[14 May 2003]
A man who lived for his city, his family, his friends, to acquire wealth, improve his social position, etc.—a war, and he is led away as a slave . . . and for this reason he will cling to any aim . . . be it only to have the slave punished who works at his side.
Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace
This is a burnable book: the eroticism of fag bashing, rape and murder. But that is why it should be read to challenge the complacency we have for Eros.
The savage is not underneath our skin, not just revealing itself when our veneer is scratched. It is integrated into us. In Roughed Up, M. Christian and Simon Sheppard have cobbled together a collection of stories ranging from the wrestling wank of “Quads of Death” by Greg Herren to the horrifyingly arousing brutality of “Revenge” by G. Merlin Beck.
S&M has left its mark on a lot of these stories but most of them transgress even the idea of simple sex play, heading in strange new vectors, leaving discomfort in their wake. In a world where even anonymous desire is packaged—take Fox which pumps out Joe Millionaire, Married by America (whose contestants were engaged through a sanitized Glory Hole) and now Mr. Personality hosted by that dowager of lust soiled by the implication of power play, Monica Lewinski—Roughed Up reminds us that desire is a disruptive force, as baffling to us as it is enlightening. For example Johnny Was” by Gregg Wharton (web-editor of Suspect Thoughts and Velvet Mafia, which if you enjoy this book as much as me, will be well received) makes us lose our sense of victimization, and culpability in the exploration of ill-fated love and planned disaster.
In his introduction, Sheppard quotes a t-shirt, “Sex is Life,” bringing to mind Marcel Duchamp’s punning alter-ego Rose Selavy/Eros C’est La Vie (Eros, That’s Life), and this is an almost perfect inscription for this book with deeper implication since our lives are led in primate bodies with their needs, and excesses ever present, perhaps even heightened since civilization accentuates certain instincts according to Desmond Morris’s The Human Zoo. Morris explains that, confined in society with most of our needs met, we imbue new meaning to basic physiological actions—in our case sex (but including eating, socializing, etc.)—and sex becomes “super-sex.” Sex in “super-sex” is used for exploration, self-reward, elimination of boredom and stress, employment, and achieving status; all of these uses can be found in Roughed Up. These stories vibrate with the darker sides of civilization and the animal within, proving there is something valuable here beyond the prurient.
Approaching this book, only Sheppard’s afterword, “The Twin Towers and the Messy Quest for Transcendence,” made me reticent; violence is part of being human, and shouldn’t be ignored, but that is part of the reason why our little simian brains came up with art, literature, and even role-playing since violence, regardless of our natural urges, has too high a price, and the Twin Towers have provoked my country into violence, that by nature of existing off the page and in the real world, is more terrible than anything in the book (the corpse of someone devoid of fatal disease, regardless of nationality should be more offensive than any characters in ink.) For this reason, the afterword threatened to be too trivial—or worse: to be marketing on the tragedy, and subsequent conflicts.
However, Sheppard handles this difficult subject as well as anyone I have heard. He sees that the structure of power and force extends beyond the book, finding that the erotic links to the ethical, that the sexual links to the societal. He acknowledges that, as evident not only by the fag bashing represented in this anthology and its real life antecedents, the queer community has never been completely without fear. Here again, we find a basic human truth amid the leather, hard-ons, and words—fear and angst propel us. Of course, it is not the only thing to give forward motion, but it is effective as a way for us to gain or regain the power we feel we lost or never had. But this can be extended to the rest of society, as Michael Moore illustrates in “Bowling for Columbine.” Returning to Desmond Morris’s idea of “super-sex,” we find power, fear, and intercourse intersecting as a way of maintaining or building status. All in all, this leaves me wondering why this book should be considered more offensive than the war coverage on ABC, and the other networks that showed another more horrible method of maintaining status.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/roughed-up/