Aug 062010

A Man Called Horse, 1970, dir. Elliot Silverstein IMDB

This movie probably did a lot to inspire the modern primitive movement, portraying a rather familiar story of a “civilized” person being initiated into a “primitive” culture. I’m not going to address the historical or cultural accuracy of this film, as I’m not really qualified and also it’s not terribly relevant to this discussion. (The film claims to be based on authentic sources, but so did Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS.)

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May 032010

From a review of Michael Gruber’s novel The Good Son in

Details that at first seem merely quirky — Sonia’s Jungian practice, for example — prove themselves in the course of the novel to be tributaries emptying into Gruber’s theme: that enduring, atavistic longing for the meaning and passion to be found in the old ways of life. “Everyone loves feudalism in their hearts,” Theo tells himself, sounding like Greene’s Harry Lime, “which is why ‘The Godfather’ and ‘The Sopranos’ were huge hits. There has yet to be a movie about legislative markup or the courageous agents of the Federal Election Commission.” Life in “Pashtunistan” may be brutal and irrational, but for what Sonia calls “us primitives,” it’s mighty hard to quit.

That applies to the pseudo-feudal terminology of D/S.

This also ties into a section of Benjamin Nugent’s non-fiction book American Nerd. Nugent sees the pseudo-medieval society of the Society of Creative Anachronism as nerds’ idea of a utopian society: hierarchical yet meritocratic, transparent (you can tell what a person’s social role is just by looking at them), orderly, earnest, yet allowing people to go off and pursue their own interests in peace. He compares that to a group home he lived in inhabited by an amorphous, ever-shifting group of hipsters, who constantly engage in a never-ending struggle for dominance. Map that comparison onto the orderly, transparent, checklists-and-safeword world of BDSM versus the ambiguity of vanilla dating. You can see the appeal of a social world in which you can always point to the person who’s in charge.

Jul 302007

Dark Horse Comics is planning to release John Norman’s Gor series in reprints, the first being an omnibus edition of the first three books. Note that this is not a comics adaptation, just a reprint.

JE Remy of the blog Die Wachen views this with some degree of alarm. He’s written three (1, 2, 3) postings urging the reader to contact Dark Horse and make them stop this.

Remy cites another blog posting as to why this is ethically justified and not censorship:

I start with the axiom that people should not do bad things. I assert that publishing a bad thing is itself a bad thing, because it provides the bad thing greater exposure and the opportunity to negatively influence people that it would not otherwise have. I assert that Gor is a bad thing, because it promotes a model for human sexuality and society that in reality would result in immense harm to many people. Finally, I assert that no circumstances mitigate the harm of its republication, because the work lacks historical significance and is of questionable artistic merit not counting its reprehensible sexual politics. Q.E.D.

The argument above says that Gor novels “negatively influence people” and “it promotes a model for human sexuality and society that in reality would result in immense harm to many people.” I disagree because it assumes that, because they read these books, they will do harm that they would not otherwise do. As I’ve argued before, people don’t need any encouragement to come up with sexual fantasies that aren’t nice and gentle Furthermore, it glosses over the distinction between fantasy and reality, or even the “reality” of some internet chat rooms and Second Life neighborhoods. Goreans are never going to be any more than a lunatic fringe with no influence over anybody who wasn’t predisposed anyway.

Another bloggers, Bellatrys, does a good job of laying to rest the Norman-apologist argument that the sexism, anti-modernism, etc. only really kicked in in the later books. Her thorough multi-part analysis proves that Norman was on the maledom-femsub track from the beginning, and if anything he just lost his inhibitions in the later books. (She also provides an overview of the series’ publishing history.)

My concern with Gor is not that it’s badly written (no argument here, but that’s never been a hanging offense), that it’s sexist (it certainly can be read that way, not to mention racist and classist), that it’s politically retrograde (no argument either), or even that it has inspired a cult following. My concern is that, what could have been a sub-parr, forgettable pulp fantasy series by a hack writer with some personal eccentricities somehow became something that people take so literally, including the author.

With Sade, one can argue that he was writing to shock and provoke and/or to indulge his own fantasies of revenge on the world, and none of his books were intended to be taken literally as philosophical arguments or designs for living, even by the author. With Gor, however, there is a subculture of people who view it as a deep philosophical truth, a vision of a true way of life in a fallen world.

Norman’s books are what happens when you distill the romantic primitivism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Edgar Rice Burroughs down to toxic levels of concentration. I recently read The Culture Cult by Roger Sandall, who says that the discipline of anthropology has been hijacked by neurotic bohemian malcontents (ever since Rousseau) who dream of living in a fantasy world of personal and sexual freedom instead of the conformity and colorlessness of modern civil society. These romantic worlds are located in the distant past, in Africa or the Australian outback or, in Norman’s case, on a duplicate Earth hidden on the other side of the sun.

Sandall’s book has many flaws, but it did get me thinking about what he called romantic primitivism. Dom/sub is based on slavery and feudalism, two real-world social systems that are antithetical to liberal democracy. Why do we practice such social customs voluntarily?

Because they mean something to us. My theory, going back to previous postings on Turner’s theory of initiation rituals, is that people have a need for initiation rituals, for the process of finding, entering and becoming a new social role, whether temporarily or permanently. The Gor novels function as that kind of initiation, both in the protagonist’s initiation into Gorean society and the endlessly repeated scenes of women being initiated into Gorean slavery. I’d argue that Norman is not so much obsessed with slave women as with free women becoming slaves.

The Gor texts themselves function as a medium for initiation, learning the ways of Norman’s intricately detailed (though highly implausible) world and sub-Nietzsche philosophy, and then joining the sub-sub-culture of Goreans.

JE Remy seems to view the Gor series in the same terms as, say, the white supremacist epic novel The Turner Diaries (said by some to be inspiration for Timothy McVeigh), and that it should be self-evident why Gor should not be published, in the same way that some random screed about Jews emasculating the white race through fluoridating water need not be published.

Bellatrys picks up this thread too:

I find fascinating the rabid insistence on all quarters that the only reasons for loathing the books are 1) “Political Correctness” and 2) not having read (with implicit “dared to) the books themselves, but only taking the liberal zampolit’s word for their badness. If you only gave them a chance, you’d see how beautiful and noble and wonderful and liberating they are! is the cry from the Gor fans.**

It seriously not only doesn’t occur to them, but is apparently outside their comprehension that anyone could have actually read the damned things and made up their minds about them on their own. That maybe we are at least moderately familiar with the pulp genre as a whole, and are capable of doing compare/contrast on our own – and maybe, just maybe, we can make the judgment as to whether the worldview presented as “normal” in Norman’s Counter-earth is dehumanizing and degrading to both women and men on our own, based on the primary texts…

I don’t think Gor is “a negative influence” on its readers, or the world in general, or at least no more so than many, many other books. As I’ve said before, I’m a very strong supporter of freedom of expression, and letter campaigns to publishers, even against books I find almost unreadable, make me nervous.

I also suspect that Remy’s efforts are in vain. Even if there are no more reprints, the untold copies lying in various used bookstores around the world (a cursory search on eBay for “gor norman” produced over 100 items) will still be there. And eventually people will start pirating them and putting the text files online. The tarn has left the barn, so to speak.

Simone de Beauvoir
wrote an essay in 1955 called “Must we burn Sade?” Perhaps there needs to be another essay, “Must we burn John Norman?”