25 SEPTEMBER 1976, Page 11

Horror shock

Christopher Booker

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable memorably analyses a 'nine days wonder' as being made up of 'three days amazement, three days discussion of details and three days subsidence'. Nevertheless the only really remarkable thing aboutJens Thorsen's Proposed film of the sex-crazed Christ is how it came to be a wonder at all—let alone how, with the aid of a galaxy of stars ranging from the Queen to Mr Whitelaw, it has managed so far to exceed its statutory ninedays hold on public attention.

For a start the whole episode has seemed SO extraordinarily dated. Not only does the scale of the fuss seem like a throwback to the sort of 'filthy plays' row that used to break our back in the early 'sixties over such things as Peter Brook's Marat-Sade, but Mr Thorsen's project itself already seems like some Jaded flotsam from another era. It is several Years since at least two pornographic films featuring Christ were made in the United States, neither of them causing a great deal (Astir (I am informed by Peter Cook that the Variety headline announcing the release of one of them read `STANDARD JESUS PORNO ENTRY BO OUTLOOK SPOTTY'). And it is obviously due only to the astonishingly valiant efforts of his supporting cast, Cardinal Hume, the Prime Minister and Her Majesty, that Mr Thorsen has at last Won the kind of publicity that he could never have dreamed of.

Nevertheless, however startlingly overblown the episode has been, the Thorsen film does I believe deserve to be discussed in Slightly more serious terms than hitherto. The outraged have been waxing as loud as a row of bullfrogs in taking Thorsen entirely at face value, as some terrible threat to the Inner meaning of Christianity. Even Thorsen himself has been reported in dotty Sunday newspapers arguing like some latter-day Renan that 'there is no strictly biblical denial of Christ's sexuality', almost as if the film actually did have something to do with Christianity—whereas it is clear that the Only real purpose of casting Christ in the central role in what is otherwise a run-ofth.e-mil I pornographic film is simply to provide some last flicker of a thrill at the end of ten or fifteen years increasingly desperate search for cultural 'shocks'.

Which brings me to what I think is the °MY really interesting question arising out Of the Thorsen affair, which is to ask why We have no psychological theory which even begins to account in a convincing way for Why in the last two decades Western culture has set out to pursue shock and sensation on such an unprecedented scale.

Even if the drive to 'push back' the sexual, moral and other frontiers seems to have lost a great deal of its momentum in the past few years (if only through over-achievement and exhaustion), it was clearly the dominant underlying force behind most of the morepublicised cultural phenomena of the late 'fifties and 'sixties. Clearly the special pleading of the champions of the progressive arts and progressive morality—the Tynans and Hefners—that it was all just a matter of 'exploring human experience to the full', dismantling taboos and so forth, was far too simple-minded in any way actually to explain this astonishing cultural epidemic.

Firstly of course there were the clearly defined areas in which the drive to experience a sense of innovation and shock operated. There was the portrayal of the image of sex, through films, books and photographs, and in particular the growing preoccupation with every kind of departure from the traditional 'boring norm' of sexual love in the framework of marriage. There was the cult of the image of violence. There was the drive to revolt against or violate images of 'authority', tradition and convention of any kind. And finally there was a growing frustration at the very framework of our ordered perception of the world, expressed in an increasing obsession with irrationality, surreal juxtapositions of imagery and insanity itself. All these things constituted in their different ways a delight in 'disorder' —but very much required the awareness of a pre-existent framework of order and 'normality' to allow for the thrills that were to be derived from a sense of its violation.

This in turn gave rise to the second and supremely important characteristic of this neo-Romantic epidemic which was its dynamic need (as in the development of many psychic illnesses) constantly to find more extreme forms of obsession and stimulation in order to maintain the level of gratification. Looking back, it now seems almost incredible what a sense of shock could be generated in the early 'fifties by such a book as The Cruel Sea (1951) with its mentions of prostitutes, or The Philanderer, subject of the first big post-war obscenity trial in 1954, the most controversial element in which was a conversation between an adulterous couple in bed. Lolita, which shocked the selfappointed consciences of two nations in the late 'fifties with its fairly veiled account of the affair between a man in his late thirties and a twelve-year-old girl, is probably now a set book for English '0' level. But, as we all know, the process once set in train 'escalated, continuously, through a whole series of causes celebres, scandals and sensations— Lady Chatterley's four-letter words in 1960, Tropic of Cancer (1963), the trial of Fanny Hill and the Marai-Sade (1964), Repulsion and Kenneth Tynan using 'that word' on television (1965), Bonnie and Clyde (1966), Oh Calcutta! (1970), Last Exit to Brooklyn, Straw Dogs, Clockwork Orange, the Oz trial and all the rest. Against a wider background of psychopathic breakdown, of which the horrors of Vietnam and Cambodia were the supreme examples, Western

culture explored its own increasingly psychopathic inner world of sexual aberration, violence, rebellion and mental breakdown, until finally in the 1970s the whole epidemic began to show signs of dying down. Virtually our entire psychic symbolism of order, normality and wholeness had been ransacked, until there was nothing left to violate. And it was hardly surprising that, at a fairly late stage in the proceedings, the minds of various people on both sides of the Atlantic had turned to the image of Christ to provide them with a supreme last violatory thrill— because, even though we no longer live in almost any sense in an outwardly Christian culture, the symbolism of Christianity still plays a surprisingly central inner psychic role (as can be seen in a thousand ways, if only from people's use of expletives, or the violence of their attitudes to the Pope!).

Today the great epidemic, at least in its more extreme forms, is pretty well exhausted (and it is perhaps the most illuminating comment on the nature of the cultural crisis through which we passed that, despite all the excitement of those years, we can now see that their most lasting cultural monuments were being produced not in the West at all, but in Russia, which remained largely uninfected). Nevertheless, our psychic universe has been left vastly changed as a result. There are few who have not to a greater or lesser extent lost their inner bearings, and of course in such a state of confusion it is tempting for some still to lash out blindly in trying to preserve old certainties. If Christianity at heart means anything, it means a mythical construct through which individual people can try to work out 'the reconciliation of the opposites'. In such a sense it is a symbol of that wholeness which a man like Mr Thorsen still unwittingly and tormentedly seeks to violate to find some sense of meaning. But at the same time it should provide for its adherents that sense of perspective whereby the efforts of such as Mr Thorsen cease to occupy quite so much of their horizon.