AN ONLINE EXHIBIT OF EROTICA
The Archives and Special Collections department of the Mount Holyoke College Library does not specialize in the collection of erotica. Nevertheless, over the years a number of works have been acquired which fit a definition of erotica as that which is designed to cause arousal through suggestive rather than explicit portrayal of sexual acts. What follows is the expanded text of the brochure prepared for that exhibit, with a few, carefully selected, images. The descriptions were written by several people who are identified in the margin by their initials: Nancy Birkrem, Rare Books Librarian (N.B.); Rima Spring Meadow, class of 2000, Student Assistant (R.M.); Sharon Domier, Five-College Japanese-Language Cataloguer (S.D.); and Eugene D. Hill, Professor of English (E.D.H.).
The exhibit is arranged in chronological sequence based on the date when the work was written. The date next to each title is the date(s) of the edition on display.
Aristophanes. Lysistrata. 1927 & 1934.
Aristophanes of Athens was the master of old Attic comedy. He was born circa 447 B.C.E. and wrote his first play around 427 B.C.E. when he was 20 years old. During his lifetime he had forty-four plays performed and won six first prizes at various festivals. Only eleven full plays and numerous fragments survive. His plays, though comedic, often had underlying political themes. He had no compunction about using his plays to criticize politicians and their actions. In fact, he was brought to court for the "political impropriety" of his plays by Kleon, a politician who did not hold with the traditional values that Aristophanes promoted.(1) The bawdiness of Aristophanes plays never seems to have been an issue in his own society, though in 1910 an English reviewer stated that, "Lysistrata is far too gross for the English stage."(2)
Lysistrata is one of the oldest comedies that is still regularly performed in the theater, probably because it deals with such archetypal themes as sex and war. Lysistrata, as the first comic heroine, is something of an anomaly in Greek plays. She manages to stop the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.E.) using Gandhi-like tactics. She convinces all the women in both Athens and Sparta to stop performing their traditional domestic and sexual duties. For a little extra leverage, she has all the old women take over the Acropolis, thereby taking control of the Treasury and keeping the money out of the hands of the warmongers. The men wanted their wives back so much they consented to a treaty between the two cities. (Writing this I am suddenly having a vision of what would happen if we did this in the United States. Anybody for taking over the Pentagon?) When the play was written the Peloponnesian War had already been going on for twenty years. Aristophanes used women, who were politically un-involved, to attack the war without rousing the ire of his political opponents.
There are two editions of Lysistrata on display; one illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley, the other by Pablo Picasso.
Aubrey Beardsley is famous for the provocative pen and ink drawings that he produced for works such as Oscar Wildes Salomé, Alexander Popes The Rape of the Lock, Mallorys Le Morte d'Arthur and, of course, Aristophanes Lysistrata. This edition of Lysistrata was published in a limited edition by the Beardsley Press in 1927.
Aubrey Beardsley was born in August 1872. He was a child prodigy. He was extremely prolific for about eight years and reached his mature style four years before his death in 1898 at age 28 from chronic tuberculosis. His own sexuality was a subject of public speculation; he once alluded to himself as a eunuch. "Beardsleys thwarted [sexual] instincts found both expression and release in exotic art [but] in his own work there was no beauty in the erotic impulse, and he was impelled to the illustration of works like Lysistrata, where the mood was morbid, animalistic or otherwise corrupt."(3)
Aubrey Beardsley knew the work of shunga artists like Harunobu and employed some of the same techniques: the exaggerated genitalia, the depicted or implied voyeur, and a sense of playfulness about the whole scene.(4)
In contrast, Picassos illustrations for the same work are executed in a cheerful, neo-classical style. Pablo Picasso was born in Málaga, Spain in October 1881. His father was a painter and teacher of art and he trained Picasso to be a successful classical Spanish painter, after the style of Velazqúez. It did not take Picasso long to begin challenging the traditional art forms that he had been taught. He continually reinvented his personal style. He became a world renowned artist and one of the founding masters of twentieth century art. Picasso was married twice and had numerous affairs. He died in 1973 at the age of 92.(5)
The Song of Songs. 1925.
of Songs, also called The Song of Solomon or
The Canticle of Canticles, forms a part of the Old
Testament. The Song of Solomon is presented in the
form of a dialogue between a man and a woman. The symbolic meaning
of the work has been variously seen as representing Gods love
for the Israelites, Christs covenant with His church, or the
love between Christ and the human soul. More recently, scholars
have come to view the book as simply a collection of secular love
poems, celebrating the joy of love between woman and man. It is
this multiplicity of readings that Eric Gill exploited in creating
the illustrations for this edition.
The illustrations for The Song of Songs were completed during an extremely happy and productive period of his life when he, his wife and current mistresses were living in a converted monastery in the remote community of Capel-y-ffin in southern Wales. During this time he began a collaboration with Robert and Moira Gibbings, who had taken over The Golden Cockerel Press in Berkshire at about the same time as the Gill ménage moved to Wales from Sussex. Gill initially refused to work with the Gibbings as they were not, as he was, Catholic, but upon being asked to do the illustrations for a book of his sisters poems they were publishing, he acceded. Despite its tentative beginning, the collaboration lasted a decade and helped make the reputation of The Press.(6)
Gill had time to think while he was in Wales, and some of his thoughts turned to sex and to the relationship between human and Divine love. In his autobiography, published in 1940, he confides that he often thinks about sex and supposes that others do also. Did he have in mind this understanding of the importance of sex in everyday life when he created his "blatantly, effusively erotic wood engravings"(7) for the The Song of Songs? Maybe not, since the English-language version of the book was published in an edition limited to only 750 copies and was thus not available to many people. Curiously, perhaps, it seems that it was acquired and read by quite a few Catholic priests, most of whom were offended by it. Gill had to avoid causing offense to the Church by having the text edited by his friend Father John OConnor, though his contribution is not credited in the book.(8)
The criticism of The Song of Songs hurt Gill and he responded in an essay entitled "Songs without clothes" written in 1927. He begins by defining the poem as "a love song, and one of a very outspoken kind [it] would never, in its unbowdlerized state, be included in ecclesiastical literature were it the work of any modern poet."(9) He goes on to make distinctions between things which are religious, secular, and irreligious. He concludes that "everything is religious by which God is praised, and in this sense the Song of Solomon is a religious poems indeed [H]is praises are sung in the strongest of all symbolic terms. The love of man and woman is made the symbol of Gods love for man, and of Christs love for the Church.".(10) The images in the poem may be expressed in a naturalistic fashion, but it does not follow that they should be seen as realistic rather than symbolic, it is only the fashion of the moment that keeps people from seeing them properly.(11)
Herrick, Robert. One hundred and eleven poems. 1955.
The One Hundred and Eleven Poems selected, arranged and illustrated by Sir William Russell Flint was published by the Golden Cockerel Press in 1955. They were excerpted from Robert Herricks only book, Hesperides: or The Works Both Humane and Divine, which was first published in 1648. Hesperides contains over fourteen hundred poems and an atypically versified table of contents.
Robert Herrick was born in London in August of 1591. At the age of 16 he was apprenticed to his uncle, a goldsmith, whom he seems to have disliked. He left his apprenticeship early and went to study at St. Johns College, Cambridge. Because of monetary difficulties, he transferred to Trinity Hall and graduated in 1617. He returned to London, where he met Ben Jonson, who became his literary mentor. Following Jonsons advice, he studied the Ancients: Ovid, Catullus, Horace, Anacreon and Martial. His close study with these writers is evident in his work: even the title page of the original edition of his book is covered with classic symbols, including Pegasus and the Muses. Although the poems in the book Hesperides (definition) were inspired by classical subjects and forms, Herrick's work is essentially English in theme:(12)
In The argument of his book Herrick introduces a idea which is foreign to most erotic writing cleanly-Wantonnesse. He implies that if one is young and in love then wanton lusty behavior is expected, and cannot be censured. This attitude is indicative of his era when frankness about sexuality was the norm. It wasnt until the late 1700s that censors started to establish the morés which would eventually lead to the repressed values of the Victorian era.
Herrick took holy orders in 1623, but did not settle into a parish until 1630. He was to spend nearly half of his career outside of that Devonshire country parish because he was on the losing side during the English Civil War of the 1640's. When the Restoration was in full swing in 1660, he returned to Dean Prior where he died in 1674.
Herrick seems very conscious of the dichotomy created by his profession as a clergyman and his poetry. He mentions this conflict in several poems, usually defending his work or his morals. He comments on the hypocrisy of the stereotype of modest, pure girls:
Lastly, he hopes to establish a good reputation for posterity:
The works of the Earls of Rochester, Roscomon, and Dorset; the Dukes of Devonshire, Buckinghamshire, &c. with memoirs of their lives. 1731.
John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester (1647-80), was in his day and remains today the epitome of the Restoration rake. Countless stories of practical jokes, alcoholic vandalism and amatory shenanigans mark his history many of these carried out in the company of noblemen including King Charles II. Rochester was repeatedly exiled from the court for one misdeed or another, but his charm, wit and gift for satirical verse invariably won him readmission. As a biographical notice prefixed to our edition puts it, with considerable palliation, "his Lordship was a Man of Wit and Pleasure, and spared nothing that would increase the one, or promote the other."(15)
Rochester's poems were published soon after his death and remained popular through the middle of the eighteenth century, as numerous editions (including ours of 1731) attest. The poem before us ["The Disappointment"] represents Rochester at his best thoroughly indecent, without question, but not in fact pornographic, since the work seeks to amuse (with its admittedly cruel satire) rather than to arouse the reader.
Drawing upon but in various ways revising a rich vein of poems in English and French, themselves based on an original by the ancient Roman poet Ovid, Rochester imagines a protagonist shamed by his premature ejaculation, which prevents him from satisfying his lady companion. The humiliated fellow proceeds to curse his offending member, calling down all variety of excruciating torments upon it. The illustration [at left] helps readers get the picture. This poem was deemed too risky to print as recently as 1953, when the distinguished English publisher Routledge, fearing the laws on censorship, compelled an editor to exclude it from a new edition of Rochester's verse. Even in our 1731 version, as your will observe, certain words were deemed too impolite to print. For help, look at any recent edition; the poem is now usually entitled "The Imperfect Enjoyment."
On the early deathbed to which his profligacy helped bring him, Rochester was visited by learned clergy who read Scripture to him and effected his conversion an event celebrated in pamphlets of his day and repeatedly invoked by subsequent moralists as a warning to bad boys of all ages. In or around 1807 the Religious Tract Society of London issued a pamphlet retelling the story of Rochester's ultimate disavowal of atheism and libertinage. The opening sentence tells the tale: "This nobleman was distinguished in his life as a great wit and a great sinner, and in his last illness as a great penitent."(16) The pamphlet was reissued frequently, on both sides of the Atlantic. The Mount Holyoke copy is an American edition, undated but probably from the second decade of the last century.
Stretzer, Thomas. A new description of Merryland. 1740.
A New Description of Merryland, modeled after the many descriptions of foreign lands then being published in England, is actually a description of female sexual anatomy. Compare its beginning
to the beginning of a description of Canada written by Baron Lahontan and published in English in 1703
or to this short 1716 description of the Rio de la Plata
The true nature of the work is never greatly disguised. We are told that "Merryland is well known to have been inhabited soon after the Fall David and Solomon were often there, and many modern Kings and Princes have honourd this Country with their Royal Presence". (20) The countless articles about Charles, Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles speak to the continuing fascination "Merryland" has for "Kings and Princes", among others.(21)
The books publisher was Edmund Curll, a notorious London printer and bookseller during the first quarter of the 18th century. He pirated editions of bestsellers and he sold works written under pseudonyms designed to make them appear to be the works of well-known authors.
The Dictionary of National Biography says that "[m]any of Curlls publications were scandalously immoral"(22) and Daniel Defoe referred to his "lewd abominable Pieces of Bawdry".(23) In Nov. 1725 Curll was tried and convicted of libel for printing and publishing several obscene and immoral books [iniquum et obscoenum libellum]. Specifically named was Venus in a Cloyster, or, The Nun in Her Smock. His counsel attempted to have the judgment reversed on the grounds that an offense against public morals [contra bonos mores] was not properly the jurisdiction of the temporal courts but rather of the spiritual courts. Although precedent favored Curll, the conviction was upheld in 1728 and he was sentenced to stand an hour in the pillory at Charing Cross in London. Contrary to general custom he stood there unmolested, as he had previously circulated the lie that he was there for vindicating the memory of the late Queen Anne. This lie caused the gathered mob to carry him off in triumph to a nearby tavern after his punishment was completed.(24)
It is a reflection of the religious intolerance of the day that Justice William Fortescue (lived 1687-1749), said of The Nun in Her Smock that while it contained several bawdy passages, in his opinion it ought to be published "on purpose to expose the Romish [i.e., Roman Catholic] priests, the father confessors, and Popish religion".(24)
Harunobu, Suzuki. Ehon seiro bijin awase. 1917.
When Western people think of Japanese erotica, the image that comes to mind is a gaudy erotic woodblock print (shunga), with the bodies of the people involved often being reduced to little more than attachment points for the enormous genitalia.(25) Large sex organs are a common theme in Japanese erotic art, beginning with an early scroll depicting Japanese monks at play from the twelfth century and continuing to the present day in comic books. Graphic illustrations of sex acts, also known as pillow books (makura-e) existed throughout the ages for both private entertainment and as instructional guides for brides. Advances in the technology of woodblock printing during the Tokugawa period (1600-1868) meant that prints could be reproduced quickly and cheaply, thereby broadening the commercial market for erotic art.
A commercial market for erotic prints attracted the attention of the government, which issued censorship laws in an attempt to control social unrest and limit conspicuous consumption. Depictions of pornography were banned, as were depictions of current events and criticism of the Tokugawa leaders. Although enforcement of the edicts was reasonably lax, the occasional arrest and conviction of a prominant writer or artist was sufficient to push most artists to produce both legal art and privately-distributed art that either skirted or flouted the laws.
By the time Suzuki Harunobu (1724-1770) came into prominance as an artist in 1765, he was able to benefit both from the advances in woodblock print technology and from a temporary laxness in the enforcement of censorship laws. Harunobu is best known for his glorious use of color in woodblock prints (known as nishiki-e --brocade prints), and for his sophisticated and humorous portrayals of life in "prints of the floating world" (ukiyo-e). In Harunobu's world, the women are always young, beautiful, playful creatures, ready and willing to participate in worldly pleasures. Commercial books, such as this work first published in 1770, signed by Harunobu and submitted to the censors for review, titillate the viewer with scenes of the Pleasure Quarters without depicting actual sex scenes.
Harunobu is also famous for his unsigned works, which were privately commissioned and distributed without the permission of the censors. Unlike prints of the nineteenth century, which were more violent and sordid, Harunobu's scenes depict couple having fun. More often than not, Harunobu's prints include third parties either participating or watching the action. According to Evans, "scenes of group activity evince a sexual self-confidence and lack of inhibition which are utterly opposed to the privacy and secrecy which our own [i.e. Western] attitudes demand."(26) His prints sometimes depict couples having sex in the presence of infants and children.
Harunobu took the semi-public nature of sex one step further with a series of prints entitled Maneemon, where a small man comments on the scene and motivations of the participants providing the viewer with an opportunity to find out about the artist's intentions. "The tiny mannikin who comments on the action is not strictly a voyeur, nor is he intimately part of the scene--he is a detached [emphasis in original] observer. He represents, in fact, the 'alter ego' of the artist allowing him to speak to us directly and so to comment on the scene which he himself has created."(27)
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. 1892.
is one of the foremost poets of the 19th century and has been credited
with helping to develop a truly American poetic literature. He was
born on Long Island in May 1819 and received only six years of formal
schooling before his family situation forced him to seek out the
first in a long succession of jobs. He began as an office boy and
later became a journalist and part-time realtor. He died in Camden,
N.J. in March 1892.
Among the well-known poems included in Leaves of Grass are "O captain, my captain" about Abraham Lincoln, and "I sing the body electric", whose title was used by Ray Bradbury for the title of a novel in 1969.
Lawrence, D. H. Lady Chatterleys lover. 1929
The story line in Lady Chatterleys Lover revolves around the erotic relationship between Constance Chatterley and Mellors, her husbands gamekeeper. Lady Chatterleys husband, Clifford, was sent home from WWI crippled from the waist down. She turns to the declassé intellectual Oliver Mellors for sexual satisfaction and the intellectual stimulation her husband is no longer able to give her.
Lawrence was born in the English Midlands in 1895, the son of an illiterate father and a well-educated mother. He used the landscape he grew up in as the setting for several novels including this one. His first novel was published in 1911. Lady Chatterleys Lover was first published, privately, in France in 1928 and almost immediately pirated. However, it was not until court cases in New York in 1959 and London in 1960 that the way was cleared for commercial publication.(31)
Lawrence endeavoured to write erotica in which tenderness plays a great part. Though this is somewhat unusual in the genre, it does not indicate that he is advocating a power shift in sexual relations. Lawrence worked within the stereotype that all women are frigid and unable to express their passions. In fact, he insisted that a woman must submit to a mans more animal desires in order to attain full self-realization. It was the common view in the late Victorian period that women were exceedingly sensitive, virginal beings. Lawrence believed that women could not free themselves from this view; they must and should be freed from it by being seduced by a man. Lawrence is quite an interesting case for Freudian analysis by critics, who trace most of this recurrent theme back to his mothers domineering, reserved, strict personality. His unhappiness with his mother may have led him to create strong male characters who seek to dominate and force the females characters to break with societys conventions.(32)
Nin, Anaïs. Delta of Venus. 1977.
Anaïs Nin was born in France in 1903. Her first literary effort was a study of D. H. Lawrence published in 1932. Shortly afterward she began a lifelong friendship with Henry Miller she wrote the preface to his first novel, Tropic of Cancer. Among her other Parisian friends was the psychiatrist Otto Rank, who is generally considered to have influenced her fiction both directly and indirectly. Working in New York after World War II, she wrote and privately published a number of novels and short stories, however, critical acclaim was to be denied her until she began publishing her diaries in 1966 some 30 years after she had begun writing them. In all, seven volumes of diaries were published covering 1931-1974. Nin died in Los Angeles in 1977.
Her works have remained controversial, both because of the subject matter and because of her individualistic writing style. Throughout her stories she features female protagonists coping with various difficulties in their lives. Most of her stories are works of psychological fiction and individual works have been called "idiosyncratic and occasionally self-serving"(33); "notable for its intensity and originality"(34); and "a fine achievement by a minor, flawed novelist".(35)
Nins erotic stories are less often the subject of critical interpretation than her other works. Comparing Nin to Lawrence, who was one of her professional influences, one can notice that while Lawrences Lady Chatterleys Lover presents sex as liberating and essentially joyful, Nins erotica seems rather to focus on the degrading and depressing side of sex. Voyeurism, impotence, child abuse and necrophilia are among the themes she repeatedly uses.
The critic Edmund Miller says that women in general, and Nin in particular, do not understand what men want or prefer in erotic literature. One might respond to this by expressing the hope that Nin was writing for women and not for men, so that this criticism is irrelevant. In fact we know that in writing the stories published as The Delta of Venus and Little Birds Nin was writing for men, or rather for a specific, albeit anonymous, man. In her diary she reports his comments on her writing, including the instruction to "concentrate on sex." (36) The critical question then becomes whether she complied with his request in a way that satisfied him while retaining her unique writing style. Miller doubts she succeeded.
Miller, Henry. The rosy crucifixion. 1965.
When Henry Miller (1891-1980) is mentioned, erotica springs to most minds, although he never thought of himself as primarily a sex writer. He saw his work as autobiographical, experiential and metamorphic, viewing the explicit sex in his writing as an inherent part of a life of individual freedom.
He goes on to give his personal take on erotica, stating that "pornographic writing doesnt stimulate me pictures, photos, interest me very much". Nevertheless he had read some of the older, classic works of erotica, such as those by Casanova, Boccaccio and Rabelais "all of which I enjoyed as a young man, but I dont think it would be the same today [at age 84]."(37)
He saw the fact that his works were controversial because of their sexual content as a result of the Christian morés which dominate our society. In a picture caption for his autobiography he says that "there are no dirty words unless people make them so."(37) In a comment reminiscent of Eric Gill, it has been said of Miller that he believed that "sexuality, the worship of the human body, is the way leading to God."(38)
The Rosy Crucifixion is an autobiographical work in three parts, which Miller wrote in order to work out his feelings about his second wife June. Sexus was first published in Paris in 1949 at the Obelisk Press by Maurice Girodias, who was subsequently sentenced to a year in prison for its publication. The writing is uneven and "often the sex in The Rosy Crucifixion is formulaic, and the women seem robotic. They have become nothing but isolated holes, begging to be filled."(39) In this The Rosy Crucifixion is in direct contrast to Lady Chatterleys Lover. On the other hand, he shared with Lawrence a view that the "fear of sex projected onto the woman was one of the ills of society"; a fear which each author tried to overcome.(40)
Sexus, Nexus and Plexus were finally published in the United States by Grove Press in 1965. There was little opposition, partly because of societal changes and partly because the major legal battles had already been fought when Tropic of Cancer was first published in the United States in 1961 (the original dustjacket for the Parisian printing of 1934 says "not to be imported into Great Britain or U.S.A."). That trial went all the way to the Supreme Court. Miller himself wrote the open letter to the justices which helped lead to the legalization of Tropic of Cancer in this country.(41)
There is a fine, flexible line between erotica and pornography; this exhibit has tried to stay on the erotic side, but it may be opinion of some that Miller's works, like the shunga books, cross that line.
Historically most purchasers of erotic and pornographic literature have been men. This may still be true for primarily visual works, but it is doubtful whether it is true for purely verbal erotica. Beginning mid-century, and with recent series that are increasingly explicit, "romance novels" have introduced hundreds of thousands of English-speaking women to the world of erotica and made it respectable. Perhaps even more importantly, by publishing these stories as cheap paperbacks, a wider range of economic classes have been able to afford to purchase this kind of writing. Throughout the preceding century and a half only the well-to-do and well-educated had ready access to unexpurgated stories of love and sex.(42)
What societal standards for erotica vs pornography will be in the new century cannot be precisely predicted. What may be confidently stated is that both will continue to be written, published, read, and debated.
Copyright © 2003 Mount Holyoke College. This document has been improperly attributed. Last modified on November 20, 2003.