LETTER NO. 7: ON INCEST
by Chris R. Morgan
As you know, and in fact have witnessed, I’m a fairly proficient walker. I don’t do it as much as I should these days, but at one point—specifically the miserable winter of 2015—I would walk as many as eight miles every day up in both directions through the hilly terrain of our homeland. Similarly notable, of course, is my wandering eye of sorts. The number of times I have skirted testing the limits of my health insurance through injury by way of Instagram fidgeting are probably too many to count. Maybe not that many but enough times. But the vision I want to talk about is a different kind altogether.
Walking with my mom some time ago, she once turned to me and admitted how much she likes to look at each passing house and imagine what goes on inside them. The admission struck me, to be sure, though more for its candor (something my mom always exerted but somehow always surprises us when she does) than for its content. I don’t find anything particularly unique in this kind of aspirational voyeurism. I’ve participated in it myself, and I gather that neither of us are alone, especially among others who have grown up in the suburbs.
There is a favorite quote of mine by Walter Bagehot that I’m fond of recalling: “We see but one aspect of our neighbor, as we see but one side of the moon, in either case there is also a dark half which is unknown to us. We all come down to dinner, but each has a room to himself.” No insight speaks more plainly about the world in which you and I were reared. Walking past one impossibly pretty property after another, under the almost preternaturally corresponding natural splendor, I become conscious of the dual nature that Bagehot described. Much in the same way we are encouraged in polite settings to speak with our indoor voices, we are in polite society encouraged to obey the outdoor law, through which we uphold the social order and reinforce the common good as public people, whether written in the books or implied by example. But just as there is a vulgar outdoor voice there is a mysterious indoor law, known only to those who obey it within a given space, behind the walls they maintain. Each house on every street is its own little fiefdom, with customs, tastes, and morals that seldom find outward expression beyond the quality of paint jobs or the arrangement of yards. Have you not sometimes noted this distinction? Have you every so often bemoaned the rigidity of your own kingdom while envying the apparent laxity of that of a friend’s? Have you not been eerily fascinated by even the most vaguely eccentric occupant of another? And have you not, upon entering any new house, felt as if you might as well be entering North Korea?
It is with this framework in mind that I would like to take on the subject of incest.
I’ve had trouble determining whether or not incest is still a taboo, or if it ever really was at all. There is something inconsistent about an unspeakable act that we can’t stop hearing about if not going out of our way to talk about it ourselves. I think it has always been around in one context or another. Perhaps not on literally every single person’s mind, but it is not a concealed thing all the same. It is not a Lovecraftian abscess shuttered away in some amateur warlock’s wooded cabin. It has presence and genealogy. For some time, perhaps dating back to the publication of Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, incest was perfectly speakable, not as a degenerate act so much as a cultural rite of a degenerate people. Incest seemed the exclusive domain of the Deliverance set, the white trash. Harper’s readers seemingly had a blast scorning and mocking the inbred defects that got George Wallace a platform and Nixon the White House. In seeking to vilify a whole people, a revolting, unnatural act was the main tool.
This changed, however, thanks to the enterprising of David Lynch, whose work I suspect is fueling an interest in incest specifically and parallel morality generally. I may be missing other examples but Twin Peaks and especially Fire Walk With Me put a powerful megaphone in front of the unspeakable act and brought it literally closer to home, and depicted it unsparingly, to the point that the latter film serves therapeutic value for actual victims of incest. But Lynch’s works were innovations on a previous model. The Taboo series, the first (of 26) having debuted in 1980, centered entirely on familial sex in middle class utopia. Twin Peaks and Taboo operate in different styles for different audiences to different ends, but they have a similar fantastical center. The intersection of art film with pornography is not as pronounced as it is in, say, Japan, but there is a trade off between the two works where moments in Twin Peaks are more pornographic and moments in Taboo are more surreal. And these have only reverberated further outward into the firmament.
Putting “indie film incest” into Google, while unadvisable generally, gets more results than one would think. And not only is their abundance astounding but so is their similarity almost across the board. Spanking the Monkey, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, The War Zone, and The Unspeakable Act are all small-scale, little seen films whose depictions of incest—some more overt than others—tend towards stark realism verging on bleakness. But they remind me less of depictions of familial dysfunction and abuse and more of the lesbian pulp novels in which the protagonists always met misfortune as a result of their deeds, the kind of novel The Price of Salt was written to counteract.
Pornography, on the other hand, has perpetuated what Taboo popularized and at the same time scaled it back. A wave of incest-themed films has come over the industry in recent years, but they are often framed as step-familial rather than blood familial. For golden age purists, this may seem a copout by an industry that wants to have it both ways, testing the limits of fantasy while not somehow offending mainstream sensibilities. But this pays dividends, if New Sensations is anything to go by. Even a cursory visit to their site shows a plethora of step-incest films like An Incestuous Affair, I Want My Sister 2, I Love My Mom’s Big Tits 3, you get the point. The “this is totally not creepy blood related stuff” is continually reinforced in the trailers (although they do have one called Kissing Kousins) as if it was a protective incantation. Their portrayal, moreover, are just as earnest as most of the indie films but more in the lighter style of romance novels.
“Like a terse sentence,” Wayne Koestenbaum wrote, “porn offers the sting of declaration, of exactitude: these events occurred.” But would a consumer of incest pornography, or any incestuous art, be it a V.C. Andrews novel or a Pixies song, readily agree to that point? I would say not, and I would agree if only halfway. If I sound like I’m sidestepping real life occurrences of incest, I don’t mean to; but to an extent, the act of incest and the depiction of incest are different things. This is because we never actually see incest in our lives unless we are experiencing it directly or hearing the pleas of others. It is, like anything that happens under a veil, a kind of carnal and criminal Schrodinger’s cat, and otherwise inconceivable as something other than abstract. The idea is potent, and we can ascribe it from our minds any which way we wish.
Its use as a psychological kink is less interesting to me than its use as a psychological projectile. If they say the classics never go out of style they never quite say how, and I can see why. We may not know the experience of incest but we know perhaps the implication of incest, the damnation of incest as we, in our silent ways, foist it on others. Not out of an infernal malice but out of a malignant boredom, of wishing the most unwholesome degradation onto a pristine, inoffensive atmosphere that is at once protectively open and comfortably closed off. The art of incest is a desperate subset of the art of loneliness.
This entry is part of the Christmas epistles series.