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29 August 2008

Hooked on Classics Redux: Eros, Esthetics, Empire

I've posted about this topic before.

Three times, in fact, in March, June, and November of 2007, from stops along the journey of writing The Edge of Impropriety -- which is finally, thrillingly, due out this November 4.

Not surprisingly, discoveries along the way -- of the art and literature of ancient Greece and Rome -- have given rise to an enduring passion that not only informs my novel but calls me back to a set of cherished, longtime, ongoing wonderings of my own, about what we're doing when we're writing erotically.

It began, I think, when a bold, provocative (and yes, erotic) statement, by J.M. Coetzee, in his novel Elizabeth Costello, stopped me in my reading tracks:

Love and death. The gods, the immortals, were the inventors of death and corruption; yet with one or two notable exceptions they have lacked the courage to try their invention out on themselves. That is why they are so curious about us, so endlessly inquisitive. We call Psyche a silly, prying girl, but what was a god doing in her bed in the first place? In marking us down for death, the gods gave us an edge
over them. Of the two, gods and mortals, it is we who live more urgently, feel the more intensely.

Wow. I'd never thought about it in quite that way before, but I knew I wanted to continue thinking about it like that.

And so I created a hero and heroine motivated by erotic urgency. The Edge of Impropriety is a historical romance novel about a pair of flawed, desiring people who are no longer young or innocent, and who are all too conscious of the passing of mortal time, of death and danger, and of human error and frailty.

Jasper and Marina first encounter each other across a room of blank white stares and breathtakingly beautiful bodies -- the gods and heroes of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. They first speak to each -- of art and empire, mythical gods and human mortality -- amid the equally blank but far less beautiful stares of dinner guests stuffed full of salmon cooked according to a recipe of the great chef Antonin Carême (whom Mary blogged about in this hoyden post).

The mutual seduction of this first conversation is visible only to them and the reader: I'll be posting it on my web page next Tuesday; right now you can get another sneak peek at The Edge here.

But though the novel is happily finished for its author and happily ended for its lovers, certain underlying ideas -- the confusions and quandaries of sex and story, art and eroticism -- continue to fascinate me.

Because when I began thinking of the Elgin Marbles and of the Regency response to classical art in general, I hadn't realized then how central the history of art collecting (art plunder, some might say) -- the appropriation of the ancient art of Greece and Rome by the ascendant empires of nineteenth century Western Europe -- is to questions I've been pondering for the decade and a half since I wrote my first erotic novel, Carrie's Story, by Molly Weatherfield.

But as is often the case, when I take down an unread book that's been taunting me for years from the shelf and finally open it, I find a wealth of stuff I've been knocking myself out trying to think through by myself.

This time it's Walter Kendrick's The Secret Museum, a study of the roots of our modern thinking that labels certain works "pornographic" and demands that they be forbidden to certain parts of the population ( and yes, you can guess who they -- or we -- are without my telling you).

Turns out that the problem became a serious one for the gentlemen of western Europe only after the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum, starting in the early eighteenth century when an Italian peasant tried to dug a well near Naples. Giovanni Battista Nocerino dug up fragments of marble and then Roman artifacts, and the Austrian rulers of Naples shipped a marble Hercules was shipped to Vienna, before the excavations hit solid rock.

When Naples passed back into the hands of the Spanish some decades later, the digging continued -- moving southward to softer gound (ash and small stones), the site of what was ascertained to be Pompeii. How thrilling it would have been there when the first intact fresco was dug up -- not to speak of the skeleton, "still clutching coins stamped with images of Nero and Vespasian."

Of course, as Kendrick continues (and as I've learned for myself in my researches about the literary culture of the late Regency), staged media events are hardly a discovery of our era. "On many occasions, when a notable find was made, it was buried again in order to be refound before the eyes of some visiting noble personage."

Pompeii became a primo visiting site along the Grand Tour, whereby the rich and educated of the prevailing European powers got to see their noble antecedents in the great empires of the past.

Except suppose their antecedents were not so noble? Suppose (as the excavations went on), certain rather more recherche objects were discovered -- "lascivious" frescos, Priapic statues, or what Kendrick describes as "a small marble statue, high naturalistic in style, representing a satyr in sexual congress with an apparently undaunted goat."

The artifacts could be (and were) locked up in a separate, secret collection, whereby "a gentleman with appropriate demeanor (and ready cash for the custodian) would be admitted... [while] women, children, and the poor of both sexes and all ages were excluded."

When catalogs of the digs were published (and catalogs did want to be complete, for reasons of scholarly integrity) the offending objects might be at least partly camouflaged by a fig-leafy forest of erudition. Or as Kendrick quotes a late 19th century cataloguer:

...if we were treating another subject, we might be criticized for this extravaganza of erudition; here, however, we will no doubt be commended, just as sculptors are forgiven the overgrowth of foliage that sometimes screens the nudity of their figures...

And as women and the poor weren't usually educated in Greek and Latin, the cataloguers could feel safer about what they showed. Which makes it interesting, I think, how many smart, feisty heroines of romance fiction -- including my own Phoebe from Almost a Gentleman and Mary from The Slightest Provocation-- are Latinists.

In any event, at least in the case of classical art objects, viewing could be limited to the class of gentlemen. But what was the gentleman himself to think about the objects? Or about himself and his civilization?

Which is where Kendrick's history really gets interesting, subtle, frustrating, contradictory. And where, as it happens, a new word must be introduced to the discussion -- that of "pornography," only making its debut in English in the 1850s, though it pretends to be of far older provenance, by referring back to a very old, rare Greek usage, from a second century essay about certain painters of prostitutes.

And where, I see, by the length of this post, and the fact that I'm due to post it (oh, at least an hour ago), I'm going to have to leave off here. To return next time, with more history about this set of vexing questions and also with a host of questions about the erotic romance fiction we write today. About how we feel about it -- about whether we still find ways to separate and exclude (even if we're now the "gentlemen").

And also with this last quote from Kendrick, which so challenges and turns around the conventional wisdom of erotic romance (you know, "the sex furthers the story" thing we say so often) that I'm not even going to comment. Until next time anyway. But don't let that stop you.

Anyway, the quote is:

Perhaps there is something whorish about the very act of representing, since its product -- a book or picture -- is promiscuously available to all eyes.

What do you think?

And how does it relate to how you read erotic romance fiction like mine or other authors'?

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12 Comments:

Anonymous Susan/DC said...

In a corner of the British Museum I saw a silver Roman cup with a design of two men in a Roman bath, one sitting backward on the others lap, clearly engaged in intercourse, with a servant boy peering in from the doorway. It was quite beautifully worked, but I must admit a moment of shock. Here was fine art, but it was definitely not created with the aim of Elevating our Souls, unlike most of those examples in art history courses.

7:06 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

That whole "elevating the soul" business, Susan, isn't it weird? That's sort of what I'm getting at, the strange notions that come into play when we start wondering who we are and what rights we have to erotic pleasure outside the bedroom.

8:24 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

The more I study art history, especially Greco-Roman, I am amazed with how open and nonchalant they were about depiting erotic scenes--as a civilization, they were just not as inhibited as we are about it all.

Certianly, nakedness even in medieval England was not always in the context of sin and sex...more a fact of life and living.

Maybe it's the romance writer in me, but did sex become so taboo in the Regency/Edwardian/Victorian era that we can never recover? ;-)

7:06 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Pam, the erudition of your posts always blow me away!

I've long been a fan of antiquities, especially those of the ancient Greeks and they often find their way into my work. Of course my passion for ancient Greek history, culture, and mythology led me to write THE MEMOIRS OF HELEN OF TROY; and for TOO GREAT A LADY I had such fun researching and writing about Sir William Hamilton's collection, particularly his fascination with the cult of Priapus and his wax ex-votos which were the replicas of male members (I'm always worried about using certain words on this site, in case people's filters end up blocking genuine history).

He also wrote a treatise on them which he presented to the Dilettanti Society, complete with illustrations, and it was considered porn in its day. In fact it made its way across Europe in brown paper wrappers.

I visited Pompeii in 1983, and I understand that much more has been excavated since, but I did have the chance to visit the site of the bordello and see the terrific erotic frescoes and sculptures. We weren't supposed to take photographs, but wouldn't you know, my camera just had a mind of its own?

6:03 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

You know, Kathrynn, I've been pondering a set of related questions for as long as I've been writing erotic historicals -- related, but seeing it from the opposite p.o.v., perhaps.

What I always wonder is whether I'm historically accurate in imagining a certain sort of equality between the lovers I write about, allowing them a shared commitment to mutual pleasure, and a playful attitude to roles and to power.

To hell with it, I always conclude -- I can't do it any other way. And then I comfort myself among lovers certain shared, private modes of freedom and license and lust might always have transcended official culture, even at the height of the Victorian era -- I mean, it's not as though erotic possibilities are all that difficult to scope out.

Maybe, at least according to the mind-bending thought of the historian Michel Foucault, the big change is that "what is peculiar to modern societies, in fact is not that they consigned sex to a shadow existence, but that they dedicated themselves to speaking of it ad infinitum, while exploiting it as the secret."

Which would certainly put a different sort spin on the erotic romance and romantic erotic fiction of our era.

And yes, Amanda, I'm fascinated by Sir William Hamilton and his collections as well. And boy would I love to go to Pompeii.

8:31 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Meant to mention the aspect of "elevating the soul" -- I've always been a devoted student of art history. My high school AP course was taught by an eccentric elderly lady who was quite opinionated on the difference between a "nude" (which of course elevated the soul) and a "nekkid" (as she pronounced it) portrait of a woman. The boys in the class loved the assignment to compare e.g. a Titian Venus to a Playboy centerfold.

Re: Victorian erotica -- I do not blush to admit that I happen to have a collection of it, in modern edition paperbacks which I bought in London in a big Strand-type bookstore on Shaftsbury Avenue. When I moved in 2006 and boxed up my books, I labeled the box "bedtime stories."

6:26 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

"nude" vs "nekkid" -- great example, Amanda, of the feckless, ultimately useless and meaningless urge to draw distinctions between the "good" kind of sexy art and the kind we need to protect other people from. Kendrick's book is a series of intelligent and exasperated comments as he follows the twists and turns of this journey since the Pompeian excavations.

I myself can't get too interested in the Victorian stuff -- for me the great age of... whatever you want to call it... is the French eighteenth century.

9:35 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

"for me the great age of... whatever you want to call it... is the French eighteenth century."

From an artistic standpoint, I agree. Give me Choderos de Laclos over "The Pearl" anyday. But for years when I ran my nonprofit theatre company which specialized in neglected classics of the 19th c. English theatre, I was keen to get into some of what was brewing beneath the surface of the tightly corseted society, underneath those pruriently covered piano legs...

10:22 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Very thought provoking post Pam! I confess that I often skip through the Greek and Roman galleries when I'm at the Met. It wasn't until I did a scavenger hunt and I actually had to solve a puzzle using a statue in the galleries that I actually spent time looking at them.

I find it fascinating that something so simple as a strap falling off a woman's shoulder in the portrait of Madam X could be so shocking in the 19th century yet at the same time you have all that sort of underground Victorian pornography.

5:29 AM  
Anonymous Pam Rosenthal said...

I wasn't a big fan of classical art or literature until recently, Elizabeth, when it whomped me with the weight of centuries.

A double whammy, actually:

First simply the fact of these enormous civilizations inventing what I think of as culture in so many ways, obvious and not so obvious... Like here's a factoid for you: the Pantheon in Rome was financed from treasures brought back from the temple in Jerusalem (well, that sort of brings things home for me).

And the other side of the double whammy is how the gentlemen of imperial Western Europe reconfigured classical history and culture -- retrospectively, in their own fraught self-images.

And how we continue to do so.

7:51 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a fabulous post, Pam! I think understanding attitudes toward the erotic is a fascinating challenge for the writer of historical fiction. There can be a tendency to project Victorian attitudes backward to eras that were much more frank in their approach to these matters. And then in any era, there's always a wide range of attitudes and practices. One of the things I was trying to do in "Beneath a Silent Moon" was look at a range of attitudes toward love and sex (including the contrast between the attitude of the 18th century parents and their Regency children). Perhaps not surprisingly, that book included a lot of descriptions of eroticized art :-).

1:42 PM  
Anonymous Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks, Tracy. Yes, I loved those aspects of Beneath a Silent Moon. And I wondered if there might be a resemblance to the situation of those of my generation who grew up in the wild and crazy sixties and the one that came after us. Certainly I've heard a lot from younger people asking, "Didn't anybody have a job back then?

2:03 PM  

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