[Milton-L] Debbie does Eden

Hannibal Hamlin hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com
Wed Jul 27 15:25:49 EDT 2011

Is the problem with distinguishing the pornographic and the erotic perhaps
that there is something of a category mistake here? The descriptions of the
pornographic offered so far all focus on the intention of the producer --
the work, whatever it is, is intended solely to stimulate sexual responses,
nothing more. Whereas the descriptions of the erotic have focused on
perception and reception. If we muddle the distinction between production
and reception, we have to recognize that what is produced as pornography may
be received or interpreted as something more serious (or less wholly
sexual). No doubt someone, somewhere has written a dissertation on *Debbie
Does Dallas*. More seriously, my recently retired Ohio State colleague David
Frantz wrote an important study of Renaissance pornography, *Festum
Voluptatis* (though he actually calls it "erotica" in his subtitle). One
might also note that some "pornographers" may have more serious aspirations
than stimulating their readers/viewers sexually. The Burt Reynolds character
in the film *Boogie Nights* (more or less historical) is very much concerned
with the plots, character relations, production levels of his porn films. It
seems rather pathetic, but he obviously thinks of himself as an artist of
sorts, not just a flesh peddler.

Conversely, as many have pointed out, any work can be ascribed erotic
content. For an example of the latter, note the dictionaries in school
libraries (at least as I remember from school days) with signs of
disproportionate wear on the pages with naughty words, or the National
Geographics with what is now called "indigenous nudity," put to all sorts of
inappropriate uses by little and perhaps not so little boys. To the impure,
all things are impure. (And post-Fall we are all impure.)

If we keep the producer-receiver distinction in mind, we have two questions
concerning us: first, did Milton intend this passage or that in PL to be
arousing, and second, do we as readers find them so? The questions overlap
if we answer that sometimes Milton does intend us to be aroused, as we are
(or may be), but that this is one of the Fishy traps, where we must
recognize the fallenness of our response to something that in its unfallen
state ought not to elicit such a response. But then I'm not sure I buy this
Fishian argument entirely. Adam and Eve's "connubial love" in Eden is
pleasurable, clearly. Milton cites the injunction to increase and multiply
at 4.748, but his "wedded love," even though it drives out "adulterous
lust," includes more than just the practical satisfactions of obeying God
and procreating. Adam's "delight" (4.497) is surely sexual in some sense; he
desires Eve, even if he is free of the "fierce desire" of Satan. Adam and
Eve experience sexual pleasure, then, without any guilt. Is it wrong, then,
to feel arousal watching the couple? Satan's desire seems wrong, but why? Is
all voyeurism wrong? Is it it only wrong when your desire is "fierce"?
But what does that mean? Can we, as readers/viewers, feel sympathetic
delight with Adam and Eve's delight without any accompanying sexual feeling?
Are we supposed to? And what are Milton's intentions in all this? We can
probably agree that they probably aren't pornographic, in the sense that
he's just trying to get us off. But there is a sexual intent of some sort, I
think, and I don't think it's just an object lesson in fallen sexual desire.
Sex in Eden doesn't seem entirely different from post-lapsarian sex. Eve's
"coyness" (4.310) may be one of the words that Milton is using in a
putatively pre-lapsarian sense, but her "sweet reluctant amorous delay"
seems hard to read that way. She's playing with Adam, and that makes her
ultimate submission all the sweeter. We're told there is no shame or guilt
here, but there is certainly eroticism. And hasn't Eve naturally cottoned on
to one of the basic principles of both erotica and pornography, that the
ultimate fulillment of desire delayed is all the sweeter? Actually, isn't
Adam at least temporarily in the position Satan is in, of watching that
which excites him but which he cannot have? Adam gets the object of his
desire almost immediately, but there is still a pause, while Eve holds off
and he watches. And of course this mirrors the more disturbing first
encounter of Adam and Eve, when she doesn't just delay but turns away, and
he has to seize her. The topic of voyeurism is relevant here too, since Eve
gazes on herself with "vain desire."

I've run on, so I'll stop for now.


On Wed, Jul 27, 2011 at 11:36 AM, richard strier <rastrier at uchicago.edu>wrote:

> Dear James (if I may),
> You are fighting a straw person.  No one thinks that PL and Debbie are the
> same
> sort of work.  Debbie (which I think I once saw) is, if I recall correctly,
> a comic
> treatment with a fair amount of rather soft-core porno.  But I may be mis-
> remembering it, nor not remembering it at all.  I believe that it is not a
> serious
> work of art of any kind, nor intended to be (though might be a sort of
> classic in
> its genre).
> The point, for me, is that there are places in PL where M creates the
> effect of
> pornography, and knows he is doing it.  I believe you basically concede
> this in
> the phrase, "except at rare moments."  The point, as I see it, is not to
> deny that
> there are such moments, but to think about why they are there.
> "half her swelling Breast / Naked met his"  -- this is right out of a
> bodice-
> ripper, and Milton knows it (though he did not know about that exact
> genre).
> The fact that it is poetry, and well written, only makes it sexier -- with
> the
> enjambment and metrical reversal emphasizing "Naked."  The passage that we
> have been discussing, where "libidinousness" is imagined and then denied,
> is
> one where M is confronting the problem--one that he knows he has created.
> And, to bring the discussion back to where (I believe) it began, a movie
> version
> of PL that filmed the Eden scenes as Milton has written them would, I
> guarantee
> you, be eagerly attended by every teenage boy in the country, even if he
> had to
> listen to some poetry while watching it.  But this is not to in any way
> deny the
> greatness of the poem; I think that M's willingness to move into this
> territory,
> and knowingly so, is part of his imaginative courage.  I think the fact
> that in
> some respects, and in some places, PL is a pornographic work is, in fact,
> part of
> its greatness.
> The "borderline" category is important, since the Supreme Court used to
> think
> that there was a bright line-- which, of course, there isn't.  And I'm not
> convinced that a work can't be pornographic in a much more sustained and
> purposeful way than PL and still be a great work of literary or visual art.
>  The
> case with regard to visual art is easy, so I'll take the harder route.  I'm
> not all
> that knowledgeable in this field, but would say that, for instance, The
> Story of O
> is a serious work of literature (and of pornography).
> ---- Original message ----
> >Date: Wed, 27 Jul 2011 04:39:34 -0400
> >From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu (on behalf of James Rovira
> <jamesrovira at gmail.com>)
> >Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Fallen vs. Unfallen Sex
> >To: John Milton Discussion List <milton-l at lists.richmond.edu>
> >
> >   Carrol --
> >
> >   Thank you for the response.  Apparently I've had a
> >   hard time communicating my main point, was that
> >   there is a distinction between the erotic and the
> >   pornographic, a distinction that Richard Strier
> >   seemed to be erasing at one point in the discussion.
> >    The pornographic is a species of the erotic, but
> >   the concept of the erotic is not exhausted by the
> >   concept of the pornographic.  Because I make this
> >   distinction, I have argued that identifying the
> >   pornographic with the erotic is reductive.  I
> >   defined pornography as seeking only, or primarily,
> >   to arouse sexual stimulation without attempting to
> >   achieve any other effect.
> >
> >   Applying this distinction to PL, I never denied the
> >   erotic in the poem.  I only denied that the erotic
> >   in PL was pornograpghic.  It is too complex for
> >   pornography and too unfocused on sex, except at rare
> >   moments.  That is why I said that PL and Debbie
> >   Does Dallas cannot be said to be attempting the same
> >   effect.  Debbie Does Dallas is pornographic.  PL
> >   is more than that.  I think it takes a seriously
> >   dull sensibility to miss the difference.  I'm not
> >   saying there aren't borderline works, just that
> >   there is a distinction.  Discussions of Lucian
> >   Freud and Mapplethorpe, on my end, have been
> >   attemplts to refine the distinction and identify the
> >   nature of some borderline works.
> >
> >   Jim R
> >
> >   On Wednesday, July 27, 2011, Carrol Cox
> >   <cbcox at ilstu.edu> wrote:
> >   > On 7/25/2011 3:25 PM, James Rovira wrote:
> >   >
> >   > " I don't see how PL and Debbie Does Dallas can be
> >   said
> >   > to be attempting to achieve the same effect.  I
> >   don't see this claim
> >   > as supporting any kind of dogmatism, but rather
> >   trying to avoid
> >   > reductionism in literary treatments of the
> >   erotic."
> >   >
> >   > This raises problems with what we mean by
> >   "erotic." If it (text, painting, what have you)
> >   elicits no 'erotic' response from the reader/viewer,
> >   can it be called erotic? And if it _does_ elicit an
> >   erotic response, then there may still be a line
> >   between Debbie & Eve -- but it's getting a bit iffy.
> >   >
> >   > Carrol
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Hannibal Hamlin
Associate Professor of English
Editor, *Reformation*
Co-curator, *Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King
James Bible*
The Ohio State University
164 West 17th Ave., 421 Denney Hall
Columbus, OH 43210-1340
hamlin.22 at osu.edu/
hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com
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