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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, June 18, 2011


In Part 3 of the INCEST WE TRUST series, I said:

In Part I I went to some pains to explain why Georges Bataille was right to say that no particular transgressive form of sexuality was any more important to human development than any other (in contradistinction to Freud and Levi-Strauss). That distinction made, I will note that the phenomenon of incest is probably the best possible metaphor FOR transgressive sexuality as a whole. Unlike homosexuality and bestiality (for two), incest in its most popular conception-- that is, its heterosexual form-- can give rise to living progeny whose proper relationships will thus be confused...

In Jung’s essay, "Concerning the archetypes, with special reference to the anima concept," Jung faults Freud for claiming that all psychological problems could be reduced to “physiological concepts.” He further suggests that the “superordinate ideas,” ideas found most often in religion (though in other human arenas as well, like politics), are a better measure of the psyche’s true nature. To illustrate his point, he cites an example of a patient with a “castration-complex,” but pursues a methodology opposite to Freud’s. Where Freud would view all patients as implicated in the Oedipus complex, and would seek the roots in the patient’s problem in “physiological concepts,” Jung asserts that the patient’s complex came about not because of his sexual fantasies, but because he possessed an almost religious concept of his mother’s goodness—a concept which the parent herself, being a mere mortal, could not satisfy.

In IMAGO-GO I took issue with Jung’s extreme rejection of “physiological concepts.” I believe such concepts do inform all manner of human fantasies, whether they take place within an individual’s personal psyche or in a narrative designed to provoke an affective response in an audience. A sound pluralist conception of literature must deal with the fact that fantasies evolve from both aspects of human corporeal life (“physiological concepts”) and aspects of incorporeal experience (“superordinate ideas.”) And this includes the fantasy, literary or otherwise, of incest.

Part 1 of this series showed how my three categories of literary phenomality could be rated either (a) dominantly corporeal, (b) dominantly incorporeal, or (c) midway between the two. The same schema applies to my rewriting of both Freud and Jung.

Now, throughout literary history “incest” is a word that has been used in a wide variety of denotative or connotative ways. Still, for many individuals, it has its deepest roots in its most corporeal conception: incest is sex between two individuals who share a genetic heritage. This shared heritage usually motivates society to taboo such unions, though many societies attenuate the importance of this or that familial relation. For instance, Levi-Strauss cites assorted tribal societies which permit the marriage of one group of cousins but forbid it to other cousin-groupings not any more removed in time or circumstance.

Freud grounds his theory of incest in the developmental processes of juvenile sexuality, positing that children model their concept of sexual attractiveness upon one of the parents. Thus sexual development for Freud is rooted entirely in the domain of the cognitive order of cause-and-effect, e.g., “the corporeal.” It follows, then, that within the domain of literary criticism, any depiction of sex between biological relations is “corporeal incest,” irrespective of any culture-specific standards as to what group can marry what group of near-relations.

Jung, however, asserts in the example above that a “superordinate idea”—what I deem an icon of “the incorporeal”—can influence an individual’s incest-fantasy more than the individual’s particular developmental history. In literature this takes many shapes. One might be called the “counter-Oedipus complex,” in which a male character never sees his birth-mother but somehow gravitates toward her identical twin in later life, rather than modeling his concept of sexual attractiveness on a foster mother. This is, incidentally, a complex that has appeared in works ranging from Faulkner’s LIGHT IN AUGUST to Siegel and Shuster’s SUPERMAN. Another manifestation would be the superordinate idea that all persons roughly 15-20 years older than a given character symbolize the character’s mother or father even when no questions of dubious paternity are raised. When people voice the familiar clichĂ©, “X is old enough to be your [parental unit],” it’s not because they literally fear that every May-September liaison will result in corporeal incest. Rather, aversion to such liaisons seems more rooted in a quasi-religious sense of the proper order of life: young with young, old with old. These are just two examples of what I term “incorporeal incest.”

This brings me to my “amphibian” category, which might be termed “legal incest.” Characters in such liaisons—step-relations, for one example-- share no biological connection. However, their liaisons are still marked by a corporeal element in that they are often, though not without exception, forced into familial closeness: sharing the same house, the same dinner-table-- and the same aura of sexual propinquity that Freud finds so pervasive within the old homestead. Yet the thing that forces the unrelated individuals into this sphere of influence is a legal abstraction that says, “X and Y are related by marriage,” or, alternately, “A and B are related through adoption/foster-care/wardship.”

I’ve also noted in fictional narratives a difference in intensity of the taboo on “legal incest” based on the presence or absence of the legalism. If two brothers vie for the same girl, and one wins, then she will become the loser’s sister-in-law after the fact. Most societies would not label this phenomenon incest, though my literary theory would include it within the sphere of the “incorporeal” variety. However, if one brother already has a legal relationship to the woman in question—even if only at the level of “fiancĂ©e”—then the other brother’s violation of that legal contract would carry a deeper sense of societal transgression.

I mentioned earlier that I needed a schema regarding this particular transgression to avoid any over-identification with Sigmund Freud’s theory (though it also keeps me clear of a few Jungian pitfalls as well). I’ve mentioned that such a schema will have relevance when my “1001 myths” takes on the Lee-Ditko SPIDER-MAN, but I may be able to provide a short example of the schema’s utility sooner than that.

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