Originally posted by NightBird on Wednesday, June 18th, 2008 - 06:05 AM
According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, the word's been around since the seventeenth century: 1656 to be precise. It started out meaning "freely given", specifically, as the American Heritage Dictionary puts it, "without cost or obligation." Before the dawn of the eighteenth centuy, however, another meaning was documented: "uncalled for, done without good reason" appeared by 1691. This sense of the term is currently defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as "unnecessary or unwarranted; unjustified."
Most of the time, for anything involving fiction, that later meaning is the first one that comes to mind, and virtually always in connection with sexual and/or violent content. I've heard well-educated people apply the term 'gratuitous' to a scene with violent or sexual content even when they, in the same breath, state that the scene made a significant difference in explaining the character's actions or advancing the plot. Occasionally, I've responded to a statement like that by asking, "If the scene did that for the story as a whole, was it actually gratuitous?" Almost invariably, the answer I've heard was a resounding, "Of course it is!"
It's probably safe to assume that, if you're spending time on a site like Elliquiy, that wouldn't be your reaction, but I still think there are some issues underlying those minor confrontations of mine that are worth exploring.
I often wonder what it is about sex and violence that make them receive such a denigrating label so automatically. I see a potential that the perspective is an expression of religious asceticism from various sources. I also, though, see the Enlightenment praise for reason as an important underlying factor. Much of the modern West, however, moved from Enlightenment reason into Romantic emotionalism, and the art and writing of the nineteenth century does depict issues related to sexual attraction, violence and madness ('unreason') in a different light than they received the century prior. For all that the Enlightenment trumpeted reason over faith, the nineteenth century saw faith return with vigor even while 'science' fuelled the progress that demonstrated the fruits of reason, so, while some elements of religious asceticism merged into secular cultural traditions, others remained or returned to faith-driven patterns of meaning that actually set up a complex tapestry of acceptable, sanctioned sexual and/or violent acts.
In many ways, it seems to me as if the attempt to rein in sexuality and violence, whether for religious or intellectual reasons, rests on a need that likely exists on both an individual and societal level, one that distances humanity from the animal side of our nature. Sex, blood, birth and death, rage, callousness, territoriality and vindictiveness... none of these are what Enlightenment or Christian theory value. I think a lot of people wish they were all extraneous, all 'gratuitous' to human existence in truth.
But they're not. And that's where Freud and his followers gathered so many threads of Western society and medicine together in the early twentieth century and tried to argue that repression doesn't make either sex or violence go away, it simply creates a crisis in the psyche. He expressed the crisis in extravagant terms, but the essential kernel, that repressing our 'base nature' doesn't make it go away, that I do think he was one of the theorists to get right.
Western society is less conflicted over sex and violence than it was a hundred years ago, in no small part the legacy of Freudian theory, but the older habits of thought die hard and are still very much with us, while at the same time, we seem to be floundering about new determinants of the acceptable vs. the unacceptable, and the mixture of reason and control is still very much apparent in how health professionals have become the modern secular priests, interpreting the results of arcane rituals and dictating instructions on how to conduct oneself through the trials and tribulations of life. Where religions talked about immoral behavior, the modern health professional talks about risk-taking and self-destructive behavior.
Often, though, it's new rationales for the same assumptions.
As writers, or gamers who build the game throuh the written word, there's a lot of advice out there about eliminating everything from a manuscript that doesn't build or reveal either character or plot. In essence, this sort of advice is all about cutting all the flab, all the gratuitous elements. And that leaves me wondering about the place of sex and violence in fiction. If it tells the story, if it shows something of the inner life of a character, or if it reveals the presence (or absence) of change that's pertinent to the meaning and/or resolution of the story, I don't see how every scene involving sex and/or violence could possibly be forced to fit that second definition of 'gratuitous.' The details of a meal or the design of a luxury car, some such thing like that are actually more likely, to my mind, to qualify as 'gratuitous' material, yet most people will say those flabby scenes are just fine, but insist on 'gratuitous' applying to the scenes they find disturbing, whether or not those scenes reveal character or advance the plot.
I disagree, but then, that plays no small part why I'm here, participating on Elliquiy and writing this blog entry. I'd rather dig into the topics that, while uncomfortable in their 'base nature,' still by their mere presence illuminate aspects of human nature that more proper and rational material cannot. I'd rather write about the whole person, not the fragment that encompasses their appropriate thoughts and actions. And so I write erotica and ponder precisely what 'gratuitous' really is all about.