transgressive texts

Shane Neilson

The following piece appears as part of the month-long series “Conscientious Conceptualism and Poetic Practice” on the blog, curated by guest editor Andy Verboom.

Kenneth Goldsmith’s infamous performance of Michael Brown’s body is, well, stupid and wrong but is also, I think, something that can be generative. I didn’t like the performance, both the ‘art’ and the judgment involved; I recognize the abysmal identity politics inherent to Goldsmith’s choices. Yet I can’t help but think of it in relation to the first truly transgressive book I ever read—the Marquis de Sade’s The Crimes of Love, which includes a disgusting description of raising a child for personal gratification—and wonder, though there is a racial difference between the two examples, if Goldsmith’s action isn’t also a site where people can dissent, refuse, and mobilize.

Before expanding on this idea, I thought I’d demonstrate familiarity with the literature of transgression, narrated in order of encounter. Reading material like this kept my moral instincts intact. I didn’t develop dreams of rearing mates, but then I didn’t take fairy tales at face value either, viewing the world as if women were witches who wanted to cook me in ovens. Some of these texts seem quaint in 2017 because the Internet has enabled the production of some truly repellent narratives. Yet the books I’ll list either are bona fide all-time world-record-holders or were once regarded as existing in a loose canon of transgression, which means that, when I read them in my small town in New Brunswick, they were hot stuff.

I was 15 years old when I first read The Crimes of Love, having bought the grey Bantam Classic edition at the Bookworm, a small shop in the Fredericton Mall. By this point, I’d already bought a half-dozen Dostoyevsky titles from the same rack. Since this was the place where the classics were being vended, I didn’t really know what I was in for. I was a rube. I thought I was reading a ‘classic.’ (Give me The House of the Dead any day. If you don’t know the scene of the convict getting drunk for the brief, momentary release of it, seek it out.) I read the book in my hidey-hole, the basement of my parents’ bungalow. “Eugénie de Franval,” the anchor story, was bad in two senses. The moral offence was obvious, since it involved a father raising a child for the express purpose of making her his sexual companion. The worse offence was aesthetic. De Sade’s writing (in translation, at least) was boring and tedious.

There were more titles to read in the Bantam Classics series, though. After Guy de Maupassant’s short stories, which remained in relatively safe boundaries, I picked up D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Again, I had no real idea about the book’s sensational publishing history at the time I purchased it, nor did I understand why the old commissionaire scowled so much when I conspicuously read the book on my lunch hour at my summer job in the Hugh John Fleming Forestry Building. Wasn’t the pretty painting of a lady on the cover art? Lawrence’s text was not bad in an aesthetic sense, and it could only be considered bad in a moral one if we turned the clock way, way back on contemporary standards regarding sex and marriage. Yet the book was transgressive because of the reaction it met. First published privately in Italy in 1928, its full, uncensored version was finally published in the UK in 1960, only after a court battle. It took F.R. Scott arguing before the Supreme Court of Canada in 1962 before Canadians could sell the book without fear of police harassment.

When I hit 17, I worked up the intellectual courage to tackle Joyce’s Ulysses. Joyce depicts female sexuality in marvelous prose, material that gives me the same linguistic charge as poetry.

… the books I’ll list either are bona fide all-time world-record-holders or were once regarded as existing in a loose canon of transgression, which means that, when I read them in my small town in New Brunswick, they were hot stuff.

I know that Anaïs Nin belongs on my list of transgressive texts, but the problem for this narrative of encounter is that Anaïs Nin wasn’t on the Bookworm’s little rotating shelf-stile—likely because Nin was in the Penguin Classics series and the little shop I frequented was partisan for Bantam. But there is another possible explanation for her absence: transgression is regulated, and transgression by female authors is relatively forbidden whereas transgression by male authors (who mainly do their transgressing by documenting the female body) is permitted. Therefore, my little list of transgressive reading from the late ’80s and early ’90s is doomed, by the era, to be focused on male transgression, meaning that the little theory I am going to return to may be limited to male authors.

What’s odd is that I consumed all the texts I’ve mentioned while oblivious to their scandalous reputations. I encountered them as I encounter all the books I love: randomly, unrecommended. They fell into my path, and they are part of a much longer list of more innocuous books. They are of-a-piece in that they are recognized as ‘classics’ that contain elements at odds with conservative preferences pertaining to sexuality. Only de Sade’s text could be said to continue to compete, on contemporary Internet standards, as a “transgressive” text.

Since those days as an avid boy reader in New Brunswick, I’ve encountered several more transgressive texts that still stand shoulder-to-shoulder with de Sade’s. Consider George Bataille’s L’histoire de l’oeil, which John Wray of The Paris Review calls a “little packet of social anthrax.” What he means, in short, is that Bataille relentlessly narrates prosthetic sexual acts of great variety, including with corpses. Bataille is Sadistic in terms of quality, although his aggressively abstract pornography plays things a little safer than de Sade’s attempts to recreate the family drama. Also on the updated list is Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, a huge novel that (in my respectful opinion) fetishizes the killing of Jews during the Holocaust. Sexualized death at the hands of Doktor Maximilien Aue, a homosexual and incestuous Nazi, occurs as constitutively as the sex in Bataille’s L’histoire. The prose is priapic in its rigor mortis. One longs for the sinuousness of Nin’s journals when confronted, in bulk, with Littell’s descriptions of gassed prisoners’ fecality. 

I now return to my little idea: there is a natural moral-aesthetic regulatory function in literature. More specifically, I believe that all writing is ethical in a utilitarian sense. When viewed over time, by many publics, all art becomes ethical at the level of reception and reaction if not in its impetus for creation. We find the art we need, in other words. Sometimes the time for that art is in the moment it’s produced; sometimes the long view may be required for art’s seeming function, value, or lack of value to be recognized. When it comes to the ethics of a piece of art, though, I look upon even the horrible and monstrous writings as doomed to enter the great laundromat of time.

When viewed over time, by many publics, all art becomes ethical at the level of reception and reaction if not in its impetus for creation. We find the art we need, in other words.

I’d like to pump the brakes on my theorizing again because I am very wary of and uncomfortable with the rhetoric of ethics. My problem with ethics is that they function (largely) according to proscription. They are enforced directly and indirectly by institutions, which is something I find sinister due to many negative interactions I, as a disabled man, have had with institutions. To be specific, I speak of church and state, both of which act to create morality through code and legislation. Why think ‘ethics’ when writing if the purpose is to create a field of limitation? As a mentally ill man, I am very wary of how ‘ethics’ tends to mutate into, as Tobin Siebers has written, a discourse of health that becomes “a new morality.” The other “new morality”—or new ethics, if you will—is a morality which requires the reception of literary texts according to what I call correctness orthodoxy, meaning that texts are interrogated primarily for their politics regarding sexuality, gender, and race. (Indeed, negative reviews seem to proceed only along these lines nowadays, a point which requires expansion in another forum.) The problem with ethics of this sort is that they are tactical—meaning we get a utilitarian application of ethics much too soon after a book’s or performance’s initial circulation, a closing-off of possibility and down-shouting when, in the long run, the artistic act that causes a lot of trouble might, strangely, be thanked for its paradoxically liberating effects. (I feel like I am being transgressive writing these lines. So be it!)

For example, Goldsmith’s performance of Michael Brown’s body was vociferously down-shouted on social media. Yet take the long view for a second: this grotesque appropriation of a dead black man’s body—a man who was killed by police, as a disproportionate number of black people are—will, in the end, serve as an example that artists should be wary of contributing to racism. Some down-shouting serves a constructive function: it will, hopefully, not only mobilize groups of people to resist oppression in the immediate sense but also trigger a longer-lasting sensitivity and awareness. However, there’s a commonality between Goldsmith’s transgressive poem and the transgressive texts (excluding Joyce and Lawrence) that I mentioned above: the art is also relentlessly awful. To transgress, to challenge norms, is to invite literary ruin. For some reason, it’s quite hard to do beautifully. I wish the down-shouters could take this fact into account as a possible brake to their righteous indignation. Because righteous indignation is very dangerous. It’s fired by ethics. And the ethics espoused by groups will soon get incorporated into institutions. That’s trouble.

To transgress, to challenge norms, is to invite literary ruin. For some reason, it’s quite hard to do beautifully.

The transgressive texts I describe above are (a) famous and so (b) probably familiar to the readers of this piece. Their bona fides as transgressive texts are accepted. They are not conceptual texts (well, maybe Ulysses), save in the sense that resisting sexual morality is their shared thematic. They are not poetry texts (well, maybe Ulysses)—but, to be frank, the number of transgressive conceptual poetry projects in Canada is small. I required an archive for demonstration, and the advantage of this archive is that it has been tested out on far more people than the readership of conceptual poetry in Canada. This archive gives me a somewhat Kumbaya feeling: all will be well, in the end, for literature. Books will sink or swim and be part of a larger sinking or swimming of other books over time. Because morality changes over time, the books we reject now may gain in reputation (and reputableness) later. At the end of reading, at a great distance, books are seen for what they become—repellent, racist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic. (If this is not true, then instant down-shouting should progress full blast, since acting now is the only chance for change. But I just don’t believe that. It’s not the only chance.)

This is why I think that Goldsmith’s “unethical” act can be absorbed into larger ethical action. Just like with Lynn Crosbie’s very dark Paul’s Case, a prose poetry book conceived as a series of letters sent to notorious serial sex killer Paul Bernardo. Crosbie inhabits evil in the book, batting at that evil with a cat’s paw. This is not only a transgressive but also a so-called ethical conceptual poetry project because it beautifully represents an evil that can’t be completely explained. We need more of this kind of book.

My archive of transgressive texts is small for an important reason, one owing to the nature of the literature of transgression itself: the archive’s extent is limited due to its policing on the basis of aesthetics. I have discovered, time and again, that writing in a morally repellent way usually results in bad art, in dull writing. In other words, in the long view, transcendent, transgressive poetry and fiction are uncommon because traditional ethics are hard to overcome with any aesthetic merit. Anyone able to consider books in terms of style and not exclusively content knows that repugnant authors endorsing racism or homophobia answer for their beliefs on more than a content level. The ultimate relegation is made on the basis of style: deformed morals don’t get great results.

Literature takes care of itself, then. Aesthetics is a self-regulating field, but through that field, writers answer, simultaneously, for what and how they have written. This answering will always be the brake upon transgression. We need ‘ethical’ readers more than a program of responsibility for writers. To that end, if you would, please contribute to the list of Canadian transgressive poetry texts, including conceptual poetry texts on that list. Let’s have a discussion about what a “transgressive” poetry text is, how it could be received, and what kinds of good can come from controversy.

Shane Neilson is a writer from New Brunswick. He published Dysphoria, a book of poems concerned with the abusive regulation of mentally ill persons, with PQL this year. In 2019 he will publish a book of literary criticism on prize culture and disability in Canadian poetry.

One Comment

Sharon Goodier

The issue of what artists can and cannot do or say is an important one and spills over into what teachers, journalists, preachers, politicians can do and say. We are living in tumultuous times and if Marx was correct about anything(and he certainly wasn’t right about everything) he was right about social relations reflecting the relations of capital. The current relations of capital create the steppes of privilege that exist whereon poor whites are still often better off than people of colour who are poor.
I have read all the books you name and didn’t find anything abhorrent in any of them, Nor in Dostoyevsky’s The Telltale Heart. The transgressiveness of a book or poem must be found in the work itself, not in the readers’ reactions to it. For that reason we need to establish ethical parameters and not just by white, Anglo, middle class, abled writers but a conversation that includes all the many people we have not been listening to.I don’t understand “ethical in a utilitarian sense”; it needs elaboration for me. Also, I don’t agree that “art becomes ethical at the level of reception”. That’s too subjective and we’re drowning in subjectivity these days.
I love your image of “the laundromat of time” and that gives me another thought: can hurtful art be laundered the way drug money gets laundered…to make it disappear from inspection?

I, too, am uncomfortable with the rhetoric of ethics and even with reference to morals. Feminism has been engaged in a discussion of relationality for almost a decade but I have heard very little of it in the general parlance of academics or artists. I recomment the book by Jennifer Nedelsky, a prof at York University’s law school (the name escapes my aging brain at the moment). Google her name. The book is on Amazon and she has a second one coming out soon. The concept of relationality displaced relativity which so many people objected to, not only ethicists and moral theologians but ordinary educated people.

I despair at the “correctness orthodoxy”. It reminds me of what happened in China after the revolution and what was done to Milton Acorn by his co-members of the political group he belonged to (again the name escapes …The Canadian something Party.) They tore into him on every poem and deepened the mental illness he already suffered from.
The public shouting down will not trigger anything but disgust in people like me and fear and loathing. I agree that “righteous indignation is very dangerous”. We need to establish, through critical thinking techniques …the ones I taught in my classes…a set of criteria for appreciating controversial art (appreciation doesn’t have to be possitive; it can be critical which is not the same as negative —but I don’t I don’t have to tell you that. I get a little teacherly sometimes. And now I want to read Lynn Crosbie’s book. And I believe traditional ethics CAN AND MUST be overcome with artistic merit Anyway, I’m writing you another article so I’ll stop. It’s 2AM. I get real talky after midnight. Sharon Goodier, Toronto poet and co-founder of the renewed Art Bar Reading Series, mounter of annual 100,000 Poets for Change readings. Thank you so much for you thoughtful comments. I really love this series.


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