Identify and discuss how literature and film are tools of transgression in Tropic of Cancer (novel), Lolita (novel) and Modern Times (film).
To discover the complete horizon of a society’s symbolic values, it is also necessary to map out its transgressions, interrogate its deviants, discern phenomena of rejection and refusal, and circumscribe the silent mouths that unlock upon underlying knowledge and implicit.
~Marcel Detienne, Dionysos Slain (cited in Oberoi 1992, p.363)
Pushing boundaries have always been a major concern in art, whether it is literature, film, music, or painting. This paper will focus on two of the major art forms which are literature and film. They are used by two of the greatest authors of the twentieth century, Vladimir Nabokov and Henry Miller, and one of the most significant figures in the film industry, Charlie Chaplin, as tools of transgression that interrogate the boundaries and constraints created by society. According to Julian Wolfreys (2008, pp.1-3) transgression is “the very pulse that constitutes our identities.” Transgression is
the act of breaking a law, committing a crime or sin, doing something illegal, or otherwise acting in some manner proscribed by the various forms or institutions of Law in societies, whether secular or religious, all of which have histories and which themselves are mutable, self-translating.
Additionally, Wolfreys explains that “the transgressive actions or attitudes of a character can frequently be worked out not through the character’s identity solely, but also in the form (or let us call it ‘identity’) of the literary text in question.” In Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, sexuality is used as a tool of transgression to challenge the limits of socially accepted convention. In Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times, the industrialization is used to emphasize the danger that modern technology brings upon people by transforming them into working units, and that machinery is used solely for profit.
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The conflation of Miller’s sexually saturated novel, Nabokov’s seductive composition, and Chaplin’s instigative film form the perfect ‘study object’ to explore the nature of transgression, which is perceived in both novels and the film not as intentionally morally corrupt, but as an opposition to social convention. The tools used by Miller, Nabokov, and Chaplin, in order to convey their visions, are the language and the power of imagery.
In Lolita (1955), the readers are tempted, seduced, and simultaneously threatened by Humbert’s manipulation and aesthetic transcendence where he has “only words to play with” (Nabokov 1980, p.32). Humbert’s story is a confession composed of words that are able to seduce the reader in the same way as he seduces Lolita. The threat of Humbert’s words is that, unconsciously, the reader may fall for his confession which, as Vanity Fair (LA Times 1998) argues, is “the only convincing love story of our century”. Moreover, the readers can take part in the novel’s action through its imagery when Humbert invites them to “participate in the scene” (Nabokov, p.56) where he is about to seduce his nymphet. Lolita nonchalantly places her legs across Humbert’s lap while showing him an image of a surrealist painter “relaxing, supine, on a beach, and near him, likewise supine, a plaster replica of Venus di Milo, half-buried in sand” (p.58). As Humbert perceives everything through the lens of art, including and especially his Lolita, she can be associated with Venus di Milo who is Humbert’s ideal of beauty; not as a mature woman though, but as a young girl whom Humbert loves so much that he desires her sexually.
Karshan (Boyle & Evans 2008, p.98) argues that “Lolita exposes the sinister potential of the cult of the child in post-Romantic art: that it protects children by making them lovable, but by making them too lovable risks making them desirable, and so places them in danger.” While Lolita sits in his lap, Humbert cannot resist the urge to masturbate, himself admitting that he was “in a state of excitement bordering on insanity” (Nabokov, p.58). Although no explicit language was used to portray the actual scene, it should not be forgotten that the ‘reason’ of Humbert’s “delicious distention” (p.59) is a twelve year old girl. Humbert’s assertion that he “had done nothing to her [Lolita] [and that] Lolita had been safety solipsized” (p.59), moreover, that nothing could prevent him from repeating the scene, comes in direct opposition to Karshan’s observations that children who fall prey to adult’s pervert desires, are in great danger.
Wolfreys (p.14) points out that “the novels, plays or films seek to work through the paradox that one transgresses because one’s survival is threatened by what, to many, is convention or normative behavior.” That which is considered to be an important feature of the nature of transgression is the way in which it “affirms the limitlessness into which it leaps” (Foucault 1977, p.35), in this instance, of seducing the reader and the viewer where, “if [they] do not watch out, the real murderer may turn out to be, to [their] disgust, artistic originality” (Nabokov 1980, p.311). In Lolita, originality is the one that annihilate convention therefore artistic originality can be referred to as destroyer of convention. AlthoughHumbert is a murderer and a paedophile who, besides words, uses also physical violence to subjugate Lolita: “In fact [I] hurt her rather badly” (ibid, p.203), and rapes her countless times, he is identified with artistic originality.
Through originality and artistic innovation, Humbert succeeds to project his techniques of rhetorical seduction not only on Lolita, but on the reader too: “I faked interest by bringing my head so close that [Lolita’s] hair touched my temple and her arm brushed my cheek as she wiped her lips with her wrist” (p.57). The affiliation of originality with criminality can be seen as a tool of transgression. Furthermore, the reader is invited to raise ethical questions, though, at the same time they are rejected through parody in the same way as physical comedy is used and parodised in Humbert’s struggle to open the pharmacy’s door: “[â€¦] in front of the first drugstore, I saw – with what melody of relief! – Lolita’s fair bicycle waiting for her. I pushed instead of pulling, pulled, pushed, pulled, and entered” (p.204), as well as romanticism and romantic love is: “[â€¦] my Lolita [â€¦] stretched towards me two bare arms, raised one knee: ‘Carry me upstairs, please. I feel sort of romantic tonight” (pp.205-206). The role reversal of the seducer it actually blindfolds Humbert into following Lolita’s machinations for their second journey. In this scene, Lolita is empowered hence she transforms into a twelve year old girl-temptress and “thus putting an entirely new spin on the nightmare of child rape” (Winchell 2002, p.329). At this stage, Lolita holds complete power not only over Humbert’s lustful body, but over his imagination too. In his mad love for Lolita, Humbert, a thirty-seven year old adult does not realize that not the role that she played in the school play has trained her into certain affectations, but Humbert himself and her longing to escape from him.
Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934)”breaks with the English literary tradition” (Shapiro 1961, p.xii), its tools of transgression being the obscene language as well as the imagery used to portray the chronicle of a “man who is happy” (p.xi), who reaches his aspiration of becoming an artist. The novel is “considered an important milestone in the development of the autobiographical novel” (Shute 2002, online) from the point of view that the artist who, through the power of graphic descriptions, can shock and push the reader out of the “literary complacency” (ibid). Frequently, at a first glance, the ideas presented in the novel may seem trivial: “We have evolved a new cosmogony of literature, Boris and I. It is to be a new Bible-The Last Book. [â€¦] After us not another book” (Miller 1961, p.26), though through a close reading the depth of their meaning have a tremendous impact with a new sort of understanding. The suggestion that a whole new world could be created through the power of the written word signifies the idea of an apocalypse and the rebirth of the world itself. As Foucault (1977, p.30) argues, “Profanation in a world which no longer recognizes any positive meaning in the sacred-is this not more or less what we may call transgression?” The creation of a new Bible which instigates “to rape, to murder” (Miller 1961, p.27) may appear as a criminal offense to the humanity itself, though it is rather a direct affront to the contemporary way of life. Miller does not write about the world, Miller “is showing the world as it exists” (Bursey 2015, p.164). The sacred was and still is considered to be that which the profane should not reach. On the whole, sacred is associated with religion, therefore “sacredness [â€¦] denotes religiosity” (Jenks 2003, p.29). However, in a world where the form of the sacred has become more diluted thus less recognisable, transgression as the nature of the social reaction is just a mere attempt to restore the common values and normative constraints.
In Tropic of Cancer it is more than obvious that obscenity which “most often connotes excess, violence and transgression” (Mavor cited in Mey 2007, p.5) is used as a violation of the aforementioned normative constraints, thus obscenity can be seen as a violation of the societal boundaries. In Tropic of Cancer Miller reveals and implies sexual purity not as real eroticism rather he divulges sexuality just as it is: “a bone in [his] prick six inches long [to] ream out every wrinkle in [Tania’s] cunt” (Miller 1961, p.5). Throughout the novel Miller does not try to conceal the events that take place in his life, contrariwise he writes his real life experiences of how he walks the streets, how he tries to find money, food, how he meets his friends, how he sleeps with whores, and even “getting an erection looking at the dumb statues” (p.16). Miller’s literature juggles on a string between sexuality and civilization, his literature it transgresses the limits of decency and it takes the freedom to say that which is considered to be taboo. Society does not allow openly expressed sexuality through words, as such expression of freedom might undermine the society’s authority and thus society’s structure itself. Although there have always been huge controversy on the sexual topics of Tropic of Cancer, the relationship of its author with the traditions of literature and art cannot be denied. The development of the artist is one the novel’s major themes, thus art is implied as being the artist’s way of living, and if sex and sexuality smoothes the artist’s path to fulfilling his destiny, then so be it, Nabokov’s (p.257) words that “sex is but the ancilla of art” might be the a reasonable solution when trying to understand Miller’s world.
Modern Times (1936), with the foreword: “A story of industry of individual enterprise ~ humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness” (min. 1.07) is considered to be a comedic masterpiece written and directed by Charlie Chaplin. Although it is a fusion of slapstick, which is “comedy based on deliberately clumsy actions and humorously embarrassing events:‘slapstick humour‘ (Oxford Dictionaries), and satire, the film deals with major themes that encompass the turmoil of the 1930s American society, such as The American Dream, the effects of the Great Depression, mechanization and mass production, anarchy and rebellion, poverty, food, and hunger. By 1936Chaplin was already well known for his film directing, some of his most important films are The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), though Modern Times is Chaplin’s first overtly political film with “dangerously meaningful” (Nugent 1936) intertitles and imagery. Chaplin is using intertitles, the sound being substituted by the exaggerated character of the gesture and the reliance on miming that leads to an emphasis on acting.
The opening scene of the film is showing a flock of white sheep being guided by an unseen force (min. 1.20) towards an unseen location, with a single black sheep among them symbolising The Tramp, the anarchist of the society who resents control. The scene is complemented by the marching music that leads to the next scene of the film showing a mass of people going to work (min. 1.30), driven by the same unseen force. The metaphor implemented by the association of people with domesticated animals that obey their master has a great impact on viewers, its statement being that people are controlled by industrialization and mechanization therefore they must accept, obey, and let themselves be controlled by the ruler, and that is the minority of the system that creates the rules.
On the concept that, in order to provide for a living, humanity is forced to adjust to mechanization and machines, in the same way the tyranny of the technology is forcing people to become robotic machines themselves. The theme of mechanization that enslaves the man is emphasised in the first section of the film where the workers are being monitored (min. 2.39) by the President of the Electro Steel Corp. factory through giant monitors. Furthermore, the people must work at a pace imposed by nothing else than a machine, though the one who commands the speeding up of the working pace is the factory’s Director: “Section five, speed her up! 401” (min. 2.59). The working scene is filled with comedy, though when The Tramp’s tool gets stuck on a nut he cannot manage to release it on time, thus his coworker, by mistake, hits The Tramp’s hand with the hammer. At this point the whole working process must be stopped, the supervisor intervenes, and when The Tramp reports his bulky colleague, the latter kicks him as a punishment. It is worth mentioning that The Tramp does not show any fear, contrariwise he hits his colleague back (min. 4.35), his gesture signifying him fighting not only his coworker, but the whole system too.
Once again the Director orders the speeding up of the working pace (min. 4.46) which results in The Tramp having a sort of a breakdown and begins to screw everything he sees, from the secretary’s skirt buttons to even the comic scene when he chases a woman who has buttons on her dress, on the street (min. 16.15).
Modern Times,1936 [film]. Directed by Charlie CHAPLIN. USA: United Artists
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