Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

Fantasy and Violence: the Sadean Turn

Screenshot from “God of War III”

Sketching the history of Fantasy as a mode over the last century or so, one thing we note is that it has in many cases become much more and more explicitly violent. I’m interested in why this is, and what it tells us. And while, perhaps, the more obvious examples of what I mean are things like the explicit representation of torture and violent death in a TV show like Game of Thrones, or the excessive focus on vividly rendered violence, dismemberment and killing in the 2011 remake of the (less visually brutal, though we might say violent in a different way) 1982 Conan the Barbarian, or the endless possibilities for perpetrating violence in the video-game spaces of God of War (as at the head of this post)— while, I say, this clearly is a major feature of screen-text Fantasy, I am going to concentrate in this (lengthy) post on Fantasy novels. And straight away I will note one hypothesis. Perhaps this turn towards violence correlates another important shift in the focus of Fantasy as a mode: for over the last several decades Fantasy has moved from its erstwhile Western European, white, medievalised and masculinised focus to become a properly global literature, drawing on the mythologies and histories of cultures from a different locations, African, Asian and East Asian, South American, written by a much more diverse range of writers. We might want to argue that Fantasy is a way of writing history, and that history for much of the world has been marked by the systematic and specific violences of colonialism. For example: Marlon James’s ongoing Dark Star trilogy (so far we have 2019’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf and 2022's Moon Witch, Spider King) is extremely violent, often distressingly so. Is this a correlative of the ways colonial violence affected the central and west African countries and cultures from which James has reworked his magical, monster-haunted fantastical realms? We might say: yes, although if we do, we could also note that the specific story of James’s Africanic ‘North Kingdom’ and ‘South Kingdom’ does not entail, as it might be, pale-skinned invaders encroaching from over the seas. The rape and violence in which the novels trade is entirely a function of the aboriginal societies and masculinities they portray. So maybe it’s not that.

The English word ‘violence’ derives from the Latin violentia, itself deriving from the word vis, ‘force, power, strength, vigor, faculty, potency’. That’s a chilling piece of etymology, really: it says that violence, in the modern sense of the word, is simply what strength does to weakness. But it also suggests another explanation for why writers of Fantasy might be drawn to violence in their art: because it is, by definition, forceful, and therefore dramatic. It evokes a strong response, and writers are prone to want to evoke strong responses in their readers, and liable to be tempted by short-cuts to that end.

To consider a specific example of violence-Fantasy: R F Kuang’s The Poppy War (HarperVoyager 2018).

Kuang’s is a fluently-written fantasy novel set in a China-alike realm struggling, as real China did in the 19th-century, to prevent powerful external naval powers flooding their society with opium — a novel, that is to say, that very much is concerned with the violence of colonialism. It was successful on its publication: well-reviewed, shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award. No question but that it is a notable contemporary Fantasy novel, and Kuang an important younger voice in the mode. I note this because the following paragraphs might seem to be saying disobliging things about the novel, and I don’t wish to give the impression that I am here merely to snark. On the contrary; what interests me in this novel is how representative it is of Fantasy as a larger mode.

The drug in the novel actually is opium, and many elements of the novel’s chinoiserie are so close to their actual prototypes as to make the reader wonder why Kuang has written fantasy at all, rather than historical fiction — the imperial capital is called ‘Sinegard’, students study ‘Sunzi’s Principles of War’, a Red Emperor rules over a coalition of provincial warlords, and so on. Of course, Fantasy allows Kuang to introduce elements of magic into her story, and to reorient historical actuality to underline her main points in the service of her larger story, but there are losses as well as gains in that strategy.

The story is linear: Fang Runin, known as Rin, is a scrawny orphan and outcast from the provinces who manages, by sheer determination, to win a spot in the elite Imperial college in Sinegard, where her abilities with magical ‘Lore’ single her out for future greatness. The first half the novel is Rin’s training, and the rest a series of crunchy and upsetting accounts of battlefield ultraviolence.

Rin starts out likeable and engaging, although the novel perhaps leans too heavily on the ‘badass’ aspect of her character — badass, here as in much other popular culture, is a euphemism for ‘energetically homicidal in a manner untroubled by conscience’, which has never seemed to me a human virtue, in man or woman. And, particularly in its later stages, violence in this novel is troped as exciting with only minor drawbacks for the perpetrators. So, Rin kills a shape-shifting monster called a chimei, ‘she smashed the blunt of the torch into his face … his face lost shape altogether. She beat out those eyes, beat them bloody … when he struggled she turned the torch around and burned him in the wounds’ — and afterwards ‘Rin climbed off the corpse and sucked in a great, heaving breath. Then she vomited’ [p.366]. But the cause is just, the enemy are monsters both figuratively and in some cases literally, so (as it might be) torturing prisoners is a justified and effective strategy and so on and so forth. ‘The jammed boats began to burn in earnest … the soldiers on the boats began to scream in earnest. It was utter carnage. It was beautiful’ [p.313].

My problem here is more than just squeamishness — though I concede I am squeamish, and I very much disliked reading these later sections of the novel. I have, in point of fact, become more squeamish the older I have gotten, with a coastal-shelf step-down into Deep Squeam when my kids were born. After that doubled event I found it much harder to bear representations of torture and mutilation in my art, especially where kids are concerned. But there is a less subjective element here too, I think. My problem is that the novel’s violence is all sealed away inside the structure of the story. This is a novel about making war, but in itself it prefers in itself not to make war on cliché, that formal and stylistic war to which all authors, without exception, are called. Clichés, as Martin Amis says, are symptoms of used thinking. A writer of Chinese birth and upbringing, now American, reworking the hackneyed European biases of Heroic Fantasy is a commendable and exciting development, but it really (I think) ought to be a more disruptive — a more textually violent — matter than this smoothly-written and easily-paced read. Kuang’s novel is a text that records but doesn’t embody violence, something that’s there in the chatty, distinctly 21st-century dialogue that makes up a good third of the whole, in the descriptions (‘Winter descended on Sinegard with a vengeance. The icy weather was the last straw for most of the class’ [p.105: italics mine] … there are hundreds of similar examples), in specific scenes and also in the overall shape of the narrative: the orphan/chosen one is trained by the wise old mage to become a major player in world-wide war to combat the external wickedness of, and so on, and so forth.

As I note above, descriptions (and depictions) of violence tend to evoke a strong response in audiences, and it’s easy to mistake that intense affect for disruption. And it’s not just Fantasy. There’s a whole mode of gore-lit, ultra-violent horror shows, especially dominant in culture over the last quarter-century: in cinema with the whole Saw/Hostel sub-genre and everything from Tarantino to Omaha Beach at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan; in literature too, as with the whole post-Martin Grimdark Fantasy tradition, in which Kuang’s account (for instance) of the invader’s atrocities can be situated:

I saw women disembowelled. I saw the soldiers slice off their breasts. I saw them nail women alive to walls. There was a pregnant woman in the house with us …the general howled and grabbed at her stomach. Not with his knife. With his fingers. His nails. He knocked her down and he tore and tore. And he pulled out her stomach and her intestines and finally the baby, and the baby was still moving … the general ripped her baby in half the way you’d split an orange. [p.425]

This, though, flattens all possible response into an ugh. Atrocities such as this are recorded as happening in the (real-life) Rape of Nanking; but what was hideous in actual history, and might be edifying, in an appalling way, in a historical novel, loses moral force in a Fantasy novel. The Japanese soldiers who committed war crimes in Nanking were ordinary human beings, from which fact the ethical imperative of this terrible episode takes its force. The Federation soldiers who commit the crimes in Poppy War are mere ciphers for wickedness. By conflating three or four historical contexts from the nineteenth- and the twentieth-centuries in one made-up Fantasy conflict, Kuang muddies the ethical as well as the dramatic waters to the point of actual opacity. The historical record tells us anybody — you, me, any person — is capable of atrocity. Poppy War says that atrocities are horrible, and that we should feel an intense affect of slyly-eroticised revulsion and rage about that fact, up to and including genocidal revenge. But it also says that the perpetrators are the outsiders, the invaders, the Others, and the way to combat atrocity is to take the Empire’s most badass kids and train them into the further reaches of combat badassery in the Empire’s most ruthless training college. Since the narrative encourages us to identify with Rin and her friends this is as much as to say: atrocities exist in this text to license and encourage our counter-atrocities. After all, look how bestial our enemies are! Super-bestial reprisals are proportionate responses. It’s emotionally coercive to write this way, I think, although I’m aware that, whilst I dislike being coerced by my books, many people don’t.

The Poppy War is in many ways an impressive achievement, especially for a first novel. My beef is not with this one novel, but with what seems to me a particular aesthetic of somatic ultraviolence that is very widespread in contemporary culture. This, I think, is something distinct from other modes of representing violence. There are plenty of graphic and stomach-turning accounts of wounding and killing in the Iliad (say), but those, in their clinical precision and the counter-intuitive way they coolly describe the heat of battle, work very differently on the reader to a passage like the one quoted above. Homer never describes torture, or gratuitous violence. And for all that he gives us, in Simon Weil’s resonant phrase, a glimpse into Hell, a world ruled entirely by Force, Homer really isn’t interested in cruelty.

No: I would argue that the source for that particular fascination in later literature is Sadean, and the vibe of contemporary body horror and atrocitypunk owes an unmistakeable, if sometimes subterranean, debt to Les 120 Journées de Sodome. Guillaume Apollinaire predicted that de Sade would ‘dominate the 20th century’ and I tend to think he’s been proved right, at least so far as the constellation of eroticised violence and cruelty so prevalent in our culture texts nowadays is concerned. Are we crueller, in our art, than we used to be? Why might it be that our collective preferences where art is concerned are crueller than our actual lived experiences? This is something that predates the relative deracination of social interaction occasioned by social media, I think; but, then again, I wonder if our ubiquitous social media have acted as an accelerant.

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All this may have something to do with cinema’s ‘electricity problem’. What do I mean by that phrase? Well: electricity is a major part of modern life (and continues to play a major part in cinema’s various SFnal futures). Ah, but here’s the thing: electricity is invisible. Since cinema recoils from the visually unrepresentable a convention has grown up such that ‘electricity’ means: ‘sparking electrical discharge’. That’s pretty much the height and breadth of the way all electricity is represented in popular cinema, from the animation of Frankenstein’s monster, to the Jawas zapping R2D2. Much as, in The Simpson’s celebrated movie gag, cows have to be painted to look like horses because ‘horses don’t look like horses on screen’, the movie convention for the representation of electricity is a kind of white-blue matrix of shimmering and sparking firework light-effects.

We know this isn’t now electricity works in real life, but we accept the visual convention by whcih something internal and invisible is externalised and visualised in order to fit the representational logic of the medium. And that’s fine, just as long as we don’t confuse a representational convention with reality.

I suspect violence is like this. The bald fact is: physical violence is simpler to represent visually than other kinds of violence. That doesn’t make physical violence the truth of violence as such, especially in the 21st-century world. To the extent that visible, somatic modes of violence come to stand-in, as a representational convention, for the larger and more malign trauma of internalised, systemic and invisible violence, they run the risk of actually supplanting violence as such in the popular imagination.

This, though, is the wrong way about. Physical violence is horrible, but psychological violence tends to be both more profoundly traumatising and longer-lasting. A gunshot wound may heal in months, where PTSDs last years, even decades. The domestic goods stolen by a burglar can be replaced on the insurance, but the sense that a malign stranger has been in your house lingers, and makes you feel unsafe and unhappy for a long time. That’s a psychological reaction (though no less devastating for that), but I wonder if it is conceptual violence — by which I mean, whatever does violence to the principles, assumptions and mental models by which we navigate this complicating and alarming universe — that is the most radically destabilising.

In either case, there is a bias against the invisible. It’s not true that bodily illness is more real than psychological illness, or that conceptual violence is a mere chimera. It’s just that people’s responses are more easily recruited by the somatic. Trans activists I know tend to stress the physical dangers trans men and women often face: the risks of being actually beaten-up and murdered. Those risks are real, and undeniably higher for trans people than the general population, and that is not something to brush under the carpet. But might it not be that the conceptual violence people endure when their sense of self is denied by the communities to which they belong is, because it is continual, pervasive, internalised in ways that are psychologically violating, more significant? I’ve always thought ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me’ is exactly the wrong way around. Being beaten up will send you to the hospital for a poultice, where decades of verbal taunts, societal invalidation, disdain and rejection can send you to suicide. It’s not that sticks and stones won’t break your bones; it’s that it’s the stuff that gets inside your head that kills you.

Nor is this state of affairs ideologically neutral. Indeed, I’d suggest it is on the contrary precisely how ideology as such works. There may be a temptation to think of ideology as a sort of add-on, in some sense less importat than the brute existential facts of living, finding food and shelter and all that. But, again, I think this gets things the wrong way about. ‘Ideology’ is a shorthand term for those structures of belief, those attitudes to mind and habits of living, by which we orient ourselves in our social world. These beliefs can sustain us, and motivate us to acts of great kindness or courage; but they can also prompt us to atrocity, and can even overwhelm such basic biological drives as self-preservation, as the anorexic starves herself to death or the suicide-bomber blows himself up. Given this, something we see all the time around us in small as well as large ways, it strikes me as foolish to treat ‘ideology’ as a kind of afterthought, or as somehow secondary to the biological, somatic fundamentals of life.

I’m not, of course, the first to say so. A lot of Žižek’s oeuvre is more-or-less disposable Extruded Lacanian Product, but I do like his 2008 book Violence.

Žižek argues that we fixate on ‘subjective violence’ (assault, murder, terror and war) at the expense of other, more important modes of violence. He is particularly interested in what he calls ‘objective’ violence (‘the symbolic violence embodied in language and its forms’) and ‘systemic violence’ (the ‘often catastrophic consequences of the functioning of our economic and political systems’). This isn’t quite the distinction I’m trying to make in this post, actually, but Z and I are at least in the same ball-park. So, for instance, despite the professed conviction that it’s actual violence that is the traumatic and destructive kind, Žižek is surely right to note that Western society remains absolutely unruffled by the actual violence of its armies and police forces — in reality and as reflected in our hyper-violent popular culture-texts — whilst at the same time being highly agitated by the merely conceptual violence offered to hetrosexual norms by (say) gays in the military. The people unfazed by the 270 million firearms sloshing around the civilian population of the USA and 30,000+ deaths annually these weapons facilitate — actual violence, by any measure — are often the same people genuinely rattled by the purely conceptual violence offered to the dominant social (ideological) logics of heteronormativity, gender fixity and racial homogeneity by the mere existence of gay, trans and non-white segments of the population.

Now: it ought, I think, to be possible to think and talk about the pervasiveness and damage of conceptual violence without in effect crowding-out the concrete horribleness of actual violence. Women are beaten and murdered around the world in horrifying numbers every day. The thing is: some women are victimised by this kind of crime, but all women live under the conceptual coercion of fear of it — all women have to curtail their freedom of movement and hobble their peace of mind, live existences constrained within the procustean bed of this conceptual space.

I don’t mean to be hyperbolic. It may be that the facility with which people from all over the globe and from every position can now rub-up against one another has increased the friction, which is to say the potential for psychological and conceptual violence. By the same token the evidence strongly suggests that actual violence today is at its lowest level in human history; and recent studies show that human beings are bad at actual violence, inflicted on the bodies of actual people. We don’t like it, and with good cause. It’s sickening. Armies all around the world know that people have to undergo lengthy training, both physically and psychologically (in Full Metal Jacket stylee) to acquire the remoteness from normal human empathy to be able to do it at all. It’s a process that’s very time- and resource-intensive. More, even after centuries of honing this technique, it is surprisingly ineffective: up to 70% of soldiers in combat don’t even shoot their weapons, let alone confirm any kills.

This is one reason why the modern military is so fond of remote-control warmaking such as drones, and this surely point the way future belligerance will go. It’s not just that it’s cheaper and reduces your own casualties; it is also much easier to persaude soldiers to do it. A person who would have genuine, humane difficulty sticking a bayonet into somebody’s chest can be blithe about sitting in a room in front of a monitor playing war as if it were a video game, directing drones to dismember and kill men women and children.

This is to speak of ‘actual’, somatic violence. The point is: when it comes to conceptual violence, the way online interaction has shifted the centre of gravity of our manifold intersubjectivities includes, baked-in as it were, a great deal of precisely this remote-controlling. People who boast online about relishing the tears of their ‘enemies’ would, in almost all actual cases, be genuinely distressed to see somebody driven to weeping in front of them in real-life. People in real-life are generally nice to one another; people on Twitter are, generally, horrible to one another. And this, of course, is precisely the problem.

This brings me back to my earlier point about de Sade. In art, violence can indeed be cathartic. It’s just that we need to be clear what manner of catharsis we’re talking about. The violence represented in King Lear is extreme and sometimes disgusting, but the invisible forces it makes physically manifest are social and political. Something similar is true of Julius Caesar, War and Peace and Ubu Roi. I think, though, that the Sadean tradition entails something different, and the present-day success of this mode says something more worrying about who we are. Sadean catharsis operates via an eroticised cruelty and dominance that is, in turn, individuated and fixated on specific bodies, and ultimately on one specific body, one’s own. It is not a template for actual erotic interaction so much as it is a hyperbolic projection of violent masturbatory fantasies back onto the body of the consumer him- or herself. De Sade is about withdrawing from the wider world, into a fantasy of sealed bourgeois individualism: the four aristocratic libertines of Les 120 Journées de Sodome lock themselves away for four months in an inaccessible castle in the heart of the Black Forest with their 36 victims. ‘An enjoyment shared is enfeebled,’ de Sade writes: ‘there is no passion more egotistical than lechery; there is none that must be served more severely; one must absolutely think only of oneself.’

This solipsistic and eroticised quality is the logic of much of the grimdark and body-horror that plays such a prominent part of contemporary culture: Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991) or Tarantino’s grisly set-pieces are Sadean exercises: apolitical and individualised, exercises in a reversionary solipsistic excess. So, despite its larger ensemble cast and pretentions towards realpolitik, is Game of Thrones: ‘Tits and Dragons’ as Ian McShane memorably called the show, after appearing on it (‘Peter Stringfellow’s Lord of the Rings’ is Stewart Lee’s pithy put-down). Here physical violence, lavishly illustrated on screen via distressingly lifelike special effects, combines wth a good deal of nudity and sexual activity to create a distinctlty Sadean Fantasy flavour. To pick one example from many: Ramsay Bolton’s lengthy, ghastly sexualised torture of Theon Greyjoy that ends in the creation of a wholly subjugated Untermann called ‘Reek’, a process so drawn-out and egregious it overshadowed pretty much the whole of series 3.

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One defence for all this Sadean excess might be the same one a couple of late-20th-century philosophers advanced with respect to de Sade himself: namely that his fantasy, by manifesting the oppressive logic concealed in all sexual interchanges under patriarchy, can be recruited to revolutionary ends.

In The Sadean Woman (1978) Angela Carter argued that de Sade was ‘a terrorist of the imagination’ whose works ‘turn the unacknowledged truths of the encounters of sexuality into a cruel festival at which women are prime sacrificial victims’ (‘the pornographer as terrorist may not think of himself as a friend of women…but he will always be our unconscious ally because he begins to approach some kind of emblematic truth, whereas the lackey pornographer, like the devious fellows who write love stories for women’s magazines, that softest of all forms of pornography, can only do harm’). For Carter de Sade functions as a sort of way-station on the road from oppressive-repressive sex to a more inclusively pornotopian vision of ‘a world of absolute sexual licence for all the genders’. Not everyone was convinced: Andrea Dworkin threw shade on Carter’s book by calling it merely ‘pseudofeminist’. For Dworkin, Sade’s rape fantasy was all about the rape and not even a fantasy, because for her there is nothing hidden or, as it were, aspirational about male rape. It’s all front and centre all around us all the time; it’s written in letters of fire on the forehead of patriarchial culture.

A more nuanced defence of de Sade is Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘Must We Burn Sade?’ (1952), which argues that de Sade ‘posed the problem of the Other in its most extreme terms’. Beauvoir has interesting speculations about the extent to which cruelty establishes the relationship between the self and the other (‘cruelty reveals us to each other in the particularities and ambiguities of our conscious and fleshed existence. The tyrant and victim are a genuine couple. They are united by the bonds of the flesh and freedom’). She does concede that de Sade fails to work through this dynamic, becoming snared in his own erotic self-absorption and moral myopia, but refuses to give up on, or censor (‘burn’) him. I’m not so sure.

And actually, to be quite frank, I could care less about de Sade, who has always struck me as plain dull (other people’s monomaniacal obsessions are almost always boring, of course). But I am interested in, and I do care about, the Sadean turn in modern culture. Because although I take the force of Beauvoir’s attempt to renovate his reputation as a radical thinker of Otherness, the fact remains that his mode of fantasy is of an interaction with the Other that cannot comprehend the Other as anything other than a reversion of the subject’s erotically intensified cruelty of affect. It’s not that de Beauvoir is wrong to suggest that ‘Sade is trying to communicate an experience whose distinguishing characteristic is, nevertheless its will to remain incommunicable’; it’s just that his incommunicable is never God — the least compelling and most adolescent elements in de Sade’s writing is his febrile fist-shaking at God — and always only the Other as projection. It’s not even, really, that de Sade hates women; you can’t really hate something that barely impinges on your egoism. De Sade desires to do certain things to, never with, women (and men) but de Sade cannot comprehend women and men, and so not only his erotic energy but his whole universe reverts into an close-walled existential echo-chamber. His works are masturbatory not just in the instrumental sense that they have been used as handbooks for that harmless human activity, though I’m sure they have, but in the formal sense that they construe an aggressively hostile withdrawal from the Other as such.

That’s the worrying aspect of the modern Sadean Fantasy. De Beauvoir is quite right to identify something cruel about the Other, or more specifically something cruel about the ethical and practical demands the Other necessarily places upon us, whether we like it or not. The pain of the other — the weeping child torn from her mother and placed in a camp, say — cannot make allowances for your convenience or ease. But de Beauvoir is not suggesting that cruelty is the whole theatre in which our encounter with the Other takes place. Grimdark, in effect, is suggesting that. This, it seems to me, doesn’t critique the contemporary political turn to the right so much as translate it into the representational logic of fantastika. The one thing that unites today’s Brexit agitators, and Trumps, and Viktor Orbáns, the basic Brexitrumpbán premise, is that the world is dark and full of horrors, and that the polity must pull up the drawbridge and arm the cannons in the face of these things. Hobbes is very much back in fashion nowadays. And TV SFF, the Game of Thrones and Westworld and True Blood and Altered Carbon vibe (something also true of recent rape-and-sandals hit epics like Spartacus and Rome) embroiders a fundamentally Sadean-Hobbesian world: nasty, brutish and sure-to-include-female-nudity.

I’m not suggesting there’s a disconnect between the larger political context and these Sadean-masturbatory fantasies of bourgeois hermeticism (sealed in our livings rooms with our box-sets, like de Sade’s aristocrats, whilst all these beautiful young people are sexually tortured for our pleasure). On the contrary, the two are clearly intimately linked. We are at the moment plagued, we are absolutely ridden, by a ghastly political discourse of toughness, that horrible euphemism for ‘sadistic’. Our taste for bad-ass (that is, psychotic) heroes and heroines exactly mirrors our electorates’ perverse fascination with ‘tough’ (that is, psychotic) leaders like Trump and Putin. American voters elected a President who promised to lock immigrant children in concentration camps, and so it has come to pass. Be honest: when I confessed, early on in this post, how squeamish I am about the representation of violence in art, did you nod in agreement with me? Or, on the contrary, did you find yourself tut-tutting: really? you don’t have the stomach for this kind of art? what kind of weakling are you, Adam? Man that’s lame: I’m certainly tougher than that. Perhaps part of the appeal of this art is that we flatter ourselves that we can take it. We might even egg ourselves on to watch increasingly violent representations. That’s how desensitization works. The political logic of ‘toughness’ is that we need to ‘toughen up’ (to ‘grow a pair’, to ‘man the fuck up’) whenever our conscience prompts us to show compassion for our fellow human beings. That we need to harden our hearts, like pharaoh. ‘Le crime’, swoons De Sade in Les 120 journées de Sodome: ‘n’est-il pas toujours plus sublime, n’a-t-il pas sans cesse un caractère de grandeur et de sublimité qui l’emporte et l’emportera toujours sur les attraits monotomes et efféminés de la vertu?’ Bollocks to that, I say.

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Let’s look at another example of recent violence-Fantasy: Evan Winter’s The Rage of Dragons (Orbit 2019). Here is a flavour of that novel:

‘The fighting men and women of the Chosen were already onshore, were already fighting and dying’ [3]; ‘He grabbed the man’s wrist, breaking it across his knee. The dagger fell to the sand and Tsiory crashed his forehead into his opponent’s nose. With his enemy stunned, Tsiory shoved all his weight forward, forcing the rest of his sword into the man’s guts, drawing an open mouthed howl from him that spattered Tsiory with blood and phlegm’ [10]; ‘Tau stabbed and swung at limbs and faces. He sliced away someone’s fingers, praying they’d come from an enemy’s hand’ [44]; ‘Aren lifted his sword to defend. Kellan adjusted, hitting him on the wrist, separating hand from forearm’ [111]; ‘Blood from the wound on his face dripped on the floor’ [125]; ‘The jagged cut Lekan had given him was bleeding through its scabs. The man’s head had felt like a rock when he’d slammed it into Tau’s face’ [151]; ‘He hit him in the shoulder and then, as Jengo hopped back in pain, he cracked him in the neck. Jengo made a strange high-pitched sound and went down’ [179]; ‘Tau drew his arm back, near to blacking out from agony, and lashed with his remaining sword, slicing the demon across its chest’ [239]; ‘Tau fell to the murky ground and felt his insides spilling out. He looked down and cried out in pain and horror. His intestines were exposed to the air, ropes upon ropes of them. He reached down to try and push them back. The pain was indescribable’ [265]; ‘The creature closed its jaws on the back of his neck, cracking his spine and dragging him to the ground. With his spine severed Tau could not feel the leg or his rib cage being torn open by the two demons. He could hear them though, as they slopped up his innards and shook his body with their jostling’ [311]; ‘Tau’s head lolled. He was dying. It hurt. It hurt so much’ [315]; ‘The bastard shot his other sword out and low, burying a handspan of bronze in the meat of his left hip. Kellen screamed and fell’ [415]; ‘Tau launched himself into the fray, swords whirling, and the closest man took a dulled blade to the face, shattering his eye socket’ [417]; ‘… a warrior woman with full lips, caramel skin, and astonishing green eyes. She moved like an ocean storm, her bladework brilliant. He took her hand off at the wrist and she gawped at him, as if to ask why he’d done it. He wanted to tell her he wasn’t sure, but his bronze was deep in her breastbone and there was nothing to say that would have meant a damn’ [443]; ‘Tau dropped, cutting through the man’s calf with his blade. The Indlovu began to fall, and as he did Tau drove his sword through his skull. The dead man collapsed on the tiled floor’ [486]; ‘She fell to her knees and clawed at her neck, and blood erupted from her ears, mouth, nose and eyes. With fingers clawed, she tore at her face, peeling stripes of flesh away in rolls. She opened her mouth wide, as if to give birth through it, and vomited a torrent of filth, her arms giving way as she did’ [491]; ‘The pain coursed through Tau like a tsunami … he looked down at his wound. The demon had him open from belly to groin’ [509].

It’s exhausting.

I’m not saying its badly done. If you like this kind of thing (which is to say: ultraviolent Fantasy war-adventure with lots of hack-n-slash) then this, I would hazard, will prove the kind of thing you like. But, phew. I’d suggest ‘ugh!’, but I really not sure Rage of Dragons rises to the level of a Lawrentian or Burroughsian ‘ugh’. I don’t mean to damn with faint praise. What I’m saying here as above, it should be evident, reflects my own squeamishness as much as anything else.

It’s a larger question, of course. Perhaps the reason contemporary Fantasy is so often so ultraviolent is the same reason why so much of contemporary culture more broadly is so in hock to ultraviolence. I read reviews of the recent Harley Quinn flick Birds of Prey that praised the movie specifically for its representation of violence — visually inventive, said the critics; fun, they said; well-choreographed they said, as if grievous bodily harm is an elaborate and expressive dance rather than an affront to our collective humanity. Such celebration goes, it seems to me, in tandem with critics praising the movie for putting women in front of and behind the camera, a tacit argument that Birds of Prey dramatises the revolt of oppressed womankind against patriarchy.

Don’t misunderstand my weariness, here. Manifestly, patriarchy is a structural violence, and manifestly men are often actually violent against women. But it seems to me the myth of the ‘kick-ass femme’ reproduces, rather than deconstructs, both those things. As if Harley Quinn could figure as a role model to any but the most morally obtuse! I mean, it’s possible that that’s exactly where we are. But one hopes not.

I understand, of course, the argument that says: this is neither a representation of, nor a call to, actual violence — it’s cartoon violence, like Tom and Jerry. Still, Tom and Jerry used to be a five-minute interlude between Crackerjack and Blue Peter. Now it’s the whole schedule. Sure, we chafe against the restrictions of Civilisation and Its Discontents, and (sure) those discontents stem from the way we must constrain our desires and aggressions in the face of the provocations of others. But the fantasy that acting out our violent instincts would free us from this bind is as fatuous as it is mendacious. Does it really need saying? Physical violence in facile books and films simplifies, frees, acts cathartically and manifests graceful physicality; but physical violence in real life is always ugly, always upsetting, always graceless, never effects any longer-term catharsis and always, always but always complexifies and degrades the situation into which it is inserted. Violence is another word for intolerance — is, indeed, the purest somatic embodiment of intolerance. If intolerance, more broadly framed, is our problem, injecting more intolerance surely isn’t the solution, howsoever we urge ourselves on with self-assurances that our intolerance is the good kind, not like their nasty and bigoted intolerance, and so on, and so forth. But, look: I’m getting preachy.

There’s a series 2 episode of The Sopranos where Tony sends Furio into a house to beat up people who owe him money, whilst he waits outside. Later, during his session with his psychoanalyst Dr Melfi, Tony confesses that he sat in the car thinking about the ‘beating’ taking place, and wishing it was him, inside the house. This is connected, we assume, with Tony’s sense that he’s not as young as he used to be, his fear of waning powers. But Melfi’s question, with respect to this desire to be where the beating was actually happening, is perceptive: ‘giving it?’ she asks. ‘Or taking it?’

Reading these violence-Fantasy novels, I find myself struck that two things are always at play. On the one hand there is the idea of violence as something you inflict on others, others ‘who deserve it’ (to free you from any qualms your conscience might try to insert into the situation) — the idea, in other words, of violence as freeing, a freedom both from societal constraints and from your own motivations, thoughts and prompts (hence: an acte gratuit). But always, alongside this fundamentally sadistic notion, runs the masochistic one. The Rage of Dragons puts enormous emphasis on the long, exhausting and often painful training its characters must undergo, and spends as long on the wounds our guys receive as the ones they inflict: gloating accounts of enemies being hacked to pieces, and equally gloating accounts of we ourselves (that is, our fictional proxy) being on the receiving end of others’ violence. Maybe that fictive jink that divides the universe in goodies (us) and baddies (them) isn’t quite the get-out-of-jail-free card our conscience needs. Perhaps we must receive as much violence as we dish out in order that we are able to continue dishing it out. An eye for an eye, we might say, cuts both ways.

It’s certainly hard to deny that movies from Rambo to Starship Troopers and Captain America: Winter Soldier are as much about how much violence and pain our hero can absorb as they are about how much he (in most cases it is a he) can direct against others. Swapping out the kick-ass hero in favour of a kick-ass heroine does not challenge or upend, but rather internalises and intensifies, this structural relation. It’s not actually a case of ‘women have been on the receiving end of this kind of crap for generations, now it’s our turn to dish it out’. That’s for several reasons I think, and not the least of them is: men are on the receiving end, and always have been. In life, but egregiously so in art. Sylvester Stallone squatting in a cave and gurning in agony as he sews up his own wounds without anasthetic: Rambo is much more a masterpiece of masochism than it is an outwardly projecting power-fantasy. And that makes a kind of sense, doesn’t it: because the System (Power, Foucault would say) absolutely depends upon our capacity to absorb its punishments — upon, in fact, our ability not just to take this, but to convince ourselves that we should, that this is the logic of reality, even that we secretly enjoy it. It isn’t us, but we’re encouraged to believe it is. In truth, as Ballard’s Richard Pearson says in Kingdom Come (2006) ‘Violence is the True Poetry of Governments.’ So here we are.

Violence is a physical action, and its representation in art is an emotional prompt (to exhilaration perhaps; or disgust). Which is another way of saying: violence is not an idea. Me, I’m old-fashioned enough not to wish to forego the idea that SF is a literature of ideas. The problem is that an idea is always a constraint upon emotion; an idea is always a formulation, and therefore a formalisation, which is to say: a form. All the bollocks about violence as something to be ‘choreographed’, as a kind of ‘dance’, is a fundamental and, I think, self-serving evasion of the truth that violence degrades form, is always about breaking shit, not forming it. Our confusion (one, I’m tempted to say, structurally imposed upon us) is our belief that our guilt merits violence, along with this ideolegeme’s correlative that violence is the necessary idiom of all punishment. But it need not be so. In Coldness and Cruelty Gilles Deleuze argues that ‘even guilt and punishment do not tell us what the law is.’ Rather he says, they ‘leave it in a state of indeterminacy equaled only by the extreme specificity of the punishment.’ He adds: ‘this is the world described by Kafka.’ Oh for a properly and fully Kafkaesque Fantasy novel today! Vain hope, I know.

So, yes: I suppose I’m suggesting this style of writing, so common today, only superficially appears sadistic. It’s actually masochistic, in this specifically Deleuzian sense. In place of sadism’s essentially institutional, apathetic and quantitative powers, connected as they are in our post-Enlightenment epoch with the demonstrative reason of the superergoist state, these sorts of novel are exercises in Deleuzian masochism. These works only mimic heat; they are in fact cold. They pay mere lip-service to justice and liberation; in fact they are cruel, qualitative and contractual (since the reader knows in advance what to expect here and will be angry if they feel ‘cheated’ of that; but also in the way violence against the other is ‘paid for’ in the currency of violence absorbed by the self).

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Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts

Writer and academic. London-adjacent.