Ariel – Incest and Child Sexuality (Part One)Posted by Infinite Tasks
[The following is Part One of a three-part contribution by Ariel Amend-All. Parts Two and Three will be posted over the next few days. - IT]
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My post will be broken up into three parts because I am covering a few chapters in one go. Also, I’m trying to cram an entire book’s worth of feelings into this, which is difficult to say the least. I am focusing on some of the more emotion-inducing topics, namely the incest and childhood sexuality. Childhood sexuality is a very complicated topic, not well understood at all, and I don’t claim to be an expert. My opinions are merely based upon my own experiences as a childhood survivor of rape and incest, nothing more or less. My take on these chapters has ended up a little more theoretical/thesis-y then I had hoped, and I look forward to your comments and thoughts!
I think this book is best read as a series of attempts to challenge us. I read this as an attempt to give us a fictional narrative, a thought experiment where some presumptions of the so-called radical community are challenged. As Aragorn said, most of us will relate somewhat to all the characters, because they are all supposed to be parts of ourselves, parts to be identified and chased out. It should be clear to us that many of the characters represent “types” of radicals we see in the world. Art is a pacifist, Lem is New Age, etc. In these criticisms, Perlman does a pretty good job of helping us see some of the flaws, the falsities, of these belief systems.
When he is addressing political problems, he succeeds fairly adequately in providing us with poignant evaluations of our prejudices. In the “personal” realm, I think he fails miserably. He is trying to show us emancipated people, who he himself has never seen before, and his vision of those emancipated people is so corrupted with his own biases that they feel false. Some of his characters are held up as examples of true revolutionaries, and these characters walk out unscathed, unchallenged to a large degree. We may see their weaknesses, be annoyed by them, but they get no serious comment or punishment within the pages of the book.
Mirna is a great example of this. Mirna is constantly held up and praised. No real criticism of her is ever made. No one ever brings up her appalling consent issues in any real sense. Is this because that is what real life is like? In this world, most manipulators never change. The oppressed do not get justice in this life, nor any other. So is that Perlman’s point in leaving these characters on a pedestal? No, I don’t think so. I think this is much more a case of him having certain points he wants to challenge us on, but not going far enough in those queries. And that is the problem for me. If this book was ultimately a never-ending series of complicated thought experiments that never give you clearly delineated right and wrongs, it would be absolutely amazing. As it stands, it is quite wonderful, but I feel like it shows us as much about Perlman’s shortsightedness as it shows our own. What I am trying to say is that Perlman is trying to show us a series of circumstances we are supposed to analyze and judge for ourselves, with no right or wrong answer provided. However, the very way he frames the conversations around these situations shows that he actually feels there are “right” and “wrong” answers, that there is a “true” revolutionary and thus a “true” way to revolt. I think the sexual relationships, and how they relate to the rest of the narrative, are a great example of what I am talking about.
Introducing Incest, Sexuality, and the Problem of Morality
Like artnoose, I feel like I am sort of in the middle road camp. Actually, I don’t really see my view as the middle road at all. To me, it’s completely obvious that (extenuating circumstances aside) anarchists have no compatible-with-their-philosophy reason to be opposed to incest or sexual activity in children. One could easily argue that child-producing incestuous couples should be discouraged for social-longevity purposes, but separate from that we only have “moral” reasons for opposition. I think the whole “is incest wrong or okay?” conversation is actually really boring. People just get way too wrapped up and reactionary about the fact that the relationships are incestuous, rather than the issues behind them, like consent, freedom, desire, etc. I feel like sexually active children are a different story. I think people are less likely to get upset about the idea of an 11 year-old having sex but in many ways I find the arguments behind that far more problematic than pro-incest ones. Jan’s relationship with Mirna is an incestuous relationship that garners much less attention than Yara’s with Mirna. I feel people are actually conflating two different topics – Yara’s sexuality should be analyzed because of her age and ability to consent, not because fact that she happens to be having sex with her mom.
There have been many conversations about morality, but to sum up some of the points of those conversations, morality or moral judgments have a universality that seems incongruous to an anarchist philosophy. I consider this to be a fairly basic part of anarchism, and thus not really a topic for me to go into in depth here. Similarly, while discussions of Mirna’s consent and coercion issues are fascinating (and I will discuss them later), I find myself far more interested in different points. I feel like Mirna, Vesna, and Yara’s relationships pose interesting questions about objectivity, freedom, and desire. Tina’s life will also factor into my viewpoint. For the sake of this conversation I will define freedom as “lacking external constraints or coercive influences.”
Perspective and Inter-Subjective Experience
First, let’s consider the “objective accuracy” of both the events and character portraits given in the book. Remember, we only ever truly hear two people speak, Sophia and Yarostan. We know for a fact that on “both sides” everyone reads the incoming letters; however, it is not mentioned whether Yarostan’s and Sophia’s family and friends read the letters as they go out. This is an interesting point because we left unsure exactly how accurately others’ words and actions are being retold. We know that Sophia self-identifies as having a memory problem, but there is more to accuracy than merely memory. Look at Yarostan’s perceptions of Luisa or Titus, or even Vesna’s death. His, and everyone’s, perspectives influence their recollection, their retelling of events. We aren’t really hearing Sabina talk, or Jasna, or Mirna, we are hearing Yarostan or Sophia tell us what they said. Unless, of course, the letters are edited for accuracy before they go out. To me, this is an interesting omission by Perlman.
I view this book as ultimately a series of conversations about inter-subjective experience and, again, perspective. Perlman is weaving different aspects of a radical lifestyle together – the political influences the personal, and the personal influences the political. Look at Sophia’s life and politics (lacking direction and a sense of self, turning into aimlessly drifting from scene to scene and lifestyle to lifestyle) versus Jan and Mirna (their desire to have socially forbidden lifestyle causes them to want to change society through a political upheaval). Sophia and Yarostan are also great examples. The way they both remember their plant experiences so differently (not to mention their relationship) is the original basis for conflict between the two of them! Yarostan’s perception is so different from Sophia’s that it is actually causing her to rethink her whole life, and this sharing is challenging and changing her. I would say this challenge, this sharing of contradicting experiences is fairly explicit. While no narrator is explaining this to us, we pretty much get that this challenge is central to Perlman’s message.
So with this as a starting point, shouldn’t Perlman give us some hints that it is not only the past that is subject to slight remodeling? Why is Perlman silent about the “objective” accuracy of the contemporary events related in these letters? (This can also lead into a lengthy and very interesting conversation about what exactly objectivity is and does it exist, but we do not have space for that. Plus, others have surely done a better job of handling that particular topic than I ever could.) For now, I am left with the question: what is an accidental vs. an intentional omission? I mean, jeez, the book is already over 800 pages long. How much more can you frickin’ add, ya know? So are some of these omissions based on concrete limitations, or are they based on personal perception that causes some points to be overlooked or forgotten? You see, if we knew that the letters were read before they were sent out, we could believe that things were fairly accurately represented. As it stands, we can still assume that these renditions are mostly precise, but we should keep in mind exactly whose lens we are viewing events through: not an objective god-like narrator, telling us the “truth” from on high, but a flawed, broken, confused, and lost human, with ignorance, biases, and prejudices just like us. For the sake of this conversation, I am going to assume these events are told correctly, as a fairly accurate representation of the characters, well, character, but I do want you guys to think about this as you are reading the book. Try and remember that just because one character tells us one thing happened doesn’t mean it does.
Vesna’s Supposedly “Repressed” Sexuality
Continuing in the same vein, there are many people who never truly speak at all. We know all these events and stories are being filtered through at least one lens, but what about people like Jan, Ron, Jose, Manuel, and Vesna? These characters are all dead (or M.I.A.), so their stories are filtered through more than one lens. This is especially important in Vesna’s case. Let’s go back to that bit about inter-subjective perception and how a fundamental aspect of the book is showing us the gap between experiences and then challenging them. I keep saying that only some perceptions get critically investigated. For example, we are to believe Mirna and Yara’s recitation of Vesna’s secret desires are accurate, but what basis do we have other than their own words? Just because Vesna is dead and can’t verbally tell her side of the story (filtered through one other perception of course) doesn’t mean she had to be entirely silent. Vesna could have kept a diary or written letters to be found later to relate her feelings. In fact, that would have made her story slightly more credible, because there would be no translation between Vesna and Yarostan; Yarostan would merely have copied Vesna’s words directly into his letter. Mirna and Yara simply telling us their perception of what Vesna wanted means less than nothing. Of course they want to believe Vesna was merely repressing her sexual desires for her family members instead of the possibility that Vesna actually just didn’t want to have sex with them! Mirna’s – and through her, Perlman’s – explanation of Vesna’s desire ends up feeling, well, a little Freudian to me. The reason given for her lack of desire is repression of that desire, not genuine lack of desire.
Let’s analyze that supposed desire. Where does it originate from? Well, actually, no real explanation is given. Yara relates:
“She loves you as much as I did but she pretended to hate you. When we learned you’d return in a year, before mommy and I went to see you, I caught her kissing herself in the mirror. I knew she was kissing you and I forced her to admit it…”.
This simple recital is filled with problems for me. The “love” discussed in this passage is problematic, and also typical of the love found in Perlman’s novel. It seems to be a predominately sexual love, or another way of putting this is that the only time the word love is used is when it is referencing a sexual relationship. While non-sexual relationships exist, it is the rare one that seems to be totally unhampered by sexual tension.
[To be continued...]