Commentary Magazine


Freaks, by Leslie Fiedler

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Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self.
by Leslie Fiedler.
Simon & Schuster. 367 pp. $12.95.

There has always been something ambiguous in the brilliance of Leslie Fiedler. His notorious essay of 1948, “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!,” still leaves readers uncertain as to whether or not Fiedler was claiming a homosexual relationship between Huckleberry Finn and the black slave, Jim. And in his prophetic essay of 1965, “The New Mutants,” Fiedler was unclear as to whether or not he approved of the androgynous, countercultural styles he was there describing. Now, in Freaks, which amounts to a study of the 70’s, a new kind of ambiguity appears.

In 1971, Fiedler wrote that he had been “reborn for the second time in my life some five or six years ago.” He did not specify the event, but he indicated that it led him to resolve no longer to “condescend to popular literature.” Whereas he had long treated science fiction, detective fiction, and comic books as “the humbler levels of Pop Culture—where radical transformations in literature are reflected in simplified form”—now he would presumably elevate pop forms to the high place previously occupied by art. In Freaks he goes further still, dismissing a movie by Fellini, which he might once have treated as popular culture, because “it is finally art rather than myth . . . and it belongs, therefore, to the critics rather than the kids.” As a result of this new aesthetic, the ambiguity in early Fiedler that resulted from his suppressed allegiance to low culture has been replaced by an ambiguity arising from his residual ties to high culture.

This new ambiguity appears to have kept a number of critics from perceiving the revolutionary intentions of Freaks. The book’s academic style and systematic organization, it is true, suggest a quasi-scientific survey of human anomalies. Or else, as it proceeds along its exhaustive way defining and describing dwarfs, giants, Siamese twins, hermaphrodites, and others, it calls to mind popular compendia like Ripley’s or the recent Simon’s Book of World Sexual Records, which it more resembles. Fiedler himself raises the question of whether he is not exploiting the objects of his richly, often scarifyingly illustrated account, and he confesses himself sometimes unable to raise his subject above the vulgar journalistic level. Nevertheless, in two short concluding chapters, “Freaking Out” and “The Myth of the Mutant and the Image of the Freak,” Fiedler does succeed in conveying his radical intentions.

The cultural revolution of the 60’s succeeded, Fiedler believes, in imposing the tastes of the “dissident young” on “the whole Western world.” The 70’s have witnessed a further departure in sensibility, represented by “freaking out.” Where the dissident young used to sympathize with outcasts such as blacks and Indians, identified in Fiedler’s early essays as representatives of the “other,” now young people have turned to the ultimate outcasts of society, its physical freaks, as representatives of the “secret self.” This new self is at once hermaphroditic and anthropophagous—a mutation of the new mutants, one might say. The rock stars who enact cannibalistic orgies while expressing transvestite or ambiguous sexual identities are evoking the geeks and half-man-half-woman displays of the circus side show and the carnival.

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Do these expressions of the “secret self” presage a new cultural revolution on the model of the 60’s? Fiedler does not quite say. He suggests that the popularity of freaks in the 19th century prefigured Marx and Engels’s “revolutionary terror below the surface of Victorian optimism,” but he does not go so far as to predict another revolution, either political or cultural, or to reveal how he would feel if one took place. Instead, he characteristically places himself in an ambiguous relationship to the phenomena he is describing: approving where they shock others, but silent on their ultimate tendencies.

His historical and medical survey of freaks, however, can be seen as a contribution to the newest phase in the progress of the dissident sensibility. For with it he has challenged the normal view of life at what he considers, with justification, its profoundest level. The freaks whom he has examined purportedly call into question the ordinary definitions of animal and human, male and female, self and other; they thereby threaten “those desperately maintained boundaries on which any definition of sanity ultimately depends.” By the end of his survey, Fiedler has argued that hermaphrodites undermine the concept of “normal” love between men and women, and that “there are not two physiological sexes but many, a continuum rather than a bipolarity.” Furthermore, Siamese twins and the existence of parasites growing in human bodies—limbs, partially formed bodies, even heads—make us “no longer sure that one body equals one self, and one self one body.”

Here as elsewhere in Fiedler, the key to art, culture, and society is youth. For it is the adolescent mind, already struggling with the problem of identity, that is most likely to be shaken when confronted with physical anomaly. Where other critics have passed on to the crises of midlife, the rights of old age, and the dignity of dying, Fiedler has stuck to his preoccupation with the young. He now stands forth to champion their access to the frissons of the carnival and to the once forbidden excitement of pornographic comics. One would have thought that enough forms of censorship had been defeated by now to satisfy the most demanding permissivist, but Fiedler finds that we suffer from “a time of growing repression,” in which society has outlawed “splendidly drawn” horror comics to the lonely protest of “a few valiant critics.”

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Yet Fiedler never quite proclaims himself a revolutionary by virtue of his permissive stand, even though clearly the putative struggle between society and the purveyors of violence and pornography has political implications in his mind. (He remarks that a few years ago “it seemed almost as ‘subversive’ to say a good word for horror comics . . . as to defend the Hollywood Ten.”) Instead, in what may be a return of his repressed sensibility of high seriousness, he argues Bruno Bettelheim’s thesis that fantasies of violence benefit children by releasing their secret terrors. Similarly, “the alien, the other, with whom we seek to unite in love is preeminently represented by the Freak; and those societies, therefore, which have tried to socialize that eros may be healthier than those which treat monsters as erotic contraband.”

Freaks, then, treats the abnormal both as a subversive threat and as an opportunity for society to heal itself. As he was once ambiguous about the aesthetic value of popular art, Fiedler is here ambiguous about the social consequences of the horrific. Yet despite this new ambiguousness, or more likely because of it, Fiedler has once again managed to immerse himself in the latest excesses of the culture. In the process, he has brought back a report on the final, sometimes violent, transformations of the 60’s sensibility. It may not be true, as he claims, that “we have all become a little freakified,” but in his own way he makes it clear that we have not yet returned to normal either.

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