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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...

Monday, February 2, 2015


Though I've discussed Bataille's concept of transgression frequently on this blog, Dudley Young's idea of "lawlines" affords me with an apt metaphor for both the physical and the cultural matrices that are being transgressed-- a word that means "stepped over."

In LEAD US NOW INTO TRANSGRESSION, I considered only the physical effects of the kinetic elements of sex and violence, because I wanted to illustrate how the two elements were distinct but could shade into one another. Thus I wrote:

If even "right" sexual relations are a transgression, as Bataille clearly *does* argue in his 1957 book EROTISM, then what is being transgressed against? Clearly, although there have many marriages in which one or both of the spouses were coerced into marital bliss, many were not so coerced and so did not transgress against either the will of the spouses or the will of the community.
I may be taking Bataille into something more like the territory of object relations with my own answer, but it seems evident to me that the only constant transgression is that of one body interacting with at least one other body so as to violate the integrity of both...

So it's in the physical sense that "right" sexual relations can be transgressive. But generally speaking, "wrong" sexual relations tend to be transgressive in terms of cultural matrices.

Consider, as a starting-point, one of the most transgressive sexual acts in the history of culture, the one that Big Sigmund Freud made the centerpiece of his theory of interpersonal relations.

Now, it's often a source of amusement for some people to say, "Hah, Freud named his complex after Oedipus, and Oedipus didn't even know he was sleeping with his own mother!" But that ignores the deeper reason that the Oedipus myth attracted Freud. What Freud must have liked about the Oedipus myth was that the hero, upon receiving the cryptic prophecy, was properly disgusted at the idea of marrying his own mother-- whom he believed to be his adoptive mom Merope-- and so he took measures to avoid doing so.  Yet the prophecy is fulfilled precisely because Oedipus took that precipitate action-- an action which is are especially ironic in Sophocles' version, since the hero recounts that some of the nobles in his adopted city of Corinth had questioned his background. Freud often represented his complex as being just as insuperable as a Delphic oracle; no matter how one might try to avoid marrying one's mother, one would always do so, at least in a metaphorical sense.

For moderns, Oedipus' transgression may be more cultural than physical. Yes, Jocasta is his true mother, but neither of them knows that, either during their sexual relations or when they bear children. Greek religion, being focused on the physical, viewed the sex between unknowing parents as a source of pollution, though Sophocles emphasizes the killing of Laius above all else. Yet had Oedipus had sex with Merope, who was the adoptive mother who raised him, in one sense this would have a much more "physical" transgression, since Oedipus had grown up believing that he'd come from Merope's womb.  However, had he possessed from childhood full knowledge of Merope's identity and had done the deed with her when he became old enough to do so, that would have been a purely cultural transgression.

So OEDIPUS REX is a transgression against both physical, personal boundaries and against cultural boundaries. Do we see the same types of transgressiveness in my other example from THE WORK AND PLAY MIX-A-LOT?

I argued in the above essay that in the backstory of the Fantastic Four, one can find a "taboo-and-transgression" pattern akin to that of Oedipus, even though this particular FF story has nothing to do with the incest-taboo.  Obviously I could have chosen other examples of the trope "two male friends fighting over the same woman," ranging from Shakespeare's TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA to late-night movie fare like WHAT PRICE GLORY? The conflict in FANTASTIC FOUR is particularly interesting, though, because Lee and Kirby step around it as if it were a literal taboo.  In the above scene Ben Grimm only agrees to fly Reed's plane to counter Sue's disparaging view of him, and the only other clue that Ben fancies Sue appears a few pages later, when he starts a fight with Reed later, claiming that Sue "loves the wrong man." There are no other references to unrequited love in the rest of the issue, and the conflict is only referenced indirectly from then on-- most significantly with the introduction of the character Alicia, clearly a "consolation prize" for Ben Grimm in that she looks a lot like Sue but cannot see the Thing's ugliness.

This reluctance on the part of the creators is especially strange in that in other contemporaneous features, the "two guys fighting over the same woman" trope is played for all it's worth: Tony Stark vs. Happy Hogan, Peter Parker vs. Ned Leeds (though the two of them are never really friends), and Thor vs. Balder (though once again, the latter's brief passion for Sif is forgotten when Balder takes up with another "consolation prize" figure, albeit one very unlike his original love-object.) It's possible than one or both of them felt queasy about introducing too much heavy drama in the feature-- for though they seem to have taken pains to keep it from looking like a standard superhero comic of the period, they must have known that their only probable audience was that of preteen boys. Since no one up to that point had incorporated "heavy drama" in a superhero-like feature, Lee and Kirby probably decided that bringing up Ben's unrequited love would be too disruptive to group unity on a regular basis. It was easier to have him or Johnny simply storm off about this or that perceived slight, so that the family-like dynamics could be perpetuated. Later, in fact, Ben and Johnny become comparable to quarreling children whose squabbles Sue and Reed must break up, making Sue into a symbolic mother-figure to both of them.

Now, this example of transgression is not physical in the least: Sue is certainly not related to Ben, nor have they even had a sibling-like relationship. If anything, Reed fits that profile better, since he's eventually given a backstory that suggests a sibling-like closeness, in that Reed and Sue are said to have been neighbors. So the transgression must be cultural. But what lawlines are being transgressed?

Of course there's no cultural consensus that an Old Suitor is automatically to be preferred to a New one, or vice versa. It's not difficult to call to mind multiple examples of Hollywood movies in which it's right and proper that a New Suitor should displace an Old Suitor, as well as examples that support the verdict of Lee and Kirby's setup: that Reed and Sue alone are "right" for each other.  So in this case the "lawlines" are entirely contingent on the internal logic of the series: the lawlines exist because the authors say that they exist, at least within the cosmos of FANTASTIC FOUR. In contrast, in the cosmos of IRON MAN, the contention of Tony Stark and Happy Hogan lasts only so long as the authors can get some mileage out of it. Finally the authors end up giving the girl to the supporting character, at least partly because there was no future in matching up Tony with his secretary-- in marked contrast to the current movies.

In a future essay in this series, I'll enlarge on some of the other ways in which implied lawlines can be just as arbitrary, if not more, than the real laws that govern society.

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