Hooked on Classics Redux: Eros, Esthetics, Empire
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'?