Wednesday, April 13, 2016

On Oedipus, Wagner and GSA

As Washington is getting ready for its first-ever full cycle of Wagner's Ring tetralogy, the British news media are aflood with a story of incestuous love between a mother and a son, reunited after years of separation. The son who was put up for adoption more than 30 years ago, found the mother during his search for biological parents and when he found her, the two fell madly in love. Now the couple is planning to get married and try for a child. They say their relationship is not incest, but a case of GSA, or "genetic sexual attraction."

I have noticed the story from London's Daily Mail on Facebook because of the avalanche of disgust, revulsion and disbelief it has unleashed among Croatians. In the article, the British daily also includes an interview with an Australian father and daughter, both adults, who live as a couple and claim to be happy and enjoying great sex.
The reaction to the story must have been similar elsewhere.  Britain's Independent soon published more on the topic under the headline Gran and grandson, brother and sister, father and daughter - the weird world of Genetic Sexual Attraction.  The phenomenon reportedly afflicts family members who have long been separated.

Stories of incest under any name have always fascinated the world, in the way horror stories do.  The couples inspire hatred or pity, depending on whether they have entered the "sinful" liaison willingly or inadvertently.  Take for example Oedipus, the mythological king of Thebes from the ancient Greek drama that gave us the term Oedipus Complex. The tragic hero kills his father and marries his mother, but is as horrified as everyone else when he finds out what he has done. So he blinds himself and leaves Thebes for exile until he is somewhat rehabilitated in the second installment of the Sophocles's trilogy. But his burial place has to remain secret so as not to cause bad luck.

Siegfried, the central hero in Wagner's Nibelung Ring, is the son of twins Siegmund and Sieglinde who were separated as children and reunited after Sieglinde was already married to Hunding. Although the siblings' father, Valhalla's chief god Wotan, condones their sexual relationship because he expects them to beget a perfect hero needed to save the gods, he is forced to punish his out-of-wedlock children at the request of his legitimate wife Fricka. But Siegfried, the fruit of their incestuous union, himself falls in love and marries a long-lost aunt, Bruenhilde. Naturally, there is no happy end there either.
Wagner, The Valkyrie, Act I finale:  Twins Siegmund and Sieglinde fall in love - photo Cory Weaver for SFO
The Sophocles drama as well as Wagner's Ring are entrenched in their status as the world's immortal classics. They serve to remind that "unnatural" sexual relationships can only end in tragedy.

In real life, it is a little different. In ancient Egypt, it was not uncommon for brothers and sisters to marry if it was in their interest. Cleopatra was first married to one of her brothers before replacing him with Roman conqueror Julius Caesar in a union that gave her more power. Until quite recently, it was perfectly acceptable for cousins in some European countries to marry.  Queen Victoria was thus related to her beloved consort Albert.  

Sexual relationships and marriages between close relatives have been shunned mostly because of the possibility of inbreeding. One of my most beloved fictional characters, Ursula Iguarian from Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, feared one of her children would be born with the tail of a pig because she was married to a cousin.

The stigma attached to sex between close relatives compels those involved to keep it tightly under wraps, giving the impression that it occurs very seldom and only among mentally disturbed people. If a couple is discovered, the older, and presumably more experienced participant is accused of abuse. The younger is advised to seek counseling in order to avoid lifelong psychological consequences.

But sexual relationships between family members are not as uncommon as we would like to believe, and often are consensual.  They are not always a result of lengthy separation either.  Many daughters fall in love with their fathers and want sex with them, at least for a while, and sons also fall in love with their mothers.  In most cases, the attraction is suppressed and eventually outgrown, but not always.  Louis Malle's movie Murmur of the Heart deals with a mother-son relationship, which culminates in an unplanned sex encounter.  The next morning she tells him "I don't want you to be unhappy, or ashamed, or sorry. We'll remember it as a very beautiful and solemn moment that will never happen again..." The experience seems to have liberated the socially awkward boy and prepared him for a more conventional relationship. Though uncomfortable to watch, the movie showed normal people in somewhat extraordinary, but still realistic situations.

In the news media, however, such stories reek of sensationalism and are intended to shock, horrify, repulse and fascinate at the same time. They suggest aberration and depravity - something that does not happen to normal people. When it does, it has to remain a dirty little secret. One person recently revealed in a chat forum that she had been involved in a sexual relationship with her brother for several years before both of them grew out of it and married other people.

"I mostly feel guilt because people say I should," she wrote. "I thought it was pretty great at the time, but it's hard to talk about it without people smashing the stigma in your face. Overall, I don't think it's that big of a deal, really. It was great at the time, nowadays I don't think much about it."

So, if there is lifelong trauma from having consensual sex with a close family member, it seems to stem from the social condemnation rather than from the relationship itself. 

People tend to express disgust for behavior veering away from proscribed social norms, and they like to make it illegal and punishable.  Same-sex marriage was all but unthinkable until recently, and not so long ago, gay and lesbian sex was widely considered to be unnatural. Even heterosexual sex between unmarried couples is still punishable by death in many traditional societies.  In the United States and other western countries, there is a growing movement toward tolerance of diversity in the area of gender and relationships, but now that the same-sex marriage is widely accepted, there seems to be a search for new monsters in the closet.

Meanwhile, the tickets for Washington's first complete Ring cycle are all but sold out. When Wagner's masterpiece starts to weave its magic in the Kennedy Center Opera House, few patrons will stop to think whether Siegfried and Bruenhilde are committing incest or just suffering from GSA.