delights one Oxford Don, Shocks Another – Meanwhile I’m Wrestling my Mother to the Ground

May 30th, 2010

It is said that an author should ignore bad reviews, particularly when he’s had good reviews elsewhere, since responding to the bad one just draws undeserved attention to it. But in these days of the internet, a bad review can stick around forever – unlike the old days when it disappeared quickly to light fires and wrap fish and chips soon after publication.

So I’m not going to ignore Peter Conrad’s peculiar, but very revealing, review in The Observer today – particularly because yesterday a fellow don from the same university reviewed the book in The Telegraph, and comparing the two offers some interesting insights into human nature. Conrad is at Christ Church, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst at Magdalen. Sadly the Telegraph review has not been put online (yet) whereas Conrad’s has – another spur to responding to it.

If you haven’t read it, suffice it to say that its weirdness lies in the fact that he hardly engages with the ideas and history discussed in the book at all, but instead wastes newsprint suggesting I’m fat, that my bum is moving southward and so on. Very childish and odd really. And that’s why I’m wrestling my 87 year old mother to the ground: to stop her posting a letter she’s written  to Christ Church asking Dr Conrad why an academic has descended to personal insult. She feels he’s ‘letting Oxford down’. A University Fellow should be engaging in intelligent debate surely, not playground insults: calling people ‘Fatty’?

I find myself in the odd position of defending Conrad: ‘Oh he’s probably going through a rough patch…I’ve read an awful review of one of his books… Perhaps he suffers from body-shame, and that runs deep, and so on.’

Now my daughter has joined the fray “Oh dad you’re always defending people! He’s obviously a ****”  Well I don’t know about that, but what I do know is that there is an obvious problem with his review, and leaving aside any consideration for his mental state, it would be worth him swapping his body-shame for simply being ashamed of writing such tosh.

We can easily dispose of the obvious problem with his review: the way he is more interested in insulting me than in seriously engaging with the book. Why waste space considering the content in a book and debating its ideas when you can fill it with vitriol?  He calls me sanctimonious so let me indulge him in this belief by forgiving him. ‘May he gain Enlightenment’, as the Buddhists would say (as rapidly as possible please). A clue as to how far he has to go to achieve this lies in his remark: ‘The genitals, Carr-Gomm dozily says, are “symbols of power and vulnerability”, but how can they be both?’  In raising this Conrad reveals not only his inability to grasp paradox, but also more sadly his chauvinism. He continues dismissing my remark by saying it’s all simple really: ‘The vulva keeps its secrets; the extroverted male organ means one thing when erect and the exact opposite when it detumesces.” He doesn’t think the vulva symbolises power when through it he was born? He doesn’t think it symbolizes vulnerability when through it he can reach inside a woman’s body to touch her heart and soul (or wound her deeply)? And as if to reinforce this lack of sensitivity and the overall tone of bullying testosterone in his review he finishes with a variation on the archetypal old-world-lager-lout insult about erectile dysfunction.

Such was his need to kick someone that he over-rode any academic rigour he might possess, to suggest the book is based on ‘a few Google searches and a random scanning of the TV listings.’ He was clearly so upset by the pictures in the book he failed to reach the references section, which lists the numerous sources I consulted over the years it took me to research the book. And he’s a university lecturer?

In the end, though, Conrad’s review illustrates perfectly the point I make in the book. Nakedness in itself is no big deal, but as a subject through which to explore the heart, mind and soul it is extraordinarily powerful. It acts like a mirror for their inner workings, and the picture in Conrad’s mirror is not a pretty sight. Moving from Christ Church to Magdalen mercifully offers us relief from his fluster and venom. Douglas-Fairhurst in his Telegraph review writes: ‘In a topsy-turvy culture where wearing clothes is thought of as normal, and going without them is seen as the behaviour of exhibitionists or weirdos, an unexpected flash of flesh does for everyday experience what Shelley thought was poetry’s task: it ‘strips the veil of familiarity from the world”. Nudists, flashers and strippers are the human exclamation marks that punctuate our lives. Once you’ve finished this thought-provoking book, go back to the mirror. Slip off the bathrobe and have another look… If it weren’t anatomically impossible, you’d swear your whole body was smiling.’

8 Responses to “‘A Brief History of Nakedness’ Delights one Oxford Don, Shocks Another – Meanwhile I’m Wrestling my Mother to the Ground”

  1. I just read the review. I got fear, prejudice, a blinkered view of the topic, and an even larger dose of defensiveness. The review reveals far more about the reviewer than the contents of the book, or you, Philip. I don’t think many people will read that and take it as a serious review.

    • Yes, couldn’t agree more – negative, ill-informed, ‘personal attack’ reviews such as this only serve to point out far more about the reviewer, than the publication at hand, which is a disservice to the reading public…and, perhaps, it shows a glaring example of the very need for a book such as this – one that bravely takes on a more controversial topic. Interestingly, the two ‘contrasting reviews’ from Oxford – in and of themselves! – only further illustrate clearly that there is indeed a growing polarity going on re: such issues in academia, as well as general society, and undoubtedly, will have their own repercussions within those circles for the reviewer, in due course. Thankfully, by now, most of the public is well aware of these kinds of reviews, and, as Damh rightly points out above, don’t tend to take them terribly seriously, anyway. As someone who lives and researches in the Oxford area, one can only add! – ‘here’s to Magdalen!’ and the far more informative Telegraph review – and more to come! Keep up the good work, Philip! Karen

  2. Whoa! I ended up feeling really sorry for the guy. Talk about displaying your fear and insecurity for all to see. It’s a good job he chose emotionally resilient to throw his baggage at, and not some poor vulnerable soul who might be seriously wounded by it.

    What’s particularly worrying is that he appears to be blithely unaware that he’s basically telling the whole world how frightened of discussion around bodies and sexuality he is.

  3. I agree with everyone and as Karen suggests, I think that large sections of academia are still deeply entrenched in a materialist world view. Conrad’s reaction reminded me of my personal tutor at Uni who was in the main a lovely man who had been at Cambridge – very bright and funny – but mention anything vaguely spiritual and he would become deeply insulting, all rational discussion abandoned. He was a Marxist, so I guess he was never going to feel warmly towards my own spiritual yearnings but I was always so shocked at how cruel and bullying he could be about it. Like Conrad, I think my tutor’s response came from a very personal place of discomfort and I agree with the folks here that Conrad ironically rendered himself naked and exposed by his incredible reaction. Something leaked out of his own personal mirk and mire, so much so that he was reduced to name calling.

    A materialist view of the world and the naked body robs both of their spirit and soul – that you write of the naked body as sacred, I think annoyed and threatened him terribly. Perhaps he feels grief about his own aging body and the only way he can cope is to dismiss it, to reduce its importance; as you say, when you engage with the naked body with any depth and feeling, you are also forced to confront your own fears and self-loathing – his incredibly rude remarks about your body are rather suspicious in this regard. In making the naked body sacred you are honouring it, in honouring it you have to truly see it, engage with it, warts and all. Perhaps for some, it is more comfortable to hide behind the abstractions of academic life; it seems to me that if Conrad was attempting to subdue the power of the naked body and put it (in his view) in its rightful place then his words failed him miserably and betrayed his own deep vulnerability but in doing so, he exposes something of the collective struggle that exists beneath our culture’s bizarre and distorted perception of the naked body.

    It is not nice to be on the end of someone’s unnecessary abuse but I think this illustrates why the book is such a gem – we need to talk about these things; our attitudes towards the naked body really do need some healthy change and healing, and the leaking out of all the nasty stuff is part of that process. It’s great that you have written this book; it helps us all to move one step closer to a better relationship with ourselves, each other and the world. Without our bodies we wouldn’t exist; if we can’t feel at home in our nakedness, then how can we truly feel at home with material existence; it’s little wonder we do the damage we do to each other and the world if we possess such a confused and low opinion of our own skin.

  4. Thank you Maria! Beautifully put! When I was at UCL I remember being taught by a Marxist lecturer. I mentioned something about respect for the earth one day and he responded with such vehemence about it just being ‘dirt’ under his feet. Very revealing: the psychopathology of reductionism!

  5. Why would anyone want the earth to ‘just’ be dirt beneath their feet? I am happy for people not to believe in the Divine – it’s a personal choice – but it puzzles me why it is such a threat to view the earth as something precious. It seems to me there is a great deal of fear beneath this attitude. Working in the world of ideas and abstractions, you would assume that folks are quite rational and objective about theories and systems, using them as tools to understand the world but remaining flexible and open, never dogmatic. There are certainly those that do but it seems to me that quite often people in academic life are guilty of closed minds and dogmatic thinking. Calling yourself a structuralist or a post-structuralist and preaching that particular conceptual gospel is no different from calling yourself a christian or a muslim; academics hold ‘beliefs’, invest emotionally in these and become dreadfully defencesive if these are challenged. The ‘ideal’ is that they are objective, questioning, rational beings; the ‘truth’ is that they are human and falable, often driven by their own pyschological blind spots.

    Thinking of our Marxist tutors, I am reminded of a lovely quote from Mrs Marx – who obviously saw herself as long suffering. She once complained of her husband: ‘I wish that rather than writing about capital, he’d make some!’ Marx fell in love with Ventnor here on the Isle of Wight. He stayed there more than once for his health at the end of his life. There is a house with a little blue plaque that says ‘Marx woz here’. He was struck by Ventnor’s beauty, saying of it that it was a mini Alps. Regardless of his views about religion, I don’t think even he would have agreed with your lecturor!

    In the eternal world of ideas, the naked body becomes like a spanner in the works – it literally brings us back down to earth; we are not superhuman, eternal, shining intellects, who in grapsing ideas conquer and control the uncontrollable – we are in fact vulnerable, mortal beings who piss, shit and die. I think this is what lurks behind irrational outbursts of so called rational folks when it comes to engaging with the naked body. It’s our fear of death, our ordinariness and our fragility. The thing is, that when we are brave enough to engage with the naked body, we not only get to acknowledge these difficult facts but we are also given the opportunity to connect with the depth, joy and beauty of what it means to be embodied.

  6. As one of those singled out for vilification (the elderly editor of Naturist Life) all I can say is that I am in good company and when someone is so obviously so hung up about his own body image all I can do is feel sorry for him. I must say though that photograph of myself on the plinth was probably the worse taken on that occasion – but Philip says he likes ‘wild women’. I accept myself for my own body, it is part of me, it is the map of my life and over the years I know that I have helped others with poor body image.

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