All Good Sex Is Body Horror

The residents of the apartment complex are respectable. There are doctors, lawyers, and a surplus of those drably enigmatic persons known as “young professionals.” The building itself, the Starliner Tower, on the outskirts of Montreal, is a modern construction, outfitted with the latest amenities: a heated swimming pool, a golf course, a delicatessen, a boutique. “Sail through life in quiet and comfort,” a calming advertisement instructs, and the residents are only too eager to comply. Still, out of an abundance of caution, there is a doctor’s office on the premises. Under the circumstances, who could suppress the urge to root for disease and disaster?

Not the director David Cronenberg, who has no qualms about subjecting the bourgeoisie in his first feature-length film, “Shivers” (1975), to unexpected upheaval. The ease and efficiency of the modern high-rise are soon upended by the emergence of parasites that resemble larvae and pass from one resident to the next, sometimes by wriggling through the pipes and drilling into their victims’ viscera, sometimes by way of sexual transmission. Once the residents have been infected, they succumb entirely to their appetites: we see them ripping their clothes off, clawing at one another, eating with their hands. Before long, they begin to form feverish clusters around the uninfected, whom they seduce and contaminate.

“This is a disease of the id arising,” Cronenberg, the father of the body-horror genre, said in a 1983 interview. As “Shivers” progresses, it becomes apparent that the id was liberated by design: the in-house doctor, a hyper-rational man, learns that the parasites were created by a scientist seeking “a combination of aphrodisiac and venereal disease that will, hopefully, turn the world into one beautiful mindless orgy.”

Unfortunately, the scientist is poised to succeed. One decorous young professional after another is attacked and transformed into a slavering monster, until at last all the residents converge in the heated pool. Here, they descend on the doctor, who is by now the last man standing. “Disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other,” the doctor’s former lover, now reduced to a raw ravening, has informed him. “Even dying is an act of eroticism.” Before long, he’s subsumed by a swarm of bucking bodies, and chaos prevails.

Some might regard this conclusion as pessimistic, if not apocalyptic, but Cronenberg is quick to correct them. “I identify with the parasites, basically,” he said in an interview. “The ending of ‘Shivers’ was for me a happy ending.”

I loved the early days—the days of sick surrender. It was June, and by midmorning the alleys had grown pungent with rotting trash. Air-conditioners dribbled water down onto the street, and I stumbled through the reek, sweating slickly, uneasy in my body. No one I encountered noticed anything strange about me. Shopkeepers addressed me as if I were not obscene. It was incredible, I thought, that a lust like mine could go so wholly undetected. Didn’t it have a weight and a color? Couldn’t passersby tell that I was feral and filthy, dripping beneath my dress?

From one point of view, no doubt the most sensible, what had happened to me was not as calamitous as what befell the residents of the Starliner Tower. I was not a zombie; I had no trouble refraining from assaulting people in the park. But from a different point of view, less sensible and therefore more appealing, I had been smashed and reconfigured, rendered lushly lavish. In short, I was in love with an alien kind of creature, an anomaly on the outside clamoring to squirm in.

The author of my destruction was a man with long fingers and a shock of hair like a flame. He could build furniture without consulting the instructions and light fires without matches, just by collecting branches and fussing with them on the ground. The subjects about which he seemed to grasp everything were often the ones it had never occurred to me to ask about: chess openings, causal inference, social-network diagrams. I loved the way his lips pursed, the lace of shadow his lashes cast on his cheeks. He was always reading, even in the shower, his hands protruding from behind the curtain so that the book stayed dry.

Confronted with this entity, who was eventually to become my husband, I was in the grip of a carnality that was strange and implacable. I took cold showers; I sucked on ice cubes. But my body was a hungry animal that kept making mad demands. It wanted to choke; it wanted to howl; it wanted to be not just stripped but skinned. In Cronenberg’s 1988 film “Dead Ringers,” a gynecologist muses that “there should be beauty contests for the insides of bodies,” a remark that alarms the patient lying supine on the examining table. But it made sense to my body, which longed to offer up even its offal. It was only a matter of time before the longing attacked.

When Cronenberg described the ending of “Shivers” as “happy,” it was not the last time he would celebrate a transformation that others find appalling. Reflecting on Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” three decades later, he wondered why no one in Gregor Samsa’s family “feels compelled to console the creature by, for example, pointing out that a beetle is also a living thing, and turning into one might, for a mediocre human living a humdrum life, be an exhilarating and elevating experience, and so what’s the problem?” Perhaps there is no problem, or at least no problem not vastly outweighed by the tang of transfiguration.

Cronenberg’s genius consists in his rare ability to see that elevation can attend disgust, and almost all his movies raise the possibility that a hideous ordeal might double as a reprieve from banality. Even “A History of Violence” (2005), an effort from his later and more realist period, casts an alteration that most would deplore in a surprisingly ambivalent light. At first blush, both the film and its protagonist are quotidian. There are no mad scientists, no monsters. Instead, there is only the sort of hokey home-town hero we might expect to find in a garden-variety rom-com. Tom Stall, the owner of a diner in a punishingly friendly town in Indiana, spends his time greeting patrons by their first names, affectionately teasing his children, and exchanging pleasantries with his wife, an obligatory blonde who entices him to bed by donning the cheerleading uniform she was issued in high school.

But Tom’s placid existence is disrupted when he repulses armed robbers from the diner, eliciting admiring coverage from national news networks. The surge of unwanted publicity has dire consequences: several members of the Philadelphia Mob spot Tom on television and track him down, maintaining that he is not Tom but Joey, a notoriously violent member of their cohort who disappeared without a trace several years prior. Tom is vehement that they have him confused with someone else, but the skill with which he brutalizes his pursuers belies his denials. In the span of just a few days, the veneer of civilization he has worked so hard to cultivate is peeled back to reveal the savagery still massed beneath. At the beginning of the movie, Tom made tender love to his wife while she gushed about high-school cheerleading; at the end, Tom-reverted-to-Joey wrestles her down onto the stairs, where both of them scream in fury and exultation.

On the face of it, the ending of “A History of Violence” is unhappy. In the parting shot, Tom-cum-Joey’s family sits around the dinner table, looking like figures in a Rockwell painting gone sour. But Cronenberg is too defiantly weird to be convinced that Tom’s devolution is an entirely negative development. “Joey’s violence does have an erotic component,” he told an interviewer. The man’s wife “responds to it, but she’s also repelled by it. It’s the best sex she’s ever had and also the most terrifying. Does she want more of it or not?”

Do we want more of it or not? This is the question that Cronenberg’s œuvre poses relentlessly—and often prompts us, much to our own surprise, to answer affirmatively. Cronenberg speculates that “Shivers” viewers “vicariously enjoy the scenes where guys kick down the doors and do whatever they want to do to the people who are inside.” The film’s French title, “Frissons,” is appropriately ambiguous: a frisson is a quiver of delight as much as a shiver of dread, and for someone convulsed by one, the discomfort is inextricable from the titillation.

The ease with which Cronenberg’s characters and his viewers yield to the sublime paradox of the frisson is revealing, for evidently even the most hardened domestication is still quick to crumble. The population represented by the residents of the Starliner Tower is as restrained as can be, but not one of the young professionals living there manages to resist the enticements of the parasites. “People . . . never quite feel that they are securely embedded in their social context,” Cronenberg has observed. “They always feel that the slightest little thing is going to jar them loose, and they’re going to be hopping around,” drinking one another’s blood. But there is another reason that the tenuousness of social nicety is so tantalizing—namely, that the frailty of our present mode of being hints at the possibility of its reinvention. The staid apartment dwellers in “Shivers,” Cronenberg explains,

experience horror because they are still standard, straightforward
members of the middle-class high-rise generation. . . . They’re bound
to resist. I mean, they’re going to be dragged kicking and screaming
into this new experience. They’re not going to go willingly. But
underneath, there is something else.

This “something else” is a new orientation that vindicates their transformation only once it has taken place. The middle-class high-rise generation is not wrong to fear its salvation from ossification, for a self on the verge of metamorphosis is also on the verge of liquidation.

Regenerations as radical as the ones Cronenberg envisions involve what the philosopher L. A. Paul has termed “transformative experiences,” ruptures that change “your own point of view so much and so deeply that, before you’ve had that experience, you can’t know what it is going to be like to be you after the experience.” Not only do we lack access to information that we can acquire only by plunging into the scalding water of a new life, but we cannot foresee how such a jolt will overhaul the very predilections and values that define who we are.

For this reason, transformative experiences “raise a special problem for decision-making,” as Paul explains in her book. Traditional decision theory, propounded by sober economists who do not have Cronenbergian monsters in mind, is no use: it instructs agents who aspire to rationality to select the course of action that maximizes expected value, where expected value is calculated in terms of both “the values of the outcomes, and the probability that the state needed for each outcome will occur, given that the act needed to bring it about occurs.” Theorists have proposed various solutions to the difficulties that arise when we cannot determine how probable a given outcome is—but all the models on offer require us to have some inkling of the “values of the relevant outcomes,” and this is precisely what eludes us in the case of transformative experience.

Such experiences, more familiar but no less dramatic than those Cronenberg envisions, abound in real life. There are medical interventions that restore hearing or sight to those who lack them; there is pregnancy, itself the subject of a great deal of body horror for fairly obvious reasons; and then there is sex, love, and marriage—each of them as gruesome in its own way as the grisliest conceit of Cronenberg’s.

Of course, as flat-footed literalists are sure to object, there are salient differences between a marriage and a murderous rage, among them that one is morally permissible and the other is not. And, moreover, the literalist brigade is sure to continue, there are many reasons the events depicted with perverse glee in Cronenberg films would not be causes for delight if they were to occur in reality. No one would celebrate an epidemic of cannibalistic zombies or the takeover of Montreal by a gang of nymphomaniacs. But an analogy is not an identity, and a metaphor is not a policy proposal. Cronenberg must resort to drastic tactics if he is to remind his audience to want what the civilized world is bent on neutering, and fictionalization must trade in exaggeration if it is to awaken cravings that reality is frequently too thin to gratify. How to do justice to the longing for excess except excessively?

The oozing oddity of embodiment, in particular, requires hyperbole. More disturbing than fiction, in which a person goes to sleep human and wakes up freshly verminous, and more terrifying than zombifying pathogens is the grafting of one life on another. I had no rational grounds for deciding that I wanted my particles to be spliced with my husband’s, but, before I had any say in the matter, our separate bodies were already minced into a different meat.

It is a commonplace in the literature of romance that love wreaks legible changes on the body, a development that is typically painted in a positive light. As the poet Octavio Paz so tenderly puts it, “My hands / Invent another body for your body.” He is echoed by E. E. Cummings in a similar poem, which opens, “i like my body when it is with your / body. It is so quite new a thing. / Muscles better and nerves more.” Cummings is not the only one to undergo a shift during the act of love, and the full extent of his metamorphosis is explicable only in terms of his partner’s reciprocal mutation: his poem begins with the ways in which his lover renews his body and ends with the ways in which his body renews his lover’s body in turn. “i like the thrill / of under me you so quite new,” he concludes. The poet’s body changes in response to his lover’s body, his lover’s body changes in response to the changes in his body, his changed body changes in response to the changes in his lover’s body, and so on and on, twining into an ouroboros of mutual reconstruction.

These transformations recall the notion of the “interhuman,” evoked to great effect by the writer Gary Indiana in his short and sharp consideration of Cronenberg. The “interhuman,” Indiana maintains, is the product of the “perpetual re-creation of identity: simply by coming into contact, you create me and I create you, as different people than we were just before we encountered each other.” The interhuman can arise whenever we interact with one another, but the changes we inflict on each other in the bedroom, where we are so perilously susceptible, tend to be especially stark. Sex sets the interhuman into motion in Cronenberg’s marvellously demented films, in which characters copulate with cars and television screens, but the idea of erotic interhumanity is perennial. In Greek mythology, lust routinely transforms prurient men into animals, while the women they pursue change into trees and birds; in the twelfth-century tales of the poet Marie de France, one knight steals in through his beloved’s window in the form of a hawk. Cronenberg’s chief innovation is his capacity to recognize that whether lusting and falling in love are more like body horror or more like reincarnation is merely a matter of emphasis. Like Paz, he knows that desire invents another body for our bodies. But like Ovid, he asks: Why should we expect desire to leave us intact? Why wouldn’t it tear us apart with its talons?

In “Phaedrus,” Plato proposes that the soul of the lover is “in a state of ebullition and effervescence, which may be compared to the irritation and uneasiness in the gums at the time of cutting teeth.” The lover’s skin softens, he continues, and she becomes dizzy to the point of nausea. She sweats, she shudders, she feels sick as if at sea, and at last she begins to grow wings.

In Cronenberg’s best-known film, “The Fly” (1986), matters are considerably more horrific. We don’t guess it yet, but we catch our first glimpse of the wings that are soon to emerge when Veronica, a science journalist, discovers a patch of coarse hairs on the back of her new lover, Seth Brundle, an eccentric physicist who has just teleported himself across his lab. At least, this is what Brundle believes he has done; in reality, he has genetically fused himself with a fly that happened to wander into the teleportation pod alongside him. He does not realize it yet, but he is on the cusp of a hideous metamorphosis into a gigantic man-insect hybrid.

Brundle’s transformation into Brundlefly is painful and, above all, repellent. In “The Fly,” perhaps more than in any other entry in his fantastically foul corpus, Cronenberg luxuriates in the grotesque. As Brundle degenerates, he putrefies, slimes, and squishes, presenting a perverse caricature of a person flush with lust. To allow the wings to emerge, his human body has to disintegrate, one piece at a time. First, he sprouts the wiry hairs that gave Veronica pause; next, his skin roughens and his nails flake off; then his teeth decay, and he begins to eat, as flies do, by dissolving solid food in a wash of acidic vomit. When his ears fall off, he deposits them in his bathroom cabinet, where he is preserving the rest of his erstwhile body parts for posterity. When Plato wrote “the growing of wings is a necessity” to “fluttering love,” I doubt this is what he had in mind.

And yet Brundle’s devolution—and, by extension, his anguished acquisition of wings—is quite literally precipitated by the violence of his love for Veronica. He enters the teleportation pod in a drunken stupor because he is driven to distraction by fear that she plans to leave him. For her part, Veronica is subject to a parallel (if less overtly disturbing) transformation, set off by her infatuation with pre-metamorphosis Brundle. When she goes to break things off with her possessive former boyfriend, she announces, “I still have the residue of another life, you know—I have to scrape it off my shoe and get rid of it once and for all.” Earlier, she lies next to Brundle and kisses and bites him so forcefully that he recoils. “Sorry,” she says as he flinches. “I just want to eat you up. You know, that’s why old ladies pinch babies’ cheeks. It’s the flesh, it just makes you crazy.”

The flesh! It just makes you crazy! It just disassembles you and puts you back together in a different form! Brundlefly is disfigured and ultimately destroyed, yet I suspect that many of us would rather turn into something other, even something awful, than stay siloed in the solitary and workaday self. “The disease . . . wants to turn me into something else—that’s not too terrible, is it?” Brundle, already halfway to Brundlefly, muses with characteristically Cronenbergian flair. “Most people would give anything to be turned into something else.”

Most people would give anything to be turned into anything else, because most sex is mediocre, and the measure of its mediocrity is that it leaves us unaffected. No one falls ill; no one transforms into a fly or a cockroach; nothing changes. As the narrator of Norman Rush’s novel “Mating” sagely observes, “sex can be various things, but in my experience the usual thing it is is considerate work on the part of both parties,” accompanied by the exchange of careful courtesies: “after you, no, after you, mais non.” No one has transformative sex all the time, and there is nothing wrong with sex that is merely pleasant. Indeed, a polite volley of pleasantries is probably the best thing that unecstatic sex can be.

Of course, many mediocre sexual encounters are rote in a more pernicious way. Heterosexual sex that follows the standard scripts, with its spankings and its schoolgirls, is not always devastating or traumatic, but its tiresomeness is nonetheless not innocuous. Women are the most obvious losers when the scenarios faithfully reënacted in the bedroom so consistently favor male predilections, but men who inherit their desires from the prevailing sexual culture—or, worse, men who feel they must satisfy a virile masculine ideal whether it appeals or not—lack the opportunity or the means to develop sexual agency. For both parties, the resultant comedy of errors is not satisfying. What nefariously underwhelming sex has in common with respectfully underwhelming sex is that neither brand is especially surprising or especially erotic.

To have sex erotically—and ethically—is to have it with someone else, and a person demonstrates her difference from the self by being impossible to predict, domesticate, or assimilate to preëxistent fantasy. It is not erotic to impose a ready-made desire onto someone pliant, or to slot her into a fetish that has little to do with her. Eroticism occurs only when someone rewrites us so completely that she rewrites even the quality and content of our appetites, and only when this radical rewriting is reciprocal.

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