Jul 142011

Cover of 'Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk', showing nude woman praying and monk about to beat her with whip

Anti-Catholicism has always been the pornography of the Puritan. Whereas the anti-Masons had envisaged drinking bouts and had entertained themselves with sado-masochistic fantasies about the actual enforcement of grisly Masonic oaths,* the anti-Catholics invented an immense lore about libertine priests, the confessional as an opportunity for seduction, licentious convents and monasteries. Probably the most widely read contemporary book in the United States before Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a work supposedly written by one Maria Monk, entitled Awful Disclosures, which appeared in 1836. The author, who purported to have escaped from the Hotel Dieu nunnery in Montreal after five years there as novice and nun, reported her convent life in elaborate and circumstantial detail. She reported having been told by the Mother Superior that she must “obey the priests in all things”; to her “utter astonishment and horror,” she soon found what the nature of such obedience was. Infants born of convent liaisons were baptized and then killed, she said, so that they might ascend at once to heaven. Her book, hotly attacked and defended , continued to be read and believed even after her mother gave testimony that Maria had been somewhat addled ever since childhood after she had rammed a pencil into her head. Maria died in prison in 1849, after having been arrested in a brothel as a pickpocket.

Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics

Brian Busby also has some posts on Maria Monk, alleged author of the anti-Catholic classic Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, calling it “the best-selling work of fiction ever set in Montreal”. More likely it was written by American anti-Catholics who knew how to appeal to a nation steeped in Gothic/sentimental literature.

This book used common Gothic tropes: virtue in distress, murdered children, imprisonment, underground passages and chambers, arbitrary authority, cruelty and claustrophobia. It didn’t stint on describing and depicting the abuse of the nuns:

Most 19th century editions feature the same 38 engravings, all depicting characters and scenes in the book. There is, for example, the ‘inhuman priest’ Bonin in action pose. According to the book, it is he who, with an undisclosed number of nuns, trampled Sister St. Frances to death. Many of the images feature tormented nuns, women who have endured rape and torture, such as the ‘melancholy’ Sister St. Martin and ‘Mad Jane Ray’. In the illustration below we see Maria herself, recovering from ‘the cap’, an instrument of punishment described as ‘small, made of a reddish looking leather, fitted closely to the head, and fastened under the chin with a kind of buckle.’ The reader is told that it was ‘common practice to tie the nun’s hands behind, and gag her before the cap was put on, to prevent noise and resistance.’

Bondage, flogging, branding… it’s no wonder that the ‘awful disclosures’ found readers amongst those attracted to the works of Sacher-Masoch, Sade and Mirbeau. Indeed, the book has at times been packaged to attract just such an audience.

The book had a long life, with many legitimate and pirated editions. More than a century later, Monk’s book was still being used, turning up in leaflets opposing John F. Kennedy’s US presidential campaign. It still turns up cited on anti-Catholic kook websites.

Has this particularly anti-Catholic brand of pornography been rendered obsolete as fantasy material by the assimilation of Catholics in North American society, the diminishing power of the Catholic church and the general secularization of society? A cursory search of Imagefap revealed a fair number of “nun” galleries, and searching for “nun” on Literotica produced one page of stories, so perhaps this particular kink still has some life in it.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Awful Disclosures bear a lot of similarities: highly political works which used the language of Gothic sentiment to make their point and involved audiences who might not have been involved in other discourses. One was progressive and humanitarian, the other was xenophobic and bigoted. One was inspired by truth, the other by paranoid fantasy. It indicates just how powerful a discourse this is.

Jul 012010

Via BoingBoing, I found a gallery of North Korean propaganda art and photos. These include variations on the standard “woman threatened by male aggression” theme, with American soldiers as the aggressors and Koreans in traditional dress as the victims.

Some of them hint at a sexual content. One shows a bare-breasted Korean woman tied to the back of a cow, being dragged by US soldiers. Another shows American soldiers using pliers to extract teeth from a contemptuously defiant Korean woman in traditional dress.

Obviously, “virtue in distress” is a strategy that can be applied to just about any conflict, international or domestic.

Jun 272010

BoingBoing.net has a small collection of “monster carrying of woman” images.

It’s interesting to me that this image has proven highly applicable to a variety of different conflicts, both open warfare and internal cultural stress: the Franco-Prussian war, WWI, the American civil rights struggle, the Cold War. It was particularly prevalent in Hollywood films of the 1930s: Frankenstein, King Kong, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Murders on the Rue Morgue, etc. Any sense of cultural anxiety can be reflected in the image of an unconscious white woman swooning in the arms of a dark/unclean/hypermasculine figure, and in terms of rape. This ties into the failed seduction idea discussed in Sex Drives.

One of the commenters says:

I did a whole lecture on the “monsters carrying off our women” meme once. Its history in western art goes back at least as far as Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women from 1582.

It was a staple of 20th century sci-fi posters pretty much until the late 70s, when Ripley proved it was possible for a lady to defeat the big scary monster all by her lonesome.

Below is the sculpture mentioned:

If this is the ur-instance of the “monsters carry off our women” image, it’s interesting that unlike the other examples, there are three figures: the female victim, the male aggressor, and the usurped male. They are entangled together, a complicated triad. Perhaps this is the root of cuckold fantasy as well, with the third figure being the one who observes the first two coupling.