On I Have Devoted My Life to the Clitoris by Elizabeth Hall

Caroline Crew

Grafton, VT: Tarpaulin Sky, 2016. 71 pages. $14.00.

The most rapturous joy in Elizabeth Hall’s I Have Devoted My Life to the Clitoris is its lack of interest in love. The book-length essay is bullet-focused (while there is much joy to be found in its chapters as stand-alone essays, the slim volume functions ecstatically as a single rampage). This narrow questioning, like the clitoris, spreads beyond its surface concern to encompass historical, political, legal, medical, philosophical, artistic, and personal contexts. As Hall expounds in the eponymous first chapter: “The clitoris is small except when it is not.”

When it is not, we discover, is an awful lot of the time—Hall traverses every path of inquiry imaginable to examine the clitoris. This act of archive is propelled by the thrill of research: “I found no museum exhibits Famous Clits in History, nor any Clit Monologues. Instead I discovered, became a collector of, berries, buds, bits of string, petals strewn along the sidewalk.” The ephemera Hall describes, however, accrues to a stunning ode to research, to continue to ask questions. It is clear that collection of these clitoral artifacts itself becomes a kind of kink, as Hall recalls of reading Flaubert’s explicit letters: “This fact, like all my facts, does not tell me anything new about the clitoris or desire, or anything else, but I love it nonetheless.”

The lack—that lingering and frankly horrendous idea of the vagina as only present by absence—haunts these pages. The form Hall presents, the fragment, performs the history collected; it is, itself, fragmentary. Among the many stand-out moments of clit history here, the story of Renaldo Columbus stands out: “1559: Renaldo Columbus, a lecturer in surgery at the University of Padua, rediscovered the clitoris while studying female patients and elderly cadavers. Rediscovered: he described the clitoris.” Another Columbusing.

That this exhaustive inquiry, from Freud to the enlarged clitoris of the hyena to the repeated vaginal forms of artist Hannah Wilke to the various ancient and modern surgical interventions into the clitoris, is achieved in fewer than seventy pages of bullet-pointed fragments says more about the sparsity of clit archives than Hall’s research skills. Figures recur—Freud; Our Bodies, Ourselves; Kinsey and Dickinson; Anais Nin; James Joyce and Nora Barnacle; Princess Marie Bonaparte—but swirl around the central question of the clit, rather than build a coherence. Their recurrence, like the book’s fragmentary form, exposes the oddity of this history, its obsessive and marginal nature.

It occurs to me that another writer may have rushed to fill this void with cutting commentary, or personal experience, or even humor. All of which Hall does remarkably well, too. Hall has a quick and dry wit (as seen in the quoted rebuke of Columbus), and in her search for the clitoris she engages her frustration in the stops and starts of the history she encounters with levity. Such levity takes readers by surprise—truly, I am gleeful in recalling how many people I must have made uncomfortable by not only reading this book in public but loudly guffawing. Take Hall’s search for the clitoris’s earliest anatomical descriptors:

  • A century later, noted anatomist Kasper Bartholin scoffed at both Fallopius and Columbus: the clitoris had been known to everyone since the second century.
  • And before the second century? If a woman orgasms clitorally in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it happen?

Nor is Hall’s prose anything less than sharp when synthesizing academic and historical texts into her mission. But the fragmentary form of I Have Devoted My Life to the Clitoris resists the urge to fill its gaps, to create a comfortably complete text. Similarly, the personal does weave through the gaps of these other texts, but refuses to entirely plug the silences. When the more intimate “I” interjects, these personal reflections proliferate the book’s essaying lightly, providing another line of inquiry for Hall’s research. Often, these moments of personal intervention are bound to the archive Hall is creating, a research reaction—further asserting the fundamental ways in which Hall’s body is bound to the project, not simply a vessel for interpreting information. As with the essay chapter “Reclamation,” in which Hall explores the clitoris solely as a pleasure organ, and, correspondingly, masturbation as not sexual, but pleasurable:

I was not a natural masturbator in that the act of getting off did not occur to me instinctually. I had to read about it in a book. It was not that I thought masturbation was wrong or that I thought people did not do it or that I didn’t understand the basic mechanics—I had not gotten that far. It had simply never occurred to me that the action might appeal to me, specifically. That my body was capable of such pleasure at all.

Here, and throughout much of I Have Devoted My Life to the Clitoris, the joy is that the clit can be an object—the clit being this nexus of pleasure transcending the swirling questions (does it even exist? what can we possibly call it? does it look right?) traced throughout the book. While those questions swirl, Hall argues for another approach to the clit instead of cross-examination: To reclaim one’s sexual objects as one’s own. What I mean to say is, Hall frees us from pleasure’s intimacy, an intimacy that so often erases the clitoris. There is no necessary union for the life of the clitoris, the essay finds; the clitoris is itself enough.

Intimacy does have a place here, perhaps inescapably. While intimacy is briefly brought into conversation euphemistically in relation to Anne Frank’s diaries (when the unabridged version, including previously deleted passages “in which she describes her vulva, clitoris, and vagina from the perspective of her own fifteen year old gaze,” is published in 1995, school superintendents question what relevance these “intimate feelings” have to the story of Anne Frank), the most arresting moments of intimacy occur between reader and the imagined Hall.

These rare moments of intimacy jolt the reader into total complicity with the text and its history of fragments, placing us, too, as bodies: “if all she needed was a person, anyone at all, to show her she deserved pleasure, that her body was even capable of recognizing pleasure. One person. Maybe you.”

In these stark moments, it is difficult not to wonder what the reading experience is like for those readers without a clitoris. An inevitable question, perhaps, and one that demonstrates the larger questions Hall engages. And yes, while a book solely, joyously, selfishly single-visioned on the clit is itself worthwhile—this book isn’t it. I Have Devoted My Life to the Clitoris prods and pokes at larger questions: pushing us to consider historiography, to interrogate the body and its genres. This vein of hybrid, autobiographically informed work has been categorized as autotheory, a term often applied to writers that I love, a term that is also most often associated with women. And this is how the term grates for me: Hall is asking how her body relates to the world. This is not some carefully separate kind of theory—what else was Merleau-Ponty doing with phenomenology but asking how his body related to the world’s objects—and how is what Hall (or Maggie Nelson, or Kathy Acker) doing any different? I can read Kant’s Critique of Judgement without a penis and still comprehend the Sublime.

Philosophers and theorists have always asked what the body is—Hall just goes further than the classical ideal of the male body, beyond the woman as a vessel or victim, past genre as gender, to the clitoris. And we should follow her.

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