The crux of the matter

I didn’t construct this scene in Study Abroad with all that much foresight; it was just something that boiled up from the darker regions of my mind and onto the page.  On looking back after writing I did think “By Great Cthulhu this one will annoy all sorts of folks.”  (Among other things it is quite the act of blasphemy, against at least two major religions.  Perhaps I shall soon be facing prosecution in Ireland.)  I toyed with the idea of taking it out, but eventually decided that it made more sense to leave it in.  Not only does it make a significant point (and prefigure menaces that will become more manifest in later scripts), but it draws on its own significant artistic tradition, whether people like it or not.

I have speculated before about the existence of an inner connection between sadistic spectacle and a certain kind of spirituality. And you needn’t take my own word for it; you can attend to those of Thomas Aquinas, that celebrated Saint and Doctor of the Church, who tells us in all seriousness “Beati in regno coelesti videbunt poenas damnatorum, ut beatitudo illis magis complaceat.”  (See one F. Nietzsche, Zur Genealogie der Moral, I.15.) If that sentiment doesn’t disturb you more than anything else you see in the post, you might want to sit down and meditate quietly on your values for a while. (It’s possible that Nietzsche didn’t get the wording quite right but he was dead-on correct in diagnosing the sentiment.  As he will remark later on, “…alle Religionen sind auf dem untersten Grunde Systeme von Grausamkeiten.”)

In an event, you can certainly look into art history and find images similar to what appeared in my scene, whether as images of pious martyrdom or voluptuous cruelty (or, if I am right if I am right about the connection between the two, both).

Since there is probably no image quite as broadly distributed as that of crucifixion in Europe (Catholic Europe especially), it is hardly surprising that it will crop up all over the culture, for example in the rumor of the Crucified Canadian that was common in British trenches in the First World War.  And since it is a sacred symbol, it is hardly surprising that there were illustrators willing to repurpose it for especially transgressive pornographic purposes, e.g.

And that the idea would spread far in time, eventually all the way to Japanese cinema.

And, in the end, become an object even of eroticized satire, drawing on the artistic conventions of anti-Semitic caricature as in this part of Phoebe’s “backstory” from The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist. (And yes, based on the context in which the image appears, I really am sure it is meant as satire.)

And so now, with the help of Springer and O’Donoghue, I’ve blasphemed against all the Abrahamic religions.

But if I can’t be transgressive, then what am I doing here?

I was inducted into a harem…

What does it say about morality that so much human energy is put into imagining someplace where we are rid of it? All four of the stories in Study Abroad involve a certain leap into some realm beyond good and evil. and Bridget’s involves one into an imagined world that has had a pretty deep grip on the erotic consciousness — at least of Christian Europe and its cultural offshoots — for hundreds of years.  In the age of Google, it takes a matter of seconds to peer back into the artistic record and see the story.  I make a tiny, tiny nod to political correctness in imagining that Bridget goes there of her own “free will,” (or does she?  — there are layers of complicating detail), but otherwise, I simply indulge the story whose record is so abundantly available. The visual image of nubile slaves, up for sale, voyeristically inspected:

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 - 1904), "The Slave Market"

That of the odalisque, a subject so popular in European painting that there must be hundreds of examples, of which this is perhaps the most famous:

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780 -1867), "La Grande Odalisque"

The image of life in a place of sensual indulgence:

Gérôme again, "The Harem Baths"

And I must of course note, that this visual tradition continues in cinema, and interestingly not just as male voyeurism.  Perhaps the first important male sex symbol in film, Rudolph Valentino, really broke into the public consciousness in The Sheik, a story of the abduction and seduction of an aristocratic white woman in the mysterious orient.

Rewatching _The Sheik_ just recently I was struck at the extraordinary charisma that Valentino projects through the screen, even through flicker, silent, sepia-toned images now almost 90 years old.  What male Hollywood actor working today would even be fit to shine Valentino's shoes?

And the whole theme continues onward.  See related Erosblog posts here, here, here and here. Who am I, humble scrivener that I am, to decline to expropriate such a tradition?

“Les 400 culs” added to blogroll

I am pleased as punch to be able to note that I’ve discovered intrepid sex journalist Agnès Giard‘s blog Les 400 culs.  (The title of which, surely, is a slightly off-color pun on the title of this movie.)  Giard is the author of the not-too-be-missed Le sexe bizarre:  Practiques érotiques d’aujourd’hui (cover pictured to the left) as well as L’imaginaire érotique au Japon. As you might have guessed just by looking at the titles, there’s no knowing really what Giard will write about on any given day, but I can say that if you think you might be a thaumatophile, you won’t be often disappointed, so if you read French, even if only just a little, by all means surf on over.  She’s on the blogroll to the right, where surely she belongs.

Pretty pretty spider

P.Z. Myers over at Pharyngula and Jerry Coyne at Whyevolutionistrue both have fine weekend traditions of coming up with pictures of exotic fauna to brighten up everyone’s weekends, and I couldn’t be happier than to follow in such illustrious footsteps, at least occasionally.

So for those of you who care about such things (which I am sure is all of you), the little spider that jumps on Cleo and so terrifies her is a member of a real species, Telamonia dimidiata, and she certainly is a pretty one (the spider, I mean, though certainly Cleo is too):

I picked this species in part precisely because the female is so pretty, but also because it was the subject of an enteratining e-mail hoax a while back about its crawling out from under public restrooms in Florida and fatally biting people.  Status of the myth:  false, as this discussion at show.  Still, good as the sort of thing out of which fiction can be made.

The dance comes from here…

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

William Butler Yeats, “Among School Children” (1927)

And with respect to Bridget, where did you think the dance came from, or where might it be going?

Hans Zatzka (1859 - 1945), "The Harem Dancer"

Gaston Guédy (1874 - 1955), "Dançarina de harém"

A theme continued in a more modern visual idiom here, here, and here.  Enjoy!

What do the students abroad look like?

When I wrote The Apsinthion Protocol I put brief descriptions of some of the main characters — Anwei, Ashely, Moira, and Nanetta in particular — into the script.  This practice probably wasn’t good screenwriting, so I left it out of Study Abroad. But the fact of my leaving it out might leave a reader wondering what mental images to associate with the principal characters.

Well, probably the right answer to the question is “any images that work for you.”  But I’ll offer the images that work for me, the images I have of the characters in my mind’s eye as I write.

  • Bridget is a natural redhead who looks a little bit like Clara Bow.
  • Cleo is an elegant African-American woman the mental image of whom I take from Dorothy Dandridge (see right).
  • Jill is muscular and athletic (she is, in fact, an athlete, a fact which will be relevant in later stories), who looks a little bit like a young Giulietta Masina, but with more of an athlete’s build.
  • Iris resembles Hedy Lamarr. but is a little bit more voluptuous (no, I am not just ogling that image in my mind, that too will have future plot relevance) and has a little bit more of a steely gleam in her eyes.

A little side note:  a Google image search on Dorothy Dandridge produces what strikes me as less of a yield than the other four searches.  I think this is sort of a shame, and not only becuase, IMHO, Dorothy Dandridge is the most gorgeous of the four…

τόλμημα and tolmemazine

It was a sly and evil little delight to be able to name Strangeways’s adventure-inducing psychotropic after one of the sharpest and nastiest academic catfights it was ever my pleasure to witness.

It happened something like this:  back in 1992 the citizens of Colorado adopted “Amendment 2” to their state constition, which would have prevented any state or local government from adopting any rule or policy protecting gays or lesbians from discrimination.  Prompt result:  Federal litigation (this is America, damnit!).  An issue raised at trial had to do with whether opposition to homosexuality had a primarily religious basis (which might present Establishment Clause problems for Amendment 2) or whether there was a rational basis for such opposition.  Somewhat strained consequence:  an expert-witness swearing contest between Catholic natural lawyer John Finnis and liberal cosmopolitan philosopher and classicist Martha Nussbaum over whether classical Greek thinkers did or did not condemn gay sex, one surprisingly deep part of which was a bitter dispute over whether the word  τόλμημα (tolmêma) when applied to gay sex in Plato‘s Laws should be translated as either “shameless acts” or “acts of enterprise, boldness, daring.”

Oh, the fur did fly!  A big ugly controversy with insinuations of perjury on one side and implied threats of libel suits on the other.  If you like that sort of thing, you can read this archived account from the (now deceased, sadly) magazine Lingua Franca.

In due time, the litigation reached the United States Supreme Court in the form of Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996), which held (and here I paraphrase for the non-lawyer reader) “Sorry, Colorado, but you’re just not allowed to use your state constitution to bash your gay and lesbian citizens.”  On the issue of the true meaning of τόλμημα, the Court maintained a majestic judicial silence.

And me?  Well, I’m no classicist, but I think I sort of like both readings, since I like the idea of characters who are both enterprising and shameless.  And that’s why I named this fictional drug tomemazine.

And of course, had it introduced in a voice-over of a brief gay sex scene.

_Study Abroad_ now available.

The second Gnosis College story, Study Abroad, is now available.

Study Abroad has an anthology structure, as it is the self-narrated tales of four Gnosis women engage in the common American practice of spending part of one’s time off in exotic places.  In the background, providing perhaps a little extra dose of mad science interest, are the activities of a sinister figure named Dr. Emil Strangeways…

Study Abroad can, of course, be read philosophically, with stories in the anthology posing intellectual puzzles, for example about the nature and origins of action (in “Odalisque,”), or how the beliefs and practices of people around you affect how you interpret your own experiences (in “Initiate“), or moral responsibility (in “Assassin“), or personal identity (in “Dinner“).

Or you can read it for fetishistic sex scenes.  I aim to please, so enjoy!

“The use of excessive violence…has been approved.”

It might seem a bit excessive to have the Omega’s harmless little initiation brought to a close by the noisy appearance of an FBI tactical team. – amusing mock violence of a fraternity replaced with the terrifying real violence of the state.   But I guess that’s a reflection of the Gnosis College world.  I mean, after all, I grew up during the Cold War and am now living through something called the War on Terror, and what is more I grew up reading the likes of Thomas Pynchon and Joseph Heller, so I suppose that paranoid melodrama would almost of necessity be my most natural literary mode.  You might be seeing a lot of it in Gnosis College tales to come…

Gravity’s Rainbow probably should have been in my manifesto, as it happens.  I read it for the first time at seventeen and I must say it likely made a lot of difference in the evolution of my cheerfully warped mentality.  Not only is it a touchstone of paranoid melodrama, to say nothing of my sense that history is a vehicle driven by technological progress and steered by bureaucratic incompetence, but it’s a splendid touchstone for the aspiring thaumatophile.  There are any number of mad scientists, beginning with the behaviorist Dr. Laszlo Jampf, a central character whose orgasms are somehow connected with the strikes of V-2 rockets on London, and of course, a long series of dirty limericks about men who have sex with various rocket parts.  A rare example of a work of fiction that deserves its high reputation.

But is my writing here just paranoia?  As journalist Radley Balko would doubtless be eager to point out at this juncture, there does seem to be rather a lot of abusive use of police tactical teams on no-knock raids these days.  So maybe I’m being a little bit more realistic than I know.

Best (and worst) initiation ever

Now one might reasonably wonder why, in a site devoted to erotic mad science, why I would bother writing a scene like the Omega initiation.  There’s not that much θαῦμα here, no wonder technology of the sort that Joseph Corwin trades in.  You could stage the scene yourself with about twenty dollars’ worth of supplies from your local Walmart, assuming of course that you have a circle of actor friends who are, uh, very serious about the craft.

But of course, initiations of almost any kind are of great social science interest.  It is a puzzle why anyone would willingly subject themselves to something difficult, painful, and possibly publicly humiliating (like getting naked and being beaten up by a girl in front of all your potential fraternity brothers), until you realize that groups like fraternities provide indivisible goods for their members, and are thus vulnerable to free-riding.  Would-be members thus need a way of signaling that they will not free-ride.  Just saying “I won’t” isn’t good enough, because anyone can say that.  But being willing to put up with something costly — such as showing oneself willing to endure pain or ridicule by actually doing so, is a costly signal and therefore a credible one.  Fraternity initiations are like this, and therefore can be analyzed using an economic framework similar to that which Laurence Iannaccone uses to analyze the various “strange” behaviors used by members of New Religious Movements (pejoratively, “cults”) — you can hear Professor Iannaccone’s explanation done very lucidly in his EconTalk interview with Russell Roberts.

If you have an understanding of signaling, economics, especially the economics of non-market behavior, will become a much richer and deeper subject.   This point is stressed perhaps best of all by Robin Hanson (you can hear an EconTalk interview with Hanson on signaling as well), who makes it a a key theme in his blog Overcoming Bias.  Hanson has, in addition to an interest in signaling, a keen interest in speculative technologies.  So perhaps there is a mad science angle here, or at least a mad social science angle, and…

Aw heck, who am I trying to fool?  The fact is,  I had a whole damn third act to write with very little sex until Nanetta and Moira’s shades-of-Tosca dénouement, and since you can only go so far on police-procedural hijinks I had to come up with something, so why not appeal to a long and venerable pornographic tradition?

Jean Veber (1868 - 1928), "Women Wrestling in Devonshire" (ca. 1898)

Emmanuel Croisé (b. 1859), "The Girls of Sparta" (ca. 1903)

Now perhaps the something wasn’t the most creative, even if it does provide a rivet for holding different parts of the plot of Apsinthion Protocol together.  Naked combat has been picked up and gone a long way in popular culture.  We see this, for example, in the one scene that made the movie for me in what was otherwise a pretender to the role of supreme campus hijinks movie:

A K-Y jelly wrestling match.  Great idea, guys!  And certainly a good plot inspiration for me, although perhaps somewhat disappointingly it results in only one death.

If you want to go more sanguinary in the naked-girl fight thing, check out a scene just about twelve minutes into a 1973 movie called 不良姐御伝 猪の鹿お蝶, Furyō anego den: Inoshika o-Chō (in English, Sex and Fury) in which the heroine, played by Reiko Ike, gets roused out of her bath for a naked swordfight in which she manages to finish off quite a few assailants.


Now I don’t quite know of any popular culture scenes that quite parallel what Laura submits to (or connives at, perhaps?) in the Omega initiation, even if perhaps the thought of it forms the subtext of things like the Old School KY fight.  The idea does come up in gay porn.  There is a site, called, about which Bacchus at ErosBlog wrote about a year ago, where the combaants really are aiming to see who comes out on top, so to speak. Like I wrote, many precedents.