Anybody notice the news media rumpus last December? When the New York Times pointed out that three of HBOs hot shows contain on-going stories featuring incest? In BOARDWALK EMPIRE, it’s Mother & Son incest. In GAME OF THRONES and BORED TO DEATH, it’s Brother & Sister incest.
Well, what’s the big surprise? Incest has been a widely accepted (if underground) basis for exciting love stories going back to classic Greek Dramas. So Robert Gardner, lead character in my new novel THE WOMEN WHO MADE ME (just published as an eBook by OC Press), falls passionately in love with his beautiful and elegant Aunt Martha. And tells readers all about it in vivid detail.
Falls in love with his aunt? Sure. Just like in Richard Wagner’s RING operas. where Great Hero Siegfried falls in love with his Aunt Brunnhilde, after finding her sleeping on a mountain rock. He douses the flames, and wakes her with a very wet and tongue-thrusting Soul Kiss. This all happens right on stage in the current Metropolitan Opera production (where they’re not uptight about Letting Everything Hang Out). The scene is accompanied by nakedly passionate music that leaves nothing to the imagination, and the Go-For-It cheers from the 4,000 upscale movers and shakers in the Met’s socially elite audience.
But why should this raise any eyebrows? After all, Siegfried is the son of Siegmund and Sieglinde – twin brother-and-sister lovers. In DIE WALKURE, the second opera of Wagner’s Ring series, the twins are separated at birth and meet as late adolescents. They fall madly in love and proceed to have wild sex together—again, right on stage, in the Met’s current production.
Fiction writers have been cribbing material from the Bible for centuries, because it’s chock full of great stories–including a good many involving Incest. Here are a few highlights:
- Moses, Aaron, and Miriam were the children of Amram and his beautiful aunt Jochebed. Not exactly an undistinguished family.
- Original Trifecta-guy Abraham (grandfather of three major religions) married his kid-sister Sarah. And their son Isaac married his cousin Rebekah (after Abraham managed to con God out of trying to sodomize Isaac–which is what Child Sacrifice was really all about in those days). While Esau and Jacob, the sons of Isaac and Rebekah, each married their cousins to carry on the family tradition.
- Abraham’s nephewLothad repeated sex with his two nubile daughters, who bore him sons. Because they kept seducing him with hooch while the three of them were hiding out in the mountains following the destruction ofSodomandGomorrah(and the death ofLot’s wife). A rare example in literature of hot-to-trot daughters using alcohol to lure their fathers into sex. Rather than the more typical routine of fathers plying their young daughters with wine or martinis to soften them up for the big push.
Changing time frames, let’s consider Shakespeare’s favorite—“Queen of theNile”—Cleopatra, who married her kid brother. Their parents were also brother and sister. And their single set of grandparents were uncle and niece.
So it goes. Century after century of fiction writers who can’t resist playing the incest angle in love stories.
Clearly, incest fiction has great appeal to readers even though it’s usually considered radical and even “shocking.” Could this have something to do with the fact that sex with blood relatives is regarded as the Ultimate Taboo in most societies? One of the underground purposes of fiction is to allow us to vicariously experience the forbidden thrills and horrors of Crossing the Line. Therefore, any violation of an accepted taboo can add a nice, exotic touch to make fictional sex scenes (no matter how chaste by today’s standards) more exciting.
Love stories have always been a staple of popular fiction. But they’re more interesting when the lovers must confront Major Barriers to consummating their desires and forming meaningful relationships. The imaginative ways they overcome the challenges posed by these barriers can lead to especially intriguing stories.
However, in today’s increasingly sophisticated and tolerant societies, many of the classic barriers have lost the power they once had for keeping lovers apart. These include:
- Social class or religious differences (very big in the old days)? Oh, come on.
- Racial differences? Another “oh, come on.”
- At least one of the lovers already married to someone else? A minor inconvenience, at best.
- The woman being older? Who cares anymore? Older Woman/Younger Man romantic couples no longer raise eyebrows in so many circles.
- Both lovers being the same gender? Aside from the religious right, most people would hardly care.
So what’s left but Incest? The only relationship still subject to unopposed legal constraints in most societies. In theUSA, state laws prohibit blood relatives from formally marrying. And even make it illegal for them to engage in sexual activity (never mind whether or not they may be consenting adults). Just like the old days in the American South when it was illegal for Whites and Blacks to intermarry or have sex together.
Therefore, any contemporary fiction writer who wants to impose an “impossible barrier” for his lovers to overcome without spending page after page explaining why it’s “impossible” need only make them brother and sister. Or mother and son. Or aunt and nephew. Enough said.
Putting the older, no longer operational, barriers aside, what makes Incest so imposing?
Could it be the take-it-for-granted assumption that the main purpose of sexual activity is the Darwinian imperative of producing children? Preferably GeneticallySuperiorChildren. Certainly superior from the standpoint of physical health (still a concern in the case of Incest—though some scientists poo-poo this). And in the purely social sense as well. Because no one wants children to grow up as social outcasts.
This concern for producing the “right kind of children” is what led to the now-faded tradition of intermarriage among Leadership Classes. Right on up to 1914, when the reigning monarchs of Britain, Germany, and Russiawere all cousins (related to Queen Victoria). But this still couldn’t prevent 19th Century Europe from shattering itself in the First World War—in fact the cousin rivalry may have even been a cause (read the book The Guns of August for details).
But these days, producing children seems to be declining in importance as the main purpose (even justification) for sexual activity. Having Good Sex is increasingly seen as a fulfilling goal in itself. A beneficial element in close human partnerships (not just between males and females), where producing children may be incidental and even optional.
Could this contemporary view on the purpose of sex undercut the significance of incest as a “barrier” to lovers being able to consummate their sexual desires?
Maybe. But probably not as long as fiction writers (and their readers) continue to see incest as an intriguing and taboo element of excitement in dramatic fiction.