E. M. Forster Predicted the Internet, Skype and Climate Change in 1909

Beowulf: Between Pagan Heroism and Christian Heroism

Shakespeare in Yosemite

Loyal as a Book #5

6 Songs About Authors

Batman: Urban Radical, Delinquent, Resistance Fighter

Loyal as a Book #6

David Beckham, Paul Gascoigne, and the fates of the famous

One Month in a Nepalese Monastery

A Letter From Gandhi to Hitler

View More

About Us

(The story of Misfit Press is inextricably linked to the story of Misfit Incorporated, which is inextricably linked to the story of AJ and Melissa Leon. These fascinating stories have been told at length on many other occasions – in newspapers, on TEDx stages, during numerous interviews and chance meetings in wine bars. If you want to explore the weird and wonderful company that is Misfit Incorporated, peruse our site. For the full backstory, check out this video interview.)

Misfit Press itself was established in 2014, with the publication of AJ Leon’s The Life & Times of a Remarkable Misfit. The little-known backstory to The Life & Times is that it was originally slated to be published by a major American publisher, who headhunted AJ after noticing the popularity of his blog, The Pursuit of Everything. About a third of the way through the writing of the book, AJ began to get twitchy about the compromises involved in traditional publishing: uncompromising editorial pressure, a lack of say on issues such as design and artwork. Not long later, AJ bailed on the contract, and decided to publish the book himself. The Misfit team created and ran a Kickstarter, aimed at raising $15,000 to cover publishing costs. By the time the fundraising had run its course, pledges totalled more than treble that amount. With the excess funds, AJ and Misfit decided to go one better than just publishing a book, and also founded a publishing house.

Since its founding, Misfit Press has steadily flourished. In 2015, we took under our wing Wolftree, the finest arts journal in the American Midwest; we released our 2015 Anthology, featuring the finest creative work we encountered over the preceding year; and The Life & Times of a Remarkable Misfit continued to find readers across the globe. In 2016 we published Destination Shakespeare, the debut poetry collection from esteemed Shakespeare academic Paul Edmondson; and we have more Shakespeare-related publications in the works for 2017, including Shakespeare On The Road, a tale of a Shakespearian adventure across the US.

Last  year was a big growth period for the Press, and there is lots more on the way for 2017. As you’ll see from our Forthcoming Publications section, over the next twelve months we will be publishing Saya Sayama: Three Years in Myanmar by incredible photojournalist Spike Johnson, a photonarrative account documenting a unique moment in Myanmar’s history: the violent shift from General Ne Win’s fifty-year dictatorship to the country’s first steps towards democracy. Also imminent is Tangentially Reading, featuring some of the most insightful, shocking, touching, and hilarious moments from the first 200 episodes of Christopher Ryan’s much-loved podcast, Tangentially Speaking.

These are exciting times at Misfit Press. To keep up to date with everything that’s going on, follow us at our blogFacebook, Twitter and/or Instagram. Into the future, we will always continue to work in the fashion we do right now: with authors we like, on projects that matter, in a way that leaves writer, reader and everyone in-between satisfied. We will also never renege on our One-for-One pledge; for every publication we ever sell, a child in India will receive money towards prescription eyeglasses, via the Misfit Foundation.

w: Matt

Literature’s greatest sex scene? Umberto Eco explores lust and love from the Dark Ages to today

“How peaceful life would be without Love, Adso. How Safe. How Tranquil. And how Dull.”
– The Name of the Rose

Two weeks ago, on the 19th of February, the great Italian author Umberto Eco passed away. When the news reached me – reached me via the hyper-textual rabbit hole which is social media, a phenomenon ripe for the sort of semiotic analysis to which Eco dedicated much of his life – I sighed. 2016 had already seen Alan Rickman, David Bowie and Dave Mirra shuffle off their mortal coils, and the feeling was a familiar one. A sort of resigned melancholy. Everyone has to go, of course – and it’s not like I knew them personally, and people die everyday, Matt – but still. Dammit. Aside from his writing (which I’ll come to in a moment), I’d always found Eco endearing, simply as a man. Just the idea of having him in the world was an obscure kind of comfort. In interviews, in photos, in his essays, he always struck me as something of a dream grandfather. A true intellectual of the old school, Eco was multilingual, a lover of the avant-garde, and a committed gastronome. European in all the best ways.

Upon hearing of his death, along with that pang of resigned melancholy, the first thing that came to mind was a passage of Eco’s I had read a few years ago, something that had stuck with me in the way of all memorable moments of reading – so that you remember precisely where you were when you read it: the colours around you, how your body was arranged, how the pages weighed in your palms, whether or not you were happy.

In 2012, I spent four months living in Milan – the city where Eco drew his last breath. In the months preceding this sojourn, and then while there, I took a self-directed (ie. Google-directed) survey of modern Italian writing. I had a mixed time with Italo Calvino; enjoyed a couple of Elena Ferrante’s ‘Neapolitan Novels’; abandoned but then later quite liked Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard (1958); and fell in love with the poems of Pier Paolo Pasolini. Oddly – perhaps indulging some hipsterish impulse to not go too mainstream too soon – I left by far the most famous modern Italian novel, The Name of the Rose (1983), until quite late. I read Eco’s famous novel in late May, just as Milan was beginning its ascent towards stultifying heat.

The passage which sprang into my memory when I heard of Eco’s death was one I had read while reclined on a blanket in the dazzling sunshine in Milan’s Parco delle Basiliche. (I had just eaten an enormous bowl of gnocchi and was feeling rather contented.) A murder mystery set in a Benedictine monastery at the tailend of the Dark Ages, The Name of the Rose is enthralling but dense. At the centre of the book are the investigations of the narrator, Adso, who winds up as a sort of theological detective, uncovering the complex mystery behind a string of monk deaths. The passage I recalled, however, didn’t have anything to do with this central plot, or the novel’s philosophical themes. In my mind it is a standalone episode all of its own, a vignette, or sketch.

If I wanted to be really succinct, I suppose the passage qualifies as a sex scene – though this label doesn’t really do it justice, and its appearance in the title here is a piece of shameless clickbaiting. Writing sex is notoriously difficult – so much so that, since 1993, the Literary Review has been handing out an annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award, to “honour an author who has produced an outstandingly bad scene of sexual description in an otherwise good novel.” Lots of authors simply sidestep the challenge, opting for the literary equivalent of cinema’s fade to black after the first passionate kiss. This section of The Name of the Rose, however, spends pages on a brilliant, moving depiction of the excitement and confusion of a chance sexual encounter.

The passage in question appears midway through the novel, ‘After Compline’ on the Third Day. (The chapters are arranged around the monastery’s canonical hours, which divide the day into fixed periods of prayer.) Adso, being a devout and celibate monk, has had no previous experience of sex. He is committed to a biblical conception of womanhood which would have been the norm for a Dark Ages monk: as temptation, as sin, as vice. We find Adso, very late one night, pawing through some old manuscripts, and coming across various visual depictions of femininity. Comparing some dusty volumes, he finds “the statue of the Virgin [Mary],” who “seemed very beautiful” to him. “I thought I should not dwell on these notions,” says Adso, “and I turned several more pages.” Distressingly for the young monk, as he reads on, he finds that the line separating virginal virtue from erotic vice doesn’t appear to be as clear as his religious teachers have made out:

I found another woman, but this time it was the whore of Babylon. I was not so much struck by her form as by the thought that she, too, was a woman like the other, and yet this one was the vessel of every vice, whereas the other was the receptacle of every virtue. But the forms were womanly in both cases, and at a certain point I could no longer understand what distinguished them. Again I felt an inner agitation; the image of the Virgin in the church became superimposed on that of the beautiful Margaret. “I am damned!” I said to myself. Or, “I am mad.” And I decided I should leave the library.

Adso heads down to the kitchen, where his confusion is about to be intensified. After drinking some well water to “calm my tension,” in the moonlight, he realizes “someone else was in the kitchen, near the bread oven.” In fact, there are two people, and one flees. We learn later, thanks to the explanation of the kindly Brother William, that the someone else is “a girl from the village who, perhaps not for the first time, grants her favors to some lustful monk so as to have something for her and her family to eat.” The fleeing figure, then, was a horny monk. Now alone in the kitchen is the unnamed girl. Adso, terrified, approaches.

So, it was a woman. Or, rather, a girl. Having had until then (and since then, God be thanked) little intimacy with creatures of that sex, I cannot say what her age may have been. I know she was young, almost adolescent, perhaps she had passed sixteen or eighteen springs. She was trembling like a little bird in winter, and was weeping, and was afraid of me.
…Thinking that the duty of every good Christian is to succor his neighbor, I approached her with great gentleness and in good Latin told her she should not fear, because I was a friend, in any case not an enemy, certainly not the enemy she perhaps dreaded.
… I realized from her tone that she was saying sweet words to me, and she seemed to be saying something like “You are young, you are handsome…

At this early stage in the meeting, we see Adso still trying to view the scene through the lens of his religious education; to still experience the girl, and the sexual power she represents, as sinful.

It is rare for a novice who has spent his whole childhood in a monastery to hear declarations of his beauty; indeed, we are regularly admonished that physical beauty is fleeting and must be considered base. But the snares of the Enemy are infinite, and I confess that this reference to my comeliness, though mendacious, fell sweetly on my ears and filled me with an irrepressible emotion. Especially since the girl, in saying this, had extended her hand until the tips of her fingers grazed my cheek, then quite beardless. I felt a kind of delirium, but at that moment I was unable to sense any hint of sin in my heart. Such is the force of the Devil when he wants to try us and dispel from our spirit the signs of grace.

As the girl begins to seduce him, though, Adso’s conviction that this girl embodies the Devil is rattled. Just as he struggled to differentiate between the beauty of the Virgin Mary and the whore of Babylon, religious devotion and sexual longing mingle in his mind.

What did I feel? What did I see? I remember only that the emotions of the first moment were bereft of any expression, because my tongue and my mind had not been instructed in how to name sensations of that sort… Was there truly a difference between the delights of which the saints had spoken and those that my agitated spirit was feeling at that moment?

Confused and overwhelmed, Adso is unable to resist the girl’s advances.

Then the creature came still closer to me, throwing into a corner the dark package she had till then held pressed to her bosom; and she raised her hand to stroke my face, and repeated the words I had already heard… I yearned and at once feared to touch her, she smiled with great joy, emitted the stifled moan of a pleased she-goat, and undid the strings that closed her dress over her bosom, slipped the dress from her body like a tunic, and stood before me as Eve must have appeared to Adam in the garden of Eden.
… Inadvertently I found myself against her body, feeling its warmth and the sharp perfume of unguents never known before. I remembered, “Sons, when mad love comes, man is powerless!” and I understood that, whether what I felt was a snare of the Enemy or a gift of heaven, I was now powerless against the impulse that moved me… O love, daughter of delights, a king is held captive in your tresses, I murmured to myself, and I was in her arms, and we fell together onto the bare floor of the kitchen, and, whether on my own initiative or through her wiles, I found myself free of my novice’s habit and we felt no shame at our bodies.

In the heat of baffled passion, Adso, intoxicated by the girl – “thy lips drop as the honeycomb, honey and milk are under thy tongue, the smell of thy breath is of apples, thy two breasts are clusters of grapes” – wrestles with what is happening. The purity of the moment, the “joy,” does battle with Adso’s remembrance of his monastic teachings, the idea that the girl is in fact “the noontime Devil.”

It seemed to me the prophecies were being fulfilled at last, as the girl lavished indescribable sweetness on me, and it was as if my whole body were an eye, before and behind, and I could suddenly see all surrounding things. And I understood that from it, from love, unity and tenderness are created together, as are good and kiss and fulfillment, as I had already heard, believing I was being told about something else. And only for an instant, as my joy was about to reach its zenith, did I remember that perhaps I was experiencing, and at night, the possession of the noontime Devil… But I was immediately convinced that my scruples were indeed devilish, for nothing could be more right and good and holy than what I was experiencing, the sweetness of which grew with every moment.

At climax, Adso sinks into a “total bewilderment of the senses,” and feels himself “die of tender liquefaction.” His musings become pretty mystical and surreal at this point; I would share them, but I fear losing your attention. As he orgasms, Adso remarks, “I understood the abyss, and the deeper abysses that it conjured up.”

I lay, how long I do not know, the girl at my side. With a light motion her hand continued to touch my body, now damp with sweat… I would not hesitate to call blessed a man to whom it was granted to experience something similar in this life (I murmured as if in my sleep), even rarely (and, in fact, I experienced it only that time), and very rapidly, for the space of a single moment. As if one no longer existed, not feeling one’s identity at all, or feeling lowered, almost annihilated: if some mortal (I said to myself) could for a single moment and most rapidly enjoy what I have enjoyed, he would immediately look with a baleful eye at this perverse world, would be upset by the bane of daily life, would feel the weight of the body of death…
…In the grip of these sensations of ineffable inner joy, I dozed off.

When Adso awakes, he finds himself alone on “the cold stones of the kitchen.” The girl is gone. The post-coital glow having cooled, the young monk begins to doubt himself. Shame rushes in. “The absence of the object that had unleashed my desire and slaked my thirst made me realize suddenly both the vanity of that desire and the perversity of that thirst,” he writes. “I became aware that I had sinned.”

Adso discovers that the poor girl has left behind the wrapped package in return for which she had originally prostituted herself to another monk. A few pages later, when trying to say the right thing in confession, we see Adso remark that the girl is “a harlot!” The older, wiser Brother William gently chastises him: “A poor peasant girl, Adso. Probably with smaller brothers to feed. Who, if she were able, would give herself for love and not for lucre. As she did last night.” What Adso thinks he ought to dismiss for being lust appears to be difficult to distinguish from love. And the package, which the girl had come for, and which she leaves for Adso to unwrap in the moonlight?

“A heart, of great size.”

***

I have of course never experienced life as a devout medieval monk, labouring under a vision of womanhood as sinful and sworn to a vow of celibacy. Elements of Adso’s experience are totally foreign to me. But this passage has stuck with me, years on, and remains one of the most memorable depictions of the intersecting currents of love and lust I have read.

For one, the writing still strikes me as sublime. Certain phrases are perfect – orgasm as “dying of tender liquefaction”; the glimpse of “the abyss, and the deeper abysses that it conjured up” afforded by said orgasm. The long run-on sentences which here and there brush up against mystical incomprehensibility perfectly evoke Adso’s feverish, terrified euphoria. His dense, archaic narration even manages occasionally to be comic, without ever cheapening anything – as when the girl emits “the stifled moan of a pleased she-goat.”

Part of the passage’s power also stems from the simple purity of the event. Modern culture is awash in sex. This isn’t to sound like a prude; by ‘sex’ I mean artificial, glossy, commercialised sex – the kind meant to make you feel ugly so you’ll buy a new car. Everyone is desensitised, worn down. But Adso’s encounter with the girl is utterly naive, childlike in its confusion. To encounter sex with such an explosive unknowing, with such shocked bliss – it’s all unimaginable for a generation of men most of whom watched hardcore pornography before they ever even kissed a girl.

Also unique to Adso’s worldview is the powerful tension between his belief that sex is sinful and his experience that it is, in fact, an otherworldly sort of bliss. Paradoxically, his efforts to sully what he is experiencing render the passage’s celebration of sex doubly powerful. Even years later, the elderly Adso tells us that he is depicting the “evil” scene in all its detail “to tell how a young man can succumb to the snares of the Devil.” But this description doesn’t convince. His account is too rapturous, too involved – despite what he tells us (and himself), it is a sweet, sweet recollection. Why else depict it at such length, in such rich language? In his account, Adso admits to feeling a “delirium” in which he is “unable to sense any hint of sin in my heart.” This disconnect between the monk’s professed reason for writing such a lengthy account – saving others from similar “sins” – and what appears to be the real reason – reliving a profound, precious memory – is poignant and sad. Christian or not, as readers, we forgive him. What he perceives as frailty is actually purely human. (There is a whole other point here, about the perils of tainting sex with shame, about repression – but that would be another few-thousand words.)

Finally, there is something deeper about the reality of sex that Adso’s account touches on. He couches it in theological language, but the passage parallels sexual bliss and the disappearance of the self. Adso perceives a link between the martyr’s “desire for joyous annihilation that moved the saint to die in his own love in order to live longer and eternally” with “desire for carnal union I felt with the girl.” In his account, orgasm takes on a mystical flavour, as the eradication of all self-consciousness. It is a strange idea: something of sex’s appeal is that, briefly, we are not there. In William Blake’s The Book of Thel, in orgasm “I vanish and am seen no more” in “raptures holy.” La petite mort, the French call sex: “the little death.” In the rest of the biosphere, the death appears not-so-little: witness the male praying mantis being eaten by his bride, or the Pacific salmon, who dies immediately after spawning. Strange linkages, here. The “heart, of great size” left for Adso by his lover is our culture’s greatest symbol of love, but can only be extracted from a corpse. I wouldn’t dare attempt to unpack the whole thing, but being touched on are some deep, powerful ideas about consciousness, sex, living and dying.

And on that light note, I’ll stop for today! The Name of the Rose is brilliant; go read it.

And Umberto: thanks for everything, not least this beautiful passage on the glory and majesty of love and sex. Requiescat in pace.

3082 words

Like words?

W:

3.4.16

MattMatt is Chief Editor at Misfit Press. Alongside overseeing all activity at the Press, he is in the latter stages of a PhD, working on a thesis examining the intersections between literature, neuroscience and the philosophy of consciousness. Soccer, snowboarding, prog metal, Dostoevsky, a good Chianti and strangers' dogs all rank amongst his favourite things.

Leave a Reply

Comments are closed.

Aldous Huxley’s deathbed meditation on Shakespeare, consciousness and waking up

“In touch with another human spirit”: Michel Houellebecq on the Unique Power of Literature

Liftoff!

Misfit Press