[Milton-L] Re: porno vs. art?

pluscachange at comcast.net pluscachange at comcast.net
Tue Nov 29 20:06:22 EST 2005

Dear Miltonists,
Speaking of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, you all might like to take a look at the NY Times review of a new film, "The Libertine," starring Johnny Depp as the Earl spiraling downward. The title is "Glamorizing the Progress of a Notorious Rake."
While I am loth to get into any discussion of pornography, legally defined or not, filtered or let thru (Comcast was of the latter persuasion), I would say only that I enjoyed the reprinted poem. Not because I'm a voyeur (you've seen one butt, you've seen 'em all) or have my mind in the gutter so that everything perpendicular to the ground is dubbed a phallic symbol and every indentation a fornix, but because it was honest and forthright. There is no doubt of either Wilmot's preoccupation with coition for coition's sake, or of his witty, half-sardonic, half-earnest take on the procedure. It is difficult to describe the sex act without being either clinical or prurient; Wilmot succeeds. D.H. Lawrence succeeds. Very few contemporary popular novelists do (they or their editors seem to say, 'let me.see, 50 pages have gone by, time for another sex scene; let's use Stock #35c this time, that'll titillate the groundlings enough to keep'em reading").
Milton fails. He is not a pornographer; for PL it is not about sex for sex' sake. He is, however, at pains to put sexuality in its place within the whole of human experience, as one very important issue that people must deal with, and as one of the levers of manipulation that here-eavesdropping Satan can use on Eve when he crawls all over her in Book IX. Hence the beautiful dance of Bk IV, and also the interjection of judgment against the judgors: "Whatever Hypocrits austerely talk/ Of puritie and place and innocence,/ Defaming as impure what God declares/ Pure, and commands to som, leaves free to all. . . . "Haile wedded Love, mysterious Law, true sourse/ Of human ofspring, sole proprietie/ In Paradise of all things common else." (ll. 745f.). 
If you'll forgive a reminiscence, I think of a friend of my mother's, a sophisticated woman of high moral standards and common sense, who remarked once "I can stand anything, as long as it's told with wit." She might have thought Wilmot a bit much, but she would have approved of Bk IV. I remember also that she gave me some pointed good advice that my mom was unable to do, and I've always been grateful that she took the trouble. 
In PL, the "first disobedience" seems to me to be always the over-arching issue. The debasing of sexuality, then, is only one of the consequences. Book X makes it clear that the disobedience, the knowing of good AND evil, results in the dramatic undoing of their trust in each other. When that tanks, everything else does too. Poor Wilmot, he apparently never had a true Book IV experience!
Nancy Charlton
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