“Pushing the limits of the readable”

I have been waiting to lose sleep over one of our readings. Samuel R. Delany’s Hogg was responsible for a rather sleepless night. It was not so much the disturbing and sometimes frightening content that energized me; it was caused more by a question that I have been carrying with me over the past couple of weeks. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl helped me to formulate it. Tim Dean’s “The Erotics of Transgression” caused it to overflow. Delany’s Hogg provided the perfect case study.

How do we deal with literature that pushes the limits of the readable? Transgressive art possesses the ability to explore and push boundaries that one is unable to broach in real life without consequences. Dean writes, “literary representation… has the capacity to bring us into contact with matters that otherwise would remain untouched, indeed, untouchable… Literature, like sex, is not always safe. The risk of transgressive literature,” he continues, is “that it may expose the self to extreme boundary violation [which] is the source of its erotic power” (78). It is an internal voyeurism that compels individuals to approach this literature in which the unknown becomes so appealing.

Almost the entire body of literature we have explored this quarter couples transgression with sexuality. Dean explains, “transgression is bound up with sexuality,” and that eroticism, “remains inextricable from transgression” (68-9). According to Dean, “transgression involves violating not so much rules or social conventions, but, more precisely, taboos. It is far from a matter of inconsequence to transgress something that one regards as taboo, since taboos radiate a genuinely aversive power,” (70). If we were to explore the “taboo” through a wider, more inclusive lens, would our understanding of transgression in literature change?

I would like to reflect on the more terrifying side of transgression, such as murder, genocide, torture, mutilation, and non-romanticized depictions of rape. If explorations of transgression were to expand to include more a truly more offensive and terrifying taboos, how would theories of transgression shift? Would Foucault’s metaphorical spiral hold up, or do some limits, even after the death of God, simply not move? Perhaps they even retract to encompass more rigid and conservative interpretations of the limits. How would our class discussions change if we were confronted with literature that explores truly unimaginable horror? I would just like to add that I’m really, really glad our class materials do not encompass these topics!!!

Delany’s Hogg does to some extent broach this question. One of the main protagonists is a serial rapist, who surrounds himself in a coterie of fellow serial rapists and sociopaths. The depiction of the rape that we read for today is violent and terrifying, unlikely to arouse most readers. But this rape is presented as a larger part of a story about Hogg’s and the narrator’s transgressive sexuality. The presentation of the rape is not really about rape from the perspective of the victim, but of an acquaintance of Hogg. The victim is raped as a form of punishment (reasons that remain unknown), is dismissed as a lesbian by Hogg, and left broken and bleeding in the street.

In response to Hogg, Dean suggests, “Scenes of violence and rape, require us to confront the politics and ethics of the literature of transgression. Given that murder, rape and incest have been central to literary representation since the ancient Greeks, it cannot be a question of whether the depiction of these acts is permissible but of how their depiction is framed” (77). Dean underscores a main issue, acknowledging a major conflict between transgressive literature and ethics. One way to negotiate this tension relates to framing and reception.

Dean addresses the importance of distance between the act and the audience. Distance has the potential to determine if one feels implicated in the acts described: the audience has the potential to feel either horrified, or horrified and aroused all at once (78). Throughout most of the class, the literature we confronted deals with transgression in a way that affords us a degree of removal and comfort, an ability to identify with the subject, and the freedom to explore our own ideas about the topic. But what then do we do with literature in which there is no ability to identify or commiserate with the action being described (torture, murder, mutilation)? What happens to a work’s reception when the divide between the literature and the audience is too great to be breached?

Ultimately, reception is subjective and every individual receives a text in his or her own way. But I think it would be worthwhile to explore reception as part of a winder consideration of transgression, the limits of the readable, and the ethics of producing art that has the potential to cause harm. Early in the article, Dean laments the exhaustion of the category of transgression in literary studies (66). I think a turn away from sexual transgression, transgressive sexualities, and the erotic toward texts whose material is so transgressive that it is rendered unreadable could provide a new and refreshing conversation about art, boundaries, and ethics.

– Madame Oshey



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