Thursday, August 02, 2012

Why literary fiction matters: Excerpt from "Notes on a Scandal"

Thank god for literary fiction and its power to enunciate what cannot be enunciated.
The passage below is from the amazing Notes from a Scandal. I saw the movie last year and rarely have I seen two such brilliant actresses work together. Talented actresses, crowded out by dumb bimbos, are underserved by the film medium almost everywhere. But if the movie was stunningly good, the book is devastatingly so. Reminds me of “Remains of the day” where great character studies by stellar actors immensely complemented the book.
The plot is this: Sheba, a rather-artless happy-go-lucky upper-class lady in her mid 30s moves into Barbara’s school (where she’s been teaching History for decades) as a teacher for pottery. A little pixilated, she breezes in with rosy fantasies of transforming young lives with art but, unfortunately for her, the school is bristly proletarian and the kids, with no delusions about the futures awaiting them as the waiters and plumbers of the world, jeer at her naïve fumbling attempts. The only ray of hope seems to be Connelly, a fifteen year old, who affects to show an interest in her art after school and she ends up having an affair with him.
Both are the seducer and the seduced, but perhaps Sheba deserves more sympathy. The clammed frustration of a long happy but eventless marriage, lonely and out on a limb after her collapsed ambition, everything slowly balls up behind her as she teeters at the precipice of her only (seemingly) genuine relation in the school with Connelly, and there is a hint that Connelly with a canny, perhaps even unconscious, instinct plays on her vulnerabilities perfectly to seduce her.  
However, such complexities are unaddressable, unmentionable, in the public space. We demand one single certain truism (“In an ‘unnatural’ relationship between a major and a minor, the major is the transgressor and the minor the victim”) and not a tangled mess that threatens to upset this truism. Society, and the media which articulates its beliefs, function within boundaries that define their absolutes and no matter how stretched their absolutes, they are there. To question them a society essentially questions itself and the earth should shake below its feet before it would do so (like the revision of history in post-war Germany). And hence, these narratives and commonsensical ideas become so wholly pervasive that there exists no mainstream counterargument to them, even for argument’s sake.
This is where literary fiction quietly steps in to offer us a glimpse of an alternative perspective of people who live at the fringe of these morally absolute societies.  
Read the passage below and imagine it hissed by a Barbara played by Judi Dench.

I might admit here and now that any notional damage to Connolly’s psyche by his affair with Sheba has never been of much concern to me. I don't argue with the necessity of there being a law against teachers doing what Sheba did. Clearly, it is not good for any institution's morale to have staff members fraternising—fornicating—with their juniors. But I certainly don't subscribe to any sentimental notion about the innocence of everyone under the arbitrarily imposed age bar of sixteen years. The people of Britain danced in the streets when the thirty-two-year-old heir to the British throne became engaged to a nineteen-year-old. Is there so much difference between nineteen and fifteen—between thirty-two and forty-one—to warrant the profoundly different reaction in this case? The sorts of young people who become involved in this kind of imbroglio are usually pretty wily about sexual matters. I don't mean just that they're sexually experienced—although that is often the case. I mean that they possess some instinct, some natural talent, for sexual power play. For various reasons, our society has chosen to classify people under the age of sixteen as children. In most of the rest of the world, boys and girls are understood to become adults somewhere around the age of twelve. They enter puberty and then start doing whatever the adults in their part of the world happen to do—work in factories, hunt bears, kill people, have sex. We may have very good reasons for choosing to prolong the privileges and protections of childhood. But at least let us acknowledge what we are up against when attempting to enforce that extension. Connolly was officially a minor, and Sheba's actions were, officially speaking, exploitative; yet any honest assessment of their relationship would have to acknowledge not only that Connolly was acting of his own volition but that he actually wielded more power in the relation-ship than Sheba. I don't think for a minute that he has suffered lasting hurt from his experiences with an older woman. On the contrary, I believe that he's had a rather thrilling ride. Heresy, I know. But there. It's what I think.
When Sheba's story first broke, a chap from the Evening Standard wrote an article in which he alluded to unsubstantiated rumours of Connolly's sexual experience prior to his affair with Sheba. He went on to pose the question "What red-blooded fifteen-year-old wouldn't welcome a roll in the hay with Sheba Hart?" It was a brave, honest piece, I thought, but it brought forth a glut of sanctimonious articles protesting the journalist's supposedly frivolous treatment of a serious matter. The Press Council ended up issuing a rebuke and, by way of apology, the Standard published a response piece by Connolly's mother. The article, which I have kept, had the headline "Boys Need Our Protection Too." This was its first paragraph:
Sheba Hart's alleged sexual affair with my son—who was fif-teen years old when it began—was recently described in these pages as "a stroke of good luck for Master Connolly." ("Every Schoolboy's Fantasy," February 20, 1998). As Steven's mother, I am deeply offended by this sort of lighthearted attitude to Mrs. Hart's alleged crime. I find it mind-boggling that anyone should consider the sexual abuse of a minor a laughing matter. I can only suppose that Mrs. Hart is benefitting from society's double standards when it comes to sex. If Steven had been a girl. I don't think anyone would have been making jokes and I don't think anyone would have had the cheek to question his innocence.
Here, I'm afraid, I must take issue with Ma Connolly. I would have had the cheek. Had the genders of the principals in t his affair been reversed—had Sheba been a man engaging in an illicit affair with a fifteen-year-old girl—I would have been just as wary of apportioning simple "predator" and "victim" labels to the two parties. Goodness knows, I have seen quite enough concupiscent girls in my time to be familiar with the sexual manipulation of which young females are capable. But as regards the general public view on these matters, Mrs. Connolly is surely right—there is a discrepancy in the way that the public judges the sexual misbehaviour of men and women. Oh, the official response to Sheba is very severe. They all say that she has committed a "despicable" crime. But behind their hands, they're smirking. When I was in the pub the other night, buying cigarettes, Sheba's face appeared on the television screen for a second; immediately, a great roar of salacious laughter went up around the bar. "Dirty girl," I heard one man say to his friend. "Wouldn't mind a bit of that myself." It's hard to imagine Sheba's male equivalent eliciting such a ribald reaction.
Male sex offenders are never funny. They get all the righteous rage the hatchet-faced housewives baying for blood outside the courthouse; the politicians competing for who can be most sickened. Which is odd, really, given that paler versions of their despised urges are so ubiquitous—so cheerfully sanctioned—in the male population at large. Don't the scientists now go so far as to suggest that the attraction of older men for younger women is an evolutionary instinct—a reflex encoded in male biology? When a lecherous middle-aged man ogles a teenager's bottom, are we not now encouraged to believe that he is actually doing his bit for the species—responding to the physical symptoms of fecundity, as nature has programmed him to do?
But perhaps that's it. Perhaps the vehemence with which we respond to men's sexual transgressions is proportionate to how discomfitingly common we know those transgressive urges to be. A woman who interferes with a minor is not a symptom of an underlying tendency. She is an aberration. People don't see themselves, or their own furtive desires, in her. According to evolutionary science, an affair like Sheba's is nothing more than a freakish lay-by on the grand motorway of human survival. That's why men in pubs can afford to laugh at her.
Is it so much better, though, to be laughed at than to be feared? Being a public monster must be—well, monstrous. But becoming the punch line of a smutty joke is no pleasure either. And evil at least has some heft. Mrs. Connolly is anxious lest Sheba "benefit" from the double standard. But I doubt very much that Sheba's comic oddity will actually earn her more lenience from the court. In all likelihood, she'll receive exactly the same punishment as a man. The guardians of gender equality won't stand for anything else. In the end, I suspect, being female will do nothing for Sheba except deny her the grandeur of genuine villainy.

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