The history of erotica is best understood through the metaphor of archaeology. The texts, the various books and movies and still images and so forth we are familiar with, are the surface of a deep stack of layers of symbols and narratives accreted over centuries. In this process, the forms have changed repeatedly until they are distinct, but arranging them in the proper configuration, we see the evolutionary process.
Our guide on this dig is a literary and poetry critic named Harold Bloom. He explains that the relationship between different poems are either “weak misreadings”, which the poet tries in vain to get at what the earlier work was really about, or “strong misreadings,” in which the poet appropriates what he or she needs from the earlier work to pursue his or her own ideas. Bloom was discussing poetry, but this theory applies to other genres of literature, and particularly where there is less regulation from high culture, where texts mate rather promiscuously, like erotica.
I would argue that the bulk of what is categorized as erotica today can be traced back to two highly influential books, one from the early twentieth century, the other from the middle, both by women, both with women protagonists being initiated into exotic realms of pleasure, both widely dismissed as sensational, pornographic, misogynistic trash.
The Sheik (1919) by EM Hull, and its film adaptation, is the first key text. The book was a rejection of the shattered, vulnerable men walking the streets of Europe in the aftermath of the First World War, and of the chaste, dutiful role assigned to women in the colonial project to civilize “the Orient”, as promulgated by earlier colonial novels. The protagonist willingly sides with “the enemy” and lets her white body be violated, and even if the Sheik is revealed to be a white Englishman raised as a Bedouin, she says he’s still a Bedouin. In the film, the Sheik’s racial hybridity was literalized by the makeup that lightened Rudolph Valentino’s face and darkened his hands and arms, for better contrast with his co-star’s milky flesh when they clinched. Valentino presented the women of the world with what they apparently craved: a white man’s face attached to a black man’s… appendages, the cruel man who will turn tender, but not too tender. Romance publishers still put out sheik novels, weak misreadings that repeat centuries of Orientalist stereotypes. You’d think we’d know better by now.
The other key text is Pauline Reage’s The Story of O (1954), likewise the subject of endless weak misreadings and a few strong ones. The narrative of O is itself a strong misreading of initiation, a ritual of changing a person’s social status by moving them through a social zone of liminality, where rules and roles are different and the initiate is subject to physical and mental trials. Instead of staying in her new social status, O keeps going deeper and deeper, looking for ever harsher dominants and abandoning them in turn for a harder one. Of course she has to kill herself in one of the book’s multiple endings; she’s run out of places to go. The imitators weakly misread this story and tack on happy endings borrowed from the standard marriage plot, neglecting that the whole point of the original is not just extreme devotion to any actual person, but sacrificial masochism for its own sake, beyond any constraint.
Pauline Reage, a pseudonym for Dominique Aury, in turn an alias for Anne Desclos, toyed with the idea of being a nun as a child. When we reach into the same ground as Reage/Aury/Desclos, we find more religion, or rather, a fear of other religions.
Nineteenth-century anti-Catholic propaganda published in Britain and America were full of young woman foolishly entering convents and discovering the hidden horrors of the “Romish faith,” often seen by Protestants as a primitive, fetishistic, perverse religion.
The most radically pornographic of these convent captivity narratives was the bestselling Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk. Attributed to a mentally ill prostitute (and almost certainly ghost-written), Monk’s book told a preposterous tale of nuns going through initiation by a symbolic death ritual, subjected to all kinds of torments and forced to serve sexually the priests who entered the convent via an underground tunnel. The children born of this criminal intercourse were smothered at birth and disposed of in lime pits. (No trace of these things were found in the Montreal convent that is the book’s setting.) People lapped this stuff up.
Anti-convent novels also rubbed up against captivity narratives, a genre of xenophobic tales in which white women are captured by “Indians” and live to tell the tale of the depraved captors. The strong misreaders cut out the part about how horrible the captivity was, stirred in generous portions of romantic primitivism and Rousseau’s noble savage, and turned them into adventure tales, leading to books like The Sheik and films like A Man Called Horse and even James Cameron’s Avatar.
Excavate sideways into the same sedimentary layer, and we find the naughty nuns rubbing up against the white women sold into slavery. The Memoirs of Dolly Morton (1899), published by Charles Carrington well after emancipation, told of a white abolitionist woman who travels to the South and is captured and treated like a black woman, experiencing her torment more acutely because of her white, refined nature.
The Secret Life of Linda Brent, published 1882 by erotica magnate George Lazenby, doesn’t bother with putting a white woman in a black woman’s shackles. This pornographic story was a strong misreading of an earlier, non-fiction work. “Linda Brent” is the pseudonym used by Harriet Jacobs, born into slavery and escaped, when she published her autobiographical Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). Unlike a lot of such works, Jacobs was very frank about the sexual aspects of Southern slavery, so much so that her book was often dismissed as smut.
The pinnacle of the abolitionist novel was the worldwide bestselling novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe. More circumspect about sex than Jacobs, Stowe nonetheless described the evils of slavery in terms of deviant relations, with slaves prohibited from forming the monogamous, heterosexual relationships and nuclear families that fostered virtue. Jacobs and Stowe both drew a connection between the institution of slavery and deviant sexuality.
Publishers, legitimate and not, often sexed up the illustrations of Stowe’s book, and traveling “Tom shows” rapidly evolved into burlesque spectacles of dancing and singing. Late 19th century psychologists like Freud and Krafft-Ebing both wrote about patient’s whose spanking fantasies were inspired by Uncle Tom’s Cabin. American slavery, separated by space and time from the audience, was eroticized. Many of the characters in these books, fiction and non-fiction, were explicitly described as being mulatto or even passing for white, creating a mental image of white women being treated like slaves, perversely “free” of compulsory heterosexuality and monogamy.
Keep digging. The earth here was once exposed to air and light, but now is damp and cool.
The propagandistic convent captivity and abolitionist novels drew upon an earlier, established genre: the Gothic novel. These were full of chains, dungeons and crypts, deviant sexuality, the threat of violence, virtuous women in distress, men overwhelmed by passion, the failure of modernity and rationality to complete repress the medieval and the irrational. When Cathy in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) breathed, “I am Heathcliff,” she was the prototype for the masochistic female protagonist, the ancestor of Reage’s O and Stephenie Meyer’s Bela Swan. The aesthetic of BDSM video clips and photoshoots often reflects the Gothic, with scenes set in crumbling industrial or institutional locations, or houses of historical architecture. The primitive and/or disorderly settings create an environment for the rejection of mature, orderly sexuality and the expression of perverse sexuality, of sadism, masochism, non-monogamy, homosexuality.
Jane Austen parodied (strongly misread) the Gothic in her novel Northanger Abbey, when a young girl’s preoccupation with sensationalized violence and captivity blinds her to the real emotional conflicts around her.
Strip away another layer of sediment, another layer of strong misreading, the fantastical elements, from the Gothic novel and you get the unmediated emotional violence of the ancestor form, the novel of sentiment.
Sitting in the middle of the 18th century, roughly the same time as the classic of English pornography, John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, is Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. Weighing in at a massive million words, this epistolary novel is a psychosexual struggle between good-natured but naïve Clarissa Harlowe and smooth-talking rake Lovelace. He offers her escape from her depraved family’s arranged marriage, but instead puts her in what she thinks is a proper home but is actually a brothel. He labours to get his unwitting captive to give up her literal and figurative virtue willingly. Eventually, Lovelace loses patience, drugs Clarissa senseless and rapes her. When she recovers, they both are disillusioned. Lovelace offers to wipe away his crime and her disgrace with marriage, but Clarissa refuses to call it anything other than what it was.
Immensely popular in it’s day, the author was plagued with fan mail from readers who wanted Lovelace to be redeemed, not a rapist but just a hard man who softens from the influence of a good woman. Countless romance writers over the past two and a half centuries strongly misread Clarissa, and created legions of leading men who were wolves on the outside and puppies on the inside to put their heroines through trials.
We’re centuries deep in now, our heads below the surface, the light from above getting dim. Down here, things look very different; some forms never made it to the surface, and have become as alien as the fossils discovered in the Burgess Shale, whole branches of life that went extinct. “Sexuality”, as we of the early 21st century would understand it, does not exist, or at least not in the form we would recognize. The vein we thought was distinct has diffused, merging with others like “religion” and “politics”, promiscuously intermingling.
We hit a root now, Jesus courted by the Christian Soul, a broadsheet printed in the late fifteenth century, reproduced in David Kunzle’s History of the Comic Strip, Vol.1. This was an early form of graphical storytelling, combining simple, iconic illustrations with dialogue in German text, in a grid of twenty panels. The narrative is, again, initiation, the transformation of the Christian Soul, represented by a young woman, by Jesus Christ, represented by a bearded man with a halo.
Jesus awakens the Soul from bed, and forces her to forego food and strip bare, while she bitterly complains (“I do not wish to be disturbed, it is too early yet.” “I suffer in dire necessity, you will starve me to death.” “Look at the way he wants to strip me bare.”) Jesus’ tutelage includes flagellation: “I shall castigate your flesh severely, to let the spirit thrive.” “I will blind and cripple you, so as to tame you.”
Things take a strange turn in the later panels, when the Soul chases after Jesus, captures him, ties him up and shoots arrows at him. Then Jesus turns on the charm, offering her gold, which she refuses out of love.
In the last two panels, Jesus crucifies the Soul, who describes it in ecstatic terms (“What will become of me, I touch neither heaven nor earth.”), followed by Jesus putting a crown on her head, who refuses it like a good and loyal submissive (“I do not deserve a crown, I want to have just you.”)
Other examples of this genre show Jesus awakening the sleeping Soul by yanking her out of bed by her hair or even setting her clothes on fire. The relationship between the woman and Christ, between humanity and God, is explicitly erotic and sadomasochistic. Human suffering can be viewed as the initiatory trials preceding the entrance to a new, better life.
We look upon these images and see something primal and strange, like the first creature to set foot on land, and despite the vast diversity of the forms in the strata above, there are recognizable commonalities.
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