Published on 28 July 2015
A University of the Sunshine Coast researcher has shed new light on one of literature’s most controversial figures – and she’s not talking about Christian Grey.
Long before 50 Shades of Grey appeared on bestseller lists the bad boy of literature was the Marquis de Sade, an 18th century French writer and philosopher renowned for his pornographic works.
His writings have inspired an adventurous research project by USC PhD student Naomi Stekelenburg, who combined scientific and literary methodologies to explore the role of Darwinian disgust in erotic and transgressive fiction.
Naomi said her research focussed on ideas of sanitation and self-censorship in de Sade’s highly sexualised fiction.
“The Marquis de Sade is renowned in literature for saying everything that could be said, but my research found that even he has to censor his work,” she said. “If he doesn’t it becomes too overwhelming and requires an avoidance response on the part of the reader.
“The implication is that there are limitations to what can be written, especially when it concerns the human body and sex.”
Under the supervision of Dr Clare Archer-Lean and Dr Phillip Ablett, Naomi used principles of literary Darwinism – studying literary texts in the context of evolution – to explore the role this avoidance response plays in creating meaning for the reader.
“Interestingly, I also found there is a second response to being exposed to transgressive or ‘disgusting’ fiction. The first is avoidance, but then there’s what I call curiosity disgust: where you see something disgusting and immediately turn away, but then you can’t help but come back,” she said.
“When you do come back it’s with trepidation – hands over your eyes, peeking through your fingers – but when that happens to readers there’s an opportunity for transformation.”
The unique methodology moves between an objective, scientific tone and a deeply personal analysis of Naomi’s own experiences. She said this process of self-exploration is something all erotic or transgressive texts – even 50 Shades of Grey – encourage readers to do.
“Everyone also has that moment when they say no, I won’t go any further,” she said. “What’s interesting about these kinds of texts is that they ask us to say no, but they also invite us to test that response in a virtual or vicarious way.”
— Jarna Baudinette