Here come the Transgression…
In the next few weeks, we're going to be introducing a new category of works to the Belfort and Bastion catalog. Specifically, we are going to be offering you works of Transgressive literature and art.
Which should, of course, invoke in you a certain response. You should, at this moment, be sitting there in front of your laptop, your hand on that cup of mocha-grande, and be asking yourself, "What the hell do they mean by that?"
A damn fine question.
Unfortunately, we're not too sure ourselves.
It seems odd that there should be any question of what "transgressive literature," or "transgressive fiction" is. There's a whole section on it at Wikipedia. That wise source informs us, "Transgressive fiction is a genre of literature that focuses on characters who feel confined by the norms and expectations of society and who break free of those confines in unusual and/or illicit ways. Because they are rebelling against the basic norms of society, protagonists of transgressional fiction may seem mentally ill, anti-social, or nihilistic. The genre deals extensively with taboo subject matters such as drugs, sex, violence, incest, pedophilia, and crime."
All well and good.
But, come, let us be honest. Most of the time, and for most people, transgressive literature has meant just one thing.
It used to be that you could say what was "transgressive" without a whole lot of effort. It meant a dirty book. Or, if you prefer, porn or erotica.
And that was a good thing…for publishers and writers. It meant you could be daring and new (and extremely salable) by simply throwing in a few words like "dick" or "cunt" or "boob" or whatever. And, if you weren't particularly talented, well, terrific. Lack a plot or sense of character. No problem. A little sex here and there, plus a lurid and leerworthy cover on the paperback version, and who cared? I mean, really?
And if you could write…if you actually had talent…ah, so much the better. It meant that people like Oscar Wilde, Algernon Charles Swinburne, D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Anne Desclos (a.k.a., Pauline Réage), Anaïs Nin, etc. could (like De Sade) smuggle ideas under the cover of smut into a greater public's otherwise unresponsive intellect.
Of course, it was a dangerous game. The endless court cases, the imprisonments of artists and writers, the unwelcome attentions of the world's Anthony Comstocks great and small…these were real threats.
But, until recently, you knew what was illicit to say. You knew what could not be said. You knew what was considered unspeakable.
Alas, that is no longer the case.
Sex was the lodestone of the unspeakable right through the 1970s. But after that …well, the erotic gradually faded from the transgressive. It became less taboo. Less dangerous. Less important.
That was, of course, because sex was no longer quite the problem it had once been. Unwanted pregnancy is a serious thing, and not just for the mother or the child. Societies, particularly but not exclusively pre-modern ones, are not fond of children who must somehow be supported without the co-operation of at least two adults. Preferably more. Hence, again particularly but not exclusively in pre-modern societies, marriage becomes a vital economic institution, and sex outside that institution becomes a sin. And discussion of sex outside marriage becomes a crime.
But contraceptives change all of that. Suddenly, extramarital sex becomes relatively consequence free. Yes, you run risks. You have your share of "illegitimate pregnancies." You have diseases, including quite serious ones, likes HIV. But, on the whole, sex becomes "casual." Even recreational. Indeed, it becomes the norm.
And, in the process, porn looses its sting. It becomes just another middle class industry.
Today, of course, there is nothing transgressive about porn. Except for the most obviously wantonly and hideous acts (rape, child abuse), there is not a form of sex that isn't portrayed quite freely in the market. Straight, Gay, oral, anal, group, solo, with dolls, toys or sheep …you name it, it's out there.
The Dominatrix in her black leather catsuit bounds about superhero movies for the entertainment and titillation of twelve-year-old boys. Her brooding male equivalent, in tight breeches and equipped with a riding crop, is to be found on the covers of bestsellers everywhere. Soap operas and sitcoms, meanwhile, discuss role-play and pegging and mammary intercourse. Talk shows provide tips on the proper methods of bondage and the correct pronunciation of Bukkake. Oh, and if you have questions about what "tea-bagging" is, or how one performs a "turkey slap," well, these things are nicely covered in the some 85 pages (and counting) of Wikipedia that deal with different sex acts.
Yes…of course, yes…there are still barriers and taboos. There are still places and times where one had better not raise, as it were, the issue. Yet, come! Admit it. This is a new age. And there is no turning back… in spite of the best efforts of moralists and censor of every stripe, ranging from the religious fundamentalist to the radically feminist.
Sex has become all too commonplace. It's depictions are no more transgressive than images of eating, and considerably less so than those of defecation.
So, what is transgressive now?
I think there is a short and a long-term answer to that. The short-term answer is that we shall see sex itself questioned. After having been so long taboo, its current dominance in society invites critique. An age, after all, in which the Kardashians and the Real Housewives discuss the intimate details of their bedrooms on Reality TV (and their revelations are considered worthy of front page coverage), is by definition ridiculous.
We shall see, then, a class of literature exploring that fact. We shall see a type of book asking if the insertion of this or the extraction of that is really so exciting. Or, indeed, if it is worth remarking upon at all.
And Belfort and Bastion has two titles about to go online that might be said to fall into this category. The first of these is WARNING: Sexually Explicit Content by Aubrey Tannhauser, while the second is The Pellucid Risen: Book One, Awakening, by Brad Amante.
Both of these mock sex, or rather, they mock our cultural obsession with it. They do so, however, in very different ways.
To explain that, let me take them one at a time.
The Pellucid Risen: Book One, Awakening, by Brad Amante, came into us via editor Victor Storiguard, who (as he puts it) "stumbled across" Mr. Amante's blog-based webfiction some time ago (you can see it at bradamante75.blogspot.com, by the way).
Amante writes science fiction and his book is, at first glance, nothing more than a piece of rather conventional space-opera, or rather "time-opera" since the main character visits the future. It concerns a young man, Robert, who has led a pretty wretched life in our own century, but who is then murdered for mysterious reasons.
However, he's frozen, and after five hundred years, he's brought back to life. In fact, he finds himself in a feminist utopia in which the sexes have completely changed roles. Women are tall and masterful. Men are small and delicate.
So far there's nothing here particularly transgressive. Sex-role reversal is a staple of sci-fi, and, indeed, in what passes for public discourse these days (think about the famous Newsweek issue, and the equally famous article in the recent Atlantic).
Ah, but here's where things get interesting. Robert, now a male ingénue named "Bobbi," has rather a lovely time. He's petted and pampered and wooed and won by dozens of beautiful superwomen, all of them desperate for his favors.
Women, on the other hand, well, they discover that being on top isn't quite the bowl of cherries they thought it would be.
And, this, of course, is the transgression. What the author is saying is simply this: the great and much ballyhooed Battle of the Sexes…the battle over sex, the battle during sex…is in the end irrelevant. The victory is uncertain, the victor unclear, the triumph …
WARNING: Sexually Explicit Content by Aubrey Tannhauser, meanwhile, is a more subtle work. In it, Tannhauser presents us with the life and loves of Jacob Lamdan, a young man who wants nothing more than to be a famed author of well-crafted erotica.
And this should be a snap for Lamdan. He's a decent stylist and he's got scads of personal experience from which to take his material. He is, you see, one of those young men that women perceive as beautiful, no matter how they really appear. Where the rest of us poor heterosexual males (particularly those who are, as they delicately say, of a certain age) must struggle and sweat to gain even the passing attention of women, Lamdan gets it whether he likes it or not. They fall into his arms at the least excuse. They offer him sexual escapades that would embarrass Caligula. Indeed, they demand his attentions with a single-minded fury. (We have here something of Amante's Bobbi, do we not?)
But, Jacob discovers something distressing. To wit, his easily obtained sexual experiences provide no inspiration. They have required no effort, so they are not genuinely rewarding. They satisfy the animal, but they do not nourish the human part of him. He has no muses, only fuck-buddies and "friends with benefits."
In time, he finds that only by withdrawing from the sex may he save himself. In the process, he must confront both great unhappiness and real tragedy, but it is his route to salvation.
Which is, of course, how Mr. Tannhauser commits his own transgression. He takes the climax of every porn film, every romantic comedy, and every advertisement for underarm deodorant…i.e., the moment when boy-gets-girl and vice versa…and says, "It doesn't matter."
Doesn't matter. And maybe should be avoided.
So those are our newest additiosn. And it is also my suggestion for short-term transgressions.
But what about the long? The other possibility I suggested? The second and more lasting sort of transgression.
That is complicated. And political. And for another day.
But, I will leave you with a clue. I hope it will be appropriately tantalizing.
It is a quote from Voltaire. It is: "To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize."
But let us change it. Let us say, instead, "whom you may not mock."