[Milton-L] "erotic" versus

richard strier rastrier at uchicago.edu
Thu Jul 21 12:53:07 EDT 2011

Let me try to respond to some of James Rovira's thoughtful remarks.  I will 
specify the ones to which I have a response.

"Do you really think it's impossible to have an aesthetic experience of an artwork 
involving a nude without it being sexual?"

I guess I think that a response to any depiction, verbal or visual, of gorgeous 
nude/naked persons might well have a sexual component (of course, I am not 
legislating that there be one).  My point is not that arousal is all that a response 
to such a depiction might contain; my point is that it does not count in any way 
against the representation  -- or the reader/viewer thereof -- if sexual arousal 
is part of the response.  

Seems foolish to think that one could not, does not, respond to such material 
on many levels, if the material is such that it invites such complexity of 
response.  (If it does not, I am still against labeling it "pornography," which 
seems to me primarily a legal category that serves to justify censorship -- and I 
am against censorship of any representation).  

I think that this previous sentence may answer the Mapplethorpe challenge, 
though I'm not exactly sure what is supposed to be involved there.  Would I 
censor Mapplethorpe's photos, as has so often been done, no.  Do I think that 
his photos are often erotic, yes.  Do I think they encourage or lead to assaults on 
children, no-- but that is a complex and empirical matter, and the studies that 
purport to show a causal connection between "pornography" and sexual assault 
seem to me to be quite dubious.  

"If Eve's nudity was necessarily and at all times sexual then Milton's Adam would 
be walking around all day with an erection" -- I am not sure whether this is 
meant to be a serious point or not.  I guess it's supposed to be a reductio of my 
view.  But of course one can be aware of the erotic power of one's partner, 
constantly, without physically responding to it all the time -- sometimes, deo 
volente, one is physically satisfied -- and, of course, one can think of one's 
yummy partner in many different ways, and enjoy different aspects of him or 

"I don't think Milton was limited to a view of sex in which human beings were 
guided by uncontrollable responses" -- hard to disagree with this.  

Even if one grants the fact that so troubled St. Augustine -- that erections are 
not matters of will (forget Shakespeare's punning sonnets, for a moment) -- 
that does not mean that one needs to act on such involuntary responses -- 
many other considerations can and should come into play -- but nor does it 
mean, contra Augustine, that one needs to agonize about them.  

I guess that's it for now.  Thanks, again, for the thoughtful remarks.

---- Original message ----
>Date: Wed, 20 Jul 2011 19:43:22 -0400
>From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu (on behalf of James Rovira 
<jamesrovira at gmail.com>)
>Subject: Re: [Milton-L] "erotic" versus  
>To: John Milton Discussion List <milton-l at lists.richmond.edu>
>Do you really think it's impossible to have an aesthetic experience of
>an artwork involving a nude without it being sexual?   Seriously, what
>you seem to be advocating sounds like a response mocked by old SNL
>skit with Dan Ackroyd.
>I could be misunderstanding you, but you seem to be insisting that all
>nudity in art necessarily provokes a sexual response in its viewers.
>You also seem to be denying that there is any possible response to
>nudity but a sexual one.  Because of those assertions, you don't
>distinguish between art and pornography or between the erotic and
>You might want to consider the ramifications of those identifications
>upon our understanding of the art of, say, Robert Mapplethorpe.  Was
>Mapplethorpe a child pornographer?
>Harold Skulsky's declaration of your "correctness" seems therefore out
>of place, because if Eve's nudity was necessarily and at all times
>sexual then Milton's Adam would be walking around all day with an
>erection and would hardly need to be teased into excitement.  It seems
>to make more sense to say that Eve's nudity took on different meanings
>at different times -- unnoticed at some times (say when Adam was
>talking to Raphael), aesthetically beautiful at others, sexually
>desirable at still other times.  The point is not to exclude the
>sexual but to keep from making the sexual out to be the only thing:
>Two of far nobler shape erect and tall,
>Godlike erect, with native Honour clad
>In naked Majestie seemd Lords of all,
>And worthie seemd, for in thir looks Divine
>The image of thir glorious Maker shon,
>Milton's description of Adam and Eve's "naked Majestie" leads him to
>contemplate their relationship to "truth, wisdome, Sanctitude severe
>and pure."
>So passd they naked on, nor shund the sight
>Of God or Angel, for they thought no ill:
>So hand in hand they passd, the lovliest pair
>That ever since in loves imbraces met,
>Adam the goodliest man of men since borne
>His Sons, the fairest of her Daughters Eve.
>Truth, wisdome, Sanctitude severe and pure,
>The point to Milton about Adam and Eve's nudity is that they "thought
>no ill" -- it is the perspective of the viewer, not the nude state
>itself, that matters.  He is hardly limited to the sexual in his
>consideration of Adam and Eve's nudity.  Milton, in his fallen state,
>could consider these possibilities, and by suggesting them encourage
>us to as well.
>Brendan's post was very good, but I would disagree that unfallen sex
>is aware that it is being watched (unless I misread him or there was a
>typo).  The participants in unfallen sex, being unselfaware, would
>probably be caught up in their awareness of their partner and would
>somehow, if possible, forget themselves even more.
>What I am suggesting, therefore, is not for a neat separation of the
>sexual and aesthetic but for distinguishing between art and
>pornography by the possible -range of responses- provided by art,
>which is wider than that provided by pornography.  Most pornography
>does not rise above the sexual, and the sexual in pornography usually
>does not proceed from intimacy, just physical desire -- and most of
>the time even that seems to be lacking.  There are borderline cases,
>of course, but they are relatively few, and only an artist is capable
>of producing a borderline case, not a pornographer.  Artistic or
>aesthetic responses can include the sexual but are not limited to it.
>Your appeal to Titian is a very good one, I think.  Yes, the image
>depicted is sexual.  But that image alone would hardly make for good
>porn.  First her handmaid would have to join in the picture and then
>the plumber and the mailman would have to show up.
>I'm currently doing some reading in late 17thC, early 18thC Pietist
>writers and I am impressed with the range of opinion toward sexual
>intercourse.  The key debate here seems to be the morality of sexual
>intercourse during pregnancy.  Pietists such as Spener argued for the
>morality of sexual intercourse during pregnancy because he did not
>believe that intercourse was only for procreation.  The pleasures of
>sex were ordained by God as well as the emotional bond created between
>the couple, both of which remain even when procreation is impossible.
>I don't think Milton was limited to a view of sex in which human
>beings were guided by uncontrollable responses -- it's more that we
>need to exercise additional self control because we are capable of
>uncontrolled responses.
>Jim R
>On Wed, Jul 20, 2011 at 5:17 PM, richard strier <rastrier at uchicago.edu> 
>> So how is a viewer who is sexually attracted to (some) women (and perhaps
>> [some] men as well) to react to a painting of a mythological erotic scene by, 
>> Titian?  Do we want to have a "relationship" with Danae?  Does the painting
>> inspire a "desire for companionship"?  Do we care about her "as a person"?
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