Where Does the Work of Desmond Hogan Fall in
Susan Sontag's Three Categories of Art?
The Irish Quarter
The Reading Life Desmond Hogan Project
Co-Hosted by Shauna Gilligan,
Happiness Comes From Nowhere
Co-Hosted by Shauna Gilligan,
Happiness Comes From Nowhere
"City of Exile, city of loneliness.
I live in a world without stories. Without Friends".
The Stinging Fly is much more than Ireland's highest quality source of new short fiction, poetry and criticism, it is seen all over the world as among the very best literary journals, publishing ground breaking work by new writers as well as the latest works by some of the world's greatest writers. "The Wooden Horse", Desmond Hogan's latest short story, is a prime example of the power of The Stinging Fly. I would rank it and The New Yorker as the premier contemporary sources for top quality short fiction.
In my posting on the work of Desmond Hogan I am treating his work as "found objects", an old fashioned concept I learned in the long ago in some classes from old school literary formalists. I am also treating the body of his work I have access to, at times, as a single object as that is how it came to me.
One of my plans for the Desmond Hogan project was to see how the concepts developed by Susan Sontag in her brilliant essay on the modern sensibility, "Notes on Camp" helps us understand the work of Hogan and as "The Wooden Horse" is in someways the most charring to "normalcy" of any of the dozen or so stories I have so far read I wanted to use it as my case study. My treatment of Hogan's work in this fashion is evidence of the serious way I see it.
"Wooden Horse" starts out with a a reference to a fifteen year old boy who was shot in both arms in a drug deal gone sour. His "body looks like a suburb of Baghdad. Sunflower-yellow hair, head shaped like one of those horses' heads in the production of Equus I saw, a play about a teenager who is sexually attracted to horses". The story ends with a reference to the wooden horse the Greeks used to gain access to Troy.
The sentence structure is calculated to push your sensibilities out of a normal mode, into a truncated world. Here is an example. "Became interested in the Republican movement. Tattoo on his back of crossed Republican rifles....Two bottles smashed in his face in a hotel in Croydon by an Orangeman. 'A nice scar for life' ".
The principals in this story are mostly teenage boys. What is shocking in this story is what is presented as normal or common place, shooting heroin, selling your body. This is graphically described in a way that makes it sound like just another teen age activity. Something any father would be horrified to know his son was doing is treated as common place. There are lots of horses in the story, maybe these boys are Irish Travellers. I am unfamiliar with a lot of Irish slang but at times it appears there is sexual activity with the horses. There are teenage girls in the story, Gypsies who coat their bodies in horse lineament.
As I have seen in other Hogan stories, there is a mixture of historical references along with the purely banal. Perhaps the banal is being elevated to the sacred level of the classics Gods of old Greece or perhaps we are meant to see that today's ancient Gods were once thugs.
One of the deeper, in my opinion, questions to ponder in the work of Hogan is why does the narrator in many of the stories, an autodidact with a considerable breath of knowledge of literature and obscure not taught in school aspects of history spend his time among very poorly educated people outside mainstream society. Bluntly, is it just so he can prey on them sexually, as does happen in a number of the stories or is it because they accept his oddness because of their own outsider status?
In a post on Ubo Roi by Alfred Jarry (who might be a distant literary ancestor of Hogan) I explain a bit Susan Sontag's three categories of art. The first is that of "High Culture"
The Iliad, Aristophanes' plays, The Art of the Fugue, Middlemarch, the paintings of Rembrandt, Chartres, the poetry of Donne,The Divine Comedy, Beethoven's quartets, and - among people - Socrates, Jesus, St. Francis, Napoleon, Savonarola. In short, the pantheon of high culture: truth, beauty, and seriousness.
For sure "The Wooden Horse" and the other Hogan stories I have read are not in and make no pretense to be High Art.
Famously Sontag talks about camp. Camp does have a close affiliation with what is normally considered as "gay writing" but it is far from that simple a concept. You really should read Sontag's essay (there is a link to Sontag's essay in my post on Jarry) to understand what she means by camp but here is an idea for you
"The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers....
26. Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is "too much." Titus Andronicus and Strange Interlude are almost Camp, or could be played as Camp. The public manner and rhetoric of de Gaulle, often, are pure Camp.
There are no women in dresses made of three million feathers in the work of Hogan, as far as I know so we cannot say his work is camp. The prevalence of male models and teddy boys opens it up to an examination from this direction but Hogan is not camp. (I will consider later what I make of the prevalence of male homosexuality in the short stories of Hogan later on in my project.)
How should "Wooden Horses" be seen in the classifications of Sontag?
Sontag says in addition to Camp and High Art there is a third category there is a third sensibility in which the work of Hogan falls:
"For instance, there is the kind of seriousness whose trademark is anguish, cruelty, derangement. . Think of Bosch, Sade, Rimbaud, Jarry, Kafka, Artaud, think of most of the important works of art of the 20th century, that is, art whose goal is not that of creating harmonies but of overstraining the medium and introducing more and more violent, and unresolvable, subject-matter. . . . Clearly, different standards apply here than to traditional high culture. Something is good not because it is achieved, but because another kind of truth about the human situation, another experience of what it is to be human - in short, another valid sensibility -- is being revealed."
Hogan is clearly among these writers, and I think he for sure knows this. This is why "Wooden Horses" is so shocking, becoming ever more so as proceeds until it reverses the slide with a return to the very pantheon of western culture at the close of the story.
"Wooden Horses" is very serious work of art. It requires rereading several times. There is much more in the story than I have spoken about.
Information about The Stinging Fly can be found here