Last week I went to watch a screening of Multiple Maniacs – it is a black comedy from the 1970 from John Waters, and members of his Dreamland acting troupe. This post is not a review of the film, but I do recommend it. The film, other than being funny, made me think of the philosophical implications of perversion.
The opening scene shows the Mr. David character attempting to force people to come in and see the Cavalcade of Perversion; this is a show that places perversion front and center. It includes performers burning each other with cigarettes, someone withdrawing from heroin and a ‘puke eater’. The audience watch on with horror and revulsion. What I enjoyed about this is the way in which the audience had to be cajoled into viewing the performances, but they ultimately do enter the tent, as despite what they see jarring their senses there is some part of them that does want to see more.
The Cavalcade of Perversion also serves as a vehicle for Mr. David and Lady Divine to rob and later murder their audience and sparks a crime/murder rampage. This criminality is fun, but is not the subject of this blog post.
The Cavalcade’s ‘puke eater’ can be attempted to be understood by reference to ‘immoral acts’. Multiple Maniacs, to my mind, is a film that is swiping at those moral conservatives who feel that what is morally wrong is that which results in the degradation of family values and the resulting decay of society’s values. I consider that reading Lord Devlin and Graham Priest brings out this idea.
They are also apt thinkers to have in mind when watch John Waters or Divine’s work as they are known for ‘sexual transgressions’ and Multiple Maniacs contains a lesbian affair and a gay kiss. Lord Devlin when writing about homosexuality he claims:
“We should ask ourselves in the first instance whether, looking at it calmly and dispassionately, we regard it as a vice so abominable that its mere presence is an offense. If that is the genuine feeling of the society in which we live, I do not see how society can be denied the right to eradicate it” (Devlin, 1959, p17)
We can see this thought process in the reaction from the audience in multiple maniacs. In addition to these Conservative views of same sex relationships, Graham Priest writes more widely about sexual perversion. This is a theme with in the Cavalcade of Perversion, but also throughout the film itself.
Priest begins by noting that the use of the word ‘perversion’ generates a strong sense that any person who behaves in a way that may be called ‘perverted’ has had there moral status damaged in someway (Priest, 1997, p360). In order to discover what a true perversion is Priests provides a list that he thinks will be agreed upon via general consensus, although he allows for slight variation
Heterosexual intercourse in the missionary position (straight sex). Heterosexual intercourse in other positions. Oral sex (cunnilingus, fellatio). Masturbation. Homosexuality. Group sex. Anal sex (buggery, sodomy), heterosexual or homosexual. Voyeurism. Exhibitionism. Frotteurism. Sexual sadism and/or masochism. Paedophilia. Fetishism. Transvestism. Zoophilia (bestiality). Urophilia. Necrophilia. Coprophilia.
Priest suggests that the most common view of what a perversions is unnatural acts (ibid), the first task then is to define what is meant by natural.
Michael Levin can be used to support the claim that what is perversion is that which is abnormal. Unlike Devlin he presents a more Aristotelian view, in that he holds that homosexuality is abnormal because it “is a misuse of bodily parts” (Levin, 233).
Levin is hesitant to accept this functional definition. Firstly because there is debate over what the function of sex is, secondly there is not a clear link between something deviating from its function and to it being immoral. Priest provides the example of someone walking on their hands rather then their feet – this type of case shows where someone is not using the correct function of the feet, but it does not seem to that we are correct in calling that person immoral (Priest, 1997, p364). In order to show that it might be immoral we have to base the argument in Aristotelian ideas of ‘telos’. The view incorporates that there is an end sate for everything and to violate this goal is immoral. Thus, what it means to be virtuous is for that thing to preform its proper function. The problem with this account of perversion and normal/abnormal is that the Aristotelian approach is one that is no longer relied upon, since the advent of scientific developments (ibid). For Priest we no longer base morality on ‘natural ends’.
Ultimately, I think that The Cavalcade of Perversion highlights the conservative view that what is perverted is that which deviates from the ‘norm’ and this is a view that runs through these thinkers. The way that Multiple Maniacs tries to deal with this is make a clear visual joke about by having those who are different from the majority as ‘freaks’ or circus performers.