Offending the Reader
I had myself down as a tough-minded reader, after fifteen years of researching and teaching modern French literature, one who could contemplate any sort of catastrophic scenario without flinching. I’d read my way through Holocaust texts and trench warfare, through disease, hysteria and massacre, through unstable states of mind and heart-rending tragedy. And then I found myself one day sitting in my peaceful college rooms, reading the account of a young male protagonist, who sets out to explore a forbidden island ruled by a beautiful but savage princess, lands on the island, encounters a ferocious guard dog and… enters into an unnatural sexual act with it. I realised I was holding the book at arm’s length, regarding it with one eye closed and shouting “No! Make it stop!” So much for my readerly sangfroid. I could take bodies in most states of depredation, but show me a man engaged in oral sex with a dog and I suddenly found the limit of my endurance.
The novel was a cult classic, Le Château de Cène by Bernard Noël, and I was reading it for a book about pornography I was working on with a colleague from the university. The project had grown out of a graduate research seminar we’d given on feminism. Our discussion had turned to the notable number of texts and films coming out in contemporary French culture that borrowed pornographic tropes, and it occurred to us that there was this significant mass of provocative and disturbing material out there that no one was really talking about. I readily agreed to do the book, and it was only over the course of the following year that the full implications of what I’d let myself in for became apparent.
It is tricky to profess an interest — even an academic one — in sexual matters. The university environment can be deceptive, in that topics may be raised there that would not find favour in general conversation. At work I could casually toss the bombshell of my latest research topic into the mix without raising an eyebrow. Outside of work, I felt very differently. It took me months, for instance, to confess to my mother what I was working on. This struck me as odd, because graphic sex has become a familiar component of most literature and film, and yet the word pornography triggers an instant movement of recoil. What was a nice girl like me doing in a literary minefield like that? Pornography is not an innocent genre; it’s a form of sexual practice for lonely people without partners. Or it’s the province of the pervert, leering over lewd and disgusting acts that would offend all decent-thinking people. Or else it’s simply an endless procession of bump and grind about which nothing can be said.
It was the uncertain borderline between what was permissible and what was not, what writers could say and what readers would hear, and how we negotiated it that held me…
Revulsion, curiosity, disgust, boredom, titillation, the range of responses to obscene material is surprisingly broad. Yet literary pornography is often aiming somewhere quite different. Take the book I was so horrified by, Le Château de Cène. Bernard Noël wrote it with a purely political purpose in mind, after experiencing trauma whilst serving in the Algerian war, and attending a freedom rally that was broken up by riot police. Like many other French intellectuals, Noël believed that political action began at the level of language, with the evasion of the internal thought police. The outrage he felt could be better expressed by violent transgression into shocking areas of expression, than by lodging a complaint. Noel was taken to court on charges of obscenity, and wrote, in a justification of his book, that the only genuine response he could make at the trial would be to defecate before the judge. He wanted to bring the messy, visceral, animalistic reality of the body back into the public arena, because pushing it aside as impolite enabled collusion with all kinds of political repressions. A group of people can be less guiltily suppressed if we discount their flesh and blood humanity or if we think of them as disgusting and uncivilised. And thus, revolution may be served by the revolting.
So this was what I was interested in, what drew me to thinking about pornographic texts: I was interested in the way that certain representations refused to let people off the hook, forced them to reconsider knee-jerk responses that were purely orthodox or clichéd. Sexuality is an interesting arena in this respect, at once plundered to the point of exhaustion in stories, and yet still capable of sending shockwaves through the reader. It was the uncertain borderline between what was permissible and what was not, what writers could say and what readers would hear, and how we negotiated it that held me intrigued.
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