[Milton-L] Debbie does Eden

Harold Skulsky hskulsky at smith.edu
Wed Jul 27 18:41:53 EDT 2011




Except for some remarks on the connotations of “reluctance” in M’s
reference to Eve’s “amorous delay,” and of “unlibidinous” in the fête
champêtre scene of 5, I’ve kept out of the running debate about
pornographic moments (if any) in PL. This was not for lack of interest
in the theoretical questions that come up here: (1) what (if anything)
distinguishes pornography from eroticism, and (2) whether pornography is
an art. 
I think the question of (3) M’s active intention to arouse sexual
response in some passages has been settled in Richard Strier’s favor
(though the kind and degree of response could do with a bit of rigorous
unpacking), and I have no intention of poking around blindly in the
fuzziness of (4) whether the arousal qualifies as “Serious” Pornography
(is pornographic arousal, in this context, “serious” as a means or as an
end, or both?). 
The important unfinished business, it seems to me, is (1) and (2). 
If I’m not mistaken, the discussion of these questions has been
empirically starved for lack of first-hand familiarity with bona fide
under-the-counter pornography of the seventeenth century. I’m not going
to make things easy by providing a bibliography, but one item that comes
to mind is a spectacular under-the-counter two-volume work in this genre
entitled “On the Secrets of Cupid and Venus.” This is a collection of
ingeniously transgressive dialogues that circulated on the Continent in
the middle 1600’s and is a shoe-in for what we would call an X-rating; I
acquired it for research (relevance to certain parts of Appleton House)
an aeon ago and then put it away in favor of other projects. 
There are a lot of other 17th-c. examples in the
“you-know-it-when-you-see-it” category. This is Kulturgut way beyond
mere eroticism, and “serious” only about sustaining male arousal for as
long as descriptive writing is capable of doing this. My hunch is that
anybody who wants to do questions (1) and (2) historical and
anthropological and philosophical justice should consider paying a visit
to the Vatican holdings in the genre as a whole. A publishable and
relevant book is waiting to be written (though not by me). 
One point strikes me as uncontroversial: literary pornography can’t
help being an art, and (if it hopes to succeed even in its narrow
objectives) is not simple—the underlying complexities just happen to be
the kind that we tend to turn up our noses at.
Precisely what does a would-be literary pornographer (like perhaps M
here and there in PL) have to put in his description if he hopes to
elicit the desired intensity of male arousal? What kind of “describing”
are we talking about here, in any case? (Classic rhetoric books can be
helpful here.) Which descriptive approach is more arousing-- graphic? or
oblique and inferential? Is an aura of transgressiveness a sine qua non?
Is a vivid sense of the erotic object’s (e.g., Eve's) personhood or
personality a turn-off or a turn-on? What role if any is played by the
essential fictionality of the pornographic representation in a text? At
what point (if any) does explcitness become a turnoff? Does or can the
pornographer approximate a direct visual stimulus? Does he really try? 
These kinds of questions can’t be persuasively dismissed by claiming
that male arousal patterns defy generalization. We’re talking about an
instinctual drive—that is, the kind of baseline arousal pattern that a
pornographer has a fighting chance of using to reach most or all of his
target audience. M is fully aware that he is an animal, with an animal
soul as well as a rational and vegetable soul. Neither he nor any other
17th-c. intellectual would find this animality, taken in itself, either
contentious or philosophically interesting. (I realize I need to say
more about this, but I have no intention of imprisoning myself in a tar
baby.)
One final caveat: as far as I know, the term pornography is a piece of
made Greek originating in the 19th century, when technical terms with
Greek stems seemed de rigueur for science. We need to beware of
importing the 19th- and early 20th-c. intellectual baggage that goes
with the term into our understanding of what M or any other 17th-c
author is doing when he introduces sexual arousal into a text,
especially a text designed to serve larger purposes. The same kind of
scrupulous historicity applies to considering the 17th-c. use of graphic
sadistic material (“out vile jelly!”), or meticulous descriptions of
feasts or squalor.
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