where the writers are
An Erotic Ontology

I’ve been having some very stimulating back and forth discussions with an extremely erudite web-acquaintance of mine. What makes these discussions so good is that they nudge me into the analytical process in a way, which, left to my own devices, I might not get around to.

The essay which I linked to below, Martin Blythe’s essay on Anais Nin, ponders the question of whether in fact she did have an incestuous relationship with her father, or whether it was an act only played out in the pages of fiction. But, on a genre level, it also does an excellent job of surveying the evolution of literature that contains explicit sexual content which, has as part of its purpose to arouse the reader.

The definition of erotica has for years been fraught with problems. Most people would, I think, feel comfortable in classifying the works of Anais Nin as erotica. Many would differentiate it from pornography because, although it contains sexual content that is designed to arouse (just as pornography does), its focus is not delight in the anatomy or the act in isolation, but rather on a kind of ontology of sexuality.

Erotica looks at what drives characters towards sex, and what its outcomes are also. It sees sex as both cause and symptom, sign and signifier.

Very little pornography bothers to examine why the participants choose to have sex, other than to state that they are horny. But why are we horny? Science would insist that it is all a matter of hormones and the drive to reproduce. This reductive approach is probably why I find both pornography and scientific examinations of sex so equally simplistic and, ironically, sterile.

But human experience tells us that the motives for why we want to have sex, and who we want to have sex with, and how we want to indulge in the act, is far, far more complex. In fact, the times we want sex just because we feel that physical itch, are few. And often what we perceive as a simple itch, has, lurking beneath the surface a myriad of seemingly unrelated motivating factors.

Sex is, yes, the satisfying of a basic physical urge, but it can be, and often is, a desire for validation, an escape from physical or mental pain, an act of self-realization, an act of revenge, of sacrifice, of territoriality, of worship… we have sex for so many reasons that to explain the motivation as simply “because we’re horny” is, in my mind, facile in the extreme. And it robs us of a deeper explanation, a more enriching act of self-examination.

So, how does this relate to erotica and the history of the genre?

Some of the earliest tracts of erotica are from Ancient Greece. There are discussions on the relative merits of pederasty vs the love of women, examinations on the causes of erotic love, and on the virtues that erotic love engenders. The Greeks felt strongly that the desire to fuck represented far more than just our animal drives, but spoke to the intellectual workings of our natures.(See Plato’s Symposium, the dialogues between Lycinus and Theomnestus, and the poetry of Sappho.)

The Roman poets Ovid and Catallus are also worth mentioning. Ovid's Elegy: His delight at having Obtained Corinna's Favours doesn't only describe their sexual encounters, but also gives us an insight into what was driving the characters to risk social condemnation. Corinna, it seems, took as much pleasure in reducing her husband to the status of a cuckhold as she did in her lover’s attentions. In fact, one might be left to wonder if her arousal was brought about by her lovers attentions, or, more powerfully by the delight she was taking robbing her husband of what his exclusive legal right. Again, to me, this marks a difference in the framing of the act of sex from one of simple physical satisfaction - which pornography portrays - and the complexities of the human heart which constructs a more labyrinthine architecture for sexual desire.

While Nefzaoui's Perfumed Garden is a manual that lists positions, and techniques, I don't count it as erotica. It doesn't address underlying motivations for pursuing the act of sex, only the ways in which it might be effected. In the same way, I feel that although works such as Edmund Curll's A Treatise on the Use of Flogging in Venereal Affairs might be arousing to some readers, they are descriptive and proscriptive rather than analytical and, as such, don't really belong under the heading of erotica.

Both Boccaccio's Decameron and Marguerite de Navarre's Heptameron are not terribly explicit, but I would classify some of the tales as erotica because they hint at motivations and drives beyond the purely sexual. Like the tale of the priest who tries to persuade a young confessor to tie the priest's knotted belt around her naked waist as an act of penance. This is not merely about rutting. Desire has found more symbolic and creative ways of stimulating the imagination of the reader. It gives us both an insight into the mind of the priest, and the confessor who refuses him.

Although not really my cup of tea, I count much of de Sade's work as erotica because, although it has the repetitive and unreflexive ring of pornography, and the characters certainly do take delight in the simple act of sexual congress, there is a co-narrative that consistently represents these acts as transgressive of religious rules, class barriers and a delight in the debasement of power. Many might say that de Sade's work has, in fact, very little to do with sex and a great deal more to do with politics, but it is pretty hard to ignore the gallons of bodily fluids that erupt off the pages. There is simply too much fixation on sexual transgression for it to be metaphorical. Wikipedia has a bibliography of his works, and some of them are online. See what you think.

Approaching the Victorians, I think that Michel Foucault was right in designating this era as the birth of pornography. With the rise in popularity for all things scientific, the Victorians were describers, catalogers and archivists. A quick survey of such works as My Secret Life: The Sex Diary of a Victorian Gentleman, and the infamous illicit periodical The Pearl: A Magazine of Facetiae and Voluptuous Reading present the reader with successive descriptions of the sexual act but seldom any discussion of the origins of the arousal or reflections on how these acts served to constitute the characters. They read more like lists than narratives, and in this, I believe that modern pornography has taken very much the same structural approach.

What sets many of the late 19th Century and earlier 20th Century erotica writers apart from their Victorian forbearers, and brings them closer to the earlier works of the Greeks and Renaissance writers, is the desire to eroticize motive, context and character and life itself. Not only the acts themselves, but what drives the characters to them, and what remains with them afterwards. I believe that this can be, in some part, explained by the rise of Freudian psychoanalysis. This gave the world a great appetite to peel away the skin and examine what lies beneath the surface of the persona. Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, D.H. Lawrence, and Anais Nin, among others, used sex as the can-opener. I don't mean to infer that erotic love doesn't play a central role in their writings. It does, but like the Greeks, it is used as a frame through which to examine the qualities of the man, or, in modernity, the woman.

Some of the works that are most markedly 'erotica' are those that examine sexualities that reside beyond cultural norms. In Chinese and Renaissance erotic writings it is religious figures and institutions that feature as the characters and settings for the erotic acts. Acts of sexual violence as in de Sade's works and the incestuous encounters of the Heptameron focus on the forbidden. Just as with modern works like Venus in Furs and Nin's The House of Incest, it is the taboo and the unexplainable that are explored. And this is because, I think, it allows both the writer and the reader to ask 'why'. Why the risk, why the transgression? What must follow is, in at least the readers mind, a musing on the constituent aspects of the environment, the situation or the personality.

There is no such question to be asked of 'naughty schoolboys' or 'randy milkmaids'. They're doing what comes naturally and their behaviour and desires require no analysis or explanation.

This is why, for me, a great deal of what is filed under the 'erotica' genre today is essentially pornography. They are narratives of everyday, normal people "getting it on." It's not as if we can really as "why" the co-ed is doing the pizza boy, or why the sexually unsatisfied housewife has decided to go at it with both the Fed-ex guy and the mailman at the same time. There is no psychology to be explored here - no need to analyze how the environment has effected these encounters.

In my opinion, erotica differs from pornography because, when it is good, it places the reader in a state of arousal and then makes them ask why. The answers that come from asking those questions in a state of arousal, engender personal answers that paint a much larger part of our lives with the erotic. They create, in essence, an erotic ontology.