September 18, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

On Innocence and Obscenity

When does a piece of literature become obscene? That question ??? and the related question of book banning ??? suddenly seems to be back in the news, along with lipstick and pigs and the recipe for mooseburgers. But here’s a different question: when does a piece of literature need to be obscene? When does the obscenity that surrounds us ??? lipstick on pigs, for example, as wars grind on and the world’s economy collapses ??? demand that the writer hold, as it were, a mirror up to nature, even in all its vileness?

I ask because it’s a question an editor has to wrestle with when s/he gets a story like Thomas Glave’s “The Torturer’s Wife,” which appears in the fall issue of KR. First, a warning: this is not an easy story, nor a pleasant story. It’s not a story you’d wish to have with you on a desert island, unless you need something to scare even the cannibals away. And let me be clear: this one’s on me. KR Editor David Lynn sent me this story with the plea, Tell me why I should publish this. So I told him.

It’s a story about realizing you’re in bed with a torturer, and seeing exactly ??? with no flinching from the details ??? what that means: “’With pliers,’ she thinks, screwing shut her eyes, clenching her fists, ???and other tools. Hammers ??????“ That’s obviously a timely metaphor for us all at this moment in our history, but the problem is that metaphors are also real, relying on our awareness of that doubleness of meaning as we read the story. For a story to work, the author has to imagine fully what his character can barely conceive, the reality behind that word ??? torture ??? which we’ve come to use so easily in recent years. Glave’s story is about that effort to come to grips with an obscene reality, and to find a way of speaking such things that doesn’t obscure or diminish that obscenity.

What is it to find oneself in bed with torturers? One might, sleeping, be plagued by insistent, troubling dreams. One might wake thinking of knives, as Medea did. One might recognize, in the obscene dream that is fiction, that what we know to be true but can’t admit isn’t innocence, but rather our own complicity. In this sense, art is the dream that shocks us awake, and the deeper we sleep, the more brutal the dream that requires. To say less is to allow a willful forgetting, a slide back into a guilty “innocence.”

I won’t recommend this story for everyone, but I will say that I feel it’s an important story, one we had to publish. We need to recognize what is done in our name, to look at it clear-eyed, even if it leads to troubling dreams. Anything else is just lipstick on a pig.

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