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The secret pleasure
Photo by Krisztian Matyas on Unsplash
“Monogamy may or may not be natural to human beings, but transgression surely is.” --Esther Perel
Many of us are motivated by an urge to be transgressive, to go against the grain, to flout minor laws. As transgression often involves danger (at least the danger of discovery), it’s worth pondering about the pleasures of transgression.
My stepfather, Brian, would go hiking in the summer with my mother. Whenever he saw a “No Trespassing” sign by a pond, he’d insist that they take a swim there— usually naked. This sometimes led to discovery, threats, and a very good story.
Transgression can be minor, such as remaining parked at the Customer Only lot outside the bank after you’ve gone on to perform some other errand. There’s not only the practical satisfaction of not needing to find another parking space in a crowded village, there’s the emotional thrill of flouting authority, of somehow giving it to The Man! One basks in the smugness of being an insider, of knowing the tricks to get by.
Is this transgressive? Mildly. It certainly ignores the civic compact to obey the signs and follow the rules. Parking at the bank, one feels clever and a little superior.
Sometimes personal behavior can be transgressive. My friend Jane is always her most abrasive when meeting somebody new. She reasons, “If the person still likes me, perhaps we could be friends.” She hopes her contrariness is charming, and, indeed, some find it so.
Isn’t shoplifting often about the act itself and not about the items that are stolen? I’ve never shoplifted myself, but I gather that the merch is not the point; doing something illegal and getting away with it is.
About forty years ago, I had a dentist, a family man, the father of three, who confided while I was in the chair that he was a cross-dresser. Several times a year, he would go to a hotel in New Jersey and put on women’s clothing and make-up and go out and about. Remember: this was a long time ago, well before the glorification of drag queens.
What the dentist was doing on these weekends was certainly not sanctioned; the thrill must have been in the forbidden display. Would his cross-dressing be as exciting today? Perhaps not. I think my dentist delighted not only in wearing women’s clothes but in getting away with it. Telling me, his patient, about it only furthered his transgression.
Those who use dodgy tricks to lower their tax bills enjoy a double benefit: more cash in the bank and the heady feeling of having gotten away with something. Those who have extramarital affairs may also feel this way, thinking, after each meeting: I got away with it again! I am untouchable!
A few weeks ago here in this spaceI wrote about “ignoble pleasures,” such as picking your nose or gloating over a windfall. So is transgression inherently ignoble? On the contrary: it sometimes heralds important discoveries.
Major scientific breakthroughs usually upend traditional beliefs. When Galileo determined that the earth orbited the sun, it was hugely transgressive. So was Darwin’s idea that humans evolved from the great apes, or Freud’s notion that adult unhappiness has its origin in childhood trauma. An original theory often undermines traditional ideas of truth and provokes scandal . . . until evidence proves it is right.
Those who know I’m a marijuana advocate have asked me if smoking pot is less thrilling now that it’s legal in New York state. Since the age of sixteen I’ve enjoyed the high and not the danger cannabis provides. So I tell those who ask that it’s a great relief to smoke in the street or replenish my stash without risking arrest.
Still, most people I know drink wine openly yet use pot secretly, if they use it at all. Even today, marijuana is stigmatized as a gateway drug, and worse. So even though pot is legal, my great fondness for weed still feels a little edgy. Do I get a secret satisfaction about being this pothead, this granny pothead, in suburbia? Yeah, I kind of do! Being somewhat transgressive is good for my self-image, especially at my age. Not fade away!
And I suppose my books are transgressive in that they explore unusual subjects. The Adventures of Sid Sawyer shows the sissy half-brother Sid as a sensual genius and the gallant Tom as a crude bully. My latest novel, Cybill Unbound, is about the sexual adventures of an older woman, and the book before that, The Feud, explores the vicious dynamic of a workplace feud.
I probably couldn’t write a book unless I felt it would get someone upset! In the case of The Feud, I kept wondering if I’d hear from the person upon whom I modeled “Roberta.” (It’s been five years since the novel was published, and she remains silent.) While writing the book, I often pictured her reading it, enraged. So composing the novel became this transgressive act, something I really “shouldn’t be doing.”
Naturally, this only spurred me onward.
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