The Novelist as Sado-masochist
(George Raymond Richard Martin, Game of Thrones)
Figure 1 The Wall of Counsciousness
There is no doubt in my mind that George R.R. Martin (GRRM) is a great writer. Game of Thrones is monumental. The label “fantasy fiction” does not do justice to the sheer force and greatness of Martin’s vision, which create an alternate world of grand proportions. Epic would be a much more relevant name for what he accomplishes.
Like all great Western epics after the Aeneid, like Beowulf and The Song of Roland, Game of Thrones is decidedly feudal in its organizing principles, as if the epos needs feudalism to prosper and convince. In that sense, it is not an epic for the modern world, which would poetically proclaim the founding of a new nation. We have lost our appetite for epic creation; if the birth of a community is the epic topic par excellence, the new nations emerging today do so outside the Western hemisphere. Martin has a keen and profound understanding of the feudal age and mindset (backed up by a deep historical culture), an exact vision that many a medievalist would envy. In particular, he has penetrated the self-destructive entropy which is the structural fault line in all societies organized around feudal principles.
One of the main features of a feudal society is the lord’s right to private justice: when he has experienced damage, the lord can prosecute the offending party in his own court of justice, and demand reparations for his loss. A conflict arises when another lord has a competing claim that he also can settle within his own court. If there is no overarching authority to settle the conflicting prerogatives (like a Supreme Court, or in medieval times, a monarch whose rights prevail upon all his vassals); clashes, war and destruction are inevitable. Feudal societies have self-destruction inscribed in their very organization.
This is precisely the point that puts the Games of Thrones narrative in motion. The Iron Throne, supreme seat of power of Westeros’ seven kingdoms or fiefdoms, has just been forcibly vacated: King Robert Baratheon has been poisoned by his Queen, Cersei; the transcendental law that kept at bay internal conflicts between the different lineages has been erased. Immediately, there is a free for all of competing claims for the supreme power, all of which have some legitimacy, either through blood and lineage, or through the right of the most powerful. The void at the center of Westeros social order fatally leads to the war of all against all. In that sense, the violence in Game of Thrones is but the logical and unavoidable consequence of the social structure that G.R.R.M. chose as a setting for the epic.
But, in Game of Thrones as in life, legitimacy is relative: all claims to the Iron Throne are tainted by murder, all lineages have a stain of illegitimacy. Stannis Baratheon has murdered his brother Renly to facilitate his own accession to the seat of power; Robert Baratheon’s successor to the throne, Joffrey, is not his son, but the offspring of the incestuous relation of his mother, Queen Cersei, with her brother Jaime. Robert Baratheon himself claimed the throne through force, murdering the Mad King, Aenys II Targaryen. The Targaryen lineage too is marked by the stain of incest, the founder of House Targaryen having wed his two sisters to maintain the purity of his blood.
In passing, the incest motive, familiar to psychoanalysts since Otto Rank’s The Incest Motive in Poetry and Legend (1912) is a recurrent feature in foundation myths and epic, from Isis and Osiris in Egyptian mythology, the Bible (implicitly Cain, who cannot breed but with his mother Eve, explicitly Lot and his daughters), Sophocles’ Oedipus-Rex, the Song of Roland in 11th century France, Shaka Zulu, the fictional epic of the Zulu leader, or even Robert Musil’s Man without Qualities, which may be branded as the retrospective epic of the end of the Habsburgs’ Empire after an eight hundred year rule.
Another distinctive characteristic of epic is present in Game of Thrones: it begins, like all great Western epics, in a defeat: the Aeneid originates in the Trojans’ collapse at Troy, the Song of Roland in the crushing of Charlemagne’s’ rearguard at Roncesvalles, etc. In our novel, the downfall is Ned Stark’s unsuccessful attempt, which will cost him his life, at insuring a continuity of power as Lord Regent of the Seven Kingdoms – a function that King Robert Baratheon bequeathed him on his deathbed.
What matters here is that the transcendental Law (the Symbolic order in Game of Thrones) is vitiated at its very root by a variety of malignancies; no wonder that, as arbitrary as it is, once it is destabilized, it is so difficult to restore. Like the early Lacan deploring in 1938 the weakening of the paternal Imago (Des complexes familiaux dans la formation de l’individu), GRRM warns about transgression, subversion, usurpation, revolt. When the Law itself is put into question, what will take its place? Most likely the rule of brute force. Alternatively, when the Law itself is perverse, as Saint Augustine notes in the City of God, where is the transgression?
When Ned Stark is decapitated, and his House either murdered, dispersed or submitted to the vagaries of various misfortunes, the only ray of hope for a transcendental law vanishes from the Seven Kingdoms, which descend into chaos. House Stark emblematized the harsh virtues of an ideal feudalism: observance of the reciprocal obligations between lord and vassal, fidelity, loyalty, sense of honor and duty. This paternal imago once eradicated, the law of the strongest prevails, and since none of the noble Houses is strong enough (either symbolically or materially) to prevail, the war of all against all produces its devastations, according to a logical process that GRRM pursues methodically, with almost psychotic obstinacy. Of course, the narrative results of this process cannot satisfy readers attached to the notion of a moral literature or cinema, where the Common Good ends up triumphing in a Hollywoodian apotheosis. To these ethical readers, GRRM has answered in a definitive and dismissive fashion: “If you don’t like my books, read something else.”
The intensity of GRRM’s denigration by his disappointed fans, as well as the love of his unconditional admirers is a fascinating symptom. It points to the power of identification (love/hate) a reader can feel around a novel and its characters. A modern audience seems unable to read if not through identification. We love to love the “noble” characters, Tyrion Lannister, who does not let his dwarfism come into the way of his courage and intelligence; Arya Stark, who survives against all odds, Jon Snow, Ned Stark’s bastard, of unequalled bravery and nobility, if not of blood, at least of spirit. We love to hate the horrifyingly despicable ones, Ramsay Bolton, whose modus operandi is the rape and flaying of innocent women and who reduces Theon Greyjoy to a slave animal, named Reek, by endlessly torturing him; Joffrey Baratheon, the King whose maxim is “Everyone is mine to torment”. We cheer when Joffrey the sadistic ruler dies while spitting a green poisonous foam. In similar fashion, we grieve when a cherished character is lead to his death by GRRM, which happens very often. As a matter of fact, Game of Thrones is a hemorrhagic narrative, its ink consisting of the rivers of blood that the author takes pleasure in dispensing; The most notable instance of this bloodletting is of course the accursed episode of the Red Wedding (A Storm of Swords, 3rd vol.; Season 3, episode 9) where the Stark lineage, which emblematizes feudal honorability, is massacred.
The narrative hemorrhage reminds us of what happens in the Icelandic Sagas. Let us remember too that, in the 11th century, the Song of Roland opened the floodgates in a way that makes Game of Thrones pale in comparison: one and a half million men (a fantastic number, since armies comprised at most forty thousand soldiers at the time) die in order to insure the birth of the French Nation-State on the smoldering ruins of feudalism. Fiction here, as in Game of Thrones, is the hyperbole of historical realities. Let us also remember that French, Bolshevik, Maoist Revolutions fed on the supposedly fertilizing blood of millions. And finally, the War of the Roses (1455-1487) that inspired G.R.R.M. made many, many victims across its thirty-two year span. “History is written in blood” is G.R.R.M’s justification for the immense hemorrhage which is the very ink of his novels.
Looks are deceptive: G.R.R.M looks like a benevolent, innocuous Santa. But there is in him a certain penchant for sadism, murder, torture, rape, which he explains in the name of upsetting traditional expectations and literary conventions. He likes his fictional world to be unpredictable. Of course, in terms of suspense and narrative tension he is completely right: “The moment the reader begins to believe that a character is protected by the magical cloak of authorial immunity, tension goes out the window.” In fact, he likes to surprise himself: he does not plan what will happen in the narrative, preferring to let the novel produce its own surprises. As a matter of fact, G.R.R.M., as his own first reader, likes to have his own expectations subverted.
This strategy of turning the tables on the reader or viewer is a complete success, judging by his readership’s (admirers and detractors alike) reactions.
Indeed, GRRM, strictly within his rights of authorial authority, acts as the feudal lord of his fictional, killing or letting live his characters more or less randomly. There are two problems with such a writing strategy. First, the subversion of canonical genre or reader (or author) expectation itself becomes a mechanical rule. Second, this subversive rule can unconsciously master the master of ceremonies himself. It seems that, through his taste for narrative surprises, GRRM himself has become the pawn of the determinism he created. In other words, his status has shifted, from an author (a subject) intent on disappointing readers’ expectation – in itself an illustration of authorial mastery – to an object which is prey to an unconscious drive that he cannot master. Great literature today cannot be created without releasing the floodgates of repression, without giving a voice to the unconscious.
Figure 2 The Night’s King: The Return of the Represseds
Valar morghulis: all men must die, says the High Valyrian proverb. By letting go (not entirely, of course) of his authorial authority, G.R.R.M. has open the door to a death drive for which he is just the spokesman, and which finds its symbol in the army of the dead that lurks beyond the Wall and prepares to take the world of the living in its deadly embrace. The Wall is thus a fit example of analytic suppression: like Hadrian’s Wall in North Great Britain (which is its prototype), beyond it lies the unknown, the repressed, what culture, civilization and consciousness don’t know and don’t want to know. Not not only the Wildings, who obey a primitive code of conduct at the margins of culture, not only the mammoths and the giants, not only the First Men, the Children, representing our originary life drive Eros, but also the death drive, Thanatos itself in the figure of the Night’s King, ruler of the White Walkers (the walking dead). Thus, rivers of blood flow and will flow from the hemorrhagic narrative, the list of characters condemned to death grows ever larger. No doubt that the Games of Thrones: In Memoriam booklet will grow to a thick volume when the seventh and last volume of the saga is published.
Figure 3 In Memoriam: the Hemorrhagic Narrative
The quashing of readers’ expectations in Game of Thrones is a powerful device against identification. If we need fictions to comfort our identifications, we should simply not read these books, because the author is intent on making us suffer through their systematic undoing. I suspect though, that there is an unconscious machine at work here: what if the author is, beyond the death drive, prey to another mechanism he can or cannot master, sadism? Is there something more lurking in the North, beyond the Wall?
Donatien Alphonse François, marquis of Sade (1740-1814), was born too late, in a period when popular voices, when nobility wrongs them, begin to be listened to by the justice apparatus. Hence the courts will accept Rosie Keller’s complaint against Sade, who tied her up naked and gave her lashes in order to reach orgasm. Hardly two generations earlier, Charles de Bourbon-Condé, comte de Charolais and peer of France (1770- 1760), a murderer and prototypical Sade, benefitted from immunity (he was of royal blood). Sade, to the contrary, and even if his case was less serious than le comte de Charolais’, will be incarcerated repeatedly and for long periods of time. He could not help creating violent disorders as soon as he was freed. At the end of the 18th century, the vox populi begins to assert itself against nobility’s aggressions and prevarications. Charles de Bourbon-Condé and the divine Marquis did not hesitate to act upon their drives. After the French Revolution, they will become clinical, abstract categories, and the sadistic drive will become acted upon mostly in representation, not in real life. Sade himself emblematizes this shift from reality to fiction; writing becomes a vital sublimation, an imaginary realization for his drives during his long years in incarceration, first during the Old Regime (Ancien Régime) of the French Monarchy (11 years), then under the Republic and the first Napoleonic Empire (14 years). He wrote because he could not act upon his aggressive fantasies, which he had systematically put into practice when free.
Creating a fictional world, he restores in fact the feudal world where the Lord and Master can act out his fantasies by preying upon his innocent victims. There is no necessary connection between feudalism, epic and sadism. Still, feudal society grants its lords almost unlimited power; in a sense, the Sadian imperative, because it has shifted from reality to fiction, becomes more systematic and powerful: epic. Thus The 120 days of Sodom is the feudal epic of perversion.
Sadists abound in Game of Thrones: Ramsay Bolton and Joffrey Baratheon are but extreme examples of countless sadistic vignettes. Queen Cersei’s walk of shame in the fifth volume (and season) has stinking similarities with incidents in Sade’s work. Another, more recent literary antecedent is Mathô’s death gauntlet in Salammbo, a masterpiece penned by Gustave Flaubert, who was himself a passionate devotee of the divine marquis.
When he deals with Sade (which he did extensively), Lacan often insists on the fact that the victims of Sadian cruelty are invariably described as most beautiful, pathetic and moving. This is an indication of psychic automatism. In Game of Thrones; something similar happens: often, the objects of sadistic violence are the purest, the most innocent, the noblest, the bravest, the most honorable. Honor here is deadly. In fact, the monsters lurking in the North, beyond the Wall, are already at work in Westeros: sadists, parricides, practionners of incest or human sacrifices, uxoricides, you name it, Game of Thrones will have it. GRRM is intent on corrupting ideal imagos of mankind.
In clinical terms, sadism is coupled with masochism. The later is not absent from GRRM’s psychic configuration: when he kills heroes, “It was like murdering two of your children”, Martin remarked about the infamous Red Wedding.
Sade’s reception followed the moral and practical constraints of his time, his is a mostly clandestine work that, when it came on rare occasion to light, was almost immediately repudiated by the critics. By contrast, Game of Thrones is followed by millions of readers and viewers; the internet has given this public a means to voice their opinion, and GRRM, through his blog or website, sometimes engages his readers and most certainly is attuned to their reactions. I argue that his sadism finds his maximum extension with this vast audience. By systematically turning the table on his readers and exterminating not only vast numbers of commoners, but also cherished characters, G.R.R.M systematically destroys the imaginary identifications of his readers or viewers. This is what I would call extended sadism, not present in Sade, since Sade wanted first to enjoy himself and second, convince readers of the validity of his philosophical system.
A cursory look at Game of Thrones’ reception shows that the viewership or readership is in its immense majority devoted to analyzing the fictional characters, their motivations, their intents, their psychological mindset: in fact, interpretation is here entirely based on the love/hate of identifications and projections, which makes commentaries for the most part profoundly uninteresting. G.R.R. M, in his numerous interventions, never discusses such problems. Moreover, by systematically and sadically destroying identification, including his own, through the killing of his characters, he implicitly states that identification is not a valid means for interpreting his work.
The viewer-/readership is full of surprises, like this linguist who asked the author for a grammar and a lexicon of High Valyrian, a fictional language created by another linguist, which comprises a total of six words and two sentences so far. But there is more: in his interview with Rolling Stone, G.R.RM. quotes this amazing letter: “One letter I got was from a woman, a waitress. She wrote me: “I work hard all day, I’m divorced, I have a couple of children. My life is very hard, and my one pleasure is I come home and I read fantasy, and I escape to other worlds. Then I read your book, and God, it was fucking horrifying. I don’t read for this. This is a nightmare. Why would you do this to me?” That letter actually reached me. I wrote her back and basically said, “I’m sorry; I do understand where you’re coming from.”
Literature, for this reader and millions of others is an escape from everyday life, especially when we talk about a genre, fantasy, which is dedicated to escapism through identification G.R.R.M. has no patience with escapism; in his view, as far as his work is concerned, literature is not a solace, a consolation for the subjects besieged by whatever life throws at them: “People read books for different reasons. I respect that. Some read for comfort. And some of my former readers have said their life is hard, their mother is sick, their dog died, and they read fiction to escape. They don’t want to get hit in the mouth with something horrible. And you read that certain kind of fiction where the guy will always get the girl and the good guys win and it reaffirms to you that life is fair. We all want that at times. There’s a certain vicarious release to that. So I’m not dismissive of people who want that. But that’s not the kind of fiction I write, in most cases. It’s certainly not what Ice and Fire is. It tries to be more realistic about what life is. It has joy, but it also has pain and fear. I think the best fiction captures life in all its light and darkness.”
This is clearly a criticism of the boyscoutish fiction spawned by the followers and imitators of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, where the bad Sauron is in the end vanquished by the good guys. But, if literature is neither morally unambiguous nor offering the solace of escapism, what is its purpose? In Game of Thrones’ case, I propose that the work find its axis around two ethical questions of great import today: how far are we willing to go to insure our survival and the survival of the social group we belong to? What happens when our instinct for survival is checked by our desire to embrace those who want to destroy us?
The second question revolves around the transcendental Law, what Lacan would call around the Symbolic order. Game of Thrones demonstrates, with unerring historical accuracy I think, that if transcendental law is abolished, we very quickly regress to the law of the jungle. In that sense, the entire work may be a powerful warning about the extreme caution we should exercise when we are tempted to subvert the Symbolic order.
Of course, my interpretation is subject to revision, since the epic’s last two tomes are yet to be published, and since the last volume, A Dream of Spring, seems to announce some relief from the death drive through its title. After the long winter of utter cruelty, it may checkmate, provisionally, the infinite expansion of the death drive. Whatever will happen, though, the epic ride will have been magnificent.