Angels & Incest: When Is Your Sister Not Your Sister? When She's Only Acting!

Posted by Charles Reece, February 19, 2008 01:06am | Post a Comment
The "love that dare not speak its name," which Oscar Wilde shared with Lord Alfred Douglas was cited at the former's trial for gross indecency.  Accepting homosexuality as morally permissible has often been cited by conservative moralists as providing a slippery slope to Gomorrah, setting precedent for even lewder acts, such as bestiality or incest.  However, regarding incest (but I'm betting bestiality, as well), its lure seems to have been with us as long as homosexuality.  If not always accepted in practice, incest is a longstanding part of mankind's fantasies as a seedy imaginative otherworld, suggesting what's always possible if man-made laws didn't get in the way.

Greek deities and demigods, for example, were a saucy bunch: Zeus, the longest running head of the Gods, was the son of brother and sister Titans, Chronos and Rhea.  Following in the family tradition, Zeus's second wife was also his aunt Themis, goddess of law.  After things went south with that, he hewed even closer to his father's matrimonial views and married his sister Hera, who gave birth to Hephaestus, buttfugly God of blacksmithing.  Hera, being the Goddess of chain-smoking trailer trash with a thing for two-timin' goodfernothins, had little need or love for such a ghastly son and kicked the poor fuck out of Olympus.  Despite this treatment, according to some versions of the myth, Hepahestus sided with his Ma's henpecking his Pa, resulting in Zeus beating the tar out of him, giving him an eternally permanent limp.  Those kind of mommy issues point towards meth addiction and a life of petty larceny, if these had been mere mortals.  But they weren't, so Hephaestus managed to marry the most beautiful of all the Olympians, Aphrodite, Goddess of love, who was also his half-sister by way of Zeus's tryst with Dione.

Zeus's sexual exploits don't end there, though; he had a beautiful girl, Persephone, by another of his sisters, Demeter, Goddess of farming.  Hades had such a hard-on for his niece that after his proposal was denied by his brother, Zeus, on the grounds that no daughter of his was going to live on the wrong side of the tracks, the God of the underworld entrapped Persephone anyway.  Such incestuous relations didn't merely involve the Gods: that ideal male physique, Adonis, was the result of a union between Syrian princess Myrrha and her father King Theias, after being bewitched by Aphrodite.  And we all know about Oedipus marrying his mom, Jocasta.

That was all fantasy then, you might be thinking, but not now.  In planning on a bid for the White House, mayor Rudy Giuliani's team made a list of their candidate's vulnerabilities.  Chief among his potential problems was his 'weirdness factor,' particularly his first marriage to his second cousin.  Right-thinking moral majority types presumedly wouldn't take a shine to such an abomination.  It wasn't too long ago, after all, that Jerry Lee Lewis pretty much had his pop musical career ruined when he married his 13-year-old second cousin.  What's often forgotten is that he went on to have a successful second career as a country artist.  Now, was that because the largely white, conservative Southern audience for country music just happened to be more sexually liberated than the then burgeoning rock audience, or just that they were a little closer to what was in fact a more traditional but unwritten rule of marriage?  Even King Elvis gave his blessing.  That should make you wonder just how much of a problem marrying one's cousin would've been for the moral majority. 

Lest you believe marriage between cousins only acceptable to low-bred Podunks, big city author  Edgar Allan Poe married his first cousin, Virginia, when she turned 13, after having lived with her and his brother when she was only 7.  Some other famous intellectuals who married close in the blood line are: Johannes Sebastian Bach (to his second cousin), Charles Darwin (to his first), President Franklin D. Roosevelt (to his fifth -- less gross, granted), and Albert Einstein (to his first).  Even more troubling to the contemporary rejection of anything resembling incest, with its connotations of of all those arthritic purebred dogs and the deformed results of Elizabeth Nietzsche's Paraguayan colony of a pure Aryan blood line, is that Einstein's parents were themselves cousins.  As legal analyst Joanna L. Grossman notes, the U.S. tends to base its marital laws on these connotations, with nearly half of the states not allowing first cousin marriage at all, and another 7 only in very limited circumstances.  However, personal ickiness aside, science supports marriage's unwritten tradition:

According to the recent report, children of unrelated parents have a 3 percent to 4 percent chance of being born with a serious birth defect. Children of first cousins have only a slighter higher risk--roughly a 4 percent to 7 percent chance.

So, if science doesn't give us much support for incest taboo across the board (i.e., outside of the familial bonds within the nuclear unit), why do we still find it so repellent?  Consider the following:

Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach.  They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that, was it OK for them to make love? -- A thought experiment devised by Jonathan Heidt

As cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker explains, Heidt's experiment is designed to confound all the typical supposedly rational reasons people give for dismissing the problem of incest, and believing it taboo:

Most people immediately declare that these acts are wrong and then grope to justify why they are wrong. It’s not so easy. In the case of Julie and Mark, people raise the possibility of children with birth defects, but they are reminded that the couple were diligent about contraception. They suggest that the siblings will be emotionally hurt, but the story makes it clear that they weren’t. They submit that the act would offend the community, but then recall that it was kept a secret. Eventually many people admit, “I don’t know, I can’t explain it, I just know it’s wrong.” -- Steven Pinker

So, what about the non-rational reasons?

According to Freud, sex is sex and it feels just as good, irrespective of what social prohibitions might be set up to keep the boy's desiring object from its object of desire.  That is, close familial sex doesn't feel any different from any other, provided our authoritarian super-ego doesn't get in the way.  But socio-cultural bonds being important for human development, there are inhibitions that need to get in the way of a boy desiring his mom via the threat of symbolic castration during the Oedipus complex:

No doubt the simplest course for the child would be to choose as his sexual objects the same persons whom, since his childhood, he has loved with what may be described as damped-down libido.  But, by the postponing of sexual maturation, time has been gained in which the child can erect, among other restraints on sexuality, the barrier against incest, and can thus take up into himself the moral precepts which expressly exclude from his object-choice, as being blood-relations, the persons whom he has loved in his childhood.  Respect for this barrier is essentially a cultural demand made by society.  Society must defend itself against the danger that the interests which it needs for the establishment of higher social units may be swallowed up by the family; and for this reason, in the case of every individual, but in particular of adolescent boys, it seeks by all possible means to loosen their connection with their family -- a connection which, in their childhood, is the only important one. -- Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality

Although he de-emphasized the importance incest would have to the individual's psychological development, the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss was similar to Freud's emphasis on the functional reasons outside of genetic deformities for incest being taboo.  Keeping love within the family would de-stabilize social institutions larger than the nuclear families by closing them off from one another, making the nuclear unit the only social unit that mattered:

[T]he biological family could not constitute a type of basic social unit, for it implied a tendency which would dissolve social bonds. It was self-contained and could reproduce itself without interaction with other social groups or families, despite the biological hazards of inbreeding. This was the inherent limitation of the nuclear family when viewed from an anthropological perspective; when economic or cultural interaction did take place, the biological family would serve as a counter-social and isolating element. Rather, "the rules of kinship are.., the social state." Even the prohibition against incest served a positive function. If biological family members were forbidden to marry certain relatives, reproduction could only take place through interaction with other families as "the positive aspect of the prohibition is to initiate organization" since it "merely affirms, in a field vital to the group's survival, the preeminence of the social over the natural, the collective over the individual, organization over the arbitrary.''  The flip-side of incest was the practice of exogamy, for "like exogamy, the prohibition of incest is a rule of reciprocity."  Biology needed to be transcended if a more permanent and expansive basis was to be created for society. Levi-Strauss merely emphasized the structure and function of the social group, the interaction between groups, the exchange of material and symbolic goods, and the various marriage practices. He viewed kinship from the overriding principle of social interaction and the interrelated perspectives of biology, economics, and culture. -- Gary Roth, quoting from and explaining Levi-Strauss' Elementary Structures of Kinship

Citing a 1991 study of chimpanzees by Frans de Waal, Jonathan Haidt follows a Darwinian line of reasoning about the incest taboo, namely that it's built on deep-seated biological inhibitions which make it feel icky, even though we don't know explicitly why.  While all species follow certain descriptive rules of behavior, primates actually turn those descriptive rules into prescriptive ones by threat of force.  Thus, de Waal found that an adult chimp might interact with a baby chimp in an inappropriate way (e.g., like an incestuous adult human), but other chimps will go Bronson on him for doing so.  That's morality by way of evolution.  Haidt refers to this moral view as social intuitionism, with the intuition ultimately coming from biology:

The social part of the social intuitionist model proposes that moral judgment should be studied as an interpersonal process. Moral reasoning is usually an ex-post facto process used to influence the intuitions (and hence judgments) of other people. In the social intuitionist model one feels a quick flash of revulsion at the thought of incest and one knows intuitively that something is wrong. Then, when faced with a social demand for a verbal justification, one becomes a lawyer trying to build a case, rather than a judge searching for the truth. One puts forth argument after argument, never wavering in the
conviction that Julie and Mark were wrong, even after one’s last argument has been shot down. In the social intuitionist model it becomes plausible to say “I don’t know, I can’t explain it, I just know it’s wrong.”
-- Jonathan Haidt, The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment

I suspect there's probably a good deal of truth to all of these explanations.  Levi-Strauss's model even gives a good reason for objecting to Woody Allen marrying the daughter of his girlfriend (which made her the stepmother of his adopted children, her "former" siblings): she was too close within his kinship unit.  Haidt's model suggests why, despite the aforementioned scientific evidence to the contrary, our society overall isn't going to line up with the progressive hillbillies regarding kissin' cousins -- city slickers just ain't as rational as good ol' country folk.  And I like Freud's theory because he always leaves room for the role of fantasy:

It is in the world of ideas, however, that the choice of an object is accomplished at first; and the sexual life of maturing youth is almost entirely restricted to indulging in phantasies, that is, in ideas that are not destined to be carried into effect.  In these phantasies the infantile tendencies invariably emerge once more, but this time with intensified pressure from somatic sources.  Among these tendencies the first place is taken with uniform frequency by the child's sexual impulses towards his parents, which are as a rule already differentiated owing to the attraction of the opposite sex -- the son being drawn towards his mother and the daughter towards her father. -- Sigmund Freud, ibid.

Now, Rudy Giuliani probably isn't going to be the fantasy of most little girls anywhere, regardless of how far from his family tree they fall.  Nor is Poe, unless you're one of those repressed goth girls with cutting issues.  Nor is Jerry Lee, Einstein, or Bach.  However, Angelina Jolie probably occupies enough little boy fantasies that she has her own town in Meinongian real estate.  Thus, as a pure wish-fulfilling fantasy, the ickiness of incest tended to roll off her angelic visage like water off a duck's back when she sucked face with her lookalike brother, James Haven:

"I wish I were her brother," many men were heard to say, and that was that: a dark fantasy given flesh.  Well, what about the fantasy of making movies or art?  Actors are merely pretending, so whatever they do within the context of art doesn't count in the real world.  It's all in the service of Art -- it's only acting, right?  But how far does this seeming exception go? Consider the example of new Grey's Anatomy star, Chyler Leigh, making out with her brother in the movie Kickboxing Academy (go to the 2'50" mark for the romance in question):


Or what about Penelope Cruz, who probably owns the next town over to Angelina's in La-La Land?  Evidently, so dedicated is she to the artistic ideal that she willingly appeared in her brother's music video licking his neck when she wasn't sucking on a lolly-pop or french-kissing her lookalike sister.  I wonder if dedication to not just good art, but the shittiest, most derivative kind is the true sign of a committed actor.  Regardless, I graciously found a video which not only cuts right to the chase, but replaces the music with commentary:

As the stereotype goes, sex between two twins is a common fantasy of red-blooded males.  But, even if true, I suspect that fantasy stops somewhere short of these two:

I mean, they're not actresses.  Thus, it would seem that the primate-intuited social taboo still holds, provided our libidinal impulses aren't being aimed at the fantasy realm of deific love-objects.  Ordinary looking siblings and cousins, regardless of how smart they might be, still get an "eww" (unless, of course, you're a fair-minded Southerner with really old-fashioned views on matrimony).

Finally, another actress dedicated to art in its purest form, that is, regardless of quality (perhaps even deserving a special award in this category), is Asia Argento.  While some controversy resulted from her appearing in her father Dario's giallo Trauma, they really pushed the totemic envelope with The Stendhal Syndrom, in which he films her getting her lip sliced open during a prolonged rape scene by a mysterious stranger (no nudity here, but don't watch if you don't like blood):

The acting defense really doesn't hold much water here if one considers a father filming his two underage naked children pretending to have sex.  Most people would probably consider that going too far, the materiality of production overriding the artistic ideal.  The children would still be really naked and really kissing each other for the father.  Nor would anyone give the father a pass if they knew he was only imagining such an event, without actually filming it.  But the more those kids begin to look like Angelina and her brother in their 20s, the more acceptable the fantasy would seem to be.  Thus, Freud was on to something regarding fantasies.  Whether they're about deities or sublimely beautiful actresses, they serve as an originary, primitive defining moment for the social laws that develop in order to protect us from ourselves.  I'm guessing that the more beautiful the actress willing to make out with her equally beautiful sibling for the artistic ideal, and the less problem we all have with it, the more entrenched the incest taboo becomes.

[Thanks to commenter Steve for bringing the Pinker article to my attention, which along with the Cruz video kind of spurred this whole rumination.]

[postscript: Eric mentions this picture in his comment:

I'd say it speaks for itself.  As Tyler sings in "Crazy," "that kind of lovin' makes me want to pull down the shade."  Not wishing to burden your browser with any more than I already have, you can see the Director's Cut of the video here.  Go to 3'25" for the real fun to begin.  Thanks, Eric, for this necessary addition.]
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