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Violent Transgressions: Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange”

“I first published the novella A Clockwork Orange in 1962, which out to be far enough in the past for it to be erased from the world’s literary memory. [ . . . ] I should myself be glad to disown it for various reasons, but this is not permitted.” (Burgess ix)

 Burgess 2

 So Anthony Burgess’s begins his introduction to his most widely read – though apparently somewhat unendorsed – work, A Clockwork Orange. Taking a grudging responsibility for the book, Burgess cites Stanley Kubrick’s film version as the reason for the enduring fame of what was meant to be a more offhand work of art. In fact, Burgess considers A Clockwork Orange “too didactic to be artistic,” a statement that I will address more fully later in this presentation (xiv). Despite the dismissive remarks, the novel remains a compelling work of transgressive literature. Published in 1963, A Clockwork Orange depicts a near-future society overrun by young gangs who commit violence and sex crimes at night. Alex, the protagonist of the story, leads one such gang on a merry rampage through the city, alternately beating and raping the victims they come across and causing general mayhem. According to Burgess, the premise for the novel was inspired partly by the delinquency of 1950s and 1960s Britain, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and the rise of the science fiction genre at the time. On his motivations for writing the novel, Burgess says in an interview:

“I heard talk in the 1960s of the possibility of getting these young thugs, and not putting them in jail – because jail is needed for professional criminals – but rather putting them through a course of conditioning. Turning them in effect to clockwork oranges: no longer organisms full of sweetness and color and light like oranges, but machines. I feared this, and that’s why I wrote the novel. I feared the possibility that the state was all too ready to take over our brains and turn us into good little citizens without the power of choice.”

The “clockwork orange” acts as Burgess’ metaphor throughout the book. A human, however deplorable and however immoral, is an orange full of the sweetness, color, and light that comes with agency and free will. Take that agency away and the human becomes inorganic: a machine, with no ability to determine his own life. That the state could turn humans into “clockwork” is the concern that drives the novel.

Burgess’ narrative is written from Alex’s first-person point of view, a voice Burgess himself describes as “supremely confident, absolutely cold-blooded, yet with a strong sense of irony and humor” (Anthony Burgess Speaks ii).


This mix of reproachable morals with charismatic liveliness renders Alex a truly conflicting character: while readers are disgusted by his actions, they also find themselves laughing with him or sympathizing with his plight. When Alex is captured by police, jailed to the point of boredom, and finally put into a mysterious rehabilitation program, for instance, his young, dynamic voice engages readers in the ups and downs of his imprisonment. The crux of the novel, perhaps, comes in the rehabilitation program. There, the state’s new scientific, quasi-psychological procedure ensures that Alex can never choose to commit crime again. In divesting him of the ability to make moral choices for himself, the plot taps into the anxieties around excessive state control, engineering human consciousness, and the state of individuality in an scientifically progressive society. These themes prompt the Norton edition of the novel to market Burgess story as the “frightening fable about good and evil, and the meaning of human freedom” (xii). Good and evil, individual and state, and choice and compulsion all lay at the heart of the novel’s intellectual thrust. Burgess’ motivating stance against excessive government control over individuals – specifically young delinquents like those in 1950s Britain – orients his novel in favor of individual freedom. With his murdering, raping protagonist, then, Burgess pushes audiences to confront – and even support – an extreme case of human freedom in action.

Here, I will examine three specific aspects of the story in order to develop my own view on the novel’s transgressive work. First, Burgess’ portrayal of morality throughout the text: specifically the biological, bodied understanding of moral inclination he develops. Second, his use of language – and the process of language acquisition – as a means of indoctrinating readers into the social psychology of the characters in the novel. And finally, I will return to Burgess’ preface and examine the claim that the novel is, in fact, “didactic.” I will explore how understanding the novel as having a moral lesson affects our perception of it as a transgressive work of art.

In Clockwork Orange, Burgess understands moral conscience not as universal or rational but as tied to an individual’s biology. See the conversation between Alex and his doctor at the rehabilitation center. The doctors have just forced Alex to watch a series of violent films after injecting him with a drug mixture that makes him feel sick to watch them.

‘Of course it was horrible,’ smiled Dr. Branom. ‘Violence is a very horrible thing. That’s what you’re learning now. Your body is learning it.’ [ . . . ]

‘But,’ I said. ‘I don’t understand. I don’t understand about feeling sick like I did. I never used to feel sick before. I used to feel like the very opposite. I mean, doing it or watching it I used to feel real horrowshow.’ (121)

That Alex’s body is learning rather than his mind speaks to the biological rather than rational understanding of moral behavior here. In Burgess’ novel, a character can be presented with all the rational arguments and theology in the world (certainly the prison priests use this method), but moral decision in the end will be based on bodily principles of “sickness” and “feeling” rather than truth or religion. The consequences of locating the moral compass in the body rather than the mind means that good and bad become arbitrary labels for a deeper, more convincing impulse: pleasure and pain. Alex naturally feels “horrowshow” (slang for great, energized, or joyful) when engaging with violence. Raping and beating, violence and mayhem give him a visceral bodily pleasure. When raping the two young girls that follow him home to his apartment, for instance, Alex narrates his experience in these following words:  “ . . . then the lovely blissful tune all about Joy being a glorious spark like of heaven, and then I felt the old tigers leap in me and then I leapt on these two young ptitsas” (51). With tigers leaping and Joy playing in the background, the scene carries an unmistakable enjoyment in what traditional morality would find repulsive. Burgess’ biological orientation of morality, then, has the effect of transcending traditional moral systems by seeming to transcend the rational (or controllable) all together. The compulsion of the body takes over everything. It renders the traditionally “bad” in fact tangibly “good” and the traditionally “good” into something undesirable.

It makes sense, then, that Alex laughs when journalists fret over the epidemic of “badness” in youth. See his reaction to the newspaper: “This biting of their toe-nails over what is the cause of badness is what turns me into a fine laughing malchick. They don’t go into what is the cause of goodness, so why of the other shop?” (44). He mocks the journalists who fret over immorality. Alex, by contrast, accepts the inclination towards badness – like the inclination towards goodness – as natural: not a mistake, problem, or mental malformation. As such, Clockwork Orange presents a transgressive view of morality that defies conventional moral education or religious tradition. Rather than understanding humans as inherently inclined toward rational moral principles, Alex and the novel reveal these principles to be arbitrary. They are reducible to words, which are themselves insubstantial next to the natural, biological inclinations of the body. Consequently, a person like Alex can not only be inclined towards crime, but relish it – and have that be a normal, even supportable state of being.

Language is also a central experience of reading A Clockwork Orange. Using a combination of Slavic and deconstructed English words, Alex and his friends develop a slang called Nadsat. It sounds like this:

Online tutorials on the language have also been made:

While tutorials like the one above define the words they use, no such glossary or dictionary appears in the book. Instead, the reader undergoes a process of language acquisition, whereby she learns Alex’s slang over the course of the story, simply by hearing him speak. In The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work, Rosenblatt develops a relevant notion of “efferent” reading. Efferent reading, she argues, is an interpretive methodology in which readers derive something “materially” from the reading experience (like a language skill) (52). Rosenblatt devotes attention specifically to verbal “symbols” in literature and how they might contribute information, concepts, and guides-to-action that the reader is left with once the book is over (27). Borrowing her idea of material gain, then, I argue that the language-learning process of Clockwork Orange gives its readers a unique kind of “information” and set of “concepts.” See, for instance, a moment from Alex’s narrative: “There were real oozhassny animal type vecks among them, one with his nose all ate away and his rot open like a big black hole. [ . . . ] One of them made a jump on to my back, and I had a real nasty bit of drasting with him.” (78) Several words here – oozhassny, veck, rot, drasting – are either used in an unfamiliar way or are not part of standard English at all. Still, by reading the context of the scene, it is possible to discern the broader connotative meaning of each word. Oozhassny, for instance, is paired with “animal,” triggering the association between the two and giving oozhassny an animalistic, bestial meaning. Similarly, Alex has a “drasting” with a man after being jumped. The aggressive move that provokes the word, along with the accompanying description of “nasty,” leads to the assumption that “drasting” means a kind of fight or beating. A reader would pick up on these vague meanings and the narrative, by using them repetitively, can then reinforce and confirm (or change and adjust) the reader’s intuitions. The two work in tandem to inculcate the reader with a new, functional vocabulary.

That these words can only be defined contextually and connotatively – via vague associations and assumptions – is important. In such a mode, language can resist the more oppressive, structured mode of institutional or state language. There is no “official” definition, so to speak, of the words Alex uses – instead their meanings can only be gleaned from casual, on-the-ground use between friends. David Sisk argues that this slang therefore gives Alex and his crew a space of linguistic freedom from a more conditioned society (Sisk 280). I argue, however, that in building this space independent of society, Alex’s language has an additional effect: it renders the reader complicit in this alternative social community. Note that to understand the language Alex uses, the reader must engage with it in an active, interpretive way. This strain toward understanding, then, inherently involves a strain toward inclusion: as the reader learns the language and acclimates to Alex’s slang, she inadvertently becomes a member of his linguistic circle. As such, not only does the reader experience a sense of connection with the narrator, she, like Alex, resists the more conditioned state of society. On a subconscious, linguistic level, then, A Clockwork Orange draws its readers into the transgressive agenda of its narrator.

Finally, the author’s introduction to the novel deserves addressing. Anthony Burgess claims there that A Clockwork Orange carries a moral lesson, and that it is “too didactic to be artistic” (xiv). In fact, one of his heaviest grievances against Stanley Kubrick’s film is the way it leaves out the last chapter where Alex exhibits some redemptive qualities. In Burgess’ words: “[In chapter 21] my young hoodlum comes to the revelation of the need to get something done in life – to marry, to beget children, to keep the orange of the world turning in the rookers of Bog, or hands of God” (xii). Alex’s moral revelation at the end takes his radical behavior of the past and funnels it into a life of social acceptability in the future. He wants a family, a wife, even a child, and finds himself bored with the mayhem of his youth. According to Burgess, this transformation is what gives the novel its claim to being “genuine fiction,” for it shows “the possibility of moral transformation” (xii). But assuming moral transformation, or wisdom, or redemption is what makes a novel “genuine” represents a view that harkens back to somebody like Matthew Arnold. Arnold, after all, was a key Victorian proponent of the belief that the value of art lay in its ability to affect moral or social improvement in the viewer (Arnold 7). In a strange double move, then, Burgess ascribes to an Arnold-esque didacticism while also refusing it – in that he admits that his novel cannot be called “artistic” because of this very morality.

As a work of literature, then, A Clockwork Orange becomes transgressive in its treatment of language, morality, and individual freedom but more conventional in its overall “moral message.” Interestingly, however, if one took the author’s introduction out of the picture, the so-called moral ending can be interpreted differently. Alex’s conversion could be read as disingenuous or simply as unbelievable. While author’s interpretation may be the most authoritative, there is room in every work of art to reconsider its meaning – as Kubrick does – in one’s own interpretive light. In spite of Burgess, then, Clockwork Orange, may be “artistic” after all.



Works Cited

“Anthony Burgess Discusses A Clockwork Orange,” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 12 September 2010. Web. 23 May 2014.

“Anthony Burgess Speaks: 1972 (ii),” Online video clip, YouTube. YouTube, 15 February 2011. Web. 23 May 21, 2014.

Arnold, Matthew. Culture and Anarchy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960. Print.

Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1986. Print.

“Clockwork Orange Dissent among droogs,” Online video clip, YouTube. YouTube, 16 January 2013. Web. 24 May 2014.

Davis, Todd, and Kenneth Womack. “‘O My Brothers’: Reading the Anti-Ethics of the Pseudo-Family in Anthony Burgess’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’” College Literature 29.2 (2002): 19-36. JSTOR. Web. 24 May 2014.

“Nadsat,” Online video clip, YouTube. YouTube, 15 November 2011. Web. 24 May 2014.

Rosenblatt, Louise M. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1978. Print.

Sisk, David W. Transformations of Language in Modern Dystopias, Westport: Greenwood, 1997. Print.

“The Ludovico Technique,” Online video clip, YouTube. YouTube, 27 October 2013. Web. 24 May 2014.




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Death in Venice: Art as Transformation, Destruction

First published in 1912, Death in Venice represents one of Thomas Mann’s most widely read and highly acclaimed texts. In this presentation, I begin by  providing  a brief summary of the main text. I then give context for Mann’s conception of the novella, as well as sources of inspiration for the main characters, Aschenbach and Tadzio. I then discuss the critical reception of the novel upon its publication. Next, I move towards my own interpretation of the text, focusing on three central themes: Mann’s use of classical imagery, Mann’s incorporation of the Apollonian/Dionysian framework, and Mann’s creation of counterfactual narrative. I argue that each represents a transgressive act, ultimately revealing the simultaneously transformative and destructive nature of art.


Gustav von Aschenbach is a renowned German author, with acetic tendencies. After a chance encounter with a curious looking stranger in a cemetery, Aschenbach is filled with an inexplicable wanderlust. Aschenbach decides that the cold Munich air does little for his health and resolves to seek warmer climes. After a brief stopover along the Adriatic (in what is now Croatia), which he finds unsatisfactory, Aschenbach continues on towards Venice. Aschenbach seeks passage aboard an ancient Italian steamer and once on deck, begins to take stock of the few other travelers accompanying him. He notices a group of rowdy men eager to begin their voyage to Venice, but quickly becomes disgusted when he realizes that the most jovial among them is in fact an old man disguised in a young man’s garb—he wears makeup, a wig, and dentures to give the illusion of youth. This disruption of social order troubles Aschenbach, but his mind soon turns to other matters.

When Aschenbach finally arrives in Venice, he hires a gondolier to take him to the pier, where he will catch a vaporetto out to the island of Lido, a popular resort destination just outside the city proper. However, the gondolier—who bears resemblance to the stranger from the cemetery—heads for open water, demanding payment, and insisting that he is rowing well. Aschenbach inwardly panics, imagining the gondolier as Charon, the ferryman of the dead, while outwardly refusing to compensate the rogue gondolier.

Aschenbach eventually arrives at the Grand Hôtel des Bains; he sets up his suite and heads to dinner. In the lobby, Aschenbach observes the other hotel patrons, noticing a Polish family with an aristocratic air about them. He quickly dismisses the governess and three daughters—dour and dressed in black—as uninteresting, but becomes captivated with the youngest child, a fourteen year old boy in a sailor suit with classical features: long, curling golden hair, delicate nose and lips, slender hands, an ivory complexion. Later, at the beach, Aschenbach is able to discern his name—Tadzio—from his friends’ cries.

The Lido, Venice


Aschenbach spends his days observing Tadzio at the beach, in the hotel, occasionally making eye contact, but never outright engaging with him. Despite Tadzio’s charms, Aschenbach finds the Venice climate to be oppressive and decides to leave, but after a mishap with his luggage, returns to the Hôtel des Bains and resolves to stay for the rest of the season. He realizes that he cannot part with Tadzio; he is utterly changed.

Aschenbach becomes more obsessive, watching Tadzio play at the beach each morning, then following him through the streets of Venice in the afternoons. This proves to be a relatively easy task as Venice is strangely empty—the scent of germicidal hangs in the air and rumors of disease percolate throughout the city. In the midst of this torrid climate, Aschenbach abandons his asceticism in favor of passion; in one climactic scene he declares his love for Tadzio, with only the wind as his audience. Nevertheless, his relationship with Tadzio is always from a distance; it remains chaste. Aschenbach, in his attempts to woo Tadzio, decides that he must ameliorate his physical appearance. He visits the Hôtel barber, who dyes Aschenbach’s gray hair to a lustrous black and applies rouge to his cheeks to simulate a youthful glow. Aschenbach has now become the parody of vitality he once so greatly despised.

Aschenbach continues to follow Tadzio and his family throughout Venice in this new guise. One day, he loses them in the labyrinthine city, and, overcome with heat and exhaustion, decides to buy some overripe strawberries from a street vendor. Aschenbach sits on the steps of the well, contemplating his fall from grace and the destructive force of beauty. He eventually returns to the hotel, where his health suffers a turn for the worse. A few days later, Aschenbach hears that the Polish family plans to leave in the evening. Aschenbach heads for the beach and finds Tadzio unaccompanied; he watches him from his usual chair, and at one point, Tadzio turns to look at him, almost beckoning him to the water. Aschenbach tries to rise, but slumps over sideways instead. His body is found minutes later, a victim of cholera. Aschenbach is respectfully mourned as a literary master, his audience unaware of his slow descent into degeneracy.


In his memoir, Thomas Mann states, “Nothing in Death in Venice is invented.” This reveals the novella to be a deeply personal work for Mann, often inspired by true events or real people around him. In 1911, Mann, along with his wife, Katia, and his brother, Heinrich, traveled to Venice, where they stayed at the Hôtel des Bains in the Lido (Shookman 42). Their holiday was cut short by an outbreak of cholera, and though they escaped unscathed, they were somewhat delayed by Heinrich’s lost luggage (Shookman 42). Furthermore, it was at the Hôtel des Bains where Mann became captivated with a young boy that would eventually serve as the model for Tadzio in Death in Venice. Katia Mann, in her novel, Unwritten Memories, states:

“In the dining-room, on the very first day, we saw the Polish family, which looked exactly the way my husband described them: the girls were dressed rather stiffly and severely, and the very charming, beautiful boy of about 13 was wearing a sailor suit with an open collar and very pretty lacings. He caught my husband’s attention immediately. This boy was tremendously attractive, and my husband was always watching him with his companions on the beach. He didn’t pursue him through all of Venice—that he didn’t do—but the boy did fascinate him, and he thought of him often.”

In 1964, Tadzio was identified as the Baron Władysław Moes. Moes—then known as Władzio or Adziohad vacationed in the Lido with his family in May of 1911, approximately the same time as Mann. After Mann’s death, Moes approached Mann’s Polish translator, Andrzej Dołęgowski, with the story, as well as photographs, as evidence (Kitcher 215, Luke xliv). In fact, Moes recalls playing on the beaches of the Lido while an “old man” looked at him (Luke xliv).

A young Władysław Moes

Aschenbach, in contrast, is a composite character; he is patterned on number of German artists, including Goethe and Mahler. Mann originally conceived Death in Venice as a novella about “passion as confusion and degradation,” where a highly respected author would lose his dignity by falling in love with a wildly younger individual. Mann was largely inspired by the seventy-four year old Goethe’s failed attempts to woo the Baroness Ulrike von Levetzow, who at the time was only seventeen (Reed 7). The baroness would eventually reject Goethe’s advances, leaving him heartbroken. In response, Goethe began to write the Marienbad Elegy, one of his most personal and moving works.

Mann would go on to base Aschenbach’s physical appearance—as well as his first name—on the famed composer Gustav Mahler. Manndescribes Aschenbach as follows:

“Gustav von Aschenbach was of somewhat less than medium height, dark, and clean-shaven. The head seemed a bit too large for the almost dainty physique. The hair, brushed back, was thin at the crown but very thick and gray at the temples and framed a high, rugged, scarred-looking forehead. The gold frame of the rimless spectacles cut into the root of a strong, nobly aquiline nose” (22).

Mahler tragically died on May 18, 1911. Mann, who was on his Venetian holiday at the time, learned of Mahler’s death from the Austrian newspapers (Luke xliii). Mann had met Mahler right before the vacation and held him in high regard (Luke xliii). His sudden death grieved Mann, but it would come to inform how Mann conceptualized the death of the artist, as well as how the public perceives an artist at their time of death. These would be taken up as important themes in Death in Venice.

Gustav Mahler


Mann was initially afraid that Death in Venice would come under censure for its themes of homosexuality; he worried that he had produced something “absurd and forbidden” (Reed 15). These concerns proved to be unfounded: Aschenbach’s feelings towards Tadzio were safely couched in Platonic terms. Though some audiences critiqued the idea of homosexuality in the novella (some read Aschenbach’s death as the proper punishment for his decadent proclivities), Mann was not considered to be advocating same-sex relations—the “elevated style,” “noble tone,” and “tragic ending” distanced Mann from his character (Reed 16). Mann later called Death in Venice a “moral fable,” trying to establish a clear cut right and wrong (Reed 16).

Though Death in Venice was not banned or censored in the way Mann feared, it was not an outright critical success either. Though some compared Mann’s carefully constructed, elevated style to Flaubert, others found it overwrought and artificial (Reed 16). D.H. Lawrence complained that the novella lacked “the rhythm of a living thing,” while Alfred Kerr contended that it had no “real” creativity, no “life” (Reed 16). Mann’s style was later interpreted as “classical” instead of innovative and deeply psychological (Reed 17). Mann was upset that his shorter, more immediately personal works, like Death in Venice or Tonio Kröger, never received the same critical appreciation that his larger works, like Buddenbrooks or Doctor Faustus,did.  

Thus, it is interesting to consider the fact that the only meaningful contemporary critiques of Death of Venice are engaged at the formal level, but rarely in terms of content—that is, they do not address the transgressive themes of homosexuality, art, and decadence latent in the novella.

Phaedrus: Classical Allusion in Death in Venice

Throughout Death in Venice, Aschenbach engages with Tadzio on an intellectual level; even at the height of his passion, Aschenbach uses classical images and symbols to articulate his relationship with the young boy. Though Mann relies on classical tropes to portray homoerotic love, I argue that they are able to conceal a deeper, more subversive message emphasizing the necessary, yet destructive nature of art. In this way, these classical images are transformed from standard to transgressive. At the same time, I suggest that by utilizing classical allusions to represent his characters, Mann equivalates Aschenbach and Tadzio’s tragic relationship with canonic Greek figures, in a sense, immortalizing them as well.

Aschenbach conceptualizes his relationship with Tadzio as that of lover-beloved, following in the Greek tradition best exemplified by Socrates. Though Aschenbach cannot directly engage with Tadzio, he imagines conversation with Tadzio as a Platonic dialogue, where he is Socrates, and Tadzio is Phaedrus. In this way, Aschenbach is able to engage in radical critical theory about art. Aschenbach, addressing Tadzio as Phaedrus, states, “beauty alone is at once desirable and visible: it is, mark my words, the only form of the spiritual we can receive through our senses” (84). Aschenbach contends that beauty is the only method by which we are able to access any sense of transcendence. In this way, beauty is necessary for growth, and art is what allows us to restructure our lives.

But at the same time, Aschenbach knows beauty to be dangerous. While consuming the fatal strawberries, Aschenbach returns to his imagined dialogue with Tadzio-as-Phaedrus. In this passage, Aschenbach argues that the poet inevitably goes astray: neither knowledge nor beauty can save the artist from the abyss. As Aschenbach states, “form and innocence…lead to intoxication and desire” (137). Here, Aschenbach doubly refers to the nature of art, as well as his relationship with Tadzio. Though the beautiful object—here, either art or Tadzio—appears “innocent” and innocuous in form, it has the latent power to corrupt and destroy those who are entranced by it.

Aschenbach’s further allusions to classical figures serves to elevate his relationship with Tadzio. Aschenbach refers to Tadzio as Cleitus, Cephalus, Orion, Hyacinth, Narcissus, all young, beautiful boys in Greek mythology (90, 90, 90, 92, 95). Furthermore, they all have tragic connotations, signaling Aschenbach’s ultimately failed relationship with Tadzio. By equating Tadzio with these mythological characters, and Aschenbach as his counterpart, Mann makes a move to place them in a larger literary-historical cannon. Aschenbach’s love for Tadzio is as epic as that of Zephyrus’ or Apollo’s for Hyacinth. At the most fundamental, Mann expands the limit to allow Aschenbach and Tadzio to participate in this classical canon; I argue that this is a transgressive act in and of itself.

Strangergod: Aschenbach and the Apollonian/Dionysian Dialectic

In Death in Venice, Mann chronicles Aschenbach’s “moral” degradation and eventual destruction. However, I want to argue that here, morality is much more nuanced; it is never a question of whether Aschenbach’s feelings for Tadzio are right or wrong, but rather an issue of how they affect his role as an artist. In order to highlight this distinction, Mann relies on Nietzsche’s concepts of the Apollonian and Dionysian psyches. These two different approaches to art and life provide the main tension in the novella.

When we are introduced to Aschenbach at the beginning of the novella, we learn that he is a highly respected author, admired by both lay and erudite audiences. Aschenbach lives a solitary life, dedicated to his craft, guided by “reason” and “self-discipline” (8). Aschenbach “[starts] each day early by dashing cold water over his chest and back; then…he would spend two or three fervent, conscientious hours offering up to art the strength he had garnered in sleep” (15). Aschenbach undertakes this acetic lifestyle for the sake of his work. We understand that Aschenbach can only produce art through “caution, prudence, tenacity, and precision of will,” and that his discipline is reflected in his style; Aschenbach writes in a “limpid, powerful” prose (1, 11). This is further substantiated in Mann’s style, which at this point remains metered, detached.

This early Aschenbach can thus be viewed as the form of the Apollonian; Aschenbach is motivated by diligence and reason. In Aschenbach’s Apollonian state, the epitome of art is represented through St. Sebastian, the Christian martyr. For Aschenbach, Sebastian exemplifies “composure in the face of destiny and equanimity in the face of torture,” which Aschenbach considers the highest artistic achievement (17). In this Sebastian example, it becomes evident that art bleeds into life (Sebastian’s sacrifice is expressed nobly, and thus artistically) and life becomes art (Sebastian’s life becomes worthy of veneration through artistic representation); there is no easy distinction. Nevertheless, Aschenbach’s Sebastian example maintains the moral status quo: art is uplifting, ennobling, didactic.

However, when Aschenbach sees Tadzio for the first time, his artistic outlook is completely and irrevocably changed. Aschenbach begins to relax, to be able to enjoy himself, while he was not able to previously (even when on vacation). Now, at the Grand Hôtel, “the days flow past in blissful idleness, effortless, free of strife” (77). Aschenbach spends the majority of his time observing Tadzio at play. The effect is intoxicating: he experiences “a rush of ecstasy” as he “gazed upon beauty itself” (82). Aschenbach is inspired to create art, but in a new way; he “longed…to model his writing on the boy’s physique, to let his style follow the lines of that body, which he saw as godlike, and bear that beauty to the realm of intellect” (85). Aschenbach has abandoned his “limpid” prose for the lyrical; this change is subtly mirrored in Mann’s style as well.

Yet, unlike Sebastian, Tadzio is not an uplifting subject. After Aschenbach composes a short essay of “sublime prose”—just a page and a half—dedicated to Tadzio, he feels completely spent, “as if his conscience were reproaching him after a debauch” (86). Thus, Aschenbach has transitioned into the Dionysian, a chaotic world based on emotion and primordial instinct. Aschenbach comes to realize that words are insufficient to express the profundity of Tadzio’s beauty. Nevertheless, Aschenbach remains a faithful worshipper. In an episode at the beach, Tadzio smiles at Aschenbach; fervently overcome, Aschenbach proclaims his love for the boy, an “impossible…absurd, perverse, ridiculous, and sacred…even venerable” act (96). Aschenbach’s feelings for Tadzio are completely irrational; he has been totally consumed by his passion.

Aschenbach’s obsession with Tadzio leads to his inevitable, decadent downfall. In a climactic moment, Aschenbach dreams he is participating in a bacchanalia replete with dancing women, tambourines and flutes, and sacrificial offerings to what he can only describe as the “strangergod,” made manifest as a gigantic phallic wooden statue (126). Aschenbach is repulsed, but ultimately, his soul “savored the debauchery and delirium of doom” (127). Aschenbach is totally subsumed by the Dionysian. In this, Mann challenges our conception of art as edification. Through Aschenbach, Mann shows that art is necessary for life, but it is also dangerous; it is transformative, but also destructive. Thus, I argue that Mann’s conception of art is transgressive at its core. Nevertheless, to avoid Aschenbach’s fate, we must consider if and how the Apollonian and Dionysian instincts can ever be reconciled.

Mann as Nietzschean Hero-Author

It is apparent that Mann was heavily influenced by the works of Friedrich Nietzsche. However, I want to argue that Death in Venice counts as a transgressive, Nietzschean work of art in and of itself. Mann envisions Death in Venice as a counterfactual narrative to his life, one in which he is free to engage in his latent homoerotic desires, as an adapted exercise of Nietzsche’s doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same.

Though Mann was married, and by all means had a successful family, he struggled to express his homosexual desire throughout his life. Therefore, Mann used art as a means to explore this identity. Mann was familiar with Nietzschean doctrine, and would have been aware of the concept of Eternal Recurrence, which Nietzsche explores in TheGay Science. In the Eternal Recurrence, Nietzsche challenges readers to imagine living out their life ad infinitum. For those who love their life, this would be the greatest blessing; for those that hate it, the greatest curse. Thus, Nietzsche’s challenge is to be able to structure your life so that you may always be able to endorse it. But when there are elements that cannot be reconciled, Nietzsche advocates adopting an artist’s perspective—through art, your life may be redeemed.

In Death in Venice, Mann is able to recreate his encounter with the young boy he observed on the beaches of the Lido. Through the narrative, Mann is able to draw out these interactions to their fullest logical extent; he is able to dictate precisely how and when they come together, what kind of words or looks they might exchange, what feelings they may go apart with. Though Mann has full authorial privilege, it is interesting that he chooses for Aschenbach and Tadzio’s relationship to remain intellectual, unconsummated—not only in the physical sense, but also in the sense that they never actually talk in the novella; there is no external manifestation of feeling; it all remains interior, psychological.

Here, Mann may be working within his own limit; it may be enough for him to establish the kind of Socratic lover-beloved relationship he ascribes to Aschenbach and Tadzio. The possibility of enacting same-sex desire may beyond the bounds Mann is willing to transgress. Nevertheless, Mann’s act of placing himself within the text (as Aschenbach, and at the same time, not-Aschenbach, since Aschenbach is, again, a composite character) is utterly transgressive and transformative.




Thanks to ALA for discussing my ideas with me.



Berlin, Jeffrey B, and Richard H Lawson. Approaches to Teaching Mann’s Death In Venice and Other Short Fiction. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1992.

Kitcher, Philip. Deaths In Venice: the Cases of Gustav Von Aschenbach. New York: Columbia, 2013 .

Luke, David. Introduction. Death in Venice and Other Stories. New York: Bantam Classics, 1988. viii-lxvi.  

Mann, Thomas, and Michael Henry Heim. Death In Venice. New York: Ecco, 2004.

Reed, T. J. Death In Venice : Making and Unmaking a Master. New York: Twayne Publishers , 1994.

Shookman, Ellis. Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice : a Reference Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004.


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Art and Transgression in The Kreutzer Sonata

The Kreutzer Sonata by Lev Tolstoy

I invite my audience to begin by listening to the composition that inspired The Kreutzer Sonata (1889) by Lev Tolstoy. The music itself acts as a driving force in the novel, demonstrating the emotive power of art to evoke unnatural sensations within its audience. Art, replete with sensual stimuli, possesses the power to move individuals beyond the bounds of acceptable behavior. According to Tolstoy, art itself is inherently transgressive and should be reconceptualized for the betterment of society. These are a few of the meta-level issues Tolstoy grapples with in The Kreutzer Sonata and the attached essay, “A Sequel to The Kreutzer Sonata.” But the novel also deals with questions of transgression on a more local level. Tolstoy weaves together a story of sexual debauchery, marriage, jealousy, adultery, and murder as a way to convey the values he espoused later in life after his “spiritual crisis.” Much of Sonata and the essay that follows is an articulation of a Tolstoyan doctrine, encouraging his contemporaries to follow the example of Christ (not to be confused with ideas espouses by a corrupt Church and clergy). The end product is a straightforward, yet somewhat ambiguous expression of Tolstoy’s own personal anxieties and worldview.


In the Sonata, the main protagonist, simply referred to as Pozdnyshev, encounters the narrator on an overnight train ride. Pozdnyshev openly explains his claim to fame (he killed his wife) and that he would like to share his story. The narrator kindly obliges, and listens to the prolonged confession with few interruptions. The one-sided dialogue comprises the bulk of the novella, occasionally broken by a question from the narrator, the appearance of fellow passengers, or when Pozdnyshev is so overcome with emotion, he must pause or exit for a brief period. The product is a scathing account of Pozdnyshev’s love life throughout his early years, which eventually culminates in a tortuous marriage. Pozdnyshev and his wife (who remains unnamed) bear three children, after which, she begins to take contraceptives, a scientific development that is abhorrent to Pozdnyshev. It is around this time, that a young musician by the name of Trukhashevsky appears. He is invited to play the violin with Pozdnyshev’s wife. It is during a public performance of Beethoven’s Prinet_-_Kreutzer_Sonata_“Kreutzer Sonata” that Pozdnyshev finds himself to be emotionally moved by the performance, and the pangs of jealousy begin to appear. While travelling for work, Pozdnyshev continues to agonize over the idea of his wife and Trukhashevsky having an affair. He decides to return home early, where he finds his wife and Trukhashevsky playing their instruments together late into the night. In a fit of rage, he stabs his wife with a dagger. He lets Trukhashevsky run free because he manages to recall that it is ridiculous to run after a wife’s lover in socks. Pozdnyshev was ultimately acquitted of the crime, though there is no reference to his trial or his defense. The novella ends as the narrator leaves a grieving and incapacitated Pozdnyshev in the train car.


The story is devoid of characters with redeeming qualities, except maybe the narrator who forgoes a night of sleep and patiently sits and listens to Pozdnyshev’s story. Pozdnyshev never renounces his actions, arguing that the amoral nature of contemporary society led him to act out in a fit of passion, against his wife, who, it appears, never actually sinned against him. Here, transgression is to be understood collectively, rooted in contemporary culture. Modern culture produces a profound sense of madness resulting in endless transgression. The main perpetrators, which are condemned in the novel, are modern science, modern education, consumerism, traditional relations between the sexes, and art. The collective aspect of Tolstoy’s argument renders the characters much less interesting as individuals. Their agency in this story is almost entirely negated. The fact that Pozdnyshev was acquitted of murder, when there is no doubt that he is guilty of killing an innocent women, suggests that to some degree, such madness is normative and not worthy of punishment. The fact that Pozdnyshev’s wife never actually engaged in physical activity with Trukhashevsky is ironic, and it demonstrates that Tolstoy’s interest in transgression lies at a more abstract level.

Young Tolstoy
Much of this story is a product of Tolstoy’s own spiritual crisis. As a soldier in the imperial army, Tolstoy was known for his sexual escapades and profligate gambling that shocked most of his colleagues. At the age of thirty-four, Tolstoy fell in love with eighteen-year-old Sofya Adreyeva Bers. The two were married in 1862 and went on to have thirteen children. The early years of their marriage are described as happy. In the early 1880s, while writing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy experienced a spiritual crisis that would shape the rest of his life and work. He began to espouse teachings from the life of Christ. Afterward, explains Doris Lessing,

He became an extreme rationalist and moralist, and in a series of pamphlets published during his remaining years Tolstoy rejected both church and state, denounced private ownership of property, and advocated celibacy, even in marriage. In 1897, he even went so far as to renounce his own novels, as well as many other classics, including Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, for being morally irresponsible, elitist, and corrupting” (Lessing, vii).kreutzer_tolstoys_20th

Tolstoy’s views generated a serious tension between him and his wife and the later years of his marriage were unhappy; Tolstoy often referred to his wife as a “stone around my neck.” Tolstoy’s spiritual crisis and troubled marriage were recently captured in the film, The Last Station (2009) starring Christopher Plummer as an elderly Tolstoy and Helen Mirren as Sofya. It The Last Stationis not a particularly good film, but it is interesting to consider how the sheer magnitude of Tolstoy’s presence in history is a powerful enough force to drive an entire film.


It is also necessary to contextualize Tolstoy’s crisis and The Kreutzer Sonata within a wider public debate that occurred in fin de siècle Europe about “the animal in man.” Demarcated by the two polar ideologies of Christianity and biological evolution, this debate centered around the “the family question,” “the woman question,” and questions of sexual morality. When Tolstoy’s Sonata appeared, aside from the authorities banning its publication, it generated a massive debate throughout Europe. Literary historian Peter Ulf Møller explains,

The Russian debate began late in 1889, when illegal copies of Tolstoy’s tale The Kreutzer Sonata began to circulate in St. Petersburg. At this time Tolstoy’s writings enjoyed an immense authority. He was the last survivor of the great Russian realists, and all over the world the reading public followed the drama that seemed to be taking place in the aging writer’s soul: his renunciation of fiction in favor of a new kind of Christian moral propagation, which rejected the existing social order at vital points. When in The Kreutzer Sonata he placed sexuality in the very foreground of a depiction of modern family life, a storm broke out (Møller, xii).

Tolstoy’s examination of these problems introduced the question of sexual instinct and marriage as a sexual relationship to Russian literature for the first time.


The Kreutzer Sonata is a surprisingly forthright text. It appears to be unambiguous and clear in the boundaries it establishes between good and bad. Pozdnyshev is explicit in his identification of the ills of society and the factors that drove him to murder his wife. The voice itself is a kind of dogmatic narrative voice making “authoritative non-novelistic statements” that are referred to as “absolute language” (Morson, 1981; Holland, 2013). Kate Holland points out, “Pozdnyshev is, on the one hand, a stand-in for Tolstoy’s own ambivalent attitude toward fictional narrative in this period. On the other hand, Pozdnyshev seems to embody the very ambivalence that so disturbs Tolstoy” (Holland, 1). According to Tolstoy, after the publication of The Kreutzer Sonata, he received a barrage of letters asking him to explicate his views, clearly and succinctly. It is unclear whether this was, in fact, what really happened or if he composed a “Sequel to The Kreutzer Sonata” as an intentional component of the story from the beginning. The “Sequel” establishes the terms of Tolstoy’s beliefs and is important for understanding the guiding principles of the story that precedes it.

The “Sequel to The Kreutzer Sonata” outlines five major aspects of society that contribute to the degeneration of the upper classes and the collective transgression discussed above. First, on the topic of intercourse, he writes, “The notion that sexual intercourse is necessary for health, and that marriage not being always possible, sexual intercourse without marriage, and binding the man to nothing beyond a mere money payment, is quite natural and a thing to be encouraged” (Tolstoy, 81). Likewise, Tolstoy believes that sexual vice goes hand in hand with other perversions and suggests that if one wishes to abstain from sexual intercourse and desire altogether, “they should lead a natural life.” He argues,

[Men should] not drink, nor eat meat, nor overeat, nor avoid labor – exhausting labor, not merely gymnastics, or other play. But besides this they should not, even in thought, admit the possibility of connection with strange women… Any man can find hundreds of examples around him showing that continence is possible, and less dangerous and less harmful to health than incontinence (82).

Tolstoy’s second critique is that contemporary culture embraces sexuality as poetic and elevated, in addition to something that is pleasurable and healthy. He writes,

In order not to indulge in it, it is necessary that this way of regarding sexual love should be changed. Men and women should be educated at home and by public opinion, both before and after marriage, not as now to consider being in love and the sexual affection connected therewith as a poetic and elevated condition, but as being an animal condition, degrading to man (82).

Tolstoy also believes that the significance of the birth of children has lost its meaning through the prevalence of birth control. He condemns,

It is bad to use means to prevent the birth of children, both because so doing frees people from the cares and troubles caused by children, which should serve to redeem sexual love, and also because it comes very near to what is most revolting to our conscience – murder. And incontinence during pregnancy and nursing is bad, because it wastes the woman’s bodily, and especially her spiritual, strength (83).

Relating to the previous point, there is a material critique. According to Tolstoy, children are not valued, as they ought to be. Children have become merely objects of the parents’ enjoyment, resulting in their debasement from an early age. He claims,

Human children are brought up like the young of animals; the chief care of the parents not being to prepare them for an activity worth of men, but to feed them as well as possible, to increase their stature, and to make them clean, white, plump and handsome. In all this, the parents are supported by the pseudo-science of medicine… And in pampered children, as in all overfed animals, an irresistible sensuality shows itself at an abnormally early age, and is the cause of terrible suffering before maturity (83).

Tolstoy’s fifth and final point resounds his previously stated sentiment – the poetics of love corrupt. He writes,

In our society, where the falling in love of young men and women, which after all has sexual love at its root, is considered poetically and is extolled as the highest aim of human effort (as witness all the art and poetry of our society), young people devote the best time of their life, – the men to spying out, tracking, and obtaining possession of the most desirable objects of love, whether in amours or in marriage; and the women and girls to trapping and luring men into amours or marriages… (84).

These are the main points that guide the story of marriage, betrayal, and murder in The Kreutzer Sonata. Tolstoy, instead, espouses chastity, an ideal manifest most clearly in the life of Christ himself. The ideal is love to God and his neighbor. There is no room for the self in this kind of existence. “Carnal love, marriage, is a serving of self, and is, therefore, at least a hindrance to the service of God and man… it is a fall, a sin” (88). Marriage, is a service to the self, and therefore, cannot be understood as part of this ideal. Instead, marriage should be replaced by the “pure love” of brother and sister (91). He concludes, “It is impossible, having heard Christ’s ideal teaching, to act as if we knew it not, and to replace it be external ordinances. Christ’s ideal teaching is before humanity now just because it is suitable for our guidance in man’s present stage of development” (92).

For the remainder of the presentation, I would like to focus on Tolstoy’s meta-critique of art in his writing, as well as his struggle with the “erotics” of art. Tolstoy spent years of his life attempting to understand the relationship between art, madness, and transgression, which culminated in his treatise, What is Art? (1898); unfortunately, I lack the space to discuss this treatise here. Pozdnyshev recalls his wife’s performance with Trukhashevsky,kreutzer_decamp

They played Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata… That sonata is a terrible thing… Music in general is a terrible thing. I cannot comprehend it. What is music? What does it do? And why does it have the effect it has? They say music has the effect of elevating the soul – rubbish! Nonsense! It has its effect, it has a terrible effect – I am speaking about its effect on me – but not at all of elevating the soul. Its effect is neither to elevate nor to degrade but to excite. How can I explain to you? Music makes me forget myself, my real situation. It transports me into a state that is not my natural one. Under the influence of music it seems to me that I feel what I do not really feel, that I understand what I do not really understand, that I can do what I can’t do…

Music instantaneously transports me into that mental condition in which he who composed it found himself. I blend my soul with his, and with him I am transported from one mood to another. But I cannot tell why this is so. For instance, he who composed the Kreutzer Sonata – Beethoven – he knew why he was in that mood. That mood impelled him to do certain things; therefore that mood meant something for him, but it means nothing for me. And that is why music excites and does not bring to any conclusion. When they play a military march, the soldiers move forward under its strains and the music accomplishes something… They perform a mass, I take the sacrament; and the music accomplishes its purpose. But in other cases there is only excitement, and it is impossible to tell what to do in this state of mind. And that is why music is so awesome, why it sometimes has such a terrifying effect. In China, music is regulated by government, and this is as it should be… Indeed it is a terrible power to place in anyone’s hands. For example, how could anyone play this Kreutzer Sonata, the first Presto, in a drawing room before ladies dressed in low-cut gowns? To play that Presto, then to applaud it, and then to eat ices and talk over the last bit of scandal? These things should be played only under certain grave, significant conditions, and only then when certain deeds corresponding to such music are to be accomplished… But to call forth an energy which is not consonant with the place or the time, and an impulse which does not manifest itself in anything, cannot fail to have a harmful effect. On me, at least, it had a horrible impact. It seemed to me that entirely new impulses, new possibilities, were revealed to me in myself, such as I had never dreamed before (Tolstoy, 59-60).

The emotive power of art coupled with its lack of appropriate context proves to be a significant source of madness in modern society. How then, does Tolstoy reconcile his damning critique of art with the fact that he himself is one of the world’s most acclaimed artists?

This tension is very much at the source of The Kreutzer Sonata, determining the style and language in which it is written (as suggested by Holland above).  As I previously indicated, the text is surprisingly straightforward, conveying the problems clearly to the audience. However, the lack of resolution in this story reveals ambivalence about Tolstoy’s own relationship to art. That such an unequivocal composition required an explanatory appendage to rearticulates the ideas on even clearer terms suggests that no art is capable of communicating ideas forthright. Only a non-fictional essay explicit in language and ideas like the “Sequel,” is capable of this. Therefore, the inclusion of a sequel suggests to the audience, that Tolstoy understood this piece to be somewhat of an ambiguous failure and demonstrates the internal struggle about morality and art that would continue to plague him for the rest of his life. Art, for Tolstoy, is complicit in the transgressiveness of modern culture and must be reconceptualized along new, moral lines.



Herman, David. “Art and Adultery in Anna Karenina and Kreutzer Sonata.” Slavic     Review 56, No. 1 (Spring, 1997), 15-36.

Hoffman, Michael. The Last Station. 2009.

Holland, Kate. “Genre and the Temptations of Narrative Desire in Kreutzer Sonata.”   Tolstoy Studies Journal 25 (2013), 1-14.

Lessing, Doris. “Introduction.” In The Kreutzer Sonata and “Sequel to The Kreutzer      Sonata.” New York: The Modern Library, 2003.

Møller, Peter Ulf. Postlude to the Kreutzer Sonata: Tolstoj and the Debate on Sexual        Morality in Russian Literature in the 1890s. Trans. John Kendal. Leiden: E. J.    Brill, 1988.

Morson, Gary Saul. “Tolstoy’s Absolute Language.” Critical Inquiry 7, No. 4 (Summer,             1981), 667-687.

Tolstoy, Lev Nikoliavich. The Kreutzer Sonata and “Sequel to The Kreutzer Sonata.”      Trans. Isai Kamen. New York: The Modern Library, 2003.

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Sade’s Libertinage

Portrait of Sade, age 21

Portrait of Sade, age 21, by Charles-Amédée-Philippe van Loo

The Marquis de Sade

The Marquis de Sade had his first reported “sadistic adventure” (as biographer Ronald Hayman describes it) at the age of 22, five months after his marriage to Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil. His victim (for she in no way can be called his partner, as the terrifying “adventure” took place entirely against her will) was a twenty-year-old working-class girl named Jeanne Testard, who had been given 48 livres to “put herself in the hands” of a young, anonymous man (Hayman, p. 27). Upon her arrival, Sade locked himself and Testard in a room with an assortment of birch-rods, whips, ivory crucifixes, two engravings o f Christ, one of Calvary and one of the Virgin Mary. Sade explained to the young woman that they would exchange flagellations and desecrate the crucifixes and engravings. When she refused, Sade threatened to run her through with his sword and shoot her, and she ultimately complied. When he released her, he forcedher to swear not to divulge what had happened. Within days, she had reported what he had done, and King Louis XV had him imprisoned at Vincennes. He was let go five days later, after his father, the Count de Sade, made a tearful plea to the King for his son’s release.

This first sadistic adventure and subsequent imprisonment set the tone for the rest of the Marquis de Sade’s life. He would spend upwards of thirty years confined in various prisons and asylums for crimes like the one done to Jeanne Testard. From time to time, he would be released or escape, only to be recaptured or arrested again, ultimately dying in 1814 at the age of 74 in the lunatic asylum, Charenton, after a thirteen year stay. Though literary critic Jean Paulhan (1884-1968) argues that “Sade paid [for his crimes], and paid more than his share” (Sade et al., p. 7), a full vindication of the Marquis in light of this disturbing scene is impossible. That said, the erotic nature of Sade’s works and his reputation as a criminal and sexual deviant have left him largely unknown, save for his contribution to the English language, “sadism.” Yet the complexity of his views about cruelty, desire, sexuality, nature, and, above all, liberty, warrant close analysis and deserve to be taken seriously, despite our fear and discomfort with his nihilistic “absolute vision,” as “to ignore Sade is to choose not to know part of ourselves; that inviolable part which lurks within each of us and which, eluding the light of reason, can, we have learned in this century, establish absolute evil as a rule of conduct and threaten to destroy the world” (Sade et al., xxii). Though this use of Sade refuses to endorse his violent worldview, it does allow the reader room to interact with Sade’s criticisms of the laws and conventions that regulate and prescribe human behavior, which he uses to renegotiate the boundaries of morality in the pursuit of a new conception of freedom.

Philosophy in the Bedroom: A Summary

Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795) is made up of seven dialogues, with a long political treatise at the heart of dialogue give entitled “Yet Another Effort, Frenchmen, If You Would Become Republicans.” The dialogues begin in the home of Madame de Saint-Ange, who waits with Le Chevalier de Miravel for her brother, Dolmancé, to arrive with young Eugenie, the daughter of an aristocrat that the libertines have been charged with “educating.” Immediately upon her arrival, her education begins, and the following dialogues graphically describe the increasingly violent and depraved sex acts she performs with the others . Throughout the dialogues, Dolmancé delivers philosophical and political speeches designed to explain the thought behind libertinage, which he sees as the only suitable moral framework after the French Revolution. In the final scene, Eugenie’s mother arrives to retriever her daughter, finding her newly “educated” in libertinage. Eugenie, with the help of the other libertines, violates and mutilates her mother.

Sade’s Literary Context: Libertinage and Materialist Atheism

Sade’s work comes out of a tradition of libertine literature, which, dating back to the mid-seventeenth century, was well-established by the time he began writing. Earlier works in the tradition, though they were significantly less extreme than Sade’s own, often used obscenity “as a satirical weapon to castigate a corrupt clergy and a decadent aristocracy” (Phillips, p. 8). Though Sade’s work cannot be described as taking aim at these two classes alone (for he attacks many more groups than these, including, I would argue, the libertines themselves), understanding the satirical nature of libertine writing is helpful in dealing with Sade’s “more horrif[ying]” (ibid., p. 8) version of libertinage. In addition to his literary context, Sade’s work was also greatly influenced by material atheism, which understands humans as simply matter in motion, functioning like all other Enlightenment-era mechanisms. Though it is unclear whether Sade himself fully prescribed to this doctrine, many of his characters are at their most unsettling when giving eloquent and nihilistic speeches about the “dark side of the Enlightenment” (ibid., p. 9) in which a God-centered, universalistic morality has been lost, leading to a human-centered amorality focused on rooting out all lingering moral habits and exploring the limits of human capacities.

Libertine Happiness and the Denial of Rationality

The essence of Sade’s libertinage and materialist atheism is captured in his dedication of Philosophy in the Bedroom, “To Libertines.” He begins:

Voluptuaries of all ages, of every sex, it is to you only that I offer this work; nourish yourselves upon its principles: they favor your passions, and these passions, whereof coldly insipid moralists put you in fear, are naught but the means Nature employs to bring man to the ends she prescribes to him; harken only to these delicious promptings, for no voice save that of the passions can conduct you to happiness (Sade, p. 185).

In suggesting that the principles contained in Philosophy in the Bedroom are “nourish[ing],” Sade suggests that the sexual excesses described and pursued by the libertines in the dialogues provide a value that the “insipid moralists” would otherwise deny them, namely, happiness. By brining happiness into the realm of physical passions, Sade denies the traditional Western belief that happiness is a condition of the rational and moral soul rather than of a body experiencing pleasure.  With this, Sade directly refutes Plato’s understanding of the mind-body question, which finds the body to be primarily an obstacle in the way of the rational soul’s ability to achieve moral knowledge. Sade inverts Platonic rationality, using it instead as a means of justifying libertinage and physical pleasure as more sincere forms of happiness.

Sade’s use of the dialogue form also mocks Western ideas of happiness and its relationship to morality. Plato uses the Socratic dialectic as the sole means of acquiring moral knowledge. Similarly, Rousseau, in his Social Contract (1762), emphasizes the utter importance of open dialogue to a successful democracy, arguing that it was the only way to arrive at an understanding of the common good. Sade’s use of dialogue is, by contrast, ineffective in uncovering moral knowledge. Though Dolmancé often gives extensive, quasi-rational speeches justifying libertinage, Eugenie’s education is above all a physical one. The rational justifications of libertinage pique her curiosity, but her transformation into a libertine requires the physical, sexual experience she acquires. Moreover, Sade satirizes the use of dialogue by emphasizing how ineffective it is in writing erotica. Unlike his other erotic works like Justine (1791) and Juliette (1797), which use narratives to describe sex acts in incredible (and often disturbing) detail, Philosophy in the Bedroom employs only brief stage directions that intentionally and consistently lack detail. An example: “Augustin, Dolmancé and the Chevalier act in chorus [of ejaculating]; the fear of appearing monotonous prevents us from recording expressions which, upon such occasions, are all very apt to resemble one another” (Sade, p. 272). In another scene, Sade similarly emphasizes the physicality of libertine education by forcing the reader to create and imagine the acts themselves. This time, he does so by outright denying the reader access to some unspeakable crime that the libertines commit:

DOLMANCÉ, in a low and mysterious tone – No; there are certain things which strictly require to be veiled.

EUGENIE – Ah, by God, tell us what you’d be about!


MADAME DE SAINT-ANGE – Is there, do you think, any conceivable infamy we are not worthy to heart of and execute?

LE CHEVALIER – Wait, sister. I’ll tell you. (He whispers to the two women.)

EUGENIE, with a look of revulsion – You are right, ’tis hideous.

MADAME DE SAINT-ANGE – Why, I suspected as much (Sade, p. 348).

By intentionally employing vague stage directions and by leaving out an entire physical act, Sade engages the reader’s creativity and imagination, forcing him to take part in constructing the highly physical process of libertine education. Sade invites the reader in the same way Dolmancé and Madame de Saint-Ange invite Eugenie to be creative in imagining new crimes, continually searching for taboos to break and new excesses to achieve.

Poster for Pasolini's Saló (1975)

Poster for Pasolini’s Saló (1975)


Sade and the Fascist Accusation

Pier Pasolini’s 1975 film, Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom, juxtaposes Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom with Mussolini’s fascist regime. The film depicts a group of libertine Italian aristocrats kidnapping 18 teenage boys and girls in order to inflict on them four months of sadistic sexual, physical and psychological torture. Aside from its commentary on the fascist Italian regime, the film also underscores the uneasiness that all readers of Sade experience on the topics of sadistic violence and consent.

Though Dolmancé’s political treatise in the fifth dialogue moves in and out of being a sarcastic evaluations of the political orators that were so prevalent during the Revolution, it also serves as an argument against fascist and totalitarian ideas, advocating instead for the minimal interference by religion and propriety with individual liberty. For Sade, who spent more than thirty years of his life imprisoned for sex crimes, sexual liberties were especially important to protect him in his hypothetical political scheme. Yet Sade was not sent to prison solely for the nature of the acts he committed, but also for the fact that he committed them against unwilling women who then reported him for his attacks. Thus, Sade’s understanding of “sexual liberties,” in order to absolve him, require more than the mere allowance for consensual, sadistic acts.

Sade and Consent

But Sade’s opinions and goals are not as straightforward or easily accessible as I have just made them sound. There is not necessarily an indication (especially looking to his biography and the crimes he committed) that he has any interest in constructing a system that praises consent. That said, he does seem to have some ideas about the role libertinage and a general loosening of sexual mores would have on sex crimes. Madame de Saint-Ange, in a long speech to Eugenie praising libertinage, describes the frustration that public opinion creates for libertines:

So long as the laws remain such as they are today, employ some discretion [in committing sexual acts]: loud opinion forces us to do so; but in privacy and silence let us compensate ourselves for that cruel chastity we are obliged to display in public (Sade, p. 220).

Here, Madame de Saint-Ange might be understood as imagining in contrast to a world in which libertinage was not so vehemently persecuted. In this hypothetical structure, it might be the case that, because libertinage is more normal, consent would be more widely given, and, moreover, because more people would be involved in the constant renegotiation of moral boundaries and social mores, the institutions that currently restrict individual desires and actions would deteriorate, allowing for personal liberties to more easily and more sincerely executed. But this argument is not very convincing, as the libertines of Philosophy in the Bedroom undeniably find some inherent erotic value in committing acts that transgress against social norms. Moreover, the violence that the libertines commit against Eugenie’s mother (a symbol of propriety and chastity) demonstrate that, even if libertinage were widespread, there would not necessarily be either less violence or more consent, as the acts they desire to commit often require unwilling victims who are permanently damaged by the experience.

Concluding Thoughts

Libertinage represents the desire to transgress social, moral and sexual boundaries indiscriminately in the name of exploring human limitations. The libertine is by necessity profoundly anti-social. The status of the Marquis de Sade’s libertinage is difficult to pin down. Sometimes, he mocks the libertines, other times he glorifies them, and indeed Sade is often inconsistent and resistant to classification. It seems to me that Peter Brook gave the most compelling depiction of Sade that I’ve come across in his 1967 film, Marat/Sade. In this film, he has Sade say, “I don’t believe in idealists who charge down blind alleys. I don’t believe in any of the sacrifices that have been made for any cause. I believe only in myself.” It is this solipsism, a trait in itself transgressive, and the inconsistencies it produces that make Sade interesting as he deflates seemingly every ideology that presents itself to him. It is this elusiveness that makes Sade a fascinating and terrifying character.


A link to Marat/Sade, which is probably the most interesting film I’ve ever seen. (I won’t post a link to Saló because it’s totally horrifying.)


Beauvoir, Simone. Must We Burn Sade? London: Peter Nevill Ltd., 1953. Print.

Hayman, Ronald. De Sade: A Critical Biography. New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell, 1978. Print.

Marat/Sade. By Adrian Mitchell. Dir. Peter Brook. Prod. Michael Birkett. Perf. Glenda Jackson, Ian Richardson and Patrick Magee. United Artists, 1967. Posted to Youtube by user Fidelis Scardanelli, 18 Oct. 2012. Web. 6 May 2014.

Phillips, John. How to Read Sade. London: Granta Books, 2005. Print.

Sade, Richard Seaver, Jean Paulhan, Maurice Blanchot, and Austryn Wainhouse. The Marquis de Sade: The Complete Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom, and Other Writings. New York: Grove Press, 1965. Print.

Saló o Le 120 Giornate di Sodoma. By Pier Pasolini and Sergio Citti. Dir. Pier Pasolini. Prod. Alberto Grimaldi. Perf. Paolo Bonacelli and Caterina Boratto. Les Productions Artistes Associés, 1975. DVD.


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Erica Jong’s “Fear of Flying”, Doubly Transgressive


Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying is about a woman, Isadora Wing, who challenges the traditional norms for sexual womanhood in her quest for liberation. Fear of Flying was the first of Jong’s work to receive notoriety, and is the text that made her both a critical and popular success. Some academics argue that Jong’s novel is not particularly “’a great novel’ or even a ‘great feminist novel’… [but that it is] a milestone… ‘a self conscious reversal of stereotypes’… [and a] cultural and literary innovation” if nota particularly great literary work (Templin, pg. 174). Whether or not this is true, there is no doubt that Jong’s work spoke directly to the gender politics of her time. Jong was part of the first generation of the second wave feminist movement. This new era of feminism was interested in the intersection of the personal with the political and how this intersection perpetuated gender hierarchies in the everyday lives of women. Second wave feminists recognized that the political rights gained during feminism’s first wave were meaningless unless the social and private roots of women’s oppression were addressed. Thus, second wave feminism had a particular interest in sexual politics (Templin, pg. 39). The bedroom was suddenly open to feminist critique. Women were beginning to speak of themselves as sexual beings with subjectivity, autonomy, and agency. Jong notes that before she wrote about the fantasy of the ‘zipless fuck’ (essentially, a casual sexual encounter), “women were not presumed to have it. Fear of Flying became a rallying cry for women who wanted the right to have fantasies as rich and raunchy as those of men” (Jong, xi), to claim the sexual agency and vibrancy so long denied them in both life and literature.

Fear was a novel contemporary readers either hated or loved. Unfortunately, many of the critiques of Jong’s work had sexist undertones. For example, male critics frequently dismissed Jong’s novel for being too ‘confessional’, a term that became “a putdown term for women, a sexist label for women’s poetry” (Templin, pg. 3). The deeply personal nature of Jong’s writing was deemed embarrassing and unliterary. This criticism likely is not a reaction to anything ungainly about this supposed ‘confessional’ style of writing, as much as to being threatened by a woman author who unabashedly asserts female sexual subjectivity. By accusing Jong of being too ‘confessional’, these critics are really accusing Jong of not adhering to the patriarchal expectation that women be shy, modest, passive, and quiet about female sexuality. However, this is not the worst criticism that Jong has received. Though not about Fear of Flying, a review by D. Keith Mano demonstrates how Jong’s transgressive explorations of female sexuality plucked a violent nerve in the patriarchal psyche. In his review, Mano writes:


“I’m treed; it irks me to no end. I have to-have to-ravage Erica Jong’s new book. Irksome, because this is just what Erica wanted all along: the barracuda treatment. I mean, a man and a Gentile blitzing her: oh pogromsville and joy… She’ll relish this flop the way Al Goldstein secretly relishes going to Leavenworth for public lewdness. Discipline is love; American society has been too permissive. Erica, I love you; How to Save Your Life is Christ-awful. An aphid could have written it” (Templin, 4).


The violent sexual undertones to this review are disturbing. From writing about a violent, uncontrollable urge to “ravish” her book, and the insinuation that she “wanted all along” to be assaulted sounds like the patriarchal rape narrative. The threat of sexual violence is a long known tactic used to oppress women and to discouraged assertive female sexuality, a tactic Mano appears to use in his literary critique. Another example of the way Jong was dismissed as a writer, is how in an early Playboy interview Jong did in 1975, both her personal sex life as well as the novel were asked about in equal measure (Templin, Conversations with Erica Jong, pg. 36). People seemed to have a hard time taking a woman writer seriously, in particular a woman writer who wrote so frankly about sex and who was also very attractive.


Some knowledge of the political context in which Jong wrote Fear of Flying as well as how her novel was received by contemporaries will be helpful in contextualizing the following analysis.


A Transgression of Genre and Ideology


Jong’s novel is the antithesis of the woman’s silly romance novel. Rather than perpetuate destructive romantic ideals, Jong’s novel rails against these conventions. Fear of Flying is like many traditional romance novels in that it recounts a woman’s sexual adventures. However, it does not romanticize men or portray them as the keys to Isadora’s sexual liberation. In fact, the men in Fear of Flying are sexually dysfunctional, either because they are impotent, rapists, or otherwise sexually predatory. Her husband, Bennett, while a talented lover, does not fulfill Isadora. Her first husband, Brian, rapes her in a psychotic episode. After divorcing her first husband, her rebound lover, Charles, is frequently impotent in bed. Her brother-in-law attempts to force himself upon her, and finally, her new lover, Pierre, is frequently impotent as well. The novel rails against the socially imposed construct of women as relational beings. And so, the impotence of the men as well as Isadora’s sexual anxieties and lack of fulfillment in her relationships may symbolize a crisis in gender relations. Jong criticizes how women are taught to turn to men for fulfillment (sexual or otherwise) and selfhood. Isadora goes back and forth between men in search of a stable identity, however these men are both literally and symbolically impotent. They cannot and do not fulfill Isadora or lead her to sexual liberation, even if, like Bennett, they are good lovers, or if like Adrian, they are forbidden and sexually excite Isadora greatly. The reader begins to question normative, even feminist-ly normative, ideas of what it means to be sexually liberated if it does not mean having sex with multiple partners or having sex outside of marriage. Jong, however, recognizes how terrifying it is to be a woman alone. An exchange Isadora has with herself is particularly revealing on this account:


“ME: Why is being alone so terrible?

ME: Because if no man loves me I have no identity

ME: But obviously that isn’t true. You write, people read your work and it matters to them. You teach an your students need you and care about you. You have friends who love you. Even you parents and sisters love you-in their own peculiar way

ME: None of that makes a dent in my loneliness. I have no man. I have no child.

ME: But you know that children are not antidote to loneliness.

ME: I know

ME: And you know that men and women can never wholly possess each other.

ME: I know

Me: And you know that you’d hate to have a man who possessed you totally and used up your breathing space…

ME: I know-but I yearn for it desperately.

ME: You want contradictory things.

ME: You want freedom and you also want closeness.” (Jong, 277)


Jong’s novel has a surprising ending. Isadora returns to her husband, Bennett, after a long experiment in sexual freedom with her lover, Pierre. Jong recognized that a lot of women would object to this ending. She notes that the text’s ending transgressed the “twentieth century shibboleth about liberation. Splitting is liberation right? Divorce is liberation… The Victorian novel always ends with marriage. In the twentieth century novel, divorce is the end point, the beginning of the new life. The way we plot our novels reveals something about our world view” (Templin, Conversations with Erica Jong, pg. 27). Isadora’s return to her husband challenged normative ideas about sexual liberation. In this way, Jong further rails against strictures that would define women as relational beings. The ending of Fear of Flying asserts that women’s sexual liberation is not primarily about their relationships to men, but first and foremost about the relationship they have with themselves. Indeed, in the end, Isadora believes “whatever happened, I knew I would survive it. I knew, above all, that I’d go on working. Surviving meant being born over and over. It wasn’t easy, and it was always painful. But there wasn’t any other choice except death” (Jong, pg. 311).Here we see Isadora learning to become her own mother, to give birth to herself “over and over” to define herself anew whenever necessary. She has returned to Bennett, but she is no longer dependent on him. Isadora’s desire for both freedom and closeness is no longer a contradictory impulse now that she has recognized that sexual liberation is a state of mind and not contingent upon the kinds of relationships she has with men.


New Perspectives on Sexual Objectification


Both Jong’s Fear of Flying and Oscar Wilde’s Salome provide new frameworks for problematizing sexual objectification. Jong’s Isadora is in pursuit of the ‘zipless fuck’, a terms she uses to refer to non-committal sex that is “free of alterior motives. There is no power game. The man is not ‘taking’ and the woman is not ‘giving’… Not one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone… it is necessary that… you never got to know the man very well” (Jong, pg. 14, pg. 7).

This ideal of non-committal sex based purely on carnal lust, and devoid of a meaningful human connection but empty of sexual power dynamics inherent to the gender hierarchy, imagines a healthy kind of sexual objectification. It challenges pre-conceived notions about what is problematic about sexual objectification and suggests that the problem lies not in the reducing of someone to their body parts but in the power imbalances of the gender hierarchy that infiltrate into everyday people’s sex lives. This contradicts ideas in Salome about the destructive consequences of sexual objectification and causes us to question whether Isadora fails to achieve the zipless fuck in part because she lives in a society not conducive to her having such an experience or because there is something inherently wrong about sexual objectification regardless of the existence of a gender hierarchy.

Wilde’s Salome, perhaps inadvertently, confronts the reader with the destructive consequences of sexual objectification in a way that contradicts Wilde’s glorification of a purely, sensual and aesthetic Sublimity. Though some argue that the eroticism of Salome was part of what made the text transgressive, I argue that the sexual dynamic between Salome and Jokanaan in the play is not erotic but pornographic. I borrow from Audre Lourde when I distinguish the erotic from the pornographic and categorize the erotic as sensation with feeling and human connection and the pornographic as sensation without feeling and human connection. Wilde’s known commitment to the glorification of a purely sensual, aesthetic Sublimity seems to support a pornographic experience of sexuality that objectifies. And, this philosophy seems to be inadvertently problematized in Salome. In Salome’s lustful appeals to Jokanaan she says “I am arduous for thy body Jokanaan… There is nothing in the world so white as thy body. Suffer me to touch thy body… There is nothing in the world so black as thy hair… Suffer me to touch thy hair… Thy mouth is like a brand of scarlet on a tower of ivory… redder than roses… Suffer me to kiss thy mouth” (Wilde, 208-209). Throughout the text, Salome continues to appeal to Jokanaan this way. She reduces his desirability to his body parts, objectifying him with a pure carnal desire wholly sensation oriented. And it is not necessarily this purely carnal desire without the need for human connection with the lust object that is most disturbing, but rather her insistence on possessing his body. She repeatedly asserts “I will kiss thy mouth Jokanaan” (Wilde, 209) despite his protestations. And it is in this way that she de-humanizes him. Her insistence is deeply disturbing, not because she is a willful woman who is openly pursuing the fulfillment of her sexual desires, but because she is pursing them in a particularly patriarchal manner by objectifying the lust object and sexually exploiting him, pursing him with no regard for his desires.

ImageShe ultimately gets her wish as she kisses his decapitated head. However, upon kissing his mouth and finally physically possessing him, she cries “Open thine eyes!… thy tounge… it moves no more!”(Wilde, 234) and is dismayed that he is no longer animated. If we come from the premise that to objectify someone is to sever them from their humanity, then in beheading Jokanaan, Salome commits the ultimate act of objectification because she severs Jokanaan from his humanity (i.e. she kills him) in order to gratify her corporeal desires. This sequencing of death following this ultimate act of objectification may unintentionally comment upon the destructive and unsatisfactory consequences of the pornographic being substituted for the erotic. Her possession of Jokanaan is ultimately empty in the end. This problematizing of objectification and the pursuit of the purely aesthetic argues that objectification is ultimately unsatisfying and destructive, killing the desired object by severing it from its humanity and making the sexual possession empty. Jong and Wilde’s texts provide new frameworks for problematizing sexual objectification. Jong frames this problem in terms of the gender hierarchy while Wilde frames this problem in terms of the de-humanization and emptiness inherent to objectification.


Telling a Different Story, Creating New Myths


Jong’s novel attempts to create a new myth regarding female sexuality. This is important for conceptualizing the transgression of Jong’s novel. Jong challenges the institutions of marriage and romantic love, but most importantly she challenges the notion that the story of female sexuality was primarily a man’s story to tell. Indeed, when Jong’s novel first came out “women [were just beginning] to participate in the discourse on sex”, challenging the stereotype of passive female sexuality which maintained that women “had nothing to say [about sex because]… whatever they felt was the product of male effort” (Templin, pg. 40). Isadora search for female autonomy in sexual liberation “deconstructs fundamental verities: the natural ‘roles’ of men and women and the ‘natural’ institutions of a mythic past” (Templin, xii). She reveals the dark underbelly of marriage when she describes becoming a stranger to her husband and engaging in a passionate love affair (one that is fundamental to her growth as an autonomous being), and she reveals the destructiveness of the search for romantic love when she has Isadora conclude that the search for the romanticized “impossible man was nothing but our own yearning” (Jong, pg. 24)and that the search for the impossible man distorted women’s yearnings for autonomous, fulfilled selfhood into romantic fantasy. Our day-to-day experiences are constructed, shaped by both the stories we tell ourselves and the stories our culture tells us. Jong transgresses upon institutionalized myths. Jong’s challenging of the myths surrounding female sexuality was so troubling for many readers and reviewers because she transgressed upon patriarchal constructions of reality and female sexual subjectivity. Jong also transgresses upon a popular literary trope for the sexually independent female, one that we see play out in Madame Bovary. Jong’s “heroine does not die at the end, nor does she lose a child for her transgression-another common formula. She lives on despite having reached out for sexual pleasure- a thing usually punishable by death in women.” (Fear of Flying, xi). Emma, by contrast, dies a grisly death. One consequence of this transgression of a common formula, is that it leaves the ending of Fear of Flying very open ended. We know that Isadora returns to Bennet, however the books ends with Bennett walking in on Isadora cleaning herself in the bathtub, a symbolic moment that may allude to some sort of ritual cleansing or re-birth. However, we are left to our own devices to imagine where this new life will lead. Perhaps Jong purposefully left this story open-ended because it is difficult to know how such a story will end, or even how it should end. We have neither a literary nor a real life formula for an appropriate ending yet.


A Link to the most recent interview of Erica Jong on “Fear of Flying”:

Concluding Remarks


Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying challenges both the normative ideological notions about female sexuality of the 1970s as well as the normative ideological notions about female sexuality present in the second wave feminist movement. In this way, Fear of Flying was doubly transgressive. However, though Jong’s novel was radical for it’s time period, it also resonates with modern readers. The kinds of questions it asks about what it means to be a sexually liberated woman are questions we still ask today. The ending to Jong’s novel is just as unsettling today as it was forty years ago. We still don’t know for sure how to end the story even in our imaginations.




“The Believer Logger – The Believer Interview with Erica Jong.” The Believer Mag, 17 Oct. 2013. Web. 06 May 2014.This is the source for Erica Jong’s picture.


“Fear of Flying Movie.” Film School Rejects. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 May 2014.This is the source for the picture with the horizontal zipper.


Jong, Erica. Fear of Flying: A Novel. New York: New American Library, 1975. Print.

Lorde, Audre. Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power. Brooklyn, NY: Out & Out, 1978. Print.


Napikowski, Linda. “Women’s Liberation Movement – A History of the Name.” Women’s History., n.d. Web. 05 May 2014.


One to One: Erica Jong “Fear of Flying” 40th Anniversary. Perf. Sheryl McCarthy and Erica Jong. CunyTV, 2013. Youtube Video.


“Salome.” Pittsburgh City Paper. Pittsburgh City Paper, 19 June 2008. Web. 06 May 2014.This is the source for the picture of Salome touching Jokanaan’s shoulder.


Templin, Charlotte, ed. Conversations with Erica Jong. Mississippi: U of Mississippi, 2002. Print.


Templin, Charlotte. Feminism and the Politics of Literary Reputation: The Example of Erica Jong. Lawrence, Kan.: U of Kansas, 1995. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. Salome. N.p.: n.p., 1905. Print.










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Brave New World: Dystopian Procreation and Censorship

Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley


Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s fifth novel, was written in 1931 and published in the United Kingdom in 1932. From its publication it was an incredible success for Huxley—its first year sales in Britain alone reached 23,000 copies. Today it is still considered the most popular of all his published works, which include more than 11 novels, 7 short story collections, 8 poetry collections, and 23 essay collections. (Sawyer 83-84). Brave New World, begins by setting up two key points of the book—eugenics and expectations for human behavior—starting with the description of “A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories. Over the main entrance the words, CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY AND CONDITIONING CENTRE, and, in a shield, the World State’s motto, COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY” (Brave New World 3). Although this motto is not mentioned again within the text, reappearances of mental conditioning to create “stable” citizens and communities is continuously show up in the novel.

Beyond this three-part motto, however, Huxley’s novel is a negative interpretation of the impact technology and industry can have on society. The novel is set in London, specifically 632 A.F. or 632 years “After [Henry] Ford” introduced the Model T car in the United States, making the time in the novel 2540 A.D. (Sawyer 80-81). As the “After Ford” time frame indicates, Henry Ford’s industrial innovation of the assembly line and mass production are highly esteemed in the world of Brave New World to the point of replacing religion and gods. Characters use phrases, such as ,“For Ford’s sake” rather than “For G-d’s sake” to express their frustration and it is the name “Ford” that the highest ranked person in the world, the Controller, calls upon when asserting his control (Huxley 191). Furthermore, the assembly line has been integrated into all parts of life in the novel. From the first dealings with genetic material, characters are part of the assembly line. Babies are created and manipulated in laboratories rather than within human bodies and people working on the genetic material have particular duties that remain the same, such as Lenina’s job to inject fetuses with immunizations. This segmentation of small jobs in order to create a larger product, in this case, human beings, continues in the upbringing of children. Children are raised by a specific set of guidelines by the state and families no longer exist, so they are educated by numerous individuals who each have a specific set of tasks. For example, some people are in charge of monitoring the audio sleep learning of babies and children while they grow, others write the material that is being read to the children, and others still will provide food to the children. This piecemeal assembly-line method is consistently used throughout the lives of children until they become new cogs in the machine. The references to Ford’s mechanical innovation, an invention contemporary to Huxley, are not the only reference to movements in Huxley’s lifetime. In addition to Ford, “Freud” is mentioned with great esteem in the novel. When the Controller is talking about psychological matters he changes from calling himself “Our Ford” to “Our Freud.” The reason given for this within the novel is that, “Our Freud had been the first to reveal the appalling dangers of family life” (39). In fact, the methodology for dealing with children and the abolition of the family is described as being in response to Freud’s theory of the inherent problems of human development and interaction.

While Brave New World is currently recognized as both a dystopian and science fiction (SF) novel, at the time of its publication it was interpreted primarily as a satirical response to the extensive literary tradition of utopias in literature. In particular, it contradicted the assertion of contemporary authors, such as H.G. Wells, who used speculative literary works to consider how scientific innovation and technological advances could ultimately lead to a “perfect,” utopic world. Instead, as William W. Matter points out in his essay “The Utopian Tradition and Aldous Huxley,” Huxley and other utopists began to “espouse an increasingly popular and pessimistic negation of the machine.” In this moment of divide

Brave New World

Brave New World

between the technological-based utopists and the technology questioning utopists Brave New World was published and dystopian fiction gradually grew in popular culture. Rather than an idealistic approach to utopia, such as the “perfect” utopias in Well’s Men Like Gods, Huxley imagined a world that had intense regulations and limitations on individuality in order to uphold the façade of a utopia.

From the year of its publication to the present, this dystopian, science fiction novel has been highly contentious. In the same year as its publication Brave New World was banned in Ireland (“Banned and/or Challenged Books”). In the United States alone Brave New World has banned or challenged for its depictions of sexual content, drug use, and suicide in Miller, MO (1980); Yukon, OK (1988); Corona-Norco, CA (1993); Foley, AL (2000); Mercedes, TX (2003); and Coeur D’Alene, ID (2008). Similarly, there have been complaints about the negative attitudes about family, religion, marriage, and monogamy in the society in Brave New World. Although these were all depicted in a tongue-in-cheek way, describing a negative space that was almost the opposite of Huxley’s own desires for society, the content challenges continue to this day. The American Library Association ranked Brave New World as 52nd on its list of the “100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000,” putting it in the company of other dystopian novels, such as Lois Lowry’s The Giver and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

While Brave New World is frequently interpreted as an independent novel, it was actually followed by a second book by Huxley, entitled Brave New World Revisited. In this nonfiction collection of essays, Huxley re-examines topics he addresses in Brave New World—such as overpopulation, propaganda, chemical persuasion (drugs), and hypnopaedia (sleep education)—and considers how they have developed in the twenty-seven years since publishing Brave New World. The conclusions he draws are frightening. Many writers of dystopia and SF (science fiction) write about uncomfortable truths, such as Margaret Atwood’s candid discussion of the anti-abortion state in The Handmaid Tale. In fact, one definition of SF is that “SF envisions, creates, an alternative world which comments on our own,” whether in positive ways or negative ways (Annas). However, it is rare to have authors of dystopian SF revisit the same thought experiments again to consider the progress of the ideas. When Huxley examines the developments in the Western world, he begins with the somewhat terrifying comment that, “Twenty-seven years later, in this third quarter of the twentieth century A.D., and long before the end of the first century A.F., I feel a good deal less optimistic than I did when I was writing Brave New World. The prophecies made in 1931 are coming true much sooner than I thought they would” (Brave New World Revisited 1).

Eugenics in the Hatchery

Brave New World is perhaps most famous for its discussion of reproductive technology. In the first chapter alone, Huxley sets out a complicated scientific process for creating humans, which has ultimately proved fairly scientifically accurate. Huxley’s descriptions of egg fertilization, sterilized freemartins, and replication of genetic material are frequently cited within medical and scientific journals as illustrations of real scientific processes. However, with all that said, the processes themselves are worth particular focus.

Central London Hatchery (Art by Matt Ferguson)

Central London Hatchery
(Art by Matt Ferguson)

To begin with, Huxley is not solely responsible for these medical ideas. Brave New World’s is believed to be responding to an earlier speculative science book by J.B.S. Haldane, called Daedalus (1924), in which a new form of eugenics was proposed that relied upon “technological breakthroughs and avoided selective breeding” (Kirby). Specifically, Haldane proposed “direct intervention into the human genome,” which would manipulate hereditary material of the genome in order to create an ideal human. Huxley resisted the belief that human scientists could manufacture “perfect” humanity and used Brave New World to critique this idea, particularly during his discussion about science-enabled reproduction. In the first chapter of Brave New World he has the Director of the London Hatchery explain scientific processes and their consequences. For example, when discussing the scientific intervention into the development of fertilized ova, the Director explains that ova of Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons—lower caste people in Brave New World—underwent the Bokanovsky’s process where “…a bokanovskified egg will bud, will proliferate, will divide. From eight to ninety-six buds, and every bud will grow into a perfectly normal formed embryo, and every embryo into a full-sized adult. Making ninety-six human beings grow where only one grew before. Progress” (Brave New World 6). Through the process Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons lose all individuality. In a similar process to twins, ninety-six identical humans are born.

The Director goes on to describe these people as “standard men and women; in uniform batches” (7). This dehumanizing comment is more reminiscent of mass-produced products than human lives. Moreover, it is worth noting the class differences in this process. Individuality is not considered important for Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons from their beginning as ovum. Alphas and Betas, however, “remained indefinitely bottled” as ovum to develop into unique and physically distinguishable beings. Just as Alphas and Betas are given different treatment as ovum, they receive different treatment in life. Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons do hard work and labor of various types usually among identical figures of themselves. At one point, in a scene at a hospital, it is described that, “The medical staff of the Park Lane Hospital for the Dying consisted of one hundred and sixty-two Deltas divided into two Bokanovsky Groups of eighty-four red-headed female and seventy-eight dark dolichocephalic male twins, respectively” (208). These two Bokanovsky groups of identical individuals are established as a particular class—Deltas—that are even admitted to do “menial labor.” In these scenes, the life-long separation of classes due to early scientific and medical intervention with genetic material is highlighted and, more importantly, hint at the potential dangers of the same medical technologies that others, such as Haldane, believed would lead to a better humanity. Implicit in Huxley’s response is the question: a better humanity for whom? Is the goal of science to create further class stratification and inequities or to flourish as individuals in society?

Bovanosky Clones

Bovanosky Clones (Art by Matt Ferguson)

Another important point in Huxley’s text is the pointed differentiation within classes themselves based upon character behaviors that are aberrant to the norms expected by society. Bernard Marx, one of the main characters, is one illustration of an aberrant character in Brave New World Society. In Brave New World higher classes not only receive genetic advantages in terms of work, but also in terms of their physical stature. The highest class, Alphas, are the tallest, Betas are the next tallest, and so on. However, Bernard is described as physically shorter than most Alpha men to the point that he is frequently mistaken as a Delta. This shortness becomes a running joke in the text as Marx is frequently suspected to have had alcohol added to his genetic mixture prior to his birth. One of the earliest mentions of his name is greeted with the assertion that his “reputation” as an Alpha human is in doubt because he is smaller than most Alpha. After hearing that a Beta, Lenina, wants to go out with Bernard, her friend Fanny comments that, “They say somebody made a mistake when he was in the bottle—thought he was a Gamma and put alcohol into his blood-surrogate. That’s why he’s so stunted” (Brave New World 46). The assertion that genetics so strongly relate to the character of a person, even to the extent that he is no longer an acceptable partner, continues throughout the entire text to even greater extremes. For example, when Bernard fails to allow fellow Alphas to enjoy meeting “the Savage,” a man who grew up outside of their world system, the immediate insult Alphas and Betas turn to is: “it’s absolutely true about the alcohol” (174).

Women’s Choice: Sterilization and Contraception

While all characters in Brave New World are genetically altered to some extent, female characters seem to face the most significant medical interventions with their bodies, specifically on the front of reproduction. Since babies are created in laboratories rather than born, the whole concept of “pregnancy,” “child birth,” and “motherhood” is incredibly tattoo to the point that “mother” is seen as so profane that it is described that “the blood rushed to [the] cheeks” of a grown man at the use of the word “mother” (23-24). Despite these taboos genetic material and eggs are still required from women in order to continue the human species. As a result, humans in Brave New World established an entirely new structure for reproduction.

Development of Fetus

Development of Fetus

To start with, not all women in the text are fertile. Over seventy percent of female embryos are sterilized when they “get a dose of male sex-hormones” (13). These female embryos are “decanted as freemartins—structurally quite normal (except…that they do have the slightest tendency to grow beards), but sterile. Guaranteed sterile” (13). Despite the negative impact of testosterone on fetuses, such as the growing of beards in adult life, these women are described as fairly fortunate in comparison with the unsterilized women who have to worry about contraception, described in the text as Malthusian drills. Rather than fertility being honored, it is looked upon as a burden. One of the doctors in the text describes that, “in the vast majority of cases, fertility is merely a nuisance [for women]” (13). The necessity of Malthusian Drills for 30% of women is something that neither doctors nor men seem to appreciate. Likewise, sterility is seen as a positive. For example, a female administrator at a university in Brave New World does not hesitate to admit that, “I am a freemartin myself” and goes even further by smiling flirtatiously at a male character after the statement, implying potential sexual accessibility (163). In contrast, fertile female characters reference their Malthusian Drills as a natural, albeit tedious fact that they “need constant drilling” during education to make habitual (163, 50). “Malthusian Drills” refers to the continuous drills the fertile women have to use contraception prior to each sexual act in order to prevent the disgraceful condition of pregnancy, which would be solved through a visit to the Abortion Centre (120). These Malthusian Drills are part of how fertile woman are “psychologically conditioned to use birth control in the form of a fashion accessory, a ‘Malthusian belt’ that contains contraception” (Grech 40).

The discussion around sexuality, abortion, contraception, and sterilization within Brave New World remains one of the most controversial portions of the text and continues to transgress both British and American morality, at least, on the religious right. Although the sterilization and mandatory contraception has not been seen in other texts read this quarter, the obligations of motherhood have been come up in both Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and the Futurist essays we read. In Madame Bovary we were faced with two alternative forms of motherhood. First, Bovary’s mother who was so dutiful and involved in her son’s life that he lacked independence and second, Madame Bovary’s motherhood. Madame Bovary seemed to embody the rich, aristocratic method of dealing with children. Her daughter was sent off to a wet nurse initially and even when she returned home Berthe failed to receive consistent attention from her mother. Instead, her mother would either snap at her in frustration, resulting in a violent assault, or treating her as an object of adoration. Both of these behaviors failed to impart any meaningful information to Berthe and demonstrated that Madame Bovary’s primary interest was in her own sexual fulfillment rather than her daughter’s life. Although the original Madame Bovary (Bovary’s mother) behaved in a manner that seemed more typically “motherly,” the resulting behavior of her son was still disastrous—both Berthe and Bovary remain together living alone with no financial support in the end. In contrast with these two methods of motherhood, Valentine de Saint Point’s essay, “The Manifesto of Futurist Woman,” asserts that women should, “Be the egoistic and ferocious mother, have what are called all the rights over and duties toward them, as long as they physically need your protection” (de Saint Point 3).

Of these four dramatically different models of motherhood that we have seen, which is the ideal form? Is it possible to be an “ideal mother” in the physical world or even in fiction? What are the characteristics of motherhood and what does it mean to transgress motherhood?

Censorship and Banned Books

A number of the texts in class this quarter have been banned, censored, and/or had their content challenged. Wilde’s Salome was originally banned in London, which caused it to be written in French and performed in France before returning to the United Kingdom. Madame Bovary underwent an obscenity trial about its depiction of sexuality and religion, but Flaubert was acquitted. Brave New World has also been banned in some places, but it is perhaps unique among our texts in that it explicitly describes censorship within its pages even as it was banned in the real world.

Orwell versus Huxley

Orwell versus Huxley

By the third chapter of Brave New World it is clear that there is a different standard in the textual world for judging the acceptability of texts. It is described that, “There were those strange rumours of old forbidden books hidden in a safe in the Controller’s study. Bibles, poetry—Ford knew what” (Brave New World 35). While previous texts were banned for their negative depictions of Christianity, Brave New World starts out by asserting the Bibles are “forbidden books” that are so unacceptable that even the leader of state, the Controller, feels the need to hide them within a safe. Although no distinction between acceptable and unacceptable literature is given until more than halfway through the text, the anxiety around the legality and illegality of literature is worth noting.

Later within Brave New World the Controller finally reveals an underlying reason for the censoring and banning of books. After examining a new scientific paper for content and marking it to not be published he thinks, “It was a masterly piece of work. But once you began admitting explanations in terms of purpose—well, you didn’t know what the result might be” (177). Just as the motto states at the beginning of the text, “stability” is a primary goal of society. If a scientific, religious, or literary text expresses ideas that could potentially undermine the community or stability then they are prevented from publication or access by the masses. This hyper-awareness about potential consequences of publication seems harsh and totalitarian, but it satirically points out some underlying causes for censorship in other cases. While Madame Bovary, Salome, and Brave New World were not expressly banned for their unstable nature, but for specific reasons about religion and sexuality, the stability of society remains and underlying and invisible factor in each of these reasons. Dominant religions in a society—the religions typically protected in obscenity trials—tend to be a stabilizing force to society. Texts that undermine these religious beliefs can be seen as undermining more than just a specific instance of religiosity within the text and instead be seen as contradicting or befouling an entire religious tradition that is part of the structural system of society.

If you want to see Brave New World in a filmed form, feel free to view the uploaded version on YouTube (below).


“100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000.” American Library Association. ALA, n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2014. <;

“Aldous Huxley on Remorse.” The Eloquent Madness. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2014. <;.

Annas, Pamela J. “New Worlds, New Words: Androgyny in Feminist Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies #15, Vol.5.Pt.2 (1978), n. pag. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

“Banned and/or Challenged Books from the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century.” Missing: Find a Banned Book. American Library Association, n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2014. <;

Brave New World Barcode. StudySync Digital Library Demo. Web. 26 Apr. 2014 .

Column Five. Orwell v. Huxley. 2011. Visual News. Web. 23 Apr. 2014 <;.

de Saint Point, Valentine. “The Manifesto of Futurist Woman.” 1912. Print.

Ferguson, Matt. Brave New World- Bovanosky Clones. N.d. Hire an Illustrator. Web. 26 Apr. 2014. <;.

Ferguson, Matt. Brave New World- The Hatchery. N.d. Hire an Illustrator. Web. 26 Apr. 2014. <;.

Grech, Victor, Clare Vassallo, and Ivan Callus. “Many Too Many Are Born: State Manipulation of Sex Drive Resulting in Infertility.” World Future Review (Fall 2012):39-50. Print.

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006. Print.

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World Revisited. New York: Rosetta, LLC, 2000. Kindle.

Kawaibawibo, JP. Brave New World. 2013. _Brave New World’ Society of Artificial Happiness.Web. 26 Apr. 2014. <;.

Kirby, David A. “The New Eugenics in Cinema: Genetic Determinism and Gene Therapy in GATTACA.” Science Fiction Studies #64, Vol.27.Pt. 2 (2000): n. pag. Science Fiction Studies. Web. 18 Apr. 2014. sfs/essays/gattaca.htm>

Matter, William W. “The Utopian Tradition and Aldous Huxley.” Science Fiction Studies #6, Vol. 2.Pt.2 (1975), n. pag. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

McMillen, Stuart, and Neil Postman. “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” Recombiant Records. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2014. <;.

Sawyer, Dana. Aldous Huxley: A Biography. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002.


Written by Chip Delany

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So It Goes: Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Humorous Transgression

Slaughterhouse-Five: War and Transgression for Novel and Novelist

Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade, A Duty-Dance with Death, published in 1969, marked an important milestone for Kurt Vonnegut’s writing career as he finally tackled the subject matter of his experience as a soldier in World War II. Described as an “exorcism” by Harold Bloom, the novel was published nearly a quarter century after Vonnegut began his writing career in 1952 (Bloom 1).  The publication came at an important time of political transgression in the United States with the war protests of the Vietnam War still resonating strongly with individuals across America. The narrative itself describes the protagonist’s son as “a sergeant in the Green Berets–in Vietnam,” and the Lions Club leader is “in favor of increased bombings, of bombing North Vietnam back into the Stone Age, if it refused to see reason” (77, 76). The novel further parallels the former conflict and needless killing of human life in WWII with the conflict in Vietnam by connecting the firebombing of Dresden with the widespread use of Napalm in Vietnam. He writes about this abstractly when describing a fake science fiction book by Kilgore Trout which “predicted the widespread use of burning jellied gasoline on human beings. It was dropped on them from airplanes” (214). In both Vietnam and WWII, the use of incendiaries caused many atrocities against civilians.

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut

The novel is also stays very close to Vonnegut’s biographical war experiences, following the protagonist Billy Pilgrim through the major war events of Vonnegut’s own war tour: taken as a POW behind German lines after the Battle of the Bulge, taken in cattle cars first to a Russian and English POW camp and then sent to the ‘untouched’ city of Dresden to work in a syrup factory before final bombing of the city in February 1945. Vonnegut’s first words echo the auto-biographical tone that “All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true” (Vonnegut 1). These hints of the novelist’s own war experience are referenced throughout the novel, as Vonnegut writes, “That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book” (160). This quasi-autobiographical war book nonetheless includes typical elements of Vonnegut’s fiction: dark humor blending with satire and a fascination with science fiction. The novel has remained confusing to many critics who struggle with the multiplicity of genres, the duality of the absurd and the serious, contrasting quietist and activist themes, and the strong voice of the author’s own experience in the novel. Vonnegut uses these contrasting elements in the novel to transgress the confines of former literary tropes and to spread an anti-war message. The science fiction and temporal themes in the story further prompted the religious community to view the work as transgressive, as they lobbied in the 1970s and 1980s to ban the book in high schools and libraries (Klinkowitz 16). Under the umbrella of transgression, Kurt Vonnegut’s work continues to have mass appeal.

The Undescribed Massacre: The Firebombing of Dresden in 1945

As Vonnegut writes of Dresden, “When I got home from the Second World War twenty-three years ago, I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen…But not many words about Dresden came from my mind then” (2-3). He also wrote that “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre” (24). In the novel itself, Vonnegut clearly accentuates the historical frame of the firebombing, however he never describes the ultimate event, probably due to the failure of language in the face of such a massacre. From February 13-14 1945, 1084 allied airplanes dropped 3,428 tons of incendiary bombs on the city of Dresden, creating a firestorm that destroyed the city and killed upwards of 25,000 individuals (Preface xi).

Cremations after the Firebombing in February, 1945.

Cremation after the Firebombing in February, 1945.

This devastating event in World War II has often been described as the single worst massacre of human lives during the entire conflict, and is used as an example of the power of “total war”  (Strachan 1). Planned under the project name “Clarion,” the attacks purpose developed out of a desire to weaken the movement of troops to the eastern front and to sew confusion in the city with the large influx of refugees traveling west (Cox 26). Although Dresden had “no key oil refineries or large armament plants,” and was considered far enough from British air bases to ensure its protection, it was still targeted for its size and its position as a communications center (Neitzel 66). With an airspace largely undefended and with bunkers inadequately built around the city due to the lack of previous attacks, Dresden clung onto its image as a “free city,” the “Florence of the Elbe” (Neitzel 68). The beautiful cultural and historic beauty of the city was not enough to bar bombers from dropping seeded explosives on the historic city in two waves of attacks. Incendiaries started individual blazes around the city which coalesced into a single firestorm as blown out windows and doors facilitated the spread of the fire. The superheated air additionally created violent updraughts and “gale-force winds at ground level” (Cox 42). As Sebastian Cox described the destruction of the firestorm: “The heat was so intense that the tar on the streets melted, turning them into molten rivers, further impeding escape and the already hopelessly inadequate firefighting. Material around the periphery of the firestorm would simply combust from the heat without necessarily coming into contact with the flames” (42). The firestorm caused many to die of asphyxiation in bunkers as oxygen was used up by the storm. Other bunkers were simply too shallow and caused thousands of victims to burn underground. Although the number of dead were inflated by German propaganda machines to almost 300,000, the more accurate number of 35,000 dead still indicates the tragic magnitude of civilian loss (Cox 51). In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut attempts to indicate the horror of the event even while he does not specifically describe what happened. Although he specifies it as the core scene of drama in the novel, the unnamed quality shows Vonnegut’s stylistic decision to leave the event unsignified by language, the looming monster in the heart of the narrative.

Symphony No. 1 by Daniel Buckvich attempts to depict the firebombing of Dresden through music, imitating the sounds of the bombs and the screams of civilians in the end movement.


Vulgar Transgression: Body Humor and the Mechanization and Bestialization of the Human Form

Vonnegut, called America’s greatest satirist of the 20th century, lives up to that image in his work Slaughterhouse-five, as he uses humor as his main style in the novel. Vonnegut’s choice to pair dark social destruction and war with an almost lighthearted account of the absurd main protagonist Billy Pilgrim shows his commitment to black humor, or laughing in the face of horror. This seeming juxtaposition of the serious and the absurd captures the ridiculous waste of human life in war, and also seems to be the only way that Vonnegut to react to the actions. Since “All there is to say about a massacre” are “things like ‘Poo-tee-weet?’,” Vonnegut’s turns to humor to show the ridiculousness of his project of signification. Under this stylistic framework, Vonnegut uses body humor in order to reveal how war turns humans into their most physical organismic form. By focusing on the physical body through bodily humor, Vonnegut refuses to impart the war with aesthetic value. Rather, he shows how the war turns humans into objects, machines, and animals. One of the first instances of body humor is shown in one of the opening limericks in the story:

There was a young man from Stamboul,
Who soliloquized thus to his tool:
“You took all my wealth
And you ruined my health,
And now you won’t pee you old fool.” p. 3

In this passage, the young man’s penis is described as a ‘tool’ as body parts merely become part of a larger human machine. The each part of the machine body therefore has a vulgar purpose in the workings of the organism. The limerick references a tool which is faulty, and will not fulfill its purpose of urinating. Vonnegut uses this limerick to point to the mechanization of human bodies in war, as humans become tools of war. The focus on body humor in the novel shows as these machine bodies begin to break down. At the first POW camp, the American soldiers are unable to digest the rich food that the British POWs feed them. The resulting comic bathroom scene shows

Mechanization of the human body in the children's game Operation.

Mechanization of the human body in the children’s game Operation.

the extent to which the American digestive machinery is faulty, as Billy survey’s the latrine: “The wailing was coming from in there. The place was crammed with Americans who had taken their pants down. The welcome feast had made them as sick as volcanoes. The buckets were full or had been kicked over. An American near Billy wailed that he had excreted everything but his brains” (160). This joke pairs the perceived ‘juvenility’ of body humor with the stark reality of the soldiers that they have been ill nourished for weeks. In this episode, the machinery of the body has been compromised by the war. The classification of humans as machines is extended to the Tralfamadorian dogma in the novel as Vonnegut writes, “Tralfamadorians, of course, say that every creature and plant in the Universe is a machine. It amuses them that so many Earthlings are offended by the idea of being machines” (197). If humans are machines, their death and ‘malfunction’ due to injury becomes less condemnable or amoral, as the ‘higher’ faculties of humanity are overlooked. The demystification of the human form through body humor also relates to the prevalence of the bestialization of the soldiers in the novel. The focus on the physical body of the POWs makes them equated to animals who must be fed, sheltered, and worked. The POW’s sleeping place in Dresden is ironically “‘Schlachthof-Fünf.’ Schlachtof meant slaughterhouse” (195). During war, the animals in the slaughterhouse are “had been killed and eaten and exerted by human beings, mostly soldiers” and now the slaughterhouse “was going to serve as a home away from home for one hundred American prisoners of war” (194). War therefore demystifies humans down to the level of animals, to be slaughtered, imprisoned, worked and processed to make soap. The bestialization and mechanization of human beings makes their use as objects of war less morally questionable, and reveals the lack of romanticism or ‘higher-purpose” in war. As Rita Bergenholtz writes, “the focus on eating in Slaughterhouse-Five effectively deflates any lofty or sentimental notions readers might have about the righteousness of military crusades or the heroism of men at war” (86). Therefore, Vonnegut pairs bodily humor with the dark subject matter of war in order to promote a strongly anti-war and humanist message.

So It Goes: Tralfamadorian Time and the Fated Individual 

In addition to Vonnegut’s transgressive use of body humor as an anti-war message, he also transgresses the bounds of genre as he combines the typical war book with sci-fi, psychology, philosophy, and humor. In Slaughterhouse-Five, the Tralfamadorian aliens are at the intersection of these genres, introducing their own philosophical conception of time while also apparently abducting Billy. The Tralfamadorians are fourth dimensional, therefore able to see all the moments in time at once. Billy himself claims that he was “unstuck in time” before he was

Visual representation of a Tralfamadorian

Visual representation of a Tralfamadorian

abducted to Tralfamadore. In both of these conceptions of time, fate naturally takes on a new importance to explain events. Since the Tralfamadorians can see all of time at once, they naturally know what is to be fated. The role of fate in the novel is shown in the style in addition to the narrative, as the author’s omniscience is equated to the role of fate. As Vonnegut writes, “I’ve finished my war book now…It begins like this: Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. It ends like this: Poo-tee-weet?” (28). The narrative itself is therefore already determined before the reader begins it, creating a feeling of fate throughout the narrative. The opening command of “Listen:” also relates the narrative to an epic work such as Beowulf which starts with the word “hwæt,” often interpreted as “Listen!” Fate is often invoked in Beowulf and other epic poems as the role of the gods overshadows the human pawns in the narrative. Similarly in Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy and the Tralfamadorians believe that their life is has a knowable fated future. This fated quality of the narrative also causes characters to be the instruments of their fate, incapable of free will. For example, Edgar Derby is exclusively described as “doomed Derby” who “eventually would be shot” (173). Since Derby’s fate is clearly stated when we first meet him, he loses his status as a character. Rather, he becomes simply an object whose use in the narrative is his future death. Vonnegut therefore shows the downsides of a fated universe, as the ‘meaning’ of life is therefore limited to the fated event. The totalizing view of time in the Tralfamadorian philosophy also problematizes Vonnegut’s anti-war image for many critics, who argue that “Vonnegut’s humor convey’s fatalistic resignation that entails political quietism” (Wepler 101).The lack of free will in a fated universe necessarily forces individuals to question their ability to change the “glacier” that is war (Vonnegut 4). However, I argue that Vonnegut does not adopt the Tralfamadorian viewpoint as his own, rather he uses it to both show Billy’s attempts at dealing with his war experiences, and reveals it as a failed strategy. This condemnation of the Tralfamadorian conception of time can be seen in Vonnegut’s continued use of “So it goes.” in the novel.

As Billy writes about the Tralfamadorian philosophy about death, “When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment…Now when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say that the Tralfamadorians ay about dead people, whiz is ‘So it goes.’ (34). This phrase becomes a constant refrain in the novel after any death however insignificant. This phrase becomes parodied in the novel, as the death of a human is equated to champagne (p. 93) and flat water (129). This over exaggeration of its use questions the low emotional impact that the Tralfamadorians put on death. Rather, it shows how this is ridiculous in the face of something so significant as a human being dying. Vonnegut therefore argues that if we adopt this acceptance of death into the banal phrase of “So it goes,” we are defying the humanist message. The phrase “So it goes” also shows an attempt to mitigate exposure of the audience to the death. The indefinite “it” either refers to death itself, or the life of the individual ‘going’ the way of death. In either case, the use of an indefinite pronoun distances the reader from the actual death. Therefore, the exaggeration of its use forces the reader to question death’s low significance in this phrase. 

PTSD and Anomic Isolation: A Psychological Reading of Billy Pilgrim

Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist in the novel, often describes that he is ‘unstuck in time’ and spreads the message of the Tralfamadorians to the general public after his head is split form a plane crash. Indeed, many critics have reconciled the seeming blurring of genres between science fiction and anti-war drama by placing the world of Tralfamadore in Billy’s imagination (Brown). Billy’s constant refrain that he is “unstuck in time” is also attributed to PTSD from the Dresden bombings and POW experience (Vees-Gulani 176). The psychological analysis of Pilgrim’s character is supported to the narrator’s own questioning of Billy’s reality. For example, Billy “has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between. He says” (Vonnegut 29). The ending line of “he says” is at the start of another paragraph, emphasizing this phrase. Therefore it is clear that the narrator wants to accentuate that this is Billy’s own reality, not the narrator’s reality. He also appears to have trouble functioning at his job and in his home life, often experiences flashbacks from the war. When he examines a patients eyes, he gets very quiet and his patient asks him “You see something terrible?” (72). These ‘terrible’ visions of the war are also paired with Billy’s lifelong inability to make real relationships. Described as anomic isolation, or a “breakdown of dependence” by Kevin Brown, this inability to fit in with society has plagued Billy from his youth (Brown 102). One episode which pairs Billy’s lack of meaning relationships with a flashback from the war is at Billy’s anniversary when he hears a barbershop quartet sing a ballad about old friends called “That Old Gang of Mine.”

In this episode, “Billy Pilgrim found himself upset by the song and the occasion. He had never had an old gang, old sweethearts and pals, but he missed one anyway, as the quartet made slow, agonized experiments with chords…Billy had powerful psychosomatic responses to he changing chords. His mouth filled with the taste of lemonade and his face became grotesque, as though he really were being stretched on the torture engine called the rack” (220). After Billy has time to process his reaction, he “found an association with an experience he had had long ago…He remembered it shimmeringly—as follows: “He was down in the meat locker on the night that Dresden was destroyed” (226). This ending image of Dresden in the war is the closest that we get to the horrible event itself, and it is precisely through Billy’s realization that he “had never had an old gang” that makes him remember his war experiences. Tralfamadore appears to be Billy’s way of coping with these war experiences, using tropes that he read in Kilgore Trout’s sci-fi books such as The Big Board in order to construct a narcissistic reality where he does have a meaningful relationship with Montana Wildhack (257). This fantasy planet allows Billy to accept his war experiences and instead “Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones” as the Tralfamadorians preach (150). A focus on both the alienation of the modern American and the trauma put on soldiers puts the psychological aspects of Vonnegut into a strong anti-war light and explains the author’s mixtures of genres. With a combination of philosophy, sci-fi, American banality, war, psychology, and humor, Vonnegut transgresses former boundaries of the novel, and places Slaughterhouse-Five among the best novels of the 20th century.

Works Cited

Bergenholtz, Rita, and John R. Clark. “Food for Thought in Slaughterhouse-Five.” Thalia 18.1 (1998): 84-93. MLA International. Web. 13 Apr. 2014.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2001. Print.

Brown, Kevin.: “The psychiatrists were right: anomic alienation in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.” South Central Review (28:2) 2011, 101-9. (2011)

Cox, Sebastian. “The Dresden Raids: Why and How.” Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden, 1945. Ed. Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang. London: Pimlico, 2006. N. pag. Print.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. Slaughterhouse-Five: Reforming the Novel and the World. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Print.

Neitzel, Sönke. “The City Under Attack.” Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden, 1945. Ed. Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang. London: Pimlico, 2006. N. pag. Print.

Preface. Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden, 1945. Ed. Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang. London: Pimlico, 2006. N. pag. Print.

Strachan, Hew. “Strategic Bombing and the Question of Civilian Casualties up to 1945.” Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden 1945. Ed. Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang. London: Pimlico, 2006. N. pag. Print.

Vees-Gulani, Susanne. “Diagnosing Billy Pilgrim: A Psychological Approach to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.” Critique 44.2 (2003): n. pag.MLA International. Web. 11 Apr. 2014.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-five Or, The Children’s Crusade, a Duty-dance with Death. New York: Dial, 2005. Print.

Wepler, Ryan. “‘I Can’t Tell If You’re Being Serious or Not’: Vonnegut’s Comic Realism in Slaughterhouse-Five.” HJEAS: Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies 17.1 (2011): 97-126. MLA International. Web. 8 Apr. 2014.

Written by Nora


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We Sinful Women (“Hum Guneghaar Aurtain”)- Transgressing Temporality and Poetic Form

Kishwar Naheed


 کشور نھید

Hum Guneghaar Auratein– We Sinful Women”

It is we sinful women

who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns

(who are not intimidated by the magnificence of those who wear robes)

who don’t sell our bodies (lives)

who don’t bow our heads

who don’t fold our hands together (in supplication).

It is we sinful women

while those who sell the harvests of our bodies

become exalted

become distinguished

become the just princes (gods) of the material world.

It is we sinful women

who come out raising the banner of truth

up against barricades of lies on the highways

who find stories of persecution piled on each threshold

(find tales of punishment at every doorstep)

who find that tongues which could speak have been severed.

It is we sinful women.

Now, even if the night gives chase

these eyes shall not be put out.

For the wall which has been razed

don’t insist now on raising it again.

It is we sinful women

who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns

(who are not intimidated by the magnificence of those who wear robes)

who don’t sell our bodies (lives)

who don’t bow our heads

who don’t fold our hands together (in supplication).

*Translated from Urdu by Rukhsana Ahmed. The italicized words are my own translation.  

“We Sinful Women:” Transgressing Temporality and Poetic Form

by Sultan Jahan Begum


In 1977, Kishwar Naheed’s translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was banned by the Pakistani government for three reasons: first, she had translated and published the book without government permission; second, she had violated copyright (although Pakistan does not honor copyright laws); third, the translation was considered pornographic and vulgar. (Haeri, No Shame for the Sun, 287)  The English version of The Second Sex was not banned anywhere in Pakistan. Naheed was then ousted from her government position, arrested, released on a hefty bail and watched by the Criminal Investigation Department from 1977 through 1979 because of her controversial poetry and politics. In a 2009 interview, Naheed responded to the charge that her translation was pornographic and vulgar by noting that one obstacle to writing about women’s bodies and sexualities in Urdu is that “many words in prose don’t even exist… My translation of The Second Sex was banned because of the use of words describing a woman’s private parts in actual language.” (Shoaib, “Vocabulary of Resistance,” 175-176)

In class, we have discussed transgression as the act of expanding or going beyond established social boundaries and limits. Chris Jenks’ Transgression opens with the immediate post-9/11 moment, characterized by global outrage because, “A violation had occurred, some boundary had been crossed.” (Jenks, Transgression, 1) Jenks further defines transgression as not only going beyond a defined social norm or boundary, but also “to announce and laudate the commandment, the law, or the convention,” thus making transgression into a “deeply reflexive act of denial and affirmation.” (Jenks, 2)

This simple definition is handy for reading Naheed’s poem as transgressive of a few different ideas, in this case, temporality, poetic form and contemporary politics. This presentation will address Naheed’s most famous poem, “We Sinful Women,” within the context of late nineteenth century Indian femininity and contemporary Pakistani society, exploring how Naheed’s poem addresses the continuity of these two temporal contexts, considered by historians as distinct periods. This is also a feminist argument, one that questions the extent to which the liberal, Enlightenment-inspired nation-state has actually secured equal rights for all its citizens. This presentation will then further examine how Naheed’s poem transgresses the traditional bounds of the ghazal, a poetic form that has pervaded South Asian literature for centuries. Finally, I will present a reading of “We Sinful Women” within the context in which it was written, 1980s Pakistan.

Kishwar Naheed was born in Uttar Pradesh, India in 1940 and moved to Lahore, Pakistan in 1949, just two years after India was partitioned. Naheed’s writing career, which began approximately in the late 1960s, is based on themes that critique the relationship between women and patriarchal states and societies. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Naheed attended various conferences on women’s issues abroad and traveled widely, meeting writers and activists from all over the world. Naheed continued to write during 1977-1988, although she was individually targeted by Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime. Naheed is widely known in Pakistan and the global community for her women-positive poetry.

While many of Naheed’s readers call Naheed to be a feminist, including Rukhsana Ahmad, who has translated many of Naheed’s poems into English, Naheed has never explicitly taken on this label herself. I attribute this to the very complex debate over feminism in Pakistan. (If you are interested, you can read my piece on thefeministwire on this topic.) However, Naheed’s work is transgressive partially because the  themes she addresses, such as female equality in the legal and domestic (or formal and informal) realms, are read as feminist. Since there is a notable population that rejects feminism as (pejoratively) Western, inauthentic and anti-family, this lens makes Naheed’s work transgressive among readers who think her work is feminist.

Reading Naheed’s work as feminist adds a transgressive lens to her poetry. Additionally, much of her work critiques the Pakistani state.  These critiques represent transgression as a “deeply reflexive act of denial and affirmation.” (Jenks, Transgression, 2) Naheed’s work serves to point out the flaws in Pakistan’s nation-state project in order to rectify them. This is arguably a feminist goal as well- to critique patriarchal nationalism in order to rectify its ills.  Since Naheed’s work is not anti-nationalist, her work is therefore more reflexive and wavers, in a complex manner, between affirming and denying the nation-state.


The Partition of India and the Creation of Pakistan- August 14/15, 1947


Transgressing Temporality: Formal Colonialism and Indian Femininity

Naheed transgresses the temporal bounds of history to argue that Pakistani women today still emphasize late nineteenth century models of femininity based on male-defined concepts of morality, motherhood and domesticity. Temporality refers to the state of existing within or having some relationship to time.  Naheed transgresses temporality by arguing that social expectations have transgressed historical ruptures. While historians theorize events as ruptures in time, after which nothing remains the same (think Jenks’ description of 9/11 as a “metaphor for irrevocability”), Naheed’s argument shows that despite the end of formal colonialism and the Partition of India in 1947, women’s social role remains unchanged. This line of argumentation is deeply critical of the liberal nation-state model, which purports to give equal rights to all citizens, regardless of ethnicity, race, gender and religion, and follows contemporary feminist literature on the patriarchal implications of the nation-state. (Scott, Only Paradoxes to Offer).

Naheed’s poem “We Sinful Women” discusses women who transgress social norms. These norms, which exist in Pakistani society today, have a very particular history. On May 10, 1857, the British East India Company’s sepoys mutinied against Company rule. It was the largest rebellion against European empire in the nineteenth century. The British Crown, which was formerly ruling India through the British East India Company and a series of Mughal puppet-emperors, came to rule India formally in an era known as Crown Raj. One aspect of elite court culture that disappeared completely in this time was that of the north Indian royal court. Shahs were also patrons of the arts and maintained courts consisting of nobles and tawaifain, or dancing girls. A tawaif usually catered to the nobility and contributed to the maintenance of Urdu music, dance and literature. The British confiscated tawafain property and assets during the Rebellion and while most resumed their careers in order to support themselves, without the cultural structure that granted tawaifain class and prestige, they became prostitutes in the true Victorian sense. Their profession became “the great social evil.”



Prostitution- The Great Social Evil

The courtesan’s fall from grace became the main premise for reforming Indian womanhood in the late nineteenth century. Male-authored novels and manuals described women in two categories: woman-as-ornament and woman-as-prostitute. The didactic tone in these texts was intended to reformulate the elite woman into a monogamous wife who embodied tawaif characteristics (literary and musical education, among other traits). The woman-as-ornament characteristics were incredibly difficult to replicate. Women were to be well educated in poetry, music and literature- after all,  tawaifain were sources of intellectual stimulation and entertainment- and simultaneously pious Muslim housewives who spent their time producing and raising the next generation of pious Muslim men.

This curious mixing of wifely and tawaif characteristics is one context into which Naheed’s poem “We Sinful Women” takes on a particular valence. The protagonists of her poem, so-called “sinful women,” are neither ornamental wives nor prostitutes, both of whom lament the inevitability of selling their lives to husbands or pimps. This is a direct play on the word sinful and the normalization of  prostitution as an immoral act, rather than the fact that there continue to be customers (presumably male). The ‘normalization’ of prostitution as a sinful profession is a tangible recognition of the hegemony of Victorian ideals and British colonization. Naheed’s language suggests that the real sinful women are those who stand up against the woman-as-ornament and woman-as-prostitute categories that were placed on women from without. Her sinful women refuse to let others become “exalted and distinguished” and princes or gods in the material world by their selling female beings- both literal female bodies and ideas of womanhood that are impossible to attain. Women do not follow male-defined dictates are stifled, their tongues severed and their paths blocked.

Naheed’s poem has an overlapping, contemporary valence as well. She transgresses the temporal bounds of history to argue that Pakistani women today still emphasize late nineteenth century models of femininity, the aforementioned male-defined concepts of morality, motherhood and domesticity. Temporality refers to the state of existing within or having some relationship to time.  Naheed transgresses temporality by arguing that social expectations have transgressed historical ruptures. While historians theorize events as ruptures in time, after which nothing remains the same, Naheed’s argument shows that despite the end of formal colonialism and the Partition of India in 1947, the social role of women remains unchanged. This line of argumentation is deeply critical of the liberal nation-state model, which purports to give equal rights to all citizens, regardless of ethnicity, race, gender and religion, and follows contemporary feminist literature on the patriarchal implications of the nation-state.

Naheed takes this feminist line of argumentation one step further by examining how females oppress other females by enforcing feminine norms among generations of women. Naheed calls the unchallenged reproduction of social mores the perpetuation of a ‘feminine myth.’ Her language mirrors that used by Simone de Beauvoir, one of Naheed’s influences. Beauvoir herself has noted,

“Daughter is… at once her [mother’s] double and another person, the mother is at once overweeningly affectionate and hostile toward her daughter; she saddles her child with her own destiny: a way of proudly laying claim to her own femininity and also a way of revenging herself for it… Even a generous mother, who sincerely seeks her child’s welfare, will as a rule think that it is wiser to make a ‘true woman’ of her, since society will more readily accept her if this is done.” (Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 281.)

Here we have a type of generational violence in which the burdens of femininity are passed on as inheritances. In this system, described by Beauvoir and Naheed alike, there is very little room for transgressing social norms and both writers advocate for challenging the reproduction of ideas and mores along generational lines.

Transgressing Form: The Ghazal in South Asian Literature

The transgressive theme that runs throughout Naheed’s work applies to her poetic form as well. “We Sinful Women” takes the tradition form of a ghazal, a Central and South Asian poetic form that usually celebrates illicit, unattainable  love and/or unbearable pain, often due to separation from one’s beloved. The main themes contained in ghazals  surround metaphysical and eternal questions, such as the non-earthly beloved, or God. Ghazals have been likened to sonnets due to their carefully structured and controlled rhyme scheme and rhythm. (Silva, “Shameless Women,” 3) They are often put to music and performed as songs in a performative genre that is available to all classes. Overall, expressing intense affect is the main idea that distinguishes a ghazal from other forms of South Asian poetry.

Naheed’s poem transgresses the centuries-old norms regarding ghazal thematics. While she is expressing deep emotion and personal feeling, her messages are necessarily political and social in a way that ghazal poetry never was. Her affect is intertwined with a socio-political feeling that forces the reader/listener to face the plight of women, both in historical and contemporary periods. To this end, Naheed joins a contemporary movement of anti-colonial ghazals, in which deep pain is expressed through cruel (colonial) rulers and martyred freedom fighters. In these early twentieth century ghazals, political activism and traditional poetic form became wedded. Yet the main anti-colonial poets of the twentieth century did not write gendered poetry. Until very recently, men controlled the mushaira (a gathering to recite ghazals and other types of poems) scene as well as the editing and publishing markets.



Renowned Urdu and Persian poet Talha Rizvi Barque performing at a mushaira in Bihar, 1969

Female poets, including Naheed and many of her contemporaries, transgress upon the bounds of this male-centric world. While female poets have existed for centuries, many were forced to write under pen names and have been written out of history. Using the deep emotional force that has characterized ghazals for centuries, Naheed’s work again departs from the norm by expressing frustration with a predetermined future, an emotion that is neither eternal nor metaphysical. The thrust of Naheed’s work is political and contemporary, using history to support her claims about today and to warn other women about the dangers of tomorrow. Her diction about women’s bodies does so in “actual language,” not quite to the extent of her Urdu translation of The Second Sex, but is nonetheless directly addressing corporeal women and the labor their bodies produce. This is a distinct departure from traditional ghazals, which only discuss the beloved in veiled terms, using metaphors such as the moon to describe a young, innocent face.

The bodies in Naheed’s poems are riddled with social contradictions. In the poem, we have prostitutes, considered ‘sinful’ by a society that nonetheless demands their sexual servitude. We also see women who speak up for themselves yet are ideologically pushed out of public discourse because they are ‘sinful’ for transgressing these norms. These are just two examples of themes previously untouched by the traditional ghazal. Her invocation of a traditional form to express untraditional themes is a transgressive act, one that does not create a new poetic form but rather expands the ghazal’s boundaries to include political ideas.


Transgressing the State: Military Rule(s) in Pakistan

This poem is a direct reflection of Naheed’s own society and simultaneously her response to it. This paper has made historical connections between late nineteenth century Indian social mores and demonstrated that these tropes exist today. According to historian Saadia Toor, “every aspect of the Pakistani state, society, politics and culture worth noting today bears the scars of the eleven years of martial law under General Zia-ul-Haq from 1977-1988, Pakistan’s longest and most brutal dictatorship.” (Toor, The State of Islam, 117) Within one year after obtaining power through a right-wing backed coup, Zia announced his intentions to “Islamize” Pakistan and added members of the conservative political party Jamaat-e-Islami to work in his cabinet to ensure his political stability. Zia’s Islamization program was not based on a pre-given meaning of Islam. Rather, he reproduced an earlier, late nineteenth century arguments on femininity that dictated that women did not have a place in the public sphere. Zia intentionally targeted women as the focal point of his Islamization plans because he knew focusing on the “reinvigoration” of the Pakistani family would be outwardly supported by the religious parties and win him “muted approval” of all classes of society. (Toor, “Moral Regulation in a Post-colonial Nation State,” 255)



Pakistani dictator Zia-ul-Haq with American President Ronald Reagan

Khawar Mumtaz, author of Women of Pakistan and a vibrant part of the women’s movement in Pakistan during Zia’s period, notes that by 1978 Zia’s Islamization campaign resulted in a change of attitude and social atmosphere in Pakistan that affected women adversely. In 1981, a number of Karachi and Lahore-based female activists launched the Khawateen Mahaz-e- Amal, the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), in order to address two alarming trends: first, the growing tendency to segregate women and push them back into their homes and second, to combat the various juridical actions, such as the Hudood Ordinances, that were falsely adopted in the name of Islam. (Mumtaz, Women of Pakistan, 74-75)

One of the Hudood Ordinances, the Zina Ordinance, marked the first time that adultery became a crime against the state as opposed to individuals and both actions became non-compoundable, non-bailable, and punishable by death. Zina is defined as sexual intercourse outside of legal marriage and conflates two practices: adultery among the married and fornication among the unmarried. There was no provision for rape within marriage. In order to prove zina, four ‘pious’ Muslim adult male witnesses must account for the act of penetration, or the accused (male or female) may confess. With the implementation of the Hudood laws, rape was subsumed under zina and if coercion cannot be proved (which was nearly impossible), then the victim of rape becomes an offender of zina who had “enjoyed” illicit sexual activity.


Women protesting against the Law of Evidence (Zina) in Lahore in 1983. The police suppressed the protest with violence.

Naheed was also a founding member of WAF and “We Sinful Women” was written in the mid-1980s as a response to Zia’s Islamization. The fourth stanza is a direct comment on the WAF’s protests against Zia’s judicially violent measures. The WAF has literally raised the banner of truth, exposing these laws and the government that supports them as biased, and was repressed, sometimes brutally, at most turns. Given Naheed’s house arrest in the early years of Zia’s rule (the late 1970s), the “night giving chase” realistically represents the guards sitting outside Naheed’s front door, enforcing her literal imprisonment. Towards the end of the same stanza, Naheed writes, “the wall which has been razed, don’t insist now on raising it again,” emphasizing the WAF’s persistence can never be beat out of them. With severed tongues, these so-called “sinful” women will persistently find a way to speak and be heard.


Concluding Thoughts

This presentation has read Kishwar Naheed’s “We Sinful Women” as a poem that transgresses of temporality, form and the nation-state. It remains undeniable that her poem is capable of many readings, a few of which I have offered here. My analysis of “We Sinful Women” fits in neatly with the themes of the course, including the place of women’s agency as female protagonists, women’s agency as writers, and transgressive literature that is construed as “dangerous” within one’s own society. As a final note, I would like to stress that it is simplistic and reductive to see Naheed and other third world women as fighting against an inherently patriarchal religion (as Mona el-Tahawy has recently argued). Rather, “culture” seems to be the culprit of women’s oppression and, yet also provides the space for writers such as Naheed to produce transgressive literature. Understanding culture as a concept is not easily done, and it is increasingly important to acknowledge the role played by the nation-state, for example, in juridically and culturally organizing and suppressing society and by questioning reform within a generational framework, in which custom and tradition is reproduced endlessly. From this vantage point, Naheed’s social critiques can be read as female, not just Pakistani. In class, I would like to continue to think about culture as an intellectual space, a ubiquitous zeitgeist, that simultaneously enables and disables transgressive literature to be written, read, contested, banned and ultimately influential in an unprecedented way.

Works Cited

Ahmad, Rukhsana, ed. and trans. We Sinful Women: Contemporary Urdu Feminist Poetry. London: The Women’s Press, 1991.

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

Haeri, Shahla. No Shame for the Sun: Lives of Professional Pakistani Women. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2002.

Mumtaz, Khawar. Women of Pakistan: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back. Edited by Farida Shaheed. London: Zed Books, 1988.

Naheed, Kishwar. Buri Aurat ki Katha. New Delhi: Har-Ananf Publications, 1995. Urdu.

      A Bad Woman’s Story. Translated by Durdana Soomro. London: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Scott, Joan. Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Silva, Neluka. “Shameless Women: Repression and Resistance in We Sinful Women: Contemporary Urdu Feminist Poetry.” Meridians 3, no. 2 (2003): 28-51.

Shoaib, Mawash. “Vocabulary of Resistance: A Conversation with Kishwar Naheed.” Pakistaniaat: A Journal of Pakistan Studies Vol. 1, No. 2 (2009): 172-179.

Subramanayam, Lakshmi. Cultural Behavior and Personality. New Delhi: Mittal Publications, 2001.

Toor, Saadia. The State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan. London: Pluto Books, 2011.

“Moral Regulation in a Postcolonial Nation-State.” Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 9, no. 2 (2007): 255-275.


“My Years with the WAF.” 14 April 2014.

Oldenburg, Veena. “Lifestyle as Resistance.” Accessed 13 April 2014.

“Partition of India.” Accessed 14 April 2014. “Prostitution in Victorian England.” Accessed 13 April 2014.

Skene, Patrick.  “Reasons to be Paranoid.” Accessed 14 April 2014.

“Talha Rizvi Barque.”,_Bhojpur_Bihar.jpg Accessed 13 April 2014.

“The Valiant Queen.” Accessed 15 April 2014.

Suggested Reading

Anantharam, Anita.Bodies that Remember: Women’s Indigenous Knowledge and Cosmopolitanism in South Asian Poetry. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2011.   “Engendering the Nation: Women, Islam and Poetry in Pakistan.” Journal of International Women’s Studies 11, no. 1 (2009): 208-224.

Ahmad, Sadaf. Transforming Faith: The Story of Al-Huda and Islamic Revivalism Among Urban Pakistani Women. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2009.

Ali, Azra Asghar. The Emergence of Feminism Among Indian Muslim Women 1920- 1947. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Burton, Antoinette. Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women and Imperial Culture, 1865-1915. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Butalia, Urvashi. The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. New Delhi: Viking Penguin, 1998.

Hanif, Mohammad. A Case of Exploding Mangoes. New York: Vintage, 2009.

Jamal, Amina. “Transnational Feminism as Critical Practice: A Reading of Feminist Discourses in Pakistan.” Meridians 5, no. 2 (2002): 57-82.

“Gender, Citizenship and the Nation-State in Pakistan: Willful Daughters or Free Citizens?” Signs 31, no. 2 (2006): 283-304.

Kandiyoti, Deniz [ed]. Women, Islam and the State. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

Khan, Nighat Said. “The Women’s Movement Revisited: Areas of Concern for the Future.” In Global Feminist Politics: Identities in a Changing World, edited by Suki Ali, Kelly Coate and Wangui wa Goro, 5-10. London: Routledge, 2000.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Moallem, Minoo. “Transnationalism, Feminism and Fundamentalism.” In Between Women and Nation: Nationalisms, Transnational Feminisms and the State, edited by Caren Kaplan, N. Alarconand and M. Moallem, 320-348. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.

Rashid, Tahmina. Contested Representation: Punjabi Women in Feminist Debate in Pakistan. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Rouse, Shahnaz. Shifting Body Politics: Gender, Nation, State in Pakistan. Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2004.

Weiss, Anita. “The Slow Yet Steady Path to Women’s Empowerment in Pakistan.” In Islam, Gender and Social Change, edited by Y.Y. Haddad and J.L. Esposito, 124- 143. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

“The Historical Debate on Islam and the State in South Asia.” In Islamic Reassertion in Pakistan: The Application of Sharia Laws in a Modern State, ed. Anita Weiss. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1986.

“The Consequences of State Policies for Women in Pakistan” in The Politics of Social Transformation: Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, ed. Myron Weiner and Ali Bauazizi, 413-444. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1994.

Yaqin, Amina. “The Intertextuality of Women in Urdu Literature: A Study of FahmidaRiaz and KishwarNaheed.” PhD diss., School of Oriental and African Studies, 2001.   “Breaking the Mirror of Urdu Verse: Speech and Silence in the Poetry of KishwarNaheed.” Moving Worlds: A Journal of Transcultural Writings 4, no. 1 (2004): 34-46.

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Transgression via Translation of the Extraterrestrial: William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch.

William Burroughs on writing Naked Lunch: “I get these messages from other planets—I’m apparently some kind of agent from another planet but I haven’t got my orders clearly decoded yet…I’m shitting out my educated Middlewest background for once and for all. It’s a matter of catharsis, where I say the most horrible thing I can think of.” (Baker 97)

Naked Lunch was written by William Burroughs and first circulated in the United States, initially published in 1959, in 1962. Burroughs was a member of the Beat generation, a group of post-war writers who, in contrast to the traditionally imagined American experience of the 1950s, were frustrated and disillusioned with the state of affairs in the country and their own restricted position in society. Among the group were writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Diane DiPrima. Burroughs, Kerouac, and Ginsberg formed an especially close trio, though the latter two were substantially younger than Burroughs, thus regarding him as a role model of sorts. This contributed to Burroughs’s feelings of alienation and estrangement which played a huge role in the construction of his work.

Burroughs and Kerouac

Burroughs and Kerouac in New York in 1953, photographed by Ginsberg.

Burroughs and Ginsber

Burroughs and Ginsberg

Those feelings of alienation certainly originated from earlier than his relationships with Kerouac and Ginsberg; Burroughs never fit into his family well, nor did he identify with his peers as a youth. Further, he felt restricted in his social position, forced into a common law marriage with the former Joan Vollmer, unable to engage in a normal relationship with Ginsberg, for whom he felt strongly, as a result. Burroughs’s frequent travels abroad further functioned to discourage the formation of significant relationships with those in his life. This was especially the case when he spent time in Tangiers after the allegedly accidental death of his wife in 1951, an outcome of a game of William Tell gone awry. Burroughs had shot at a bottle placed on his late wife’s head and missed, shooting her in the head instead.

Burroughs article

Article from the New York Daily following the death of Joan Vollmer

Burroughs’s addiction to drugs also played an enormous role in fashioning both his life and his work, as was the case with many of the Beat writers. Burroughs’s time in Tangiers, again, was particularly formative on this front and was thus largely influential with regard to the creation of Naked Lunch. The novel itself is an episodic without a conventional overarching narrative structure. It was largely considered subversive as a result of its explicit sexual content, along with its graphic scenes depicting the implications of drug addiction. As a result, the book earned itself an Obscenity Trial, as did several other Beat works, the most notable of which was Ginsberg’s “Howl.” The trial of the case “Attorney General versus A Book Named ‘Naked Lunch’,” took place from October 1965 to July 1966 when the Naked Lunch was judged to be protected under the First Amendment as not “obscene.”

In order to have been considered outside of the First Amendment’s protection, it would have had to fulfill three prescriptions: “(a) the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to a prurient interest in sex, (b) the material is patently offensive because it affronts contemporary community standards…and (c) the material is utterly without social value.” It was the third of these qualifications that ultimately caused the decision to come down in the book’s favor, a decision which was heavily influenced by a prior decision of the Supreme Court regarding another subversive novel of the period, Herman Miller’s The Tropic of Cancer. Several writers testified in order to defend the book’s literary value, including one of Burroughs’s professional heroes, Norman Mailer. Regarding the necessity of the abrasive content, Mailer said that

“one had to enter this terrible borderland of sex, sadism, obscenity, horror and anything else because somehow the conscience of Western man has become altogether muddy in refusing to enter it, and because the Nazis were so horrible, must we for the rest of our lives refuse to look at these phenomena? We have got to get into it, that is why I salute Mr. Burroughs’ work, because he has gone further into it than any other Western writer today.” (Morgan 337)

Mailer’s sentiment speaks to a popular query about the place of literature in society following such morally reprehensible acts that took place during the Second World War. In a very real way, the graphic nature of Burroughs’s novel provides an answer to Theodor Adorno’s idea that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. Barbaric events in life beget a new, post-Modern, barbaric sort of poetic description.

The scenes of explicit drug use and sex certainly made the novel transgressive, but the subtler ways in which it moves across traditional bounds of literature make it more substantially so, beyond the mere value of the content’s shock factor. These less apparent modes of transgression present themselves in the more formal and functional aspects of the work and include the transformation of the ugly into the beautiful, the layers of social critique, and the presence of literary allusions and philosophical references in the novel.

Those scenes which include the sorts of graphic descriptions that would elicit responses of disgust from readers hold much more in them than mere shock value, which would have certainly been an argument for the book as having literary merit. Their true power rests within the way in which Burroughs is able to describe unspeakable horrors with an extent of real beauty. The ugly is made into something lovely through Ginsberg’s aestheticization of the events. Take, for example, the following passage:

“The old junky has found a vein…blood blossoms in the dropper like a Chinese flower…he pushes home the heroin and the boy who jacked off fifty years ago shines immaculate through the ravaged flesh, filling the outhouse with the sweet nutty smell of young male lust…” (Burroughs 80-81)

When reduced to the simplest terms, Burroughs here describes to us an old junky shooting up heroin. However, the spirit of each of the images in isolation (and thus as they are compounded) is in direct contrast with the reality of the actual event that Burroughs describes. The image of two differently colored liquids mixing as one “blossoms” into the other, especially paired with the image of a “Chinese flower,” is beautiful and intriguingly exotic, as we have this unfamiliar but enticing qualification of orientalism. This was a common trope of the Beats; often did they refer to elements of non-western culture in their constructions as a technique to distance the reader enough so that she would recognize the otherness of the description, but not so much so that she would feel alienated to the extent that she would not want to understand further and go deeper.

Following this budding flower image, we have the almost Biblical image of a young boy resurrected, coming back into a sort of life with shining light. We can tell that this light is positive because of the religious overtones and positivity accompanying the adjective “immaculate.” Burroughs then goes on to conclude this particular instance with an olfactory image, which increases his descriptive power, as he’s thus appealing to more than one sense. He hits us with an aroma of sweetness and nuttiness, thus keeping the scent from being overly sweet or savory, since it’s a combination of the two. That this is associated then with young male lust is troublesome, because, especially during the conservativism of post-war American society, sexual desires were not supposed to be made explicit or even discernable. Even Burroughs’s description of male desire as “young male lust” could be regarded as problematic; we associate innocence and purity with youth, and the soft sonic finish of the word “lust” might be initially indicative that the description is of something light and lovely, as opposed to that which can become an instrument of serious violence and does so repeatedly throughout the novel. It makes us severely uncomfortable to find such real grittiness beautiful as a result of Burroughs presentation of it.

Burroughs’s social critique throughout the novel are also not readily apparent upon a cursory read of the novel, but in fact give the book more transgressive power than it would have had otherwise. No facet of institutional power is safe from Burroughs’s examination; most significantly, he attacks the issues inherent with a capitalist economy creating a specific way of life and state of mind, religion, problems with corrupt physicians and in the practice of medicine, and racial power structures of the time which are eerily reminiscent of the state of affairs in the nation today. His most pervasive critique is that of capitalism and its discontents; he utilizes the double entendre he prescribes the word “junk” throughout the work, thus applying such passages to both the literal drug use he describes and a greater statement about the defunked nature of the American economy:

“Junk is the mold of monopoly and possession. The addict stands by while his legs carry him straight in on the junk beam to relapse. Junk is quantitative and accurately measurable. The more junk you use the less you have and the more you have the more you use…

            “Junk is the ideal product…the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy…The junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product.” (200-201)

In every sentence, phrase and clause in this excerpt, we can certainly read “junk,” as slang for heroin, which would make rational sense, insofar as contextualizing the term in an autobiographical novel that deals heavily with drug addiction. It is certainly true that heroin is addictive in the way Burroughs describes, that once a person becomes a drug addict, they cease to maintain any human agency. Their thoughts slowly quiet and ultimately silence when under a fix, and their actions become completely geared toward finding the next fix. The junk has more agency and power than the people using it.

All of these sentiments can quickly be turned into an economic assessment if we merely shift our conception of the word “junk” to mean trash, unnecessary commodities, or excessive possessions. In the same way as addicts are perpetually focused on getting their next fix, Americans are obsessed with commodities and luxury goods. They are (we are) addicted to demonstrating our superior position in the social hierarchy via the display of material goods. Under our market economy, the amount of “things” we each have in our possession seems to compound whether we initially need them or not, and thus we begin to develop an addiction, creating a different kind of need (not that our literal survival is dependent upon having more and more, but that without excessive and perpetual consumption we find ourselves in a state of despair). It follows that goods are indeed the ideal product; when people have the perception that such things are crucial to their survival, no hard-sale tactics are necessary. This direct comparison between drug addiction and addiction to consumption is almost unthinkably powerful. Burroughs has literally likened anyone who participates in our capital-driven economy to a drug addict, incapable of doing anything other than feeding the addiction. It’s almost comical that it wasn’t this, but the graphic nature of the book, that drew so many objections.

The final, and arguably the craftiest, method of transgression in Naked Lunch is the way in which Burroughs demonstrates that he has been steeped in traditions of classical literature, philosophy, mythology, music, non-western culture and literature, travelogues, and literary tropes in general. The text references throughout: the Bible, the Koran, various mythologies. There are also pointed references to Coleridge and the Ancient Mariner (29, 72-3), German opera (54), Aztec mythology (67-8), traditions of sailor songs which were present in sea adventure novels, such as Treasure Island (70), the concept of the femme fatale (82-3), travelogues (90), the ideas of Confucius and Lao Tze (97), Greek mythology (100-1), Indian mythology (120), modalities in Shakespeare and Greek tragedy (120), and classical Greek and Roman poets, namely Homer and Vergil (209). All of these references demonstrate that Burroughs had at least come into contact with all of these forms, if not being well practiced in working with them. This adds to the cheekiness of the piece, because he has taken the time, not only to learn, but to know the rules of tradition, especially in literature, so that he can break those rules at the right time and in the right way so that their very spirit and essence can be subverted.

This is one of those texts that changed the way the world looked at literature thereafter. It’s amazing how despite the defeatist, dystopian overtones of the book, Burroughs was able to create something so weirdly beautiful. Burroughs appeals to the marginal in all of us and challenges our ideas of what it means to be poetic in Naked Lunch. Most importantly though, he teaches us how we survive with the ugliness of the world by fashioning it as less repulsive.



Attorney General vs. A Book Named “Naked Lunch.” 351 Mass. 298. The Court of Suffolk County. 1966. Web. 9 April 2014.

Baker, Phil. William S. Burroughs. London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 2010.

Burroughs, William S. Naked Lunch. New York: Grove Press, 1959.

Morgan, Ted. Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1988.


Additional resources to explore:

Burroughs himself reading Naked Lunch:

On the book as socially present fifty years after being published (Tom Vitale piece on NPR):

Original New York Times book review of Naked Lunch from November 1962:


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