Human Rights

John Robin Sharpe, a giant of literature? Say again!

By MARGARET WENTE

Globe and Mail: Thursday, March 28, 2002 – Page A17

Are you curious about the literary merits of the oeuvre of John Robin Sharpe, Canada's most famous child pornographer? Me, too.

So I looked up what the experts had to say.

As every lawyer knows, you can find an expert witness to argue any side of any case, however weird. Mr. Sharpe dug up a couple of professors from the cutting edge of post-structuralist, post-colonial, postmodern literary theory. They mounted quite a rousing defence.

James Miller, an English professor at the University of Western Ontario, testified that Mr. Sharpe is a lot like Dante. Both wrote "transgressive literature," which "breaks the taboos and celebrates, in a ritual way, alternative visions of culture." Prof. Miller, whose résumé includes such scholarly articles as "A Queer Reading of Dante," maintained that Kiddiekink Classics is the direct literary descendant of The Inferno. After all, Dante wrote sadistic scenes of flogging, burning and mutilation -- just like Mr. Sharpe!

What is the literary function of repellent images? "I find myself asking the same question, again and again, while reading Mr. Sharpe's work," Prof. Miller told the judge. "I would argue that Mr. Sharpe reveals the seismic ironies in the new world order associated with globalization."

I'm not kidding. You can look it up.

Frankly, I'm not sure who poses a greater menace to society -- Mr. Sharpe, who has parlayed our social panic over child pornography into way, way more than his allotted 15 minutes, or Prof. Miller, who makes a living filling students' brains with this rubbish.

The judge was determined not to make Mr. Sharpe a martyr for a thought crime. After all, no children were harmed in the making of his dirty stories, and simply writing something down shouldn't be illegal. His verdict was just. But his rationale was ridiculous. You can be highly confident that Mr. Sharpe has not for one moment contemplated the seismic ironies of globalization, and also that his entire output is pure smut.

The tortured history of our child-porn law is full of muddle and confusion. The Tories drafted a bad law in a hurry back in 1993, in hopes that we would vote for them again. (We didn't.) The law made everything illegal, including things such as home videos that a teenager might take of himself. When Mr. Sharpe mounted his crusade to test the law, he won. This was widely deplored as a victory for perverts, instead of a penalty for sloppy legal writing.

Last year, the Supreme Court upheld the law, but allowed exceptions for "private works of the imagination" and works of artistic merit (always a very slippery proposition). On the first of these grounds, Mr. Sharpe's dirty stories (unlike his large collection of dirty photos) are clearly off the hook. But he chose not to argue the first of those grounds. Instead, he set out to argue that he's not just another dirty old man. He's a persecuted artist, in the great tradition of D. H. Lawrence and the Marquis de Sade.

Unfortunately, the judge didn't really have much choice. When the Supreme Court rewrote the law, it set the bar for "artistic merit" deliberately low. They should have skipped it altogether. Instead, they've created two classes of dirty old men, ones who can find English professors and ones who can't.

Will any real-world damage be done to children by the triumph of this bizarre defence? I don't think so. Pornography that involves actual children should obviously be stamped out, and this verdict doesn't change that. But fiction that involves imaginary children is another matter. If there were proof that twisted fiction leads to twisted deeds, then we should be worried. So far, that proof does not exist. And if twisted thoughts alone are crimes, we all should be locked up.

Mr. Sharpe appears to have enjoyed his many days in court (four cases so far, and God only knows if it's over yet). And it's a pity he got handed his squalid moral triumph.

The worst part is that it might inspire a dreary parade of would-be pornographic littérateurs, each trailed by a retinue of gushing English professors from our great universities.

Lorraine Weir, a professor at the University of British Columbia, also took the stand for Mr. Sharpe. She analyzed Mr. Sharpe's work using such concepts as semiotics, intertextuality and hermeneutics, and on the whole made me very thankful that I had dropped out of graduate school. When asked to comment on a line from one of his short stories, featuring a boy and some dildos, she said, "It's a beautiful sentence. The plot is the least interesting part of that sentence." Jacques Derrida could not have said it better.

Not to be outdone, Prof. Miller argued that Mr. Sharpe's work has important parallels with the Oscar-winning Gladiator. "Here, essentially the same test of stoic fortitude in a brutal arena of masculinity has been displaced to a Mexican arena," he said of a 12-page masterpiece titled Tijuana Whip Fight. "But the narrative of such gladiatorial displays is the same."

Parents, guard your children well. There are lunatics out there.
mwente@globeandmail.ca