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Fiction and Taboos

January 9, 2010

In an essay I discussed here earlier, Katie Roiphe speculates that the Important Male Writers write less about sex today than they did a generation ago because “we have landed upon a more conservative time.”  An alternative thesis is that it’s because we have landed upon a more permissive time, what with the Internet porn and the wardrobe malfunction and the sexting and the Lady GaGa and the so on and so forth. (Set aside, for the moment, the fact that two theses really aren’t incompatible since the first concerns personal sexual behavior and the second concerns standards of public discourse.) Ross Douthat, among others, floats this alternative here and goes on to bemoan the fact that we apparently live in an age so permissive it makes great art almost impossible:

In their wild quest to overturn every conceivable taboo, in other words, the Great Male Authors of mid-century may have succeeded a little bit too well. By tearing down every possible stricture on fictional representations of sex, they abandoned their successors to the vicissitudes of a world where anything could be written, but nothing could really shock. Great art depends on walls as well as open doors, on constraints as well as cultural blank checks. And anyone who’s nostalgic for the exhilarating transgressiveness that once animated American literature should probably be at least a little bit nostalgic for the taboos that made transgression possible.

A couple things.  Surely, those authors didn’t break down every conceivable taboo and every possible stricture. Taking the obvious test cases, surely incest and pedophilia would still shock a lot of people. (As a case in point, consider some of the outrage that met the recent English-language publication of Jonathan Littell’s novel “The Kindly Ones”.) Douthat also overestimates the importance of “walls”, i.e. explicit social taboos. Great art opens up new possibilities, typically where we didn’t even realize there were new possibilities. There needn’t be anything especially transgressive about this. Indeed, transgressive art usually just breaks down barriers that everyone is already all too aware of–it typically works with a familiar but artificially divided space of possibilities. Really great art, art that is not merely transgressive, completely reshapes that space. What is true is that great art needs conventions and small-mindedness to push off against, but of these we’ll never be in short supply. Finally, even if certain social conditions help produce great art, it’s abominably bad intellectual policy to feel, on those grounds, even a little nostalgia for those conditions.  Should nostalgia for the soaring greatness of Gothic cathedrals inspire nostalgia for the fear and ignorance that produced them? Obviously not.

One hypothesis to take seriously and that I have seen mentioned is the following: midcentury fiction seems so much better than the contemporary stuff because the older writing is so much more titillating and therefore has more mass appeal, which is what critics like Roiphe and Douthat are picking up on. When it comes to gauging the ultimate value of different highbrow fictions, we shouldn’t have too much confidence in our own critical instruments. It can take a while for the reading public to see what is really of value in an author. Of course, this shouldn’t preempt serious discussion; it’s just something to keep in mind.

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