SHOCK APPEAL / Who Are These Writers, and Why Do They Want to Hurt Us? : The New Fiction of Transgression

<i> Silverblatt is the host of KCRW's Bookworm, Mondays at 2 p.m. He is also the moderator of the Lannan Foundation's Readings and Conversations series</i>

The chic underground has been featuring piercings and tattooings. Whips and chains are prevalent in fashionable photography. The shocking self-penetrations of recent body-centered performance art are being rationalized by concepts of “empowerment,” of “owning” our bodies. We hear references to Rome in its decline, primitivism and savage mutilation rites.

At a recent writing workshop in Los Angeles given by Dennis Cooper (author of the explicit novel “Frisk” among other works), I was not surprised to hear what the young writers are interested in. There was no talk of minimalism (the parade is past), or postmodernism (an aberration of the academy); the talk was all about the new new thing: transgressive writing. Exploring the sexual frontiers implicit in Mapplethorpe’s photographs or Karen Finley’s performances, transgressive writing has violation at its core: violation of norms, of humanistic enterprise, of the body. Really, it’s the Marquis de Sade who officiates at the American orgy.

Who are these young writers reading? A variety pack. In alphabetical order: Kathy Acker, Roland Barthes, Georges Bataille, Jean Baudrillard, Dennis Cooper, Joan Didion, Bret Easton Ellis, Michel Foucault, William Gass, Jean Genet . . . but over and over again the transgressive classics: William Burroughs and Sade.

This month, a new biography of the Marquis de Sade arrives on the scene. Monumental in size, the product of extensive scholarship, “Sade” by Maurice Lever (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $35; 568 pp.) is the first major biography since Gilbert Lely’s windy old classic came out in 1948,and the first to benefit from the Sade family’s recent willingness to make available their complete archive.


Born in 1740 to a noble family, Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade was also born into the traditions of libertinism. His father was a rake, his mother a lady-in-waiting. He was sent to be raised in one fortress after another--a remote castle and an abbey in whose library he would find the essays that examined the dangers of flagellation as a form of religious privation (too much whipping can lead to sexual excitation).

If you have read his “120 Days of Sodom,” this new account of Sade’s life can come as an awful letdown. There are niggling debates over whether, after flagellating a woman who may or may not have been a prostitute, Sade cut her with a penknife and filled the wounds with wax (as the woman claimed in court), or used a wax emollient of his own invention to heal the wounds from the whipping (as Sade claimed), or whether the wax, in fact, was from the candle Sade was holding to illuminate the proceedings (the biographer’s helpful suggestion).

Libertine excess opened to him in the way drugs and sex have opened to American teen-agers, and in this biography his progress has a familiar ring. Sade seems like a drug-addicted teen-ager whose family is spending endless amounts of time and money to keep him out of jail, out of the hospital, out of the mental wards and the morgue, while the kid takes advantage of everyone’s distracted attention to escape to a club and shoot up. Sade’s family indulges in ritual hand wringing and sighing. I particularly liked the coining of the lovely excuse that the boy is just “hot-headed.”

Swinburne (his pen dipped in blood?) celebrated the ghastly absolutist--"a blasted head flashing, a massive chest crossed by lightning, the phallus-man, an august and cynical profile grimacing like a ghastly and sublime Titan . . . the vast and sinister figure of the Marquis de Sade appear(s) above a whole epoch sewn with stars.”


This Sade is absent from the tedious itemization that Lever chronicles of trials and pardons, wheedlings and lies, escapes and constant requests to all and sundry for a little bit of money just to get by.

Think of all the essays, brilliant and dense, by virtually every literary French intellectual of this century, in which Sade is a god: Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, Simone de Beauvoir. Muscular essays bulge with the effort to reconcile the intellectual thrill of Sade’s writing with the undeniable shock of his ugly and tireless imagination. For them, Sade is unreadable, but this excruciating form of unreadability is singular. And Sade is disgusting, but the disgust he inspires is absolute and therefore valuable.

The gap between Sade’s pathetic life and the intellectual fireworks that his writings inspire leads us to the true Sadeian subject: the realm of the hypothetical, where Sade lived for most of his writing life. It is Sade’s ability to disown his body and live in the mayhem of the intellect that gives his work its character.

The hypothetical imagination is an unbearable plane where events are mentally possible and fictionally possible but not possible in actuality. Sade’s “breakthrough” into letters, “The 120 Days of Sodom,” was written in prison, where the imagination, not the body, is given its freest rein. When the world is all chains and fetters, the imagination survives by ignoring the world, disowning the body, and constructing hypothetical systems. This imagination requires the defeat of the physical world, and the virtual obliteration of the body.

It is not surprising to learn that Sade had his wife bring rich foods and delicacies to him in prison; but he also gave her elaborate coded instructions for the construction of out-sized devices of wood and glass to facilitate solitary stimulation (two sets: his and hers). Sade confesses in a letter from prison that he has grown so fat that it is no longer easy for him to walk, and that the sexual devices (consequently?) are too small.

When his body can no longer move because of its weight, when Sade is imprisoned by more than just the bars, is it any wonder that he imagines an acrobatics of torture that only cartoon characters can survive? Jettisoning physical experience facilitates the invention of a grotesque ad impossible physicality--one that requires the dismemberment of the body as the climax of sexual experience. (It is not hard to find the hypothetical imagination at work in our century. The scientists who developed the atomic bomb in their enclave at Los Alamos surrendered to the hypothetical without fully and rationally considering the consequences--the destruction of a greater body still, that of our planet.)

The underlying idea of transgressive thinking (as derived from Foucault) is that knowledge is no longer to be found through the oppositions of dialectical reasoning. Instead, knowledge is found at the limits of experience. The body becomes the locus for the possibility of knowledge. This may be true, but I would suggest that the leather, the piercings and the body markings indicate a desire to escape from our bodies.

Admittedly Dennis Cooper’s workshop comprised a very hip group--young writers from art schools, from alternative newspapers, a mixture of straight and gay, though several of them preferred to call themselves queer rather than gay; several also do performance art, some have very modern hair, a few had piercings and/or tattoos--all of them very casual and intense--qualities that might be considered contradictory anywhere but in L.A.


I had taken the interest in the transgressive to be an extremely local and trendy manifestation until I began to consider the intensity of sexual anxiety in American culture right now. AIDS is throwing everyone’s sexual norms into disarray, and the already embattled nuclear family is under attack by the new rhetoric of incest, abuse and dysfunction. The new “discourse” in the English departments is centered around gender studies and the history of attitudes toward the body. It makes one nostalgic for the days when narcissism was felt to be the root of all cultural evil.

So transgressive writing is with us, signaled by the presence of anthologies like “High Risk” (Dutton) or “Love is Strange” (Pantheon) and a new imprint called High Risk Books being launched by Serpent’s Tail in America and in Britain. The Modern Primitives issue of Research Magazine led the way, as well as books from underground presses like Amok and Loompanics. Many young writers are exploring this terrain, so many I can only sketch an initial roster: Jeannette Winterson, David Foster Wallace, William T. Vollman, Dennis Cooper, Kathy Acker, Lynne Tillman, Joel Rose, Catherine Texier, Bret Easton Ellis, A.M. Homes, Mary Gaitskill, Stephen Beachy, Steve Erickson, Karen Joy Fowler, Will Self.

Obviously it is bad to generalize about writers whose very nature is to flout or disregard convention. But it is possible to say certain things. These writers tend to take the simple declarative sentences of the minimalists a few notches further toward blankness or numbness. No matter how startling the events in the fiction of A. M. Homes (a Barbie doll comes to sexual life, a patient finds that her psychoanalyst is in fact her missing, homicidal mother), the prose decides not to register any surprise. This deadened quality may be furthered by radical, slashing editing processes, often derived from William Burroughs. Kathy Acker razors her texts and injects foreign matter into them--splinters of literature, pornography, series noire mystery--to produce a prose that itself bears testament to mutilation. Dennis Cooper’s upcoming novel, “Try,” takes the blurring drone of groups like My Bloody Valentine and captures the tiny voices of his struggling teen-age victims inside the clanging violence of a static, loud, entrapping world of received ideas, pretentious art concepts, adult aggressiveness. The characters seem to be fighting their way out of the bonds of language itself.

Part of the attraction of transgressive writing may be that the trappings of sex that previously seemed dangerous--leather, whips, tattoos, brandings, chains--have become a kind of adornment, an adjunct to the new safe sex. And of course reading fiction, even transgressive fiction, is perhaps the safest sex of all.

An inroad to understanding the transgressive can be made by considering the work of two well-known contemporary writers, Anne Rice and Bret Easton Ellis. Anne Rice’s work is wildly popular. Even her three-volume extravaganza of sadomasochistic fantasy, the Sleeping Beauty trilogy, reaches a wide and approving audience. Bret Ellis’ “American Psycho” is still notorious--protested, banned, bought and left (mostly) unread. Both writers cover the same turf, the works of both are filled with violence against women, blood, and “depravity.” Why is one adored and the other vilified?

The answer is that we have accepted a level of transgression as permissible--transgression as soft-core fantasy. Anne Rice’s work, with its crazily embroidered sentences and its romantic decor, locates transgression in the supernatural realm, the work is as distanced as a Regency Romance, even the most shocking violations are rendered in the gassy, swooning rhetoric of a bodice ripper. The style lulls the reader.

“American Psycho’s” sentences are flat and realistic. It doesn’t want the reader to take pleasure in its excesses. It is not an entertainment. American audiences are inured to violence--when the violence is entertaining. As soon as violence becomes painful and shocking (that is as soon as it transgresses against our dulled senses) our response is rage.

A handy guideline: the false transgressor wants to give us an experience of virtual reality--but the author underlines the fantasy element of the experience. The real transgressor will not feed our yearning for fantasy and distance. “American Psycho” is no more “real” than Anne Rice’s Witch-Mummy-Vampire sado-sagas, but its stylizations are more real and immediate.


Rice turns desire into fantasy. The transgressive writer is more honest, knowing that all desire is unsafe, that all fantasy is trumped up style, that all transgression is a mixture of violations of style and personal risk.