Abuse Literature

Concealed in many types of low- and middlebrow art are prefabricated daydreams that present themselves as inductions to a moral way of thinking while in fact employing a titillating proximity to wickedness as the occasion for self-serving reflections on one’s probity (in fact, though I am not sure, I have a feeling that a criterion for proper art is the avoidance of such facile moral subterfuges, which might otherwise be described as sentimentalist pornography). I write this as I translate a number of chapters from a bestseller narrating a saccharine and inaccurate account of what is commonly called domestic violence (I do not like this term, which is both too euphemistic and general for the acts of torture that it describes). If anything redeems the vulgar amorality and juvenile provocativeness of Peter Sotos, it is that he is one of the few people to have attested unequivocally to the erotic nature of America’s fascination with lurid accounts of abused and murdered children. It seems so simple as to not bear repeating, but that is not true, the preponderance of claptrap that obscures our relation to the arts works to militate against basic conclusions that are not less true for their simplicity, viz. that individuals and societies who obsessively pore over novels and newspaper accounts of the rape and murder of women and children, who follow accounts of the rape and murder of women and children over the course of weeks on the television news, and who wait with baited breath for the next episode of a series about the rape and murder of women and children, do so because there is, for them, hedonic value in witnessing stories about the rape and murder of women and children. The New York Times Book Review, ordinarily a cesspit of commonplaces, has a passable essay not ungermane to this topic, on the popular author Jodi Picoult and the genre the essay-writer dubs “literature of children in peril.” An author writes about an act of abuse, he may draw this section of his book out as long as he wishes, relishing the most repulsive details, doing so will probably win him one of those adjective book reviewers hand out like lollipops at the dentist’s office—“hard,” “unflinching,” etc.—and so long as the perpetuator of this abuse is endowed with perfunctory dressings of “evil,” the ethical motives of this exercise will not be questioned; this same immunity extends to the readers of such works. While the matter has undoubtedly not been studied, people who indulge in abuse-literature or abuse-television probably do no more to leaven the sorrows of the abused than those who do not. An effect of the indulgence in the art of abuse is to pit one’s moral sentiments against imaginary phantoms for the sake of a practically nugatory but still satisfying self-vindication; an effect likewise to be seen in literature, films, and television series concerning the Holocaust, for example, which seem more than anything to reinforce the impression that evil as such is confined to an event in the ever-receding past, our horror at which is a guarantee that we ourselves are not evil.

(It cannot be coincidental that many of these abuse-narratives end with the good male protagonist winning the favor of the formerly abused woman. Though it is nauseous to say so, is it not possible that these abuse-narratives respond to the fantasies of men who perceive female distress as a kind of opportunity?)