Monday, April 8, 2013

Intimacy with an Audience of Thousands

Recently, I started reading George R R Martin's A Game of Thrones, as part of my quest to read in both the mainstream market as well as within the tinier niche of Christian speculative fiction.  I have not made it far into the book, and am not sure if I will finish it. Certainly, it is well-written, and the depth of the worldbuilding is fascinating, but I hit a speed bump in the chapter where the young teen character, Daenerys Targaryen, is given in marriage to the older Khal Drogo, which is very early in the book. I'll be honest--call me a prude if you must--but I found the on-page depiction of their wedding night squeamishly troubling.

Now, the fact is, if you are looking at the practices of medieval society, a teen-aged girl marrying an older man has plenty of precedent. Just because it seems skeevy to us in our modern-day mentality doesn't necessarily make it a deal breaker for me on this book. The coarse language in the preceding chapters was also a non-issue for me. I don't presume to insist that when men are with men that they're going to act soft and pretty. But the consummation of Daenerys's marriage went over the line for me, so I decided to wrestle a bit with the questions: Why? Where is the line?

The book did not go to the extent of portraying a blow-by-blow progression of intercourse. It did stop short.  But what it did depict, I felt very much like an intruder on a scenario that was private and not meant for anyone but the two people involved. Lately, there's been an argument going around in Christian circles as to whether media depictions of intimacy between married people are acceptable, because hey, the folks are married, so they aren't sinning. I agree, married characters engaged in an intimate encounter are indeed enjoying a great privilege God has bestowed upon husband and wife. But when God created sex, did he create it as something to be shared between two married people and to be witnessed by whoever might find it interesting or exciting?

My ruminations about all this brought me back to the Song of Solomon, since it's probably the most overt depiction of marital intimacy (as God wanted it to be--there are plenty of examples of the misuse of sex all over the rest of the Old Testament) in the Bible. There are obvious allusions to kissing and caressing, and no shortage of admiration by both parties of each other's physical attributes. But seeing as it's poetic, and much of it merely the expression of desires, not a depiction of the actual acts of fulfilling them, it seems to me the Bible text falls in a different category than an on-page depiction of who-touched-what-when and how it felt.

I haven't yet reached a conclusion on this concept, beyond knowing that physical desire between married people is good for them, and that God himself has given us a transcribed picture of a couple's longing for one another and the emotional power behind that. The two passages that seem the most overt to me come in the 7th chapter.
vs 7: "...and your breasts like clusters of fruit. I said, 'I will climb the palm tree and take hold of its fruit.'"
vs 12: "Let us go early to the vineyards to see if the vines have budded, if their blossoms have opened, and if the pomegranates are in bloom--there I will give you my love." 

These are clear statements about what the speakers intend--but again, it is only a statement of intent, not a depiction. Any actual "giving of love" is left completely in the white space between verses and chapters. So where does that leave the Christian writer and the Christian audience? In a media-saturated culture where you can view anything from a peck on the cheek to full-blown pornography, where does the Christian draw the line? Do we undermine the power of prose if we limit what we read and write to only what we would be comfortable with anyone seeing us do? Or do we enable a level of unholy voyeurism by depicting anything beyond that?

Your thoughts, if you're comfortable sharing them, are warmly welcomed!

8 comments:

  1. I' not so sure with books, but I think screenwriters who resort to sex scenes are simply incompetent. I've been watching Battlestar Galactica, and that show has many intriguing qualities to its credit, but the frequent sex scenes are utterly pointless and achieve nothing but to demonstrate that there's a relationship between two characters in the least subtle or skilful way possible.

    At any rate, I think Christian writers should find other reasons to criticize and avoid sex scenes other than that the Bible says it's wrong (which may even not be so simple -- some people think the Bible says fantasy fiction is wrong). I think Christian writers should demonstrate that sex scenes are simply bad, in quality and literary merit as much as in morality. Then, go on to show the secular world how real adults write real books, as opposed to rebellious teenagers sneaking in their thirty seconds of naughties before getting back to the serious business of story.

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    1. You make an excellent points, as always, Bainespal...and your closing line really struck me. The serious business of the story really is the primary focus, and anything an author includes needs to serve that primary focus. Just as readers jump all over unimportant minutia about setting that bring the story to a halt, doesn't minutia about foreplay and intercourse do the same? I mean, really, is there really anything character developing and plot advancing about the specifics?

      I would venture that 99% of the time, the answer is no. If it really does end up important to who one of the characters becomes, then perhaps there is a place for some implication. I haven't read a book yet, however, where this is the case.

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  2. This is Ruth (having log-in issues)

    I both agree and disagree. Yes in an overwhelming number of cases Sex is used as nothign more than porn to sell books. I hate that and it is lazy writing. But I don't always feel that way about sex in literature.

    On Danerys/Drogo: I agree that Martin could have made the point of Drogos tenderness with Danerys without nearly the level of specifics, but I do find the moment, in general, is powerful and a very concise turning point for Dany. I wonder if the intimate tenderness(and lets just be honest, unexpectred tenderness)is necessary for the readership to accept Dany's precipitous kindling of strength and her upcoming ablilty to reject her brother and his abuses. I feel the moment also sets the tone for the Daneyrs/Drogo relationship that will not simply give her the power to reject brother V. but to cement Dany's personal loyaties to the Dothraki. Plus we like Dany so the moment instantly ensures we like the Dothraki depite their dispopsition... I wonder too, given the Dothraki culture, waht other time you could possibly see Drogo's tenderness on display besides behind closed tent flaps?

    On the mattr if private moments are ever plot-important, I will say that (in the case of GOT)sex between a certian set of Lannisters being observed by a little boy (and the susequent attempted murder of said boy) is extremely plot important not only to Bran, but its the catalyst for the entire story. But of course that scene is seen through the eyes of Bran and as he doesn't know how to process what hes witnessing there is no graphic description/sensation, just Bran wondering why on earth Jamie is hurting Cersei... or have you not got that far? Spoiler alert.But anyway, if you took that scene out the Stakrs would be far less inclined to hate the Lannisters, and certain people would still be alive and civil war averted. So no story. Until Winter comes.

    But with this one, what if you dont see what Bran sees and you just know hes confused and then pushed from the window? Because its so horribly secret, the only way left for the reader to find out whats going on without reading 200 more pages would be to overhear a conversation between Cersei and Jamie and that would be lousy story telling by comparison.

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    1. True, using hackneyed storytelling to try to convey something that needed to be shown would be a bad choice. Not having finished the book yet, I can't comment on whether any of the plot specifics could have been conveyed another way, but the explanation you give does cite the integral nature of the scenes. So many books just throw them in for the sake of titillation.

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  3. I think that just as it would be wrong for people to watch their neighbors have sex, even if the neighbors were allowing themselves to be viewed, so it is wrong to watch actors simulate sex, or read about characters having sex in a book. And this, of course, also applies to writing sex scenes.

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    1. That's a pretty powerful analogy--if my neighbors were purposely kissing and undressing each other in front of their window, would it be OK for me to stand at mine and watch? If not, then is it suddenly OK to watch people pretend at intimacy (or more likely, lust) for the sake of entertainment?

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  4. If it makes you think naughty things, it's wrong. Like Jonh said, watching others is wrong, so watching them in your imagination is wrong too. Is it also tempting you to do something inappropriate?

    And for good mainstream fantasy, check out the Belgariad series by David Eddings.

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    1. There certainly are plenty of good examples of mainstream fantasy that doesn't "go there," thankfully, so if people would rather avoid Hollywood-style sex, it can be done. I do recall Eddings's work being pretty clean, Sanderson didn't get into anything overly private in The Way of Kings, and even Patrick Rothfuss stayed away from sexual encounters in The Name of the Wind. (However, my understanding is that A Wise Man's Fear goes the other direction.) So you're right, Aaron...the options are out there.

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