Our newest “sin tax” and our Ministry of Culture

Our country never ceases to amaze, really. Yesterday’s papers reported that a ministerial decree is setting up an extra 25% tax (retroactive on 2008 earnings) on profits from all “literary, theatrical and cinema works […] featuring images or scenes containing explicit and not simulated sexual acts between consenting adults.”

This starts out weirdly enough with the inclusion of literary works: if you are a comic artist writing a graphic novel, or a writer, are your characters capable of real intercourse, or are they just having simulated sexual acts?

Then there is the “consenting adults” clause: go figure the exception for depictions of rape (any educational purpose?), sex between minors, sex between adults and minors. I guess all these things have not been deemed worthy of an additional 25% tax.

And who decides whether a given sexual act is simulated or real? Details will be unveiled in a forthcoming decree by our Prime Minister, but it seems that our Minister of Culture, Sandro Bondi (picture), will get to define explicitly what works will be subject to the extra tax and what works are merely “simulating”. One wonders, with the state our cultural heritage is in, does this government department really have nothing better to do?

This “sin tax” is not a new idea; sources report that it had already been proposed a few years ago, as a tax on works containing pornography or promoting violence (of any kind, not just the sexual one). The “promoting violence” piece has been dropped; I guess sex is considered a luxury good, but you can still get a good deal on violence.

Jane Smiley on de Sade’s Justine and the morality of the novel

A few months ago I submitted to your attention, dear readers, a few notable excerpts from Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography. I am now enjoying a rather more diverse piece of literary criticism, Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel.

Smiley, an acclaimed biographer of Charles Dickens and the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Thousand Acres, writes thoughtfully about such broad topics as “What Is a Novel?” and “Who is a Novelist?”; in her sixth chapter, “Morality and the Novel”, she needs to deal with de Sade and his Justine.

But before getting to Justine, a quote about how one – in Smiley’s opinion, and in mine – becomes a novelist, which is out of a compulsive habit of reading as a child:

Undoubtedly, we were reading for all the wrong reasons — escape, pleasure, avoidance of responsibilities and human contact. We were reading because it was easy and fun and because we were unsupervised. We were reading to find companions more congenial than those around us. We wanted to fill our heads with nonsense and tune out practical considerations. We were not, most likely, athletic or useful sorts of children. We were reluctant to help around the house or to go outside and play. […] We were reading because we had two lives, an inner life and an outer life, and they were equally important to us and equally vivid.

Ever met children like these? Ever been one?

And, now, to Justine.

Justine was published in 1791, during the French Revolution, and the novel’s theme, you might say, is the right of every man of rank to do whatever he wants with any woman he can gain access to, preferably by force. […] In Justine, the goal is not to reinforce the social order but to maximize the exploitation of female flesh. […] It seems obvious that de Sade wrote Justine for pornographic reasons — that is, the plot and the protagonist are there to serve the author’s and the reader’s shared desire to fetishize sex and cruelty and to use images for lascivious excitement. Even so […], de Sade makes rape part of the apparatus of state control as expressed by individual members of the ruling class (most of whom possess formal authority; they are not renegades or rogues). […] Justine is a true heroine; she never betrays herself, always tries to understand and survive, never loses her moral compass. Surely she speaks for the author as much as the men do. […]

Ostensibly shocking and immoral, Justine actually promotes a certain moral point of view — that integrity and virtue can be retained and recognized in the face of relentless suffering. In addition, to expose secret corruption is to challenge its existence because of the nature of the novel as a common and available commodity.

More from Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman

Thanks to Akismet anti-spam filters, I can blog more about Angela Carter’s book. It has great nuggets about politics (“Class dictates our choice of partners […] it must be obvious that sexual sophistication is a by-product of education”); about psychology (“Sade is a great puritan and will disinfect of sensuality anything he can lay his hands on; therefore he writes about sexual relations in terms of butchery and meat”); about clever historical critique (“Sade, the eighteenth-century lecher, knew that manipulation of the clitoris was the unique key to the female orgasm, but a hundred years later, Sigmund Freud, a Viennese intellectual, did not wish to believe that this grand simplicity was all there was to the business […] Yet Freud, the psychoanalyst, can conceive of a far richer notion of human nature as a whole than Sade, the illiberal philosopher, is capable of; the social boundaries of knowledge expand in some areas and contract in others due to historical forces”).

The central theme of the book was perhaps an exercise in hope for a growth in the level of common discourse that, as far as I can see, has not occurred in the last thirty years or so: not because Angela Carter hasn’t been read (the book, unlike most feminist critique, is still in print); but perhaps because we haven’t been courageous enough. Her first chapter, aptly named “Polemical Preface: Pornography in the Service of Women”, sets out a lucid diagnosis and a vision for change, a change that did not happen in her lifetime, and I doubt I may see in mine:

Pornographers are the enemies of women only because our contemporary ideology of pornography does not encompass the possibility of change, as if we were the slaves of history and not its makers, as if sexual relations were not necessarily an expression of social relations, as if sex itself were an external fact, as immutable as the weather, creating human practice but never a part of it. […] It is fair to say that, when pornography serves — as with rare exceptions it always does — to reinforce the prevailing system of values and ideas in a given society, is it tolerated; and when it does not, it is banned. […]

Out of this dilemma, the moral pornographer might be born.

The moral pornographer would be an artist who uses pornographic material as part of the acceptance of the logic of a world of absolute sexual licence for all the genders, and projects a model of the way such a world might work. A moral pornographer might use pornography as a critique of current relations between the sexes. His business would be the total demystification of the flesh and the subsequent revelation, through the infinite modulations of the sexual act, of the real relations of man and his kind. Such a pornographer would not be the enemy of women, perhaps because he might begin to penetrate to the heart of the contempt for women that distorts our culture even as he entered the realms of true obscenity as he describes it. […]

Sade remains a monstrous and daunting cultural edifice; yet I would like to think that he put pornography in the service of women, or, perhaps, allowed it to be invaded by an ideology not inimical to women.

Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman: two excerpts

I read Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography in the early ’90s, well after it was written in 1978, which was itself perhaps a while after the more vehement season of feminist critique. Today, I still find it to be one of the most enduring works in its genre, not least because of its readability and its no-nonsense style. Here, for example, is a great snippet where Carter takes issue with an idea that would, over the next decade, degenerate into a New Age platitude.

If women allow themselves to be consoled for their culturally determined lack of access to the modes of intellectual debate by the invocation of hypothetical great goddesses, they are simply flattering themselves into submission (a technique often used on them by men). All the mythic versions of women, from the myth of the redeeming purity of the virgin to that of the healing, reconciliatory mother, are consolatory nonsenses; and consolatory nonsense seems to me a fair definition of myth, anyway. Mother goddesses are just as silly a notion as father gods. If a revival of the myths gives women emotional satisfaction, it does so at the price of obscuring the real conditions of life. This is why they were invented in the first place.

Deadpan demystification pervades the book and lends it a humorous, down-to-earth quality:

The truth of the womb is, that it is an organ like any other organ, more useful than the appendix, less useful than the colon but not much use to you at all if you do not wish to utilise its sole function, that of bearing children. At the best of times, it is apt to malfunction and cause sickness, pain and inconvenience. The assertion of this elementary fact through the means of a fictional woman [Juliette] involves an entire process of demystification and denial in which far more than the demystification, the secularisation of women is involved.

The book is primarily about the works of the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), but has a lot more going for it: Michel Foucault, Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Guillaume Apollinaire, Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein all make appearances throughout the text. It is full of insight into the cultural construction of human nature, and somewhat hopeful about the “cruelly divisive” state of relations between men and women in our common struggle to understand the world. Yet, today, it seems to me that a door that was briefly opened at the end of the eighteenth century, and then again at the end of the twentieth, is locked shut again; something that, if Carter were alive today, would disappoint her, and frankly disappoints me, too.