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Messengers of Eros

Representations of Sex in Australian Writing


Xavier Pons


Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009

Paperback. 361 pages. ISBN 9781443805230. £29.99


Reviewed by Dominique Hecq

Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne



Dionysus Versing Eros. Eros, the Greek god of love, generally said to be Aphrodite’s son, comes with many faces. The lyric poets and tragedians stress his omnipotence and cruelty to those who appear as his victims. Sappho made him bitter-sweet. In Xavier Pons’ latest book, his messengers are all intent on sex, which reflects the works he has chosen to write about.

In an ambivalent Australian cultural matrix, with its multilayered psycho-historical and socio-cultural sediments deposited in literature, the erotic topos is underlaid with multiple connotations: it reflects Australian insular psychology; it is the point of destination in numerous narratives; it figures as one of the key symbols of the colonisation of Terra Australis; and it has been replicated through multiculturalism on the postcolonial scene.

Through a discussion of the topos of sex as the stage for, and articulation of, manifold desires, Pons examines here the ways in which it is employed by a number of authors to varying effects. The discussion proceeds by accretion through a wide range of texts, beginning with a definition of key concepts such as eroticism, desire, love, transgression and perversion as these resonate through the western literary and philosophical tradition. It then focuses on the Australian literary heritage from Furphy to Flanagan and Malouf via Prichard, Herbert, Keneally, White and Carey. Because this study is more interested in representations of sex than eroticism, it makes sense that it zooms in on selected books where sexual acts, practices and fantasies are depicted with slight regulatory weight. Frank Moorhouse’s Forty-Seventeen (1988), Finola Moorhead’s Still Murder (1991), Andrew McGahn’s Praise (1992), John A. Scott’s What I have written (1993), Fiona McGregor’s Suck My Toes (1994), Justine Etler’s The River Ophelia, Christos Tsiolkas’ Loaded (1995), Linda Jaivin’s Eat Me (1997), Rod Jones’ Nightpictures (1997) are discussed at length and copiously quoted from.

Though arguably a great marketing ploy, this foregrounding of the ‘topos of sex’ at the expense of the wider ‘erotic topos’ unfortunately does some disservice to this book. Or, to put it another way, to divorce sex from the erotic by highlighting graphic representations of sex limits the argument, just as pairing love with a capacity for imagination does in the first chapter. Where is, for instance, the attention to language in a study that purports to examine the literary strategies that make the representation of sex more acceptable in a fundamentally puritanical society? Well before Lacan, Proust (Du côté de chez Swann), Joyce (A Portrait), and in the Australian context, Christina Stead (For Love Alone) made it clear that the relation of imaginative and lived experience derives from their subjection to language, hence desire. A more solid theoretical framework in the initial chapter might have set the stage for a richer engagement with the material. One could also excuse some sweeping statements and cavalier treatment of some writerly practices such as écriture feminine but to leave the reader with both sex and desire unexplained as “mysteries” is a little unfair. Different sexual practices, different desires, different fantasies and different voices do not have equal power in an Australia that remains, as this book suggests, quite puritanical and sexist.

Throughout reading this book, one question kept nagging at me: it concerned the articulation of the desired state of a nation—Australia, the multicultural and feminist utopia—and the social and political reality. But to be fair to the author of Messengers of Eros, I may have had a different book in mind, for the conclusion announces that “it is in the nature of this book, and of this topic, to find no real conclusion.”

This book was indeed not meant to be comprehensive and cohesive. Perhaps as readers we should best read it as a series of interactive meditations and speculations on the topos of sex as insisting space charted by the routes of multiple voyages capturing a convoluted nexus of imagination, ideology, and power. We would then get a glimpse of that elusive “Australian fantasy” alluded to in the chapter focused on a fine Lawson study case. While navigating the discursive territory surrounding this reified topos, readers would then chart with the author some of the liminal spaces that enact desire.

In sum, by employing the topos of sex with its transmigrating though limited themes and rhetorico-ideological conventions, Pons revisits the spaces traversed by Australian writers and draws his own demarcation line on existing cultural maps, thus leaving space for renegotiating their borders. For this reviewer, the stronger sections are those on Lindsay and A.D. Hope, which is most apposite, given their dedication to both Dionysus and Eros.


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