Ashamed of Dark Fantasies? Turn to Lit

Fritz Eichenberg, "Jane Eyre"

Fritz Eichenberg, “Jane Eyre”

For a change of pace, today I take up the issue of politically incorrect sexual fantasies. I am responding to an article in Slate, where a self-proclaimed male feminist (Andy Hinds) berates himself for sexually objectifying women. Hinds might feel a little better if were to turn to Oedipus and, for that matter, to what Freud has to say about daydreaming and literature.

First, here’s his confession:

It may not be as pronounced as it was in my teens and 20s, but it’s still there, as if a never-ending porn movie has been playing in my subconscious for the last 30 years, and any lull in cognitive demands, or interaction with a woman who is perfect for a cameo in it—the woman walking her dog past my house, the neighbor’s nanny, the Valkyrie on the elliptical trainer at the gym—rotates the film to the main screen. In 3-D.

Hinds imagines all kinds of ways of shaking free of such fantasies, which you can read about in his article if you’re interested. One of his solutions is akin to that which Jocasta offers Oedipus, but Hinds doesn’t mention another possibility: instead of being embarrassed by your fantasies, turn them into literature.

But first, Jocasta. Oedipus is starting to think that he may have been the man who killed Laius (if he has, then he would just have cursed himself), but a messenger from Corinth informs him that he couldn’t have killed his father and married his mother because his father has just died. Then Oedipus wonders if he is guilty for imagining engaging in the acts the oracle has predicted for him. His wife reassures him:

Jocaste: From now on never think of those things again.
Oedipus: And yet—must I not fear my mother’s bed?
Jocaste. …Have no more fear of sleeping with your mother:
How many men, in dreams, have lain with their mothers!
No reasonable man is troubled by such things.

Here’s a feminist professor offering Hinds comparable advice:

Lust is the background music that occasionally gets turned up. Learning to let it come and go without being ashamed—and without making it anyone else’s problem—is part of growing up.

Of course, the catch in the play is that Oedipus really does make it someone else’s problem—which is to say, he actually acts out his (and according to Freud, all men’s) forbidden fantasy, thereby bringing a curse on Thebes. The grown-up alternative is to separate out the fantasy from reality. And to know the difference.

But if just letting the fantasy come and go is not enough, one also has the option of turning the fantasy into art. After all, that’s what Sophocles has done.

In a famous essay on daydreaming and literature, Freud says that that literature is a way that people take the fantasies that they are ashamed of and disguise them. We might turn away in horror—at least we would if we were living in repressed turn-of-the-century Vienna—if we saw the fantasies directly. Literature, however, manages to bypass our censors by giving us our fantasies in a socially acceptable form. Oedipus may be about the universal taboo—indeed, the taboo of taboos—but Sophocles delivers it in a way that gains our utmost admiration.

Freud calls this process “sublimation,” which is to take what is dark and make it sublime. He believed that all art works this way, and whereas I don’t go that far, I think it’s true in this case.

Speaking for myself, my dark fantasies run to the masochistic and I remember being riveted by the sight of young Jane Eyre suffering when I was a high school student. (The scene where she is humiliated in school is what launched me into the book.) I also remember being fascinated by the sight of Lucy Pevensie being bound and sold as a slave in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and of “the little princess” being abused in the Francis Hodgson Burnett novel. I lost myself thoroughly in each heroine.

When I grew older and wanted more explicit sexual fantasies, I steered away from pornography because it was narratively uninteresting. Freud might say that I wanted my fantasies better disguised so that I wouldn’t be horrified by them, and perhaps there is truth in that. But I think I also wanted three-dimensional characters. Otherwise it didn’t feel real enough.

I think I was drawn to my favorite work of explicit fantasy, Pauline Reage’s The Story of O, because so much of it is a philosophic exploration of the nature of sexual fantasy itself. The novel posits that a deep part of us desires to escape from freedom (Nicholas Karamazov says something very similar in “The Grand Inquisitor”), a theory which helped me understand why I am so drawn to characters who are bound and punished. Combine escape from freedom with sexual guilt inherited from Victorian ancestors and the attraction starts to make sense.

Over the years I have come to realize that no acted-out fantasy can ever come close to the fantasies I have in my head, and that in itself confirms that I observe the grown-up gap between fantasy and reality. This insight was first presented to me in an opera that I loved when I was a teenager, and it has felt truer to me with every passing year.

The opera is Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman. The poet Hoffman is drawn to four women. Three are in the past and the fourth is the opera diva that he awaits. In each case, the dark figure of  Lindorf steps in to steal her away. Hoffman’s consolation, however, is that he has one mistress, the Muse of Poetry, who will never let him down. “Je suis à toi—I am entirely yours,” he sings to her in the opera’s grand conclusion.

So are you feeling ashamed of your fantasies? Go out and sublimate.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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