“But the picture of the Madonna went with him. Continually, even as he sat in his small hard narrow room or knelt in the cool churches, it stood before his outraged soul with its sultry, dark-rimmed eyes, with a mysterious smile on its lips, naked and beautiful. And no prayer could exorcise it.”Thomas Mann, Gladius Dei (1902)
Here are some thoughts I’ve had on a particular plot theme that is one of my favourites to spot when consuming wider culture, partly because it is so completely, hugely depraved and problematic – downright ‘rapey’ for lack of a better word. It is a story that seemed to appear at the beginning of late 18th – early 19th century Gothic fiction, featuring white men at its centre and written, as far as I can see, by white men – as any character who is not a powerful older man would never have the level of threat necessary for the Gothic horror of desire to achieve its full, dreadful impact.
Some of the novels, films and stories that feature this trope that I have managed to identify are as follows:
– The Monk by Matthew Lewis (1796)
– The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo (1831)
– Death in Venice by Thomas Mann (1912)
– Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
– American Beauty dir. Sam Mendes (1999)
– Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee (1999)
– Venus dir. Roger Mitchell (2006)
– Beyond the Black Rainbow dir. Panos Cosmatos (2010)
But undoubtedly there are many, many more examples, and if the reader thinks of any that I have missed I’d be grateful to be informed.
This is a plot device that pits a powerful and prominent member of society against a weak or marginalised character. The horny men are celebrated authors, actors, priests, scientists, teachers and lecturers. They are educated, wealthy, firmly part of a patriarchal structure which holds a dominant position over its society. Either because of sex, age, race or innocence, or a combination thereof, the object of desire is vulnerable to the exploitation of the stronger adversary; Tadzio is 14, and sickly; Lolita is only 12. Esmeralda is 16, a member of a highly despised outsider community, an ethnic minority and illiterate, so there’s a lot of things going against her there. The weaker character is destined to be destroyed by the force of the desire of the male character; therein lies the tragedy.
This all-consuming lust is unrelentingly self-destructive as well; almost none of the old men survive the story, as they are either murdered, or die as a direct or indirect result of following their apparently uncontrollable urges. Susan Sontag noted in her 1967 essay, ‘The Pornographic Imagination’ that “insofar as a strong sexual feeling does involve an obsessive degree of attention, it encompasses experience in which a person can feel he is losing his ‘self’.” Thus we can see that the overwhelming desire of the male protagonist is as much about self-destruction as it is the satisfaction of his urges (which of course can never be satisfied).
Even if these characters do survive to the end, they are marked irreversibly by the events of the narrative. However, the men do seem to get off lighter than their prey/object of affection; these poor creatures have a host of horrific things happen to them, events which are not in their control at all. Dying in childbirth at 17; strung up by an angry mob at 16; abducted, raped and murdered at 15 in a crypt deep underground; the list goes on.
There are many taboos that are interwoven with the obsessive sexual desire of the Frollo-type character. Paedophilia, incest, rape, homosexuality; each or a combination thereof can be inbuilt into the sick love that drives the plot. Even if we, culturally, do not have a problem with the nature of the desire, we still recognise the unhealthiness of the power of the lust, and its intrinsically unrequited element. Its object is occasionally oblivious to the obsession, sometimes indulgent to it if it suits them, or actively fleeing from it; it is never reciprocated (even if consent could be given, by our modern reckoning).
In Beyond the Black Rainbow (which I have discussed a little in a previous post) the setting is an 80’s psychiatric research lab run by a pure, unadulterated psychotic tyrant who has somehow created a daughter with supernatural powers (through a process involving immersion into a pool of black slime). She is heavily drugged and kept captive in a cell and every so often tortured by her doctor/father who seems to have an incestuous obsession with her vulnerability, her complete domination by his will. The most powerful image of the whole film is how the girl, Elena, manages to escape his clutches while struggling against a drugged-up stupor; her painful staggering and slow crawling along corridors and through bushes, barefoot in her little white nightgown, while being pursued by this horrific, monstrous creature who becomes more bestial and deranged with every scene.
Beyond the Black Rainbow is one of the few examples in which the girl/object of desire actively triumphs over her captor. Indeed, the entire theme of the film, as I see it, is one of post-traumatic response; an incident that both Elena and Dr Barry Nyle go through (immersion in aforementioned psychedelic slime) which irrevocably changes their entire being; as a result Nyle is stripped of his humanity and becomes little more than an evil machine; while Elena unleashes supernatural powers within herself but remains human, and good. Nyle sees their shared experience as one that has bonded them forever; they are the only two humans in existence who have seen ‘beyond’ and survived, emerging superhuman. In reality, the transcendent experience has simply laid bare what was underneath their skin already. Nyle fully metamorphoses into the bestial, psychotic murderer he already was deep inside; Elena releases powers but endures as a human being. Thus, she survives, while he does not.
It’s probably important to say here that Dr Barry Nyle enters the black psychedelic slime willingly; he then forces Elena to undergo the mind-altering experiment when she is a child. So consent, I think, again is very important. The instinct of survival, versus the drive towards self-destruction.
It may be true that the story of the pervy old man is dying out. Over the years he has represented variously the corruption of the Catholic Church; the identity struggles of post-Apartheid South Africa; the fear of old age and death; generally, the abuse of power by the strong towards the weak. As more writers of the non-white male type continue emerging, we embark upon a new journey of exploring other kinds of narratives, narratives previously unheard of. But I hold a place in my heart for the dirty old man, featuring, as he does, in some of my favourite books and films. He exemplifies a dark side of sexuality – obsession, violence, lust, domination, objectification – that will not disappear, and should not be ignored.
Further reading: see here for a fuller explanation of Beyond the Black Rainbow (yes, I am obsessed with this film).