Monday, August 29, 2011


Morality is herd instinct in the individual
—Nietzsche, The Gay Science

The people who are regarded as moral luminaries are those who forego ordinary pleasures themselves and find compensation in interfering with the pleasures of others.
—Bertrand Russell

This entry is about transgressive literature and about how, at some level, a kind of morality reasserts itself through it.  Perhaps, instead of morality—which is always an ugly word for a writer—we should say an æsthetic.  As that arch-æsthete Oscar Wilde puts it in his Preface to The Picture of Dorian Grey, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”  However, Wilde observes elsewhere that, “[m]orality, like art, means drawing a line someplace.”

Where and how this æsthetic reasserts itself depends on the individual writer and the individual reader.  Transgressive literature is therefore the locus primarily of imaginative individualism.  Camille Paglia’s views on the liberating power of pedophilia, abortion, and pornography are nowhere more important than in literary erotica where the word retains the veil cinematic pornography strips aside.  Nor do I mean written pedophilia as an underground movement dedicated to the delight of outlaws, diddling themselves in musty hideaways with ill-gotten contraband.  Though perhaps this argument is better made by that hair-splitting distinction between pedophilia—sexual attraction to pre-pubescent children—and ephebophilia—sexual attraction to pubescent and post-pubescent minors.  The novels of no less a luminary than Judith Krantz often include a sexually graphic encounter between a cougar and a teenage minor.  If one were to excerpt these scenes and publish them as a collection, they would be banned.  But the larger works of which they form a part—and such delightful works they are—have sold millions of copies worldwide.  And no mommies against pornography have taken to the streets of Beverly Hills with wooden spoons, foaming at the mouth, seeking to lynch Ms Krantz.

We have a long-standing suspicion of fiction, because fiction is too illusory.  Even Melville had to claim to his publishers that he’d been on a whaling expedition.  Most people would rather read a mediocre literary achievement about a community established in a secret Alpine hideaway written by someone who has climbed a mountain than a dazzling feat of the imagination concerning such a community written by someone who has never left her study.  Oscars for Best Actor are frequently awarded to portrayals of actual historical persons, because it’s easier to judge mimicry than it is to judge pure imagination.   

We have an even longer-standing suspicion of sex, because sex is too real.  Therefore fiction based on sexual transgression must be the worst and most reprehensible kind of fiction there is.  We refuse to believe that someone who writes it doesn’t want to go out and do these things or that he or she hasn’t already done them.  How can I write ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore—John Ford’s remarkably transgressive drama from 1629, if I don’t want to sleep with my sister.  When I studied this wonderful play in a class I took in college on Jacobean and Caroline drama one of the students—slightly older than the rest—announced that she sometimes had feelings like that about her brother.  Dead silence greeted this opening salvo of class discussion.  This was, after all, a Christian university.

Somehow, we can’t stop evaluating art morally.  This is dangerous.  Because if we’re looking for that whaling ship in a writer’s tool-box, we can also be looking to burn witches or blacklist commies, and we thereby fail to honor the distinction not only between imagination and reality but between fiction and fact.  Fact, as a phenomenon, has courts and labs in which to defend itself; but fiction has always been under siege with no weapon or forum by which to assert its own fictionality, its very character.  This is even before we arrive at any considerations about the possible fictitious web of all written discourse, literary or otherwise.  By supposing fiction to harbor fact, by treating it as evidence of fact, we are violating its character as surely as we violate the character of a Black person by expecting her to be White, or a gay person by expecting him to be straight.

The physical social reality of a Black or gay person is factually demonstrable, to a certain degree.  But what about the fiction of gender realignment, the factual assertion that I am a woman or a man regardless of my genitalia.  The assertion that I am a man, made by a female author writing about a male protagonist in the first person.  The social tendency to imprison a fantasy for being real—for being a sensible literary artifact—was dangerous when the Marquis de Sade challenged it and it is even more dangerous now, because we think we’re living in a free society.  In de Sade’s time they already knew the state and the church were dictating popular taste.  Now we tend not to know this—or we don’t want to know.  While websites and publishers continue to reject books on moral grounds. 

About a year ago, Amazon got into trouble for publishing a book that, at some level, celebrated pedophilia.  I had no interest in the book, so I don’t know the exact nature of its so-called crime, but it was refreshing to read about Amazon’s decision not to censor its writers—a decision it subsequently reversed.  If a book describing—however joyfully—a criminal act is itself a criminal act, then we’d have to round up and persecute at least eighty percent of all narrative art.  Why does a movie like Bonnie and Clyde or a TV show like Dexter flourish while we repress joyful depictions of pedophilia or of even non-pedophilic consensual incest.  All such works are, at some level, glorifying crime.  Why is it permissible to glorify crimes of violence but not crimes of sex.  This is an erotophobic cultural remnant of a religious predisposition to celebrate and even sanctify violence, because of its supposedly redemptive power—as in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ—and to condemn sex.  By erotophobia I mean the suspicion and fear of sex. 

I believe the entire Twilight saga and the rapturous response it has received is the result of erotophobia.  For most of us, sex must always redeem or diminish itself to become socially acceptable.  Even atheists become squeamish around pornography unless it has a story and good acting and decent writing.  Romance and marriage redeem sex—but pornography, despite its own artifice, is reprehensible because it glorifies orgasm-for-the-sake-of-orgasm.  That is, orgasm without æsthetic, social, or reproductive purpose: pleasure-for-the-sake-of-pleasure.  By a similar process, Black people have often had to be more White, or gay people have had to be more straight, to earn acceptance.  We want sex to deck itself out in romance and marriage—in stories—before it becomes acceptable to society or æsthetics.  And sex is far more fundamental than race or sexual orientation.  One of the cornerstones of my thinking comes from the Oscar Wilde quote above about morality in literature; the other is from the venerable Noam Chomsky: “If we don't believe in free expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all.” 

I would never want to read a book or see a movie about the torture of infants, but I would defend any person’s right to write such a book or make such a movie.  By definition, imagination—what some people feel safer calling fantasy—must be unrestrained.  And it should be a basic human right for all fantasy to take artistic form without moral intervention.  A society that does not protect its children will collapse.  A society that makes war on the human imagination sentences its children to a labor camp run by a lunatic priest.