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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...

Friday, June 5, 2015


In the series JOINED AT THE TRIP, beginning here, I refined some of my earlier statements about the nature of fictional sex and violence. My interpretation of these categories through the lens of Francis Fukuyama's thymotic system goes something like this: violence and sex in their "pure states" represent *megalothymia* and *isothymia* respectively. However, there are "impure states" in which sex can assume a function of dominance, and in which violence can assume a function of egalitarianism.

If you ask the average person what most separates sex and violence, the most likely response-- assuming you can get a coherent one on such a volatile subject-- would be that sex can produce progeny, and violence cannot, except through the medium of sex.

But, in the words of Yoda, "there is another."  In both activities human beings in their identity of *Homo habilis* have evolved dozens of artificial tools and devices that can be used either to enhance the activity (all manner of offensive weapons, sexual enhancement devices) or to curtail some aspect of that activity (all manner of defensive weapons, such as shields and armor, and pregnancy prevention devices).

Yet, when one enters the sphere of art and religion, one finds that both activities may be validated through both gods of war and gods of love, the tools don't receive equal representation.

Archaic culture is rife with the veneration of great weapons. King Arthur wields the most famous sword, Excalibur. Odin wields the spear Gungnir, Thor wields the hammer Mjolnir. In some cases an ancient culture has become so remote from us that it's sometimes unclear as to what Cuchullain's "gae bolga" was, or what it could do, but there's little question that it had some supernormal status.

In contrast, archaic culture invests a lot of items with sexual significance, but most of these are things that do not actually function as aids to sexual performance-- the Holy Grail, the Paschal candle. Some cults involved with sexual ritual, such as the Tantrics, have specialized names for emissions, so they may have names for sexual tools as well. But it seems more typical in most archaic cultures to invest sexual charisma not to objects that enhance sexual activity, but to objects that aren't usually involved in the matter.

Jumping ahead to contemporary popular culture-- in many ways the inheritor of archaic folklore's modes of communication-- we see that outside of fantasy-works that explicitly imitate archaic stories, most heroes don't name their weapons. Still, a cult of charisma still enfolds many weapons, usually referring to them not with cultic cognomens but by brand-names. Wild West heroes are often identified with their "Colts" and "Winchesters." Dirty Harry is so identified with his Magnum firearm that the second movie in the film-series is entitled "Magnum Force," as if to suggest an equivalence between the hero's power and that of his weapon-- roughly in the same way Arthur and Excalibur become mythically covalent.

In contrast, sex tools, many of which are by their nature disposable, don't receive special names. The only notable exception is a comic one; that of the sexually neglected woman who gives a man's name to her favorite dildo. But wherever this trope appears, it's invariably done As a Joke, and so even dildos with names like "Bruce" or even "Mjolnir" are comic exceptions that prove the rule.

This, then, is one side of the double-edged blade of violence. Weapons, perhaps because they allow human beings to extend their spheres of influence over other ingroups and territories, are venerated. Sex, despite being important to the furtherance of the species, is in some ways regarded as merely personal, and so the tools that extend pleasure to two or more participants "don't get no respect." The correlation between Durkheim's definitions of "the sacred" and "the profane," as explained in this essay,  should be obvious.

However, although modern pop culture sometimes evinces great respect for weapons, they can also be viewed as tools that are inferior to the primary means by which humans extend their power: the body itself. This, then, is the other side of the double-edged blade.

If there are many Wild West sagas in which a Colt .45 or a Winchester rifle are invested with positive significance, there are also many instances in which weapons register as negative markers. Whenever a narrative wants to show a character as villainous, one of the easiest ways is to have him resort to using a weapon, often-- though not always-- when his sympathetic opponent is unarmed. When the sympathetic character is a hero, rather than a victim, he usually wins out over the armed villain by the demonstration of such a high level of hand-to-hand skill that it negates the supposed advantage of the weapon.

The modern martial arts film often evinces the same disdain for the armed villain. In my recent review of 1973's ENTER THE DRAGON, I drew attention to the film's depiction of the villain Han. Han is able to use one of his weapons-- a detachable metal hand-- to kill one heroic character, in part because the hero doesn't suspect the weapon's presence. However, when Han is defeated by the superior fighter Lee-- who does use weapons in other scenes, but not against Han-- it is as if Han is a "human beast" thwarted by "the morally superior Lee." 

The teleseries KUNG FU reflected this same anti-weapons tendency. Although it was clear that the protagonist Kwai Chang Caine had been trained in the use of weapons, it was a commonplace event during the series' run to see the hero snatch away a villain's weapon and then discard it, as if its use polluted the purity of his body's superlative fighting-skill. As with Lee, there were occasions on which Caine did use weapons in battle, but an "anti-weapons aesthetic" was clearly in place.  In these and similar narratives, it is the unarmed human body that is "sacred," and weapons are "profane."

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