Friday, July 15, 2005

Our Friday phonecall with Mr. Gershon Legman

Hello Dr. Wertham. Are you recording? Good. Thank you.

Now where was I? Oh, yes. It is no accident that the end of Restoration bawdry coincided precisely with the fullest flowering of literary sadism in England. The Elizabethans had wrung blood in plenty out of sex — in Romeo & Juliet, a 'love'-play, seven of the characters are carted off dead — but there was no dearth of lust. Times change. The elegant eighteenth-century littérateurs, Johnson and Pope, are famous equally for the sexual purity of their writing, the sadistic cruelty of their speech. Sex being forbidden, violence took its place.

First had come the martyrologies and revenger-dramas, more a century before, then the pirate almanacs and highwaymen lives; but these gave way quickly to the more refined brutality of Richardson's Pamela and Walpole's 'Gothic' novel. The whipped, stripped, and humiliated heroine-victim died a thousand deaths before the public grew bored with her writhings, applauded her lampooning in Northanger Abbey and the Ingoldsby Legends. While in France the Marquis de Sade added sex to the Gothic pattern — and gained thereby a century of mixed obloquy and praise for the British 'sadism' he had merely borrowed — the Anglo-American pubic, still eschewing sex, turned to fiercer pleasures in the murder-mystery, adapted by Edgar Allen Poe from the pirate & highwaymen memoirs.

Examine the journalistic detail of the first murder-mystery, pubished in Philadelphia, 1841, in Graham's Lady's & Gentleman's Magazine:
On a chair lay a razor, besmeared with blood. On the hearth were two or three long and thick tresses of grey human hair, also dabbled in blood, and seeming to have been pulled out by the roots ...

Of Madame L'Espanaye no traces here were seen; but an unusual quantity of soot being observed in the fire-place, a search was made in the chimney, and (horrible to relate!) the corpse of the daughter, head downward, was dragged therefrom, it having been thus forced up the narrow aperture for a considerable distance [... Dr. Freud, please note]. The body was quite warm. Upon examining it, many excoriations were perceived, no doubt occasioned by the violence with which it had been thrust up and disengaged. Upon the faces were many severe scratches, and upon the throat dark bruises, and deep indentations of finger nails, as if the deceased had been throttled to death.

After a thorough investigation of every portion of the house, without further discovery, the party made its way into a small paved yard in the rear of the building, where lay the corpse of the old lady, with her throat so entirely cut that, upon an attempt to raise her, the head fell off, and rolled some distance. The body, as well as the head, was fearfully mutilated — the former so much so as scarcely to retain any semblance of humanity.

To this horrible mystery there is not as yet, we believe, the slightest clew. [sic.]
This is legal. This is printable. This is classic. But would it be legal, would it be printable, would it be classic if, instead of the details of murder and death, Poe had substituted with equal artistic precision the details of that act out of which life emerges? Apparently not. His second murder-mystery involved a girl (pardon the expression) no better than she should be; but Gaboriau, Wilkie Collins, Dickens, and Doyle cleaned all that out. By the time the murder-mystery was reimported to America, about thirty years ago, it was entirely sexless. Only sadism and pleasure in death had stood the crossing.

Poe's great contribution had been the enheroing of the avenger instead of the criminal, and with this one significant sop to moral pose, literary murder became respectable. The reading public went on a century-long debauch of printed sadism to replace sex notoriously absent in Victorian literature. (For weaker stomachs, with a religious turn, the ghost story simultaneously served up masochistic terrors.)

This is not the place to study the nineteenth century's love of death: the delight in funeral pomp, the clerical and poetical gloatings over the death of little children — nothing to compare with our own daily newsphotos of dying babies and squashed dogs — the special Christmas numbers of household magazines, specially chock full of murder; the reprint after expurgated reprint (in eight volumes each) of Foxe's Book of Martyrs, the endless purified editions of the State Trials in twenty-guinea sets and penny chapbooks, with now & again a poetic procés-verbal, as in the twelve-fold necrophily of Browning's laundered 'masterpiece,' The Ring and the Book: 'telling the story of a hideous murder twelve times over,' the Encyclopaedia Britannica marvels, '...insisting upon every detail with the minuteness of a law report.'

Nowhere, so much as in contemporary fiction, has this movement to substitute sadism for sex progressed so far and become so blatant. Yet so pervasive and so disguised is this perversion — in the exact sense of the word — that, when attacked at all, literature is attacked today not as sadism and sex-hatred but as overstressed normality: as 'obscenity.'

Goodbye for now, It's always a pleasure, I'll talk with you again in a week.

(phone hangs up, end of transcript)