Sex, Violence, and the Eradication of Self 2

Photo by Jesse TherrienI used to write a lot of quazi-academic-y blogs on MySpace (of all places). I deleted that account when it was decided that Facebook would reign supreme in social media, but I kept the blogs. I’ve been re-reading them lately and getting excited about books and sex and queer movies. Also, to prove to…someone that I can write more than seventeen syllables at a time. This was written in June 2007.

Vowel Movements: Or because even though I’m not in school anymore, I can’t stop writing papers

From a purely stimulus-related standpoint, fear and arousal produce nearly identical responses from the body—perspiration, clenched muscles, quickened pulse, dilated eyes, etc. It’s curious, the ways in which our emotions and desires manifest themselves in physical ways. In the last month, I’ve unintentionally read four books in a row that were all psychologically disturbing in one way or another. Starting with Joyce Carol Oates’ Zombie, which is a jagged, visceral foray into the mind of a serial killer, based loosely on true events that took place in the predominantly white suburbs of Detroit (and do I even need to mention that the killer was never caught?). After that, I read Beloved, Toni Morrison’s powerful and heart-breaking tale of redemption, where one mother, a former slave, decides to murder her children in order to protect them from a life of subjugation. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is Shirley Jackson’s last novel, a sparse and cutting story of small town New England malevolence, at the center of which are two sisters and their paraplegic uncle who relive over and over again the night their entire family was poisoned by arsenic. Jackson, who wrote one of the most anthologized short stories of our time, The Lottery, is so good at psychologically capturing her readers that the horrific becomes almost boring, commonplace even, which is why her writing is so incredible. Jane DeLynn’s novel Leash, however, is disturbing on an entirely different level—disturbing to the point that after finishing Leash, I have resigned myself to reading massive amounts of girl fluff. If anyone would be so kind as to lend me The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, I would greatly appreciate it. But until then…

Leash is a sexual and psychological examination of selfhood, one that relies heavily on the masochistic notion that nothing is more liberating than complete and utter enslavement. The narrator is a nameless, middle-aged, middle-class dyke who lives on the lower east side of Manhattan and while her girlfriend (known only as the Current) is away in Sweden for the summer, decides to answer a personal ad in The Village Voice in order to stave off the increasing disenchantment of her material and romantic life. The narrator, who calls herself Chris in order to protect her anonymity (from her master or from the reader?) begins an S/M relationship with a dominatrix, a woman she has never and will never see because Chris is blindfolded throughout the duration of their time together. As Chris’ journey into submission spirals further and further into a dystopian nightmare, DeLynn challenges readers to redefine their conceptions of the erotic and the repulsive.

Part existential, part quippy, part animalistic, Chris’s world, once grounded in the mundane rituals of adult life, slowly but surely reaches its horrific and inevitable conclusion at the hands of “The Society of the Leash,” a social order of master/slave relationships where the dominants are literally owners and the submissives pets, forced to wear canine skins and leashes that not only restrict them to walking on all fours but that psychically symbolize their powerlessness. The submissives’ vocal chords are severed so that they can only communicate through howls and their hands are bound and fused together to become paws. In the words of the auctioneer, “You will achieve a position few in this world ever know—one that is both wholly slave and wholly free, wholly vulnerable and wholly safe, wholly arbitrary and wholly guaranteed. For though love between humans dies, who has ever heard of such happening between human and animal?”

As a culture, we are defined by our sexual practices. For instance, millions of taxpayer dollars are spent each year on federally funded abstinence-only sex programs. Until the 70s, homosexuality was considered a criminal pathology (and will still get you kicked out of the military). Transsexuality is deeply controlled by medical and psychological technologies and in Texas you can’t even legally purchase a vibrator unless you purchase it as an “educational aid” (Ed. Note: This law was overturned in 2008. Though Alabama still bans them). So it’s not surprising that BDSM (bondage, domination, sadism, masochism) has yet to be welcomed by the American Dream. Though in the last decade or so, more and more people have been talking about BDSM, grad students and gender theorists are furiously at work on it and I wouldn’t be surprised if the topic generated some sort of reality television series in the near future. “Bound for Glory” perhaps or “Fit to be Tied.”

The foundation of S/M relationships is not violence, but power and imagination, incorporating or excluding whatever its participants desire in a mutually beneficial contract that guarantees safety, defined roles and control, regardless of the seeming perversity or cruelty that desire might entail. In Leash however, the emulation of S/M exploration ceases to be mutually and erotically beneficial to both partners, indeed sex is hardly connected to the story at all once we are introduced to “The Society of the Leash.” Chris’s dissolution of personhood is manipulated by her master, who disintegrates her every faculty—her speech, her bodily functions, her movements, her consent—to the point where Chris ceases to be human, as all subjectivity and autonomy are stripped from her. DeLynn does this so gradually, lacerating opposing words like “desire” and “disgust” until you can no longer tell the difference between the two, and Chris’s transformation into canine seems not only conceivable but actually inevitable, as if she were ordained for it. “Really, it is all about perversity, isn’t it?” says Chris. “Sex is just the costume.”

Written with an honesty as compelling as it is psychically crippling, Leash is not so much a confrontation as it is an undoing, a kind of disappearing act that slowly and excruciatingly eradicates not only Chris’s sense of self but our own as well. The shock comes not from the book’s graphic nature (though it is very graphic), but from our own expectations of perversity. And DeLynn plays with our expectations, letting us know our enslavement—to her, to her words, albeit temporarily—is voluntary. “Do you want this book to end, so you can start a new one?…As you turn the pages, as your life goes on hold, what are you looking for, dear Reader, so supine and passive in my hands?”

There is an intrinsic power dynamic in everything, even between people and inanimate objects like books, and DeLynn likes to point out, in her darkly humorous fashion, that not only are we the “slaves” in this relationship but that we are utterly complicit in our enslavement. There’s nothing more masochistic than reading a book we absolutely hate or one that terrifies us or makes us cry, scream, throw it across the room, yet, more often than not, we keep reading to the bitter end because we know our punishment must end sometime. Books don’t last forever, and our reward is the satisfaction at having endured something so afflicting and moving on.

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2 thoughts on “Sex, Violence, and the Eradication of Self

  • m

    I like your blog. I came across it because I was thinking that Joyce Carol Oates is almost into kinky stuff. S&M, BDSM, and mindfuck. But some of her stuff is so disturbing that it doesn’t seem like S&M at all. She has a story about strip poker that is more creepy than sexy and fun. “Where are you going, Where Have You Been” is more than disturbing.

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