To paraphrase Cole Porter, in olden days a glimpse of stocking might have been considered shocking, but now, quite frankly, almost anything goes. I say ‘almost’ because, of course, Porter was wrong to conclude that there were no longer any limits on behaviour, although we can forgive him because he was less interested in making an irrefutable statement than in fitting words to a good tune. It’s probably asking a lot to expect him to be more than broadly socially and philosophically accurate as well.Taken from UNCAGE ME (ed. Jen Jordan, 2007, Bleak House Books). Republished with the kind permission of Bleak House Books.
Boundaries and limits - legal, moral, national, aesthetic, sexual, racial, and physical - still exist, but it is a facet of the modern (or even post-modern) world that they are being challenged at an ever accelerating rate. But those challenges are not entirely negative in their connotations; rather, they can be seen as an effort to establish the nature and extent of those limitations. Thus, acts of transgression should not be viewed as destructive by nature. To approach them in this way is to misunderstand them, for their relationship to the society that gives rise to them is far more complex than might at first appear.
The word ‘transgression’ enters the English language for the first time in the 16th century, but it comes weighted with negative spiritual meaning. Perhaps the first great act of transgression is the decision by Adam and Eve to eat forbidden fruit, thereby violating their pact with God. Yet with this act comes a certain liberation, albeit at considerable cost. Admittedly, the Church fathers did not see it in this way, and so transgression becomes associated with evil, with St John telling us that ‘Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God’ (2 John 9).
(It is worth noting, in passing, that Eve bears the primary burden for disobeying God’s will, and subsequently tempting her partner. Here, the seeds are sown for an abiding distrust of women, and the demonic associations that came to be made with feminine qualities. Thus it was that the female body, by the time of the Renaissance, was the subject of constant surveillance, and was regarded as, in a way, grotesque. It was a body which potentially exceeded any boundary or limit, and was thus regarded as transgressive by its very nature. Something of this sense of the threat posed by the feminine mystique survives in the femmes fatales of film noir, who are, in their way, all descendants of the lady Eve.)
As time progresses, though, some of those earlier spiritual connotations fall away, and ‘to transgress’ becomes more general in its meaning, covering any kind of deviation from the norm, as well as non-physical acts of aggression against the person. Finally, it begins to refer to the crossing of boundaries, whether moral, legal, or, indeed, artistic and aesthetic, which is where we should perhaps locate it for the purposes of this volume.
In fact, creative and artistic endeavours provide an apt proving ground for notions of transgression. As the writer bell hooks puts it: ‘Art, and most especially painting, was for me a realm where every imposed boundary could be transgressed.’
The use of the word ‘imposed’ raises an interesting question. Are constraints entirely imposed from the outside? If we transgress, do we do so purely against some external authority, whether human or divine? I would argue that we do not, that there is a personal element in our responses to moral imperatives, an element of subjectivity that brings with it a desire to transgress, even a necessity to do so. Societies find a way to channel and express this desire: mythologies are one such channel, acts of mockery another, or what Bakhtin described as ‘the laughter of the carnival’. Such laughter is collective, universal, and ambivalent, but it is not destructive, and here is where our relationship with the notion of transgression becomes really interesting.
Transgression is both an act of affirmation and denial. It recognizes the existence of a certain limitations or boundaries, even as it seeks to overstep those marks. In fact, it requires the continued existence of such boundaries for its effect. If the act of transgression shatters the boundary entirely, then what is left? As St Paul put it, ‘Where no law is, there is no transgression’ (Romans 4:15).
Transgression is not the same as disorder. It does not invite chaos. Even Georges Bataille, the 20th-century writer whose work is perhaps most closely associated with the notion of the transgressive, for whom erotic transgression was the archetype, the sine qua non, of all transgression (albeit linked, by violence, to death), understood the necessity of suspending, rather than removing, sexual constraints. A taboo might be violated, but not terminated. ‘The sacred world’, wrote Bataille, ‘depends on limited acts of transgression.’
One might argue, then, that transgression is not in itself necessarily subversive. It seeks to question boundaries and limitations, not destroy them. It is not an overt challenge to the status quo; it is instead an interrogation, a questioning. In that sense, it is complicit in that which it critiques, but it is not blindly accepting of it. Instead, it recognizes that every limitation contains within it the possibility of its own fracture. The instruction to obey carries with it the potential for disobedience. In cultural terms, it prevents stagnation by forcing us constantly to reassess the rules governing our society, while at the same time reaffirming the necessity of those rules. It may lead to a reordering, but not to the absence of order at all.
Still, the tension between what may be perceived by one side as legitimate questioning that may possibly lead to change, or even just a different perspective, and by another as a threat to the established order, goes some way towards explaining why the relationship between art and the law is so fractious. It’s worth recalling the furore that initially greeted Howard Brenton’s play The Romans in Britain when it was staged by the National Theatre in London in 1980. Intended, in part, as a commentary on the situation in Northern Ireland at the time, it included a scene of homosexual rape that led a ‘moral guardian’, Mrs Mary Whitehouse, to take a private prosecution against the play’s director for procuring an act of gross indecency. (Mrs Whitehouse declined to view the play herself, fearing corruption of her soul. Sir Horace Cutler, by contrast, who was a board member of the National Theatre, walked out in disgust, informing a journalist that his wife had been forced to “cover her head” during the scene in question, although nobody seemed entirely sure how, precisely, her concealment was achieved.) The trial was eventually halted with both sides claiming victory: the Attorney General was said to have ended the case because it was not in the public interest to proceed, but the judge did rule that the Sexual Offences Act could be applied to events on a stage, and to simulated acts of indecency.
When the play was revived in 2007, critics reflected nostalgically on the earlier controversy, but no comparable outcry greeted the revival. Time, and the emergence of an even more permissive society, perhaps both played their parts in this, but there was also, I think, a recognition that the law had no further role to play in this discussion.
The law is rarely successful in its attempts to police art. The tension between law and art is too great. A moralist will argue that art has no special privilege, and art that transgresses against, for example, the laws of decency should be punished. Artists, according to the moralist, have no right to greater licence than any other section of the population. Artists, generally, beg to differ.
The nature of transgression in art, as in life, is intensely problematical. It has been argued that one of the roles of art is to conquer taboos, which brings with it the assumption that such taboo-breaking is always good, and anyone who objects to it is automatically narrow-minded, misguided, and guilty of oppressing the artistic imagination. Yet not all restrictions are necessarily bad in themselves, just as not every act of transgression is worthy of note simply by the fact of its existence. Bad art does not enlarge the imagination, and an artist or writer who creates it is open to censure. Offensive and transgressive are not the same thing. Similarly, finding a piece of art objectionable is a perfectly valid critical response to it; seeking to suppress it on that basis is not.
Yet transgression in art is not limited to questions of moral or sexual license, although the subject is most frequently raised in public in such contexts. Literature is subject to certain constraints, some physical and material, others related to the nature of the form. Can we not look at Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and say that, in its questioning of the received notions of storytelling and its steadfast refusal to abide by what was expected of the novel in the middle of the eighteenth century, it is a profoundly transgressive work, a post-modern novel before there was any ‘modern’ to be ‘post’ about? Or what of B.S. Johnson’s 1969 novel The Unfortunates, which was published in a box containing 27 separate chapters, one of which was marked first, one last, with 25 others that could be shuffled around as the reader wished? It is experimental, certainly, but is it not also transgressive in its attempt to overcome the limitations on the formal structure of a printed work? In other words, for the writer, as for any artist, transgression may not merely be a matter of subject, but of form. The transgressive abhors that which is self-enclosed, and rejoices in openness. It rejects the notion of purity, and instead revels in mongrelization. It is the art of the hybrid, of broken things.
More recently, there was the controversy over Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, first published in 1988, which led to a fatwa, a sentence of death, being declared on Rushdie by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini because of the novel’s perceived slighting of Islam (and arguably Islam continues to be the single most significant cultural, religious, and social boundary that artists may transgress, even at peril of their lives). Looking back, what is fascinating about the Rushdie controversy is the variety of responses it provoked from Rushdie’s fellow authors. Their support for him was far from universal, with Roald Dahl and John le Carré being among the loudest of the dissenting voices. Clearly, it seemed, transgression was not something to be defended on principle, even by one’s own peers.
There is one significant act of transgression that I have deliberately left until the end of this introduction, precisely because it is so relevant to some of the authors that follow, and that is crime. A number of the contributors to this volume are best known as mystery writers, but there are some difficulties in presenting crime as a purely transgressive action. In part, this is because the definition of an act as ‘criminal’ is a matter of law, but at the same time it is difficult to deny the element of choice involved in the commission of certain crimes, or the fascination, even appeal, that criminal behaviour may hold for us. A crime of passion is not necessarily transgressive, even if one might take the view that it breaches the taboo of unjustly taking a human life, because it lacks control, or perhaps planning and intent. It is born out of a rush of blood, an excess of feeling. Similarly, a starving woman who steals a loaf of bread could be considered to have done so out of necessity in a moment of weakness governed by blind appetite, not will.
But those criminals who chooses to kill, to steal, to break, who, in the words of J. Katz in Seductions of Crime (1988), ‘take pride in a defiant reputation as ‘bad’’, are of a different breed, and their actions resonate with us precisely because they are a dark shadow of the desire that lies within each of us to breach, however occasionally, the constraints imposed upon our behaviour, and glimpse for a moment the possibility of the infinite. To quote Katz again: ‘Perhaps in the end, what we find so repulsive about studying the reality of crime . . . is the piercing reflection we catch when we steady our glance at these evil men.’
There may be stories in this collection that you find difficult to like, or of which you may actively disapprove. There will be stories that may remind you of your own past acts, and stories dealing with acts that you believe you could never commit. Yet each of them touches upon the basic human urge to transgress, and in this you will find a certain sense of commonality, however uncomfortable it may be. Remember, after all, the words of Terence, which were inscribed upon the ceiling of the great essayist Montaigne: ‘I am a man: nothing human is foreign to me.’
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Taboo Or Not Taboo, That Is The Question
UNCAGE ME is the follow-up to 2007’s EXPLETIVE DELETED, being a collection of short stories about taboos and the breaking thereof, and edited by the ultra-glam Jen Jordan (right). Among the very fine writers contributing are Scott Phillips, Allan Guthrie, J.D. Rhoades, Simon Kernick, Patrick Bagley, Tim Maleeny, Nick Stone, Martyn Waites and Maxim Jakubowski. It also features a thoughtful piece by John Connolly in its introduction, in which JC muses at length about the history and nature of transgression. To wit: