Intimate Fictions: The Rhetorical Strategies of Obscene Violence in Four Novels


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Intimate Fictions: The Rhetorical Strategies of Obscene Violence in Four Novels is a well-researched Art and Humanities Thesis/Dissertation topic, it is to be used as a guide or framework for your Academic Research.


Richard Wright, Marlon James, Cormac McCarthy and Ken Levine are each celebrated in their respective fields but notorious for their obscene depictions of violence.

Contrary to trauma theorists’ claims that violence shatters language and cannot be spoken, these writers speak violence in its most disturbing forms: torn eyeballs, dead infants, forced fecal consumption and mechanized rape.

I argue that obscene violence, much like obscene language, creates a space of intimacy in which transgressive, subversive and oppositional thoughts may be spoken. By alienating their texts from the larger reading public, these writers entice a smaller group of sympathetic readers to develop affective attachments to their stories.

In other words, repulsion and attraction, disgust and fascination, segregate the public into insiders and outsiders. Obscene violence carves out an intimate space of representation, a magic circle open to the public but separate from the public.

Because obscene violence will not be spoken about in polite society, its employment in these texts imbues the writer’s ideas with the power of the secret, the sacred and the criminal. Such violence works as a rhetorical device in service of larger critiques against American and Jamaican cultural, political and religious institutions.

Literary violence does not necessarily entail a direct critique of violence. Because violence plays an oversized role in American and Jamaican history, particularly in the foundation of race and racial difference, images of violence can be attached to a multitude of ideas.

Within this study, these ideas include the white fascination with race novels, the mythology of Jamaican Maroons, the dogma of the Catholic Church and the causal link between videogames and adolescent aggression.



Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” (1843) opens with the narrator-protagonist, in a fit of drunken rage, cutting his cat’s eye with a pen-knife. The fury which compelled him “thrilled every fibre of my being” (8). Retelling the event produces an almost orgasmic response: “I blush, I burn, I shudder” (8).

His guilt devolves into “the spirit of PERVERSENESS,” which he labels “one of the primitive impulses of the human heart—one of the indivisible primary faculties” (8). He asks who among us has not done the same thing a hundred times before, has not committed wrong solely for the pleasure of committing wrong. The narrator romanticizes the eyeball slashing even while regretting it, borrowing from the language and sensory responses of lust and eros.

By asking us to admit we have acted the same way, by claiming that this compulsion is ancient and unshakeable, the narrator cultivates a sort of perverse intimacy between the reader and himself.

The notion that literary violence produces intimacy may sound strange. Many readers who encounter such a passage would simply close the book. I sympathize with those readers.

But that forced separation between the repulsed reader and the attracted reader, the outsider and the insider, reinforces the intimacy of the textual space. The narrator has shared a feeling and admitted an action which are both socially unacceptable.

By doing so, he has designated the text as a private space, an intimate space, where the socially unacceptable is accepted. The text is not actually a private space, of course. The text is published for the public.

But the text functions like Johan Huizinga’s play-ground in Homo Ludens (1938), sometimes referred to as the magic circle, a space ostensibly open to the public but designated as separate, sacred, different, where the rules of society may not apply.

When a narrator opens a story with a perverse act of violence, they are pointing out the line between acceptable social discourse and the unacceptable discourse of the text. Violating an eyeball, the only fleshy part of our bodies unprotected by skin, holds some sort of special power as an aesthetic device.

Anyone who has seen Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) knows the sort of instant revulsion that a sliced eyeball can produce. Yet viewers find that image impossible to forget. If a writer can attach an argument or philosophy to such an unforgettable image, that idea gains a remarkable amount of rhetorical power.

A violent image may be used to repel a reader from a particular idea, or it may be used to attract them to it. This notion of a repulsive or attractive image resembles the theory of abjection in Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror (1982).

But Kristeva’s theory would overstate the image’s effect by associating it with fear and jouissance, when more appropriate terms would be disgust and fascination. The abject image is dangerous but not threatening. We can sit down and study it. And the argument attached to the violent image does not need to be about violence itself.

“The Black Cat” tells us relatively little about animal cruelty or spousal abuse, but it tells us a great deal about how alcoholics compartmentalize their guilt. The graphic disfigurement of a cat’s eye simply adds substance and weight to Poe’s loathing of alcoholism.

The rhetorical weight of violence in literature works like the spectacular weight of violence in society, as a means of impressing upon the witness the power and authority of the actor. Arthur Redding refers to the weight of violence “as the ballast of ideologies; as in the semi-secret cargo of a slave trader’s ship” (4-5).

The actual violence of the slave ship serves as a balancing force between the African power of the enslaved and the European power of the slaver. The violence impresses on the slave the social rules and relations they must abide by in the New World.

The violence “seasons” the enslaved and promotes the security of the plantation, a space under constant threat of collapse from slave insurrection. Middle Passage violence works like Kristeva’s theory of abjection, like the body’s nauseous expulsion of anything which might blur the line between life and death, between white power and black power.

But Redding’s strategic reference to the horrors of the slave ship better exemplifies the literary violence this project examines. He deploys the rhetorical weight of Middle Passage violence to make a philosophical critique of ideology itself: “there is blood in the hold of every way of seeing” (5). In Redding’s anarchist philosophy, the slave trader symbolizes any dynamic system which exercises authority through coercion.

Celebrated authors in recent American and Jamaican literature have incorporated perverse acts of literary violence to intensify their philosophical critiques of American and Jamaican institutions.

The four subjects of my dissertation—Richard Wright, Marlon James, Cormac McCarthy and Ken Levine—have each been praised as among the greatest writers of their respective cohorts, and their texts rely heavily on graphic violence to engage and persuade their readers.

Two of them have borrowed the opening strategy of ocular trauma designed by Poe. The first chapter of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985) features a deformed cutthroat, Toadvine, prying out an eyeball with his thumb.

The violence becomes a moment of queer intimacy between himself and a teenage boy. As Toadvine holds his victim by the hair, he tells the kid to join in: “Kick him in his mouth, called Toadvine. Kick it. […] Kick him, he called. Aw, kick him, honey” (10).

Addressing the boy as a romantic partner, commanding him to keep penetrating the victims mouth, Toadvine imbues this violence with the perverse quality of rape.

None of these three men know each other, so the meaninglessness of their violent encounter sets up the novel’s later critique of meaning itself, particularly the meaning-making of Catholicism.

Because the eye is associated with perspective, an eye-gouging works particularly well as a symbolic attack on another’s worldview. In the opening scene of James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf (2019), the narrator-protagonist describes pulling out a man’s eyeball with two fingers.1 First, he condemns a fetish priest for delighting in prepubescent circumcisions and deflowerings.

He accuses the priest of searching for “something that you have lost—no, it was taken from you. That light, you see it and you want it […] you search for it in holes, black holes, wet holes, underground holes for the light that vampires look for” (4) Then he provides the socket image, attaching it’s ugliness to his critique of clerical perversion.

These tactile moments of corporeal violence, where the assailants not only touch their victim’s face but reach inside its openings, shock the readers sensibilities and intensify the attached institutional criticisms.

Kathryn Hume refers to such texts as “aggressive fictions,” those which “bewilder and nauseate” the middle-class and convey the despair of contemporary American politics (6). Such texts disgust the larger public while fascinating a smaller group of sympathetic readers.

Because this violence involves the human body, and because its perverseness renders the violence unspeakable in regular society, a textual intimacy develops between narrator and reader.

Perverse violence in literature functions like obscenity in speech. As Michael Adams explains in In Praise of Profanity (2016), we use words like fuck and shit in conversations unrelated to procreation and defecation because those actions are socially unacceptable to do in public but also deeply connected to our bodies and our survival.

Using these obscenities announce that our conversation is not sanctioned or official. We can discuss matters and opinions which might otherwise get us in trouble.

Therefore, when I say, “fuck this shit,” the listener knows I am not talking about bodily functions, but that our conversation will have the same sort of intimacy as if I was.2 Depending on context and delivery, I can attach the same sentiments (shock, embarrassment, revulsion, etc.) that such bodily functions provoke to the subject of my criticism, i.e. the target of my obscenity.

Literary violence works the same way as my obscenity: it utilizes a corporeal action for a rhetorical argument. And the rarity of violence in middle-class America makes literary violence especially potent.

Like preteens dropping F-bombs, literary violence utilizes a reference point that we know little about. Very few of us have intimate knowledge of violence, especially the sort of violence described above.

The novelty of such violence lends itself to writing novels. My project builds on the previous work of scholars dedicated to violence in 20th-century American literature. I am indebted to Sally Bachner’s The Prestige of Violence: American Fiction, 1962-2007 (2011).

Bachner argues that postwar American literature has been preoccupied with a violence privileged by its absence. Such literature reflects the belief that language mediates and occludes our experience of the real, and that violence represents a prelinguistic and therefore authentic reality.

These twin beliefs create a paradox in which violence garners prestige as a gateway to the real, but that prestige can only be maintained if violence remains inexpressible. In other words, you can talk around violence, but you cannot talk about violence, because that would destroy violence’s powerful mystique.

Bachner identifies in canonical postwar novels a tendency to place violence on the edges of narratives as a sort of apparition which haunts the novel but never gets directly confronted.

Violence occurs in the distant past, or in a distant country, or in a situation far removed from the lives of the novel’s principal characters. Bachner argues that the prestige of these novels lies in their reproduction of influential readers’ positionalities towards violence.

Safe and comfortable in their middle and upper-class lives, these groups suspect that their security and affluence depend upon larger systems of violence just outside of their perception (or rather, just outside their willingness to look).

They celebrate texts which reflect that viewpoint by representing violence as impactful but distant, as essential yet unspeakable. Bachner ties the mythological status of violence to the material circumstances of liberal arts departments in postwar universities, the predominance of poststructuralist and constructivist theories of language and meaning-making, the declining confidence in politicians and government spokespersons, and the rise of trauma theory.

Bachner takes especial umbrage with this last cause. She finds Elaine Scarry notion that pain shatters language both unfounded and contradicted by her own examples. She finds Cathy Caruthers privileging of survivor’s guilt in people absent from the traumatic event to be deeply problematic.

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