Like most of America, I’m currently making my way through George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. I got hooked by watching the first season of “Game of Thrones,” the HBO television adaptation, then read the second novel, and then—because I wanted to have some hours left in the day to eat and sleep—switched from the novels to the audiobooks, read impressively by Roy Dotrice (even if too many of his characters sound like pirates). So lately, when I go running or do the dishes, I’m often in Westeros.
Matthew Continetti, writing a while ago in the Claremont Review of Books, suggested that part of the series’ popularity stems from its exploration of politics.
Quite unexpectedly, Martin has emerged as the Machiavelli of the modern novel. The grit, blood, and passion in his books show human beings as they truly are, as opposed to the idealizations one finds in chivalric romances. A dispassionate analyst of the cruelty of princes, he reveals the unstable ground of absolutist rule. He is exploring, through his characters and situations, whether enlightened despotism is possible in a broken world. This isn’t fantasy; it’s a crash course in political realism.
Indeed, the portrait of political behavior Martin offers is not only “opposed to the idealizations one finds in chivalric romances” but also to the idealizations one finds in contemporary liberal notions of foreign relations playing out today in the Obama administration. No wonder readers find these books so compelling: they deal with ideas that have been banished from much liberal discourse today because of bienpensant idealism.
But this isn’t the only contemporary liberal taboo broken by the novels. The books’ most daring subversion of political correctness is not their portrayal of political behavior but of sexual behavior. The male and female characters alike use their sexuality, act on their desires, and openly accept the reality and power of sex in a manner that contravenes the dictates of enlightened feminism that have held sway in liberal institutions since the 1980s. This is at times accompanied by disturbing and violent content (rape, slavery, torture) reflecting its medieval setting, but this shouldn’t obscure the more important point that Martin also paints human sexual desire with a far broader and more honest palette than the wan, bland colors allowed in contemporary educated circles.
This dimension of the books inevitably gets lost in the HBO television version, turned into mere soft-porn and the gratuitous nudity that has been lampooned on Saturday Night Live and South Park. But it is there in the novels: sex as power, sex as raw desire, sex as negotiation, sex as aggression and submission. And I suspect that it is as much a part of the series’ popularity as the political machinations and courtly melodrama.
When truths and aspects of reality, no matter how uncomfortable to some they may be, get banned from polite discourse, they do not disappear. They just come out in other venues. I recently watched the astonishing documentary “Stalagim,” about the outrageously prurient Nazi S&M pulp novels that were sold and read all over Israel in the 1950s. It’s hard to believe that this stuff existed at all, let alone that it was as ubiquitous as it was. But the Holocaust needed to be dealt with, and when this wasn’t done sufficiently in high cultural channels, it found its way out through low ones.
Similarly, feminism and political correctness have impoverished and constricted the discussion and imagination of sex, of desire, even of reproduction—at least in “proper” cultural channels. Gender differences, for instance, and aspects of sexual desire that overflow the safe banks of gentle mutuality must be made invisible or criminal. But it doesn’t disappear. Instead, what has been rendered taboo comes out in less respectable and less elite channels, in this case fantasy literature, but also in pornography and erotica, in Fifty Shades and in PUA tell-alls, and in television and popular music. Just like the old Victorianism, the new one depends on its underground—though in our day the underground is often in plain sight.