“It is possible for one never to transgress a single law and still be a bastard. And vice versa.” – Herman Hesse
Transgression, thinking about tipping yourself over the edge, surprising yourself with what you learn when you do: it’s absolutely key to keeping the brain fresh, I am convinced. The thrill of the naughty, the unknown consequences you will bring upon yourself, the reactions you’ll provoke in others. Does the thought make you feel tingly or nauseous?
This is going to look like a side-road, but it’s not. Stay with me. There’s a school of cinema-making called the Cinema of Transgression. Nick Zedd, Richard Kern and others led and lead a posse that builds on the work of Warhol and John Waters. It’s underground, 8mm and low-budget. The films are odd, and not massively sought-after (proving the point about the audience), and their manifesto is very exciting. Don’t skim it, read it for its own sake. There are no sweeties for getting to the end quickly:
We propose that a sense of humour is an essential element discarded by the doddering academics and further, that any film which doesn’t shock isn’t worth looking at.
All values must be challenged. Nothing is sacred. Everything must be questioned and reassessed in order to free our minds from the faith of tradition.
Intellectual growth demands that risks be taken and changes occur in political, sexual and aesthetic alignments no matter who disapproves.
We propose to go beyond all limits set or prescribed by taste, morality or any other traditional value system shackling the minds of men. We pass beyond and go over boundaries of millimeters, screens and projectors to a state of expanded cinema.
We violate the command and law that we bore audiences to death in rituals of circumlocution and propose to break all the taboos of our age by sinning as much as possible. There will be blood, shame, pain and ecstasy, the likes of which no one has yet imagined. None shall emerge unscathed.
Since there is no afterlife, the only hell is the hell of praying, obeying laws, and debasing yourself before authority figures, the only heaven is the heaven of sin, being rebellious, having fun, fucking, learning new things and breaking as many rules as you can. This act of courage is known as transgression.
We propose transformation through transgression – to convert, transfigure and transmute into a higher plane of existence in order to approach freedom in a world full of unknowing slaves.
If you read the Imp’s very first posting, you’ll get why this is sex on a stick. You can watch some of these guys’ short films here (interestingly, the first one is about an imp and Pan: if you want to see what they mean in the manifesto, stick with its 8 minutes…).
I genuinely believe that your mental health depends on transgression. It can have a detrimental effect, too, but isn’t risk a part of it? And learning self-control part of growing?
We never stop learning – it’s impossible- so why do we behave (in this British culture) as though we stop at 16, 18 or perhaps 21? The least fortunate kids are always learning (well, being told) about these kind of boundaries, about what is acceptable (interesting that you ‘learn’ that picking your nose and eating it is a social transgression long before you’re told it’s unhygienic).
For some kids, so much is couched in terms of conformity as the most important value: not in terms of loyalty, consideration, lovingness. “You can’t have those friends /go out like that…What will the neighbours think?!” Reward is given for fitting in, not for being expressive, creative, generous.
Remember what it felt like when you ‘got it wrong’? My school took us out to give old people tins of food at Harvest-time. An old blind man we visited said, “Oh, it’s so stupid to be blind.” I was nine. I said, “No it’s not.” I got told off for embarrassing everyone.
We usually learn to conform: it brings approval, advancement, popularity (especially if you’re conventionally ‘attractive’). Not conforming, and then deliberately transgressing, can be hard work when you believe in what you’re doing. Sometimes it’s lots of fun though: and if you can’t join ’em, beat ’em. I got Gothier and Gothier to get under the skin of the Insecure It Crowd at school, but the same trick was great fun when I met a new colleague by climbing out of an industrial barrel in a black wedding dress. We really clicked.
But let’s compare personal conformity with the things we admire in others – we look up to, we praise many things that transgress. It’s the sparkle of the new, the audacious, innovative, risky, bold, enterprising….And if socially accepted, they are deemed to be on the right side of the line. But isn’t this only a hop, skip and muddy splash from headstrong, offensive, scandalous, revolutionary behaviour?
Those with the courage to act as they believe they ought, and hang the consequences, are the real heroes and we all benefit: whether it’s political leaders like Ghandi, Elizabeth I, Mandela, Martin Luther King, Aung Sang Su Kyi or artists like Rothko, Dali, Sappho, de Beauvoir, The Sex Pistols, The Jam, Billy Holiday….The word transgress is of course about crossing over between these two, a going-between. Perhaps it’s just about judgement.
What about us, then; am I leaving us all with some responsibility beyond self-preservation? Should I be embedding ‘Self Preservation Society’ (theme tune to The Italian Job) for us to sing along to?
I’ll leave you with one of my role models. Morticia says to Wednesday in Addams’ Family Values, “Look at all the other children, their bright little eyes, their friendly eager smiles… Help them.”