Madness, Shame and the Reason We Write on the Edge

Today I ran across an artifact. It’s a letter written in 1985, by Charles Bukowski to the journalist Hans van den Broek, responding to the news that his book, ‘Tales of Ordinary Madness’ had been banned from a public library.

He wrote: “Censorship is the tool of those who have the need to hide actualities from themselves and from others. Their fear is only their inability to face what is real, and I can’t vent any anger against them. I only feel this appalling sadness. Somewhere, in their upbringing, they were shielded against the total facts of our existence. They were only taught to look one way when many ways exist.”

I’m surprised that no one, as yet, has written on the ERWA blog about PayPal’s pressure on eBook sellers to remove erotica containing taboo subjects such as incest, pseudo incest, bestiality, underaged sex and rape.

Finding this letter in the middle of what is happening today was strangely poignant. We are still in a world where people hide actualities from themselves. We don’t really like the fact that some people find fiction that disgusts us erotic.

It is very easy to look at those taboo labels and wonder who in their right might would ever find any of it erotic? Aren’t they sick, deviant, in need of psychological care? It turns out that over 40% of women have rape fantasies.  The average age of first sexual intercourse is 17.  One of the primary reasons why we find tales of werewolves so appealing is the eroticism of their beast-like nature.

When writers write on transgressive topics, especially when they look at them through an erotic lens, they are digging deep into the darker recesses of our subconscious.  They bring things into the light that may scare and fascinate us in equal measure.

I remember watching a film called ‘The Collector’ when I was young.  Based on the novel by John Fowles, it’s the story of an obsessive butterfly collector who decides to kidnap and keep a girl. I found it both incredibly frightening and inexplicably erotic. I was very ashamed by the fact that it turned me on. I was equally ashamed that I got so wet watching late night reruns of Fay Wray screaming and struggling in King Kong.

I admit it. I really did wonder how he was going to fit that enormous ape cock into little itty bitty Fay. Turned me on no end just thinking about it.

It wasn’t until I was a middle-aged woman that I decided to bring that shame into the light of day, or rather onto the page, and examine it.  I realized that I wasn’t equating my fantasies with the real world.  Having experienced real rape, I can assure you, it’s horrific.  And yet, although the words I used for the fantasies I had pertained to real acts in the real world, their fantasy counterparts were entirely different. Unrealistic, and yet full of semiotic meaning.

What I have concluded was that I had taken realities in the world around me and re-encoded them, appropriated them, retold the stories they way I wanted. And isn’t that, in a way, what a lot of fiction is about?

Murder mysteries aren’t celebrations of the act of murder. Intergalactic wars aren’t celebrations of holocausts.  Historical romances don’t revel in the awful realities of women’s lack of agency and power in the 18th Century. Fiction allows us to retell the things that fascinate and terrify us in ways we can absorb, be thrilled by, enjoy.

I can’t claim to really understand why fiction with edgier taboos turns some people on. I just know it does. As I writer, I am interested in examining why it does. How we take those horrors into ourselves and somehow reprocess them into other things. Words give me the freedom and the safety to get inside the phenomena and dissect it. I think we can learn very important things about ourselves when we write or read those dissections.

I think fiction is a good place to recognize our inexplicable strangeness, to acknowledge that we have unaccountable feelings and ideas.  And history has taught me that we are at our worst when we decide there are things we shouldn’t talk about.

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