BY Zalin Grant
Erotica or Pornography--there is a difference. What makes the difference, though, is hazy and open to debate. Ultimately it comes down to personal opinion. After all, both terms represent an attempt to classify the simplest and most complex of human instincts: Sexuality. And who can truly speak for anyone but themselves in this domain?
To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart's comment in a famous obscenity case: I can't define the difference between erotic literature and pornography, but I know it when I see it.
My starting point is the derivation of the two words, both from the ancient Greek. Eros was the god of love; porne the name for a harlot or prostitute. Thus we have an implication of eroticism as sexual desire expressed with a more subtle sensibility than pornography, which seeks to excite--without intellectual or emotional adornment--the basic instinct.
By this measure America has always had a taste for pornography and France for erotica. To trot out the old bugaboo of Puritanism in explanation seems hackneyed, but there also seems no way around it, since religious and governmental repression of anything considered even vaguely sexually explicit created a counter movement to describe and show sex as graphically as possible--to rub their noses in it, so to speak, in that blunt all-American way.
Mark Twain, acidly mocking hypocrisy and repression, clandestinely published the most obscene, scatological novel of America in the 19th century. His work, 1601, or, a Fireside Conversation, still has the power to shock. Not the nose, Samuel Clemens rubbed the whole American face in it, as it were.
Perhaps, too, as a young country the United States did not have time to develop an erotic tradition before the forces of censorship overwhelmed. This occurred after John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (later known as the Memoirs of Fanny Hill) was published in England in 1749 and made its way across the Atlantic.
Fanny Hill, orphaned at fifteen, was placed by a neighbor in a London brothel, where she was a quick learner and given the most difficult clients to please. A strong and enduring influence on writing of this type, John Cleland's book even springboarded a contemporary work of pornography or erotica--your choice--by an American female author.
At bottom, though, Fanny Hill, however charming as a character, was a prostitute with no redeeming intellectual or emotional value, save as a literary device for Cleland's idealization of debauchery. And no one was more likely to stir outrage in the pious hearts of America.
In 1819 two persons were arrested in Massachusetts for trying to sell Fanny. In 1821 Vermont enacted a law against obscenity, and other states followed. Since most pornography came from England, a federal law was passed in 1842 prohibiting the importation of writing and pictures of an "indecent and obscene character."
Americans reacted by creating their own Fannies--Fanny in the New World, reincarnated as factory worker or barmaid, printed on cheap paper and accompanied by crude porno engravings. Eventually a more artistic approach to writing about sex was developed by Americans, but most of these authors--Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin come to mind--were formed in Paris, not New York. Even the best example of modern American erotica--James Salter's A Sport and a Pastime--had its roots in France.
Over all, the chief American contribution to eroticism has been visual, from early drawings in Esquire to the airbrushed photographs of Playboy. But here the line was quickly crossed once videos came into play. Deep Throat or Debbie Does Dallas--erotic?
Pornography inevitably seeped into U.S. official life. The "Starr Report," a rub-your-nose-in-it description of sex acts between a president and an intern, disgusted Europeans and alerted many Americans that the national taste--or tastelessness--for pornography had gone too far.
So not without reason has the world long considered France as the keeper of the erotic flame. France of course did not light the torch. Aristophanes's Lysistrata, a play about a Greek woman who urged her compatriots to dress in garter belts and slutty stuff to entice their men, and then to just say "no" until they stopped the Vietnam-style war raging at the time (poetic license here?), was written 411 years before the birth of Christ. And the road to France passed through the erotic works of classical Rome and the Italian Renaissance.
In any event, France had become the European model for the art of sex by the eighteenth century. It was L'Age d'Or du Libertinage, the Golden Age of Libertinage, and to call someone a libertine carried a more subtle nuance in French than in English, connoting not so much debauchery and dissolution as a certain free-spiritedness in the sexual realm.
The French not only adored sex but preferred it spiced with wit and style. Thus another ingredient of the erotic: a sense of humor.
This did not mean that France had become a country of such open-mindedness that it was free of obscenity laws and state or religious repression. Censorship had been abolished in 1881 but when a young French editor published the complete works of the Marquis de Sade after World War Two, the government reacted by seizing the book and fining him, although the penalty was overturned on appeal. Censorship has reared its head since, but weakly.
In France, unlike in the United States, French erotic writing attracted the support and participation of writers and artists throughout the spectrum of society, including women, two of whom wrote early sizzlers still noted today, not to mention The Story of O. Some authors chose to remain anonymous, others proudly flew the phallic flag.
Louis Aragon wrote Le Con d'Irene, while Appollinaire and two of his fellow poets undertook, in 1913, to catalog the vast collection of erotica accumulated over several centuries in France's national library. Painters like Fragonard and Boucher were renowned for their erotic works.
That said, one might get the impression that the French are a licentious people whose shelves overflow with sex books. After thirty years of intimacy with France, of ships passing in the night, of one long-term French wife, of friends and acquaintances on all levels, I can attest that this is not true--although French sexual attitudes continue to amuse, confuse, and surprise me.
The French seem unexpectedly conservative about sex when you get to know them. And judging by the few books on the subject found in their bookstores, they appear uninterested in reading about it, at least about the mechanics and how-to's which hold a continuing fascination for Americans.
I put this paradox to my art-dealer friend Robert Zantain, the fact that the French have a world reputation for eroticism, yet are restrained and extremely discreet in social settings, people who would much rather talk about food than sex.
"You're right," Robert replied. "The French are, in general, ordinary and no different from other nationalities when it comes to sex." Then his eyes lit up. "Ah, but when the French are libertine, nobody in the world is more libertine than us!"
So yes, there is a difference. I sometimes amuse my American friends by reading aloud from the in-search-of announcements in a leading French éxchangiste magazine. A typical announcement by a woman might run: "I seek a gang bang [the American term is used], a sperm shower, enjoy crude words and would love to be a sandwich. Mais sans vulgaritié."
But without vulgarity!
One wonders what, if anything, constitutes vulgarity in their sexual relations. Perhaps if you used the overly familiar tu in speaking to someone at an orgy, instead of vous, you would be viewed as a crass and presumptuous vulgarian.
Indeed the way it is said often seems more important than what is said in French erotic writing. Anything goes but only if it has a wit and style that rises above simple prurience--transcends, as Nabokov put it, "the copulation of clichés."
This is why I've chosen the following two tales of the French érotique, both classics from the 1920s, the first written and illustrated by two men, the second by two women. Taken together, tales and illustrations, The Two of US is one of the finest collections of erotica ever published.
Copyright 1998 by Pythia Press
Contact: Janice Terry
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