History of Erotica

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EROTICA, are literary or artistic works of a predominantly libidinous nature. The distinetion between erotiea and pomography rests on the manifest intention of the work rather than on the explicitness of the subject matter. Many art masterpieces from Botticelli (1445-1510) on involve realistic depietions of the nude figure in suggestive combinations, and great literary works from the Song of Songs to James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) have a distinctly erotic coloring. However, works intended primarily to excite prurience are generally judged to be pornographic and considered objeetionable on moral, social, or aesthetic grounds.

Ancient Middle and Far East. The numerous vestiges of phallic worship, symbolized by the lingam, menhir, and herm, testify to the development in antiquity of erotic cults dedicated to the promotion of fertility and the resurreetion of the dead. Most of the divinities of the Mediterranean mystery religions—for example, Dionysus, Isis, and Ishtar—had sexual connotations. Far Eastem art and literature were influenced by Tantrism, a variety of erotic mysticism that spread över much of India in the 7th and 8th centuries a. d. Tantric mysticism, combined with the amatory practices deseribed in such manuals as the Kamasutra (İst century a. d. ) by Vatsyayana, resulted in the erotic sculptures of the Hindu temples at Khajurâho (lOthllth centuries). In 16th century India there began a florescence of art and poetry centered on the god Krishna as a symbol of bhakti, the divine love that sanctifies the sexual union.

Ancient Greece. The early Greek arts represented mainly aggressive sexuality, such as the rape of virgins by gods. In the classic period amatory relations took on a more peaceful look. The love poetry of Sappho (6th century b. c. ) suggests an intensely personal experience. Generally, however, love is depicted in Greek tragedy as a ruinous madness; in comedy, as mainly bawdy and senseless. In the 4th century b. c., with Praxiteles’ Cnidian Aphrodite, the love goddess first appeared nude. Later she was often shown as a courtesan. Love was not depicted romantically until Hellenistic times.

Rome. In Roman poetry love is a sickness of the soul. Sexual relations in Petronius’ Satyricon (1st century a. d. ) are tastelessly explicit. However, the erotic lyrics of Catullus, Propertius, and Tibullus exhibit a deep humanity that is in sharp contrast to the bawdiness of Plautine comedy and the sophisticated libertinism of Ovid’s Amores (İst century b. c.). Pornographic embellishments such as those of the Lupanar in Pompeii are attributable to Hellenic influence on the underworld of Roman society.

Middle Ages and Renaissance. With the rise of Christianity there was a strengthening of moral sanetions. Even so, medieval love poetry is deeply sensual, and medieval art is often bawdy. However, from the 12th through much of the 19th century, the literature of love was strongly motivated by a Platonic tendeney to refine the fleshly experience into something uniquely spiritual. It is this tendeney coupled with the idealization of the beloved that gives romantic love its special character. In this respect the exquisite love songs of Petrarch (13041374) furnished a model for centuries.

Along with these idealistic tendencies, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance developed a tradition of “realistic” literature and art. The eroticism of such courtly works as the Lancelot (12th century) by Chretien de Troyes and The Romance of the Rose (13th century) by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meung was refined by means of casuistry and allegory. On a more obviouş level were the rhymed fabliaux, such as The Miller’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterhunj Tales (about 1390). To this realistic tradition belong also the prose novelle of Boccaccio’s Decameron (about 1350) and Rabelais’ Pantagruel (1532-1552). Another sort of realism is the strain of halfsensual, halfideal love celebrated in Boccaccio’s Filostrato (before 1340) and its English counterpart, Chaucer’s Troilus and Cressida (about 1385).

The erotic literature and art of the Renaissance were quite restrained. Artists from Botticelli on disguised their sensuality in a eloak of mythology or allegory. The classical atmosphere that dignifies the fleshly paintings of Titian, Tintoretto, and Rubens has its literary counterpart in the sensuality of Shakespeare‘s Venus and Adonis (1593) and Marlowe’s Hero and Leander (1598). The age was not prudish, but the need to justify sensual things was more powerful than the urge to display them.

The Restoration. The Restoration in England was more openly licentious than the Renaissance, but both the literature and the art of the time are characterized by a gallantry and a selfconscious wit that is very far from passion. The bloodless libertinism of Restoration comedy is bawdy and often boisterous, but it has a strain of classic irony that prevents even so provocative a play as Wycherley’s The Country Wife (1675) from seeming more than a jeu d’esprit.

The 18th Century. In the 18th century, sensuality became sophisticated. The elegant lasciviousness of such painters as Boucher and Watteau is refleeted in the witty libertinism of Voltaire’s Candide (1758) and Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1760-1767). The erotic paintings of Goya reflect a more romantic view, eloser to the mood of Casanova’s Memoirs (about 1790), but the eamestness of such works as Justine (1791) by the Marquis de Sade well exceeded the permissible bounds of exhibitionism in this period.

The 19th Century. Less bizarre tendencies were developed during the romantic era. There is a healthy sensuality in the poetry of Keats and Byron. But in the later phases of romanticism, as in the Poems (1870) of Rossetti, may be seen the germs of the decadent spirit associated with Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1893) and the prurient illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley.

Modern Period. In the later 19th century the idea that love is a spiritual longing was progressively disparaged, and the Petrarchan tradition ended. The psychic diseomfort of the French symbolists brought about the development of a complex eroticism, exemplified by such poetry as Mallarme’s L’Apresmidi d’un faune (1876). From such works of introspection stem the Freudian fantasies of surrealism, and, by way of reaction, the brutal eroticism of such modern novels as Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934). The renewed emphasis on the purely carnal aspects of sexuality and the development of works of explicitly fleshly character, such as the grim caricatures of George Grosz and Picasso and the erotic films of such direetors as Federico Fellini, illustrate the desperate sensuality of the latter half of the 20th century.





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