Having received a number of emails and twitter DMs criticizing my eroticization of torture in my short story “Veiled Girl With Lute,” I have decided, after some thought, to address the matter specifically.
If you are a regular reader on my site, this post is probably going to seem patronizing, and I apologize for that. Usually, I refer disgruntled people to my manifesto page and leave it at that. However, in this case I feel the need to specifically address a few issues, and give some explanation for why I chose to delve into this topic.
Although I hold a deep belief that fiction is fiction and should never be read as a how-to guide or an encouragement to any sort of practice, I acknowledge that my eroticization of certain topics might be interpreted as an ambivalence towards them. However, I would like to point out that, especially as regards the story in question, I have made considerable effort to explore the complexity of the subject of torture within the story. Not only has the character Nathaniel tortured people in the course of his work, but he is profoundly damaged by the experience of having done it. If this is not obvious to you in the story, you’re not reading carefully enough and, for that, I cannot be held accountable. I did not set out to, nor do I think I have ‘glamourized’ torture.
For the record, and probably unsurprisingly to my more consistent readers, I absolutely and unreservedly condemn the practice of torture. I have done extensive research into it over the course of a number of years and, beyond finding it to be a deeply immoral act, unforgivable barbarism to those who have suffered it and soul-destroying to those who do it, I have also come to the conclusion that it fundamentally destabilizes the structure of democratic civil societies and seldom if ever achieves its stated goal – that of gleaning important information on the enemies of whatever state uses it. By all accounts (including those of US & UK military and governmental agencies), the amount of actionable intelligence gleaned from the ‘extraordinary renditioning‘ to either ‘black sites’ or to Guantanamo Bay of prisoners during the Iraq and Afghan wars was negligible. The ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario made so popular in series like “24” is an oft-perpetuated myth. The is no documented case of any ‘ticking bomb’ threat ever having been averted through the use of torture. Torture is not only deeply immoral, it is also generally unsuccessful.
So why did I choose to not only write about it, but ‘eroticize’ it in my story?
It is possible to find something morally repugnant and still be fascinated by its psychological ramifications.
Many years ago I read an obscure book by Arthur Koestler called “Darkness at Noon.” Set during the time of the Stalinist Purges in the Soviet Union, it is about the arrest, interrogation and punishment of a supposed traitor. What I found compelling about the story was the intensely intimate, almost erotic relationship that develops between the main character and his interrogator.
This interaction doesn’t just change the victim, it also changes the victimizer. They become locked in a transgressive dance. Dependencies develop. The sustained mental intimacy of one person prying violently into the mind of another produces interesting behaviour patterns. Better documented ones are, for instance, something very much like Stockholm Syndrome in which kidnapping victims begin, slowly, to identify with their captors. People who are brutalized and terrified sometimes lose the ability to maintain their sense of themselves or any informed perspective of their situation.
From a fictional perspective, I was interested in exploring the facturing of the self. Nathaniel arrives already having had his sense of self demolished in the act of ‘doing his job’ – an excuse many people who have violated the human rights of others use in their defense. Nonetheless, some part of him rejects the validity the ‘excuse’. Moreover he is driven to seek out others he believes can truly understand the damaged state he has been left in and, if necessary, take someone else into that psychological place, in order to soothe the isolation that comes from it. Gennie’s interest in this dynamic has been objective and analytical, but she is persuaded to allow herself to be taken to that mental place in a belief that it will answer questions as to how torturers allow themselves to do what they do.
To me, psychological extremes are always very intimate places. Moreover, according to Bataille, these landscapes of transgression are the places where what he calls ‘discontinuity’ (a person’s sense of themselves as unique and separate individuals) becomes disrupted. For Bataille, whether through extreme pleasure, pain or mental anguish, these are sites of eroticism. This is essentially why I was interested in writing this story and exploring its erotic potential.
That being said, let me be very clear. This is fiction. It’s not a blueprint for something fun you should try with your kinky partner. If you are reading my blog, you’re an adult. Be an adult and use your judgement. If you find what I write offensive, then just stop reading it.