So I’m at work the other day singing along to David Bowie in my cubicle (like you do), and I hear the following lines:
Well she’s a total blam-blam
She said she had to squeeze it but she—
And then she—
And I think to myself, that skipped beat at the end of each line is so much more salacious than anything Bowie could have actually said.
This is an instance of an oft-repeated point: what you can’t see is often far sexier, more horrifying, or more inspiring than what you can see. This is easy to forget. There’s a reason why many modern horror films are referred to as “torture porn” — just as porn reduces eroticism to a numbing, empty series of copulations and money shots, horror that shows us everything is merely desensitizing, destroying the very terror it is supposed to provoke.
A competent writer or director, on the other hand, knows just how much he should show before cutting away.
Consider the shower scene from Psycho. A modern director might have given us a much less coy scene, with full frontal nudity and plenty of close-ups of the knife going in and blood gushing out. Hitchcock knew better. His scene gives us hints of Janet Leigh’s naked body, but not the whole thing. We see the killer’s face, but only obscured by a curtain or hidden in shadow. We see a knife, and we see blood, but the fact of knife piercing flesh is left to implication.
I’ve heard it said that Hitchcock was forced to do this by the censorial codes of the day, and indeed the scene skirted the edge of scandal in its time. But Hitchcock was still a better artist than that. Even if offered today’s license for vulgar exhibitionism, he would know better than to indulge.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, consider this book of “lost” sex scenes from Jane Austen. Granted, the book is a joke. Still, it seems to entirely miss the point of Austen’s dialogues, which are so wonderful precisely because so much is left to inference and implication. The pornographic impulse is completely missing from Austen’s work, as Austen knew that the most romantic scene, indeed the most erotic scene, is one in which the romance and the eros are present only in the blank spaces around the actual words. It says nothing good about us that someone thought that Austen could be “improved” by adding some sex scenes.
(The one bright spot in all this is that this book has plenty of one star reviews.)
What does this have to do with me? Well, I complained a few days ago about not having the appropriate vocabulary to directly describe a childbirth scene, and having to resort to circumlocution and euphemism. I have started to reconsider my position on this. It is possible that these scenes may be made more affecting by avoiding direct description, and leaving the gory and intimate details to the reader’s imagination.
Something to consider when I start to revise.