Until perhaps a week ago I had never heard of Sebastian Horsley. It’s still not clear to me if this is my failing or Horsley’s. Perhaps reading of his “memoir” (a term that should always now appear in diacritical marks) Dandy in the Underworld would help. Even so imagine my surprise to find an article in The New York Times announcing that this British author was denied entry to this country. My goodness, I thought, did someone pierce the haze of American indifference to literature (or should I say language) and breach the boundaries between politics and writing? Did a brave writer of poetry or prose land on an enemy radicals list for works whose disestablishmentarian stances threatened the norms and standards of American complacency? In a word, no.
Here’s the real story, according to the NYT:
“Lucille Cirillo, a spokeswoman for the New York office of United States Customs and Border Protection, said she could not comment on specific cases. But in an e-mail message, she said that under a waiver program that allows British citizens to enter the United States without a visa, travelers who have been convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude (which includes controlled-substance violations) or admit to previously having a drug addiction are not admissible.
Moral turpitude? Really? When did you last hear that coming from a customs agent frisking you on the way to a flight? When did you the last hear that phrase in reference to a piece of writing?
Let’s just consider for a moment the idea of moral turpitude. At first, I thought this was perhaps a vague, Victorian invocation. Imagine my further surprise to find that it is a major reason for denying entry to the United State. What else is included in moral turpitude? Well, the US Department of State offers a handy list. Of course, arson, murder, pandering, and the usual suspects are present. Interestingly enough, carrying a concealed weapon, lewdness, and drunkenness are specifically listed as regulatory infractions that do not constitute moral turpitude. Of course, bigamy, sodomy, fornication, and bastardy (yes it’s true: intentionally creating a bastard child can get you barred from entering the U.S.) are on the list. Adultery was on the list but has been removed. My other favorites include mayhem and riot and a series of meta-crimes of moral turpitude: attempting to commit moral turpitude, being an accessory to committing moral turpitude, aiding and abetting the commission of moral turpitude, and taking part in a conspiracy to commit moral turpitude. Governance in this country is exhausting to think about, no?
Worry not, reader whose relationship to moral turpitude I would not (unlike the Department of State) be inclined to anatomize. I have not, though it appears otherwise, forgotten poor Sebastian Horsley. Imagine the sadness of being turned away at the border for turpitude of an as-yet-unnamed variety. Imagine flying 6 or 7 hours and then having to turn around and fly right back. What, then, was the crime committed by Horsely? It was, perhaps, the writing of his recent memoir, which regales readers with tales of bisexuality, prostitution, drug use, hustling, and other country pleasures. How, gentle reader, could I resist the urge to order this memoir immediately if for no other reason that to verify Horsley’s turpitude for myself?
Horsley, who admits to taking liberties with, well, everything and anyone who would let him, may well have been denied entry based on a series of exaggerations, if not lies. Who could possibly verify claims such as those made in the opening lines: “When Mother found out she was pregnant with me she took an overdose. Father gave her the pills.” The actual crime, it seems, is a crime against readers. How can anyone be expected to read hundreds of pages of these flat sentences with their altogether predictable, indeed rhythmic, punctuations of outrageous speech? “Mother had been drunk throughout the entire pregnancy. It was me who was well mannered. I gave her no labour pains. I have never kicked a woman in my life–not even my own mother.” These lines fill the book and demand only that the reader imagine the drum and cymbal in the background to punctuate the gag. Where could the narrative possibly go after Horsley has availed himself of prostitutes and hustled? You guessed it: drug addiction followed by rehab. And before you wallow through most of this prose yourself, here’s a saucy and line from a review that may let you know whether you want to experience this kind of pain: “This is the perfect book for every fey, victimized 20-year-old with dyed black hair in your family. It is as wonderfully lewd as any trip to an Edinburgh chip shop. Its also so epigrammatic as to crawl into itself.”
It’s hard to say what angers me most about this whole affair–the facile celebration of tepid acts as transgression (and therefore the bankrupting of any real flouting of repressive norms), the horrific quality of the prose, or the shocking behavior of the U.S. Customs. In a country that would rather go up in flames (and take the rest of the world with it) than have an honest conversation about what makes for truly moral (as opposed to moralistic) behavior, the writer of a sad little memoir of naughty behavior is thrust into the role he wanted: international provocateur. Maybe this is the real defeat–the substitution of Sebastian Horsley for what truly challenges conventional moral pieties.
Thomas Nashe, the sixteenth-century bad boy and prose genius, admits in a now obscure pamphlet, that in following profitable literary fashions in the brave new world of print (as many writers were forced to do to earn a living), “I prostitute my pen in hope of gain.” As is clear from his works–including the must-read prose romance The Unfortunate Traveller–Nashe was not unfamiliar with either prostitution or finance. One of the crimes of Horsely’s flagrant display of prostitution is the way he plumbs it for shock value, fetishizing the erotics of paying for sex as liberation from normative behavior while ignoring the thoroughly normative way in which paying prostitutes merely reinforces economic privilege. Of course, Nashe knew what the implications of his claim were. If only we could say the same of Horsley. Having said that, I’ll take Horsley over the Department of State any day.