Literature and sex

Literature and Sex #

The sexual instinct is an intregal part of nature and being human. It is nature’s way of propagating our species.

Early writers wrote openly about our sexual needs, but the prudery began somewhere after Shakespeare’s time.

Until the 1960’s we were raised in a state of Victorian ignorance about the human body. Practical information about sexual matters was sketchy. Masturbation was considered illegal with some committed to mental asylums. Sex was simply not talked about.

Coming to accept our sexuality can be the most traumatising yet humanising experience we encounter. Most religions treat it as a taboo which can create psychological problems throughout life.

As part of Maslow’s five interdependent levels of basic human needs the fulfillment of our sexual urges is vital for a well balanced life. It is an integral part of each of these:

  • Physiological needs for survival (to stay alive and reproduce) and security (to feel safe) are the most fundamental and most pressing needs.
  • Social needs (for love and belonging) and self-esteem needs (to feel worthy, respected, and have status). —
  • Personal - the highest level needs are self-actualization needs (self-fulfillment and achievement).

Human beings are ‘wanting’ beings: as they satisfy one need the next emerges on its own and demands satisfaction … and so on until the need for self-actualization that, by its very nature, cannot be fully satisfied and thus does not generate more needs.

We all want to be valued and appreciated. Good healthy sex ennobles us making us feel complete; coercive sex can be utterly traumatic, leading to self loathing and suicide.

The pressure of individuals choosing their own spouses was being felt throughout Europe indicating that a transition from the arranged marriage was beginning.

Yet in many societies sex has become a taboo subject. We will take an historical literary approach to it. If you find other writers you feel deal with the issue in a mature manner, do not hesitate to contact the website.

Ancient Times #

Gilgamesh #

The earliest written literature is likely The Epic of Gilgamesh. It deals with it in an open unashamed manner.

Gilgamesh, a super hero, 2/3 god and 1/3 man, corrupted by his power, becoming an abusive oppressive tyrant. Gilgamesh claims “Prima Nocta”, the right of the King to sleep with all brides on their wedding night.

The gods, listening to the complaints of his people send a priestess, the Goddess of Love, Shamhat, a sacred prostitute, to offer herself to Enkidu, a wild brutalised man, and they make love continuously for six days and seven nights.

Enkidu is transformed by that experience, and becomes socialised, humanised and empathetic.

By becoming human, he loses something. He loses his kinship with the animals and the ability to be with them because they’re afraid of his smell after this experience.

When Enkidu discovers Gilgamesh’s claim of “Prima Nocta” he challenges it. When the fight ends in a draw, the two men, Gilgamesh and Enkidu become great friends and travel the world together.

It’s a kind of Anti-Garden of Eden story, where instead of sexuality being a fall, it’s an initiation into what it means to be human.

Text @: https://nebo-lit.com/novel/in-skin-of-lion/text-epic-of-gilgamesh.html

Enheduanna #

Competing with Gilgamesh as the first writer is Enheduanna, the love priestess daughter of, King Sargon the Great, about 2300, who had created an empire centered at the city of UR in the fertile crescent on the banks of the Tigris River.

She enthusiastically expresses the joy of existence.

Sappho #

Sappho, a Greek poetess, innovated lyric poetry both in technique and style, writing poetry from the point of view of gods and muses to the personal vantage point of the individual, writing from the first person, describing love and loss as it affected her personally.

Her style was sensual and melodic; primarily songs of love, yearning, and reflection. Most commonly the target of her affections was female.

Poems @: https://nebo-lit.com/love/sappho-love-poetry.html

Homer #

Both The Iliad and The Odyssey deal with the sexual urge directly and unashamedly.

In the ninth year of the seige of Troy, the Greeks have raided a nearby settlement in search of “comfort women”. Agamemnon has unknowingly captured the daughter of a priest of Apollo and refuses a request from him to give her back.

When Agamemnon forces Achilles to give up his prize booty, a young maiden called Briseis, Achilles, in high dungeon simply refuses to fight anymore, giving the Trojans the advantage.

Later when Briseis is restored to him, they declare their love for each other.

The Odyssey

A Mock Invocation:

“Sing to me muse, and through me tell the story of a man who lets all his men die, lies to everyone he meets, cheats on his wife with assorted nymphs and takes ten years that google says should have taken two weeks."

The women in Homer offer a fascinating account of male Greeks attitudes and views towards women. They were seen as playing an important part in the family and household. Hector tells his wife Andromache,

dear wife, don’t grieve for me too deeply yet. None will send me to Hades before my time: though no man, noble or humble, once born can escape his fate. Go home, and attend to your tasks, the loom and spindle, and see the maids work hard. War is a man’s concern, the business of every man in Ilium, and mine above all.’

Like, Penelope, they were required to be good wives or virtuous like Nausicaa.

Independent and sexually liberated women, Helen, Clytemnestra, Calypso, Cassandra…who lived beyond the control of men were seen as dangerous and this was used to justify their lowly status and general powerlessness.

Women suffer from a double standard; the exact same behaviour that types women as sluts, types men as studs. For men to sleep with lots of women, lots of women have to sleep with men.

The only way to become a good heroic strong man (BSD) like Oysseus, is to prove your virility by bedding lots of women. If a woman, Penelope, has sex with lots of men, she’s tainted as impure and horrible and be put to death or dishonouring her man.

The philosopher, Seneca, defined a man as wicked who required his wife to be chaste, but he himself has a mistress. He praised the chastity of woman not for abstract moral reasons, but because she did not pollute the blood of the ancestors with illegitimate offspring.

Seneca’s advice to his mother to cease her grieving.

“You are beautiful, with an age-defying appeal that needs no make-up, so stop acting like the worst kind of vain woman."

You never polluted yourself with make-up, and you never wore a dress that covered about as much on as it did off. Your only ornament, the kind of beauty that time does not tarnish, is the great honour of modesty.

So you cannot use your sex to justify your sorrow when with your virtue you have transcended it. Keep as far away from women’s tears as from their faults.

Penelope tests her husband on the secret of their marriage bed. When he passes:

“and so she too rejoiced, her gaze upon her husband, her white arms around him pressed as though forever”.

Odysseus killing all the suitors and the maids who had slept with them is problematic, because they are not at war. In Homer’s memorable line:

“They were strung up like little birds; they kicked their legs but not for long."

These vivacious victims requite the hero’s desire for patriarchal order.

Hesiod #

Hesiod was the first to record that, Eros, fairest among the deathless gods,

“unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind”.

In Works and Days, Hesiod’s describes high summer as the season when women are most attractive and men in turn weakest.

“Women! This coin, which men find counterfeit! Why, why, Lord Zeus, did you put them in the world, in the light of sun? If you were so determined to breed the race of men, the source of it should not have been women. . . .”

Men have been undone both by being trusting and by not being so. Let not a woman who dresses to show off her behind deceive your noos, cajoling you with her crafty words, ready to infest your granary.

Whoever puts his trust in a woman puts his trust in tricksters. (375)

Sexual attraction is an inherent and irresistible force for all humans.

Biblical view #

Eve’s successful tempting Adam to eat of the fruit of tree of knowledge makes them feel ashamed of their nakedness. The Bible portrays a conflicted and ambiguous view of our sexuality.

The figures of David—shepherd, warrior, and divinely protected king—-and of his son Solomon—great builder, wise judge, and serene ruler of a vast empire—have become timeless models of righteous leadership under God’s sanction.

Yet, both David and Solomon also have great human flaws.

One afternoon, David, walking on the roof of the Jerusalem palace, saw a beautiful woman bathing on a neighbour’s roof. David found out that she was married to Uriah the Hittite, so he sent a servant over to get her, and he slept with her, and she went back home. When she found out she was pregnant, David arranged for her husband to be sent to the front lines of the battle field, where he was killed. Bathsheba gave birth to Solomon, who as King

When David was old and stricken in years; his servants found a young virgin to lie in thy bosom, that my lord the king may get heat. 4 And the damsel was very fair, and cherished the king, and ministered to him: but the king knew her not. Kings I.

You might wonder why he doesn’t avail himself of some of Bathsheba’s warmth?

For Evangelicals, King David, Trump is a sinner, a flawed vessel, but he nevertheless offers a path to salvation for a fallen nation.

Solomon is celebrated throughout the world as the richest and wisest of kings. He marries a pharaoh’s daughter and gains renown as an insightful judge, author of proverbs, and master of knowledge about all the riches of creation—The queen of Sheba journeys all the way to Jerusalem from her distant kingdom in Arabia to meet him, Solomon’s image is the ideal convergence of wisdom, opulence, and power in the person of a king.

Solomon’s harem consisted of approximately 700 wives and 300 concubines. But king Solomon loved many strange women, including the Queen of Sheba, together with the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites. Kings 11 (KJV)

Commenting on the moral climate of his day, Solomon wrote:

“One upright man out of a thousand I found, but a woman among them I have not found. This alone I have found: The true God made mankind upright, but they have sought out many schemes.” (Eccl. 7:26-29, ftn.)

The Song of Solomon sings the praises of our bodies.

Solomon falls in love with a maiden who in turn is unyieldingly in love with her shepherd. This is how Solomon attempts to woo her:

O prince’s daughter!
The curves of your hips are like jewels,
Your navel is like a round goblet
Your belly is like a heap of wheat
Your two breasts are like two fawns,
The king is captivated by your tresses.

Christ’s Sermon on the Mount is clear:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ (28) But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

It is the quirkiness and unruliness of sexual impulse: fantasies — of submission, abandon, extremity,— that do not necessarily translate into reality; they are untrue to the workings of the sexual imagination.

Sexual fantasies are quite commonly inconsistent with one’s social values and this should not in itself be a cause for alarm.

The Apostle Paul also had an inhibiting influence on Christian attitudes to sex, urging people to resist and save themselves for the coming of Chirst, yet allowing them “to marry, rather than burn”.

Ovid #

Ovid experienced a world of chaos and iron firsthand when, in AD 8, he was banished by Augustus. His wrongdoings were, in his own words, carmen et error (“a poem and a mistake”).

The poem was the Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), a three-volume lovers’ handbook that explains the dos and don’ts of personal grooming, how to organise trysts with married women (get her maid “on side”), repairing a broken heart (surprise your “ex” while she’s in the middle of her beauty routine.

This upset Augustus who exiled Ovid due the impression that the Ars Amatoria ridiculed his moral reforms.

Abelard and Heloise #

Among the most famous lovers of Medieval times, Abelard and Heloise, celebrated their love making by experimenting with unconventional methods. Abelard detailed their irresistible passionate relationship:

“Our desires left no stage of lovemaking untried, and if love could devise something new, we welcomed it. We entered on each joy the more because of our previous inexperience and were all the less easily sated”.

Because he was her Philosopher tutor and twenty years her senior, her father, took exception when she became pregnant and sought revenge by having Abelard brutally beaten and castrated. Humiliated by the loss of his manhood, the lovers take religious vows as monk and nun; are separated for twenty years, and when they meet again, though the physical aspect of their relationship is no longer possible, declare their eternal love and oneness.

Heloise writing 12 years after the separation admits: “Even in sleep I find no respite”. Though brief, the lovers found eternal true love.

Courtly Love #

Originating with the troubadours of southern Europe, Courtly Love illustrates the pain of unrequited romantic love - an emotional dead end because marriages were arranged as social contracts to consolidate property.

Marriage for the upper classes was seen as a social contract to consolidate power through alliances. Monarchs sought the best unions to promote peace with rival states.

Romantic Love mainly applied to the lower property less classes. The french expression coup de foudre refers to love at first sight - a thunderbolt. It can be intense, hot and urgent, but often fades with time.

Whether Courtly Love was merely a literary phenomenon celebrated in verse or actual practice has scholars perplexed. It was likely both, with the literary protestations slightly exaggerated.

Essentially Courtly Love was a code of love making originating from the 12^(th) Century and reflected in European Literature. It was generally restricted to courtiers, the aristocracy who lived in the Court of the reigning monarch. With plenty of leisure time on their hands, they would devote it to the complaints of the unrequited lover.

Men and women fall in love with an idealised image of each other and in ideal cases never consummate their attraction.

Dante and Beatrice Dante - {1265 -1321} (56) #

Dante fell in love with Beatrice at first sight at the age of nine and she eight.

“from that time forward, Love quite governed my soul”

Beatrice married and died at 24. She remained his idealised muse even after he sights her in Purgatorio. His sublimated and spiritualized love ends with Dante’s total absorption in the divine.

Petrarch and Laura {1304 – 1374} #

Petrarch saw Laura first n St. Claire Church in Avignon on April 6, 1327 at the age of 23. She became his lifelong obsession, even after her death on April 6, 1348, even though they probably never even met.

Laura has traditionally been identified as Laura de Noves of Avignon, a married woman and a mother.

Chaucer #

Chaucer had an ability to delicately portray the earthiness of the world and everything above and beneath it. His language can be bawdy, ribald and crude when it suits him.

The Wife of Bath #

As Peter Craven puts it:

“Part of the trick with Chaucer is that the schematics of his comedy are heartless, but the movement of the human figures beats with life and is utterly lithe and sensuous in its telling”.

Totally shameless, The Wife is willing to let it all out.

“Husbands at chirche dore she hadde fyve withouten other comapaignye in youthe”.

She readily admits she is out opportunistically looking for husband number six, and she is willing to “use my instrumente”.

Chaucer is open in his naming of private body parts. She acknowledged that all men want is her “queynte”.

444 Is it for ye wolde have my queynte allone? (genitals)
446 Peter! I shrewe yow, but ye love it weel;
447 For if I wolde selle my bele chose, (genitals)

She is up for the highest bidder.

Her argument against virginity is clever,

“if procreation stopped, where would virgins come from? The Apostle Paul merely recommended virginity, he didn’t demand it.

The Pardoner’s Tale #

Carried away by his eloquence, the Pardoner conducts an altar call offering relics for sale to cleanse the Pilgrims sins and become as innocent as the day they were born. He offers pardon for all their sins as long as they give him gold coins and silver pennies, assuring them they are so lucky to have such a Pardoner with so much power.

He calls on the Host to be the first to kiss his relics. Offended the usually genial and urbane Host retorts:

948 Thou would make me kiss thine old underpants,
949 And swear it was a relic of a saint,
950 Though it were stained by thy fundament!
951 But, by the cross that Saint Helen found,
952 I would I had thy testicles in my hand
953 Instead of relics or a container for relics.
954 Have them cut off, I will help thee carry them;
955 They shall be enshrined in a hog’s turd!”

The Pardoner was speechless and the two almost came to blows before the Knight stepped in to try to mediate and restore order and cheer.

The Miller’s Tale is generally considered the most lewd where an older carpenter’s younger, flirting wife entices a lover to reach up from a lower window for a kiss. Her husband sticks his backside out and blows wind.

Donne #

Donne openly and unashamedly celebrated the sensual and erotic physical sexuality in his both his love and religious poetry. He illustrated the the battle between our angelic and animal qualities.

In his Love’s Progress, Donne insists that sex was the “right, true end of love”, central to our understanding of sexuality.

Katherine Rundell claims Donne is one of the great poets of sexual intimacy, a sensualist at ease with the mixing, merging, and consolidation of bodies and souls

His love poems are infused with religious imagery while his religious poems attempt to reconcile our carnal needs with spiritual platonic devotion and with openly sexual conceits.

Shakespeare #

As in most areas Shakespeare is ambiguous in his exposition of physical love.

Taming of a Shrew #

Shakespeare’s ribald language:

PETRUCHIO

Who knows not where a wasp does
wear his sting? In his tail.

KATHARINA

In his tongue. PETRUCHIO Whose tongue? KATHARINA Yours, if you talk of tails: and so farewell. PETRUCHIO What, with my tongue in your tail? nay, come again, Good Kate; I am a gentleman.

Hamlet #

Hamlet can be an indicator of his Misogyny.

T.S Eliot suggests that Shakespeare’s Hamlet, .. is a play dealing with the effect of a mother’s guilt upon her son Hamlet appears to put more blame on his mother for betraying his father than anyone else.

–Frailty, thy name is woman!–
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow’d my poor father’s body,
Like Niobe, all tears:–why she, even she–
O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourn’d longer–married with my uncle,
My father’s brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules: within a month:
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not nor it cannot come to good:
But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue.

At the Performance of the Play:

HAMLET

for, look you, how cheerfully my mother looks, and my father died within these two hours.

OPHELIA

Nay, ‘tis twice two months, my lord.

HAMLET

So long?………. . O heavens! die two
months ago, and not forgotten yet?
Then there’s hope a great man’s memory
may outlive his life half a year.

Later as she comments on the Prologue of the Play:

OPHELIA

‘Tis brief, my lord.

HAMLET

As woman’s love.

Hamlet shows the contrast between brutish and noble love

a) hatred of uncle paradoxically motivated by love of father

b) love for mother disillusions him creating emotional turmoil - Oedipus Complex?

c) Romantic love centered on Ophelia but thwarted

i) Polonius forbids Ophelia to respond

ii) Ghost demands revenge

iii) reasons of state demand he marry elsewhere

iv) Ophelia’s lie (where her father is) convinces Hamlet of her duplicity and betrayal. Hamlet tells her “Get thee to a nunnery”

Eventually he rejects all women

“Frailty thy name is woman”

d) Hamlet’s friendship with Horatio III.ii.54—75

Platonic, ideal full of high noble virtue

e) Brutish love — lust between Claudius & Gertrude

Ghost: of Claudius:

incestuous and adulterate beast

Claudius:

“rank — smells to high heaven”

Queen: sees her soul:

such black and grained spots

Hamlet: Scolds mother for living:

In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stewed in corruption, honeying, and making love
Over the nasty sty’
(III. iv. 11. 99—102)

Hamlet as he kills Claudius:

“Here thou incestuous murderous damned Dane” (V.ii.339)

King Lear #

Lear’s misogyny is shown in a most spiteful vindictive curse attacking the core of femininity:

Hear Nature hear Dear Goddess hear!
Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful.
Into her womb convey sterility;
Dry up in her the organs of increase;

  • ……………….If she must teem
    Create her child of spleen, that it may live
    and be thwart disnatured torment to her…..” I.iv.273 – 280.

Lear’s sexism is revealed in:

And let not women’s weapons, water drops,
Stain my man’s cheeks! No! You unnatural hags! *II.iv. 277

His metaphysical musing on the cause of evil parallels Albany:

Then let them anatomise Regan.
See what breeds about Her heart.
Is there any cause in nature that makes
These hard hearts?
III.vi.75 – 77

His misogynistic and chauvinistic ranting hits a nadir with:

Behold yond simpering dame,
Whose face between her forks presages snow,
That minces virtue, and does shake the head
To hear of pleasure’s name.
The fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to it
With a more riotous appetite.
Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
Though women all above.
But to the girdle do the god’s inherit,
Beneath is all the fiends. IV. vi. 118 – 126

John Bell writes:

Shakespeare’s young heroines are wise beyond their years and frequently display greater wisdom and maturity than their male counterparts.

The thirteen-year-old Juliet makes a man of the droopy adolescent Romeo and kills herself rather than live a life of compromise.

Desdemona and Cordelia are not the pale pathetic victims of the Romantic tradition.

Desdemona is a gutsy young woman who defies her father and society’s norms by eloping with a middle-aged black soldier. Hardly a wilting violet. Betrayed by the evil malice of Iago, she is murdered by her husband, but with her dying breath tries to save his life. When asked,

‘Who hath done this deed,’ she replies, ‘Nobody; I myself; Farewell; Commend to be to my kind Lord.'

A similar generosity of spirit and forgiveness is found in Cordelia. Mightily wronged by her father for having the courage to speak her mind, she nevertheless returns from exile in France at the head of an army in an attempt to save the aged crazy Lear. Coming to his senses, the old King throws himself at his daughter’s feet and begs forgiveness:

‘If you have poison for me I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I remember, done me wrong;
You have some cause, they have not.’

She softly answers:

‘No cause, no cause.’

Modernism #

The prudery of the Victorian Era constrained explicit mention of sex until the rise of the Bloomsbery set.

Inner and lower were the directions modernist writers took literature, toward what goes on inside the head and below the waist.

That is certainly how readers experienced modernism, at least, and why the books attracted the censors. For the writers themselves, it was largely about technique. To modernize is not to make a brand-new thing; it’s to bring an old thing up to date.

James Joyce’s Ulysses writing about the bodily functions that caused all the trouble. When Joyce was asked what really happened between Bloom and Gerty, he said,

“Nothing…It all took place in Bloom’s imagination.”

Tropic of Cancer, a novel by Henry Miller has been described as “notorious for its candid sexuality” and as responsible for the “free speech that we now take for granted in literature.” It was first published in 1934 in Paris, France, but banned in the United States.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover a novel by D. H. Lawrence, first published privately in 1928, in Italy, and in 1929, in France. It too failed to pass muster.

T.S. Eliot #

Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, to a respectable and straight laced family. During his studies in Philosophy at Harvard, in 1910 spent a year on his own in a Parisian boarding-house with a companion, Jean Verdenal, who died serving as a medical officer during the First World War in Gallipoli. Some suggest repressed homosexual feelings.

In a letter of 1914 to his friend Conrad Aiken, Eliot admitted that his stay in Paris occasioned ‘one of those nervous sexual attacks which I suffer from when alone in a city’.

In 1913, Thomas Stearns Eliot and Emily Hale performed in a theatrical adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma,”. They began seeing each other and after more than a year, Eliot proclaimed his love. Hale’s response was less than enthusiastic and dejected,

Eliot left to study in Germany until war broke out and he fled to England where in June, 1915, he published his first major poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and married Vivienne Haigh-Wood, an English governess who was passionate about the arts and, unbeknownst to Eliot, prone to mental illness.

They shared a flat with Bertrand Russell. Eliot had met Russell at Harvard, when Russell was lecturing there. Soon after Eliot arrived in England, they ran into each other on the street, went for tea, and began a friendship. Russell thought Eliot the brightest of the American philosophy students he had met, however, Russell also thought Eliot was,

“lacking in the crude insistent passion that one must have in order to achieve anything.”

Vivienne, writing to a friend shortly after her marriage reveals,

“I am very popular with Tom’s friends, and who do you think in particular? No less a person than Bertrand Russell!! He is all over me, is Bertie, and I simply love him. I am dining with him next week.

Russell, separated, was having an affair with Ottoline Morrell, who enjoyed an “open marriage”.

In September,1915, he reported to Morell that Vivienne had

“a great deal of mental passion & no physical passion, a universal vanity, that makes her desire every man’s devotion, & a fastidiousness that makes any expression of their devotion disgusting to her”—which suggests that something did happen, or failed to happen, between them.

In Eliot’s surviving letters to Russell, there is nothing indicating suspicion, only gratitude. How T. S. Eliot became T. S. Eliot, By Louis Menand

One account suggests, Eliot came home one night to find Vivienne and Bertrand in bed together. He then took leave at Margate Beach.

In a letter from Vivien to a friend on 13th October 1921, she states that,

“Tom has had a rather serious breakdown and has had to stop all work and go away for three months.’ The Letters of T S Eliot, Edited Valerie Eliot, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York and London, 1988, 478).

A few days later on the 26th October, writing from the Albermarle Hotel, Cliftonville, near Margate she tells another friend that she has joined Eliot and that he is:

`getting on amazingly. It is not quite a fortnight yet but he looks already younger and fatter and nicer.’

On the 1st November, Vivienne wrote to Bertrand Russell that Eliot was:

‘at present in Margate, of all cheerful spots! But he seems to like it!’

Eliot himself wrote of his daily routine on 4th November.

I have done a rough draft of part III [of the`Waste Land’] but do not know whether it will do, and must wait for Vivien’s opinion as to whether it is printable. ‘

On the recommendation of Morrell, Eliot sought treatment in Lausanne, from a doctor, named Roger Vittoz, who practiced a precursor of cognitive behavioral therapy, teaching his patients to redirect compulsive thoughts by writing. It worked for Eliot. He finished The Waste Land.

Within a few months of his return from Lausanne, Eliot had a relapse.

“Am very tired and depressed,” he wrote to Lewis in March, 1922. “Vivien has been in bed with fever, and life has been horrible generally.” The drip of complaints becomes a downpour. “I am feeling pretty well worn out at present and I am convinced that I cannot keep at this kind of life for very long” (February, 1923). “I have been hopelessly tired out and run down for a long time” (January, 1924). “I have gone through some terrible agony myself which I do not understand yet, and which has left me utterly bewildered and dazed” (April, 1924).

To Virginia Woolf:

“I have been boiled in a hell-broth” (August, 1924).

Vivienne had nearly died, apparently because of some quack medical treatments. She also had periods of derangement, and tormented her husband. Eliot told Russell that “everything has turned out as you predicted ten years ago.”

JAMES PARKER, of The Atlantic writes: Emily Hale claims that in 1922 Eliot wrote to her declaring:

“how very much he cared for me; at the time I could return no such feeling”.

She knew his marriage to be “a very unhappy affair”. But she resisted the entreaties of “this gifted, emotional, groping personality”, writing that she was “dismayed when he confessed after seeing me again that his affection for me was stronger than ever”.

The friendship continued to 1935.

“We saw each other and knew about each other’s lives – though I had no feeling except of difficult and loyal friendship.”

However, Eliot’s commitment to his “mentally ill wife” restricted any further development until his spouse was institutionalized.

Then, from 1935 to 1939, Elliot and Hale began spending summers together in Campden, Gloucestershire. She continued in her account:

“He and I became so close to each other under conditions so abnormal, for I found by now I had in turn grown very fond of him. “We were congenial in so many of our interests, our reactions, and emotional response to each others’ needs – the happiness, the quiet deep bonds between us and our lives, very rich … And the more because we kept the relationship on an honourable, to be respected, plane.”

Hale wrote that “only a few – a very few – of his friends and family, and my circles of friends, knew of our care for each other; and marriage, if and when his wife died – couldn’t help but become a desired right of fulfillment”.

By November of 1930, Eliot – now typing – wrote he had been in a “state of torment” for a month.

“You have made me perfectly happy: that is, happier than I have ever been in my life; the only kind of happiness now possible for the rest of my life is now with me; and though it is the kind of happiness which is identical with my deepest loss and sorrow, it is a kind of supernatural ecstasy.”

“I tried to pretend that my love for you was dead, though I could only do so by pretending myself that my heart was dead; at any rate, I resigned myself to celibate old age.”

Describing himself to be in a “kind of emotional fever”, by December he confessed that “the pain is more acute, but it is a pain which in the circumstances I would not be without”.

In 1932, responding to a suggestion that they take a holiday together, he writes:

“two people in our position.” They must do nothing, which could raise the slightest suspicion in any mind however vulgar.”, but “age has not abated my passions.”

Following Eliot’s decision not to marry her in 1947, Emily’s handwritten draft, in blue pen, in her looped and ladylike hand is formal, gentle, baffled, and quietly devastating in effect.

What came between them after Vivienne’s death was, she writes,

“too personal, too obscurely emotional for me to understand.”

There is a note of quiet defiance:

“The memory of the years when we were most together and so happy are mine always.”

And at the end of it, she turns squarely toward us, in our libraries, shabbily poking through the story.

“I accepted conditions as they were offered under the unnatural code which surrounded us, so that perhaps more sophisticated persons than I will not be surprised to learn the truth about us.” By JAMES PARKER, a staff writer at The Atlantic

Dalya Alberge of The Guardian reprinted some of Eliot’s letters to Hale. In one he wrote:

“When I go to bed I shall imagine you kissing me; and when you take off your stocking you must imagine me kissing your dear dear feet and striving to approach your beautiful saintly soul.”

In others he told her that “you have all my love and devotion always”, that he was longing to stroke her “radiantly beautiful” forehead and that he would be “extremely jealous” of any other man who “cared for you as I have”.

Holding out no hope of divorce, Eliot remained married because of his religious faith, yet his letters reflect physical longing. He told Hale:

“I resent, and always shall, every occupation and engagement – except writing verse – that takes my mind from you; yet you are always with me when I wake and when I go to bed, and I stretch out my arms to where you ought to be.”

“There will be so much in existence to give a very false impression of me, and so few clues to the truth. Can I make clear to you my feeling, I wonder. I admit that it is egotistic and perhaps selfish; but is it not natural, when one has had to live in a mask all one’s life, to be able to hope that some day people can know the truth… I have again and again seen the impression I have made, and have longed to be able to cry ‘no you are all wrong about me, it isn’t like that at all’.”

Later, Eliot suggests that he was simply deluded, “that the letters I had been writing to her were the letters of an hallucinated man.”

Eliot’s dissociation from his earlier self—from the man who wrote to Hale passionately, almost daily, for nearly two decades—epitomizes the strange swerves between intimacy and detachment that characterize his side of their long and fraught relationship.

As James Parker asks:

“The question is not does love exist / But when she leaves, where she goes.”

What’s that—something from Four Quartets? Actually it’s “Secrets,” by Van Halen. But how elegantly it expresses the problem. What happens to the love gone cold? All that madness, transport, froth, projection, communion—where does it go? With the source extinguished, do its beams still travel, like light from a snuffed-out star? Or does it dissipate entirely into unreality?

Inner and lower were the directions modernist writers took literature, toward what goes on inside the head and below the waist. That is certainly how readers experienced modernism, at least, and why the books attracted the censors.

Gwen Harwood #

Much of Gwen Harwood’s poetry deals with transition from youth, innocence to experience and maturity in a forthright and honest manner. Prize Giving, contrasts the pomposity of vaunted pride with genuine talent.

Through sexual suggestiveness, achieved through word play and innuendo, Harwood reduces a vain intellectual to a “sage fool”. Eisenbart “shook indifferently a host of virgin hands” but his attention is attracted to the titian-haired girl –who, “hitched at a stocking, winked..” . The punning of “chased” is clever word play echoing the chastity of virgin hands, but also provocatively suggests sexual pursuit.

But it is the unambiguity of “voltage” and

“suffered her strange eyes, against reason dark” ‘Forging a rose-hot dream”.

The confinement of the verb “trapped” conclusively completes the image of a man beguiled and enmeshed by the power of sexual seduction.

The changing self- perception, a common motif in Harwood’s poetry is dramatically narrated in the Glass Jar where a young naïve boy reveals a lack of understanding of both the laws of physics and the nature of lovemaking. His loss of innocence and transition to mature understanding is dramatically recreated by the use of a series of clever episodes and images.

Ann Marie Priest in, My Tongue Is My Own, explores Harwood’s celebration of “the sheer physicality of sexual love”, from the viewpoint of a woman, who is “always the subject of love, never the object” – thereby reversing centuries of poetic tradition.

Priest discovers that as a 17-year-old fresh from school, Harwood had begun an affair with her 50-year-old married music teacher, the illustrious Dr Robert Dalley-Scarlett – a relationship she would later insist was entirely joyful.

Quite soon after this, she fell in love with a young curate, Peter Bennie, who occupied all her “thought, affection, hope and longing” for five years. Nevertheless, she did not end her “pleasant” affair with Dalley-Scarlett for another couple of years.

Nor did Harwood hold herself aloof from other men in her social and professional circles (she was a musician), some of whom would later appear in her poems. Her dearest friend at this time was her former art teacher, Vera Cottew, with whom she was also very much in love – though this was not the way she would then have described the relationship. It soon became clear to me that there was nothing conventional about Harwood’s attitudes to love and sex. She was a sexual radical at 17, and would be one at 70.

Most unexpected of all, perhaps, given her upbringing in a white, middle-class Brisbane household in the 1920s and 1930s, was Harwood’s lack of any sense that sex was sinful. In the midst of her affair with Dalley-Scarlett, and as a consequence of her passion for Bennie, she joined the Anglican Church. A couple of years later, thinking she might have a vocation to religious life, she entered a tiny Anglican convent in Toowong.

Yet somehow she remained entirely unburdened by Christian concepts of female sexual purity. Much as she loved the church, revelling in its sensual delights – the vestments and candlelight, the ravishing music, the passionate poetry of the Psalms and the Song of Songs – she seems to have simply dismissed its moral teachings on sex. She put no spiritual value on virginity, and saw no evil in practices the Church condemned as fornication and adultery. To her, sex was always good – even holy.

In this she was influenced by Christian mystics such as John of the Cross and, closer to her own time, Therese of Lisieux, whose writings flame with sexual passion.

She was also devoted to the work of 17th-century poet-priest John Donne, who would become one of her most abiding influences. His assertion, in Love’s Progress, that sex was the:

“right, true end of love”

was central to her own understanding of sexuality. Ann Marie Priest, My Tongue Is My Own

Contrast this with the horrendous experiences of Grace Tame below.

Catastrophic Desires #

Anahid Nersessian in the May 12, 2022 issue of The New York Review of Books looks at Forough Farrokhzad’s erotic poetry, Captive, written in 1954, when Farrokhzad was nineteen and her son Kamyar was a toddler. Farrokhzad had been married for two years, having left high school to wed a distant relative and well-respected writer named Parviz Shapur.

Married life did not agree with her; she had fallen for someone else. Still, Farrokhzad understood very well what leaving would mean. For her, it would be both tangible—as a divorced woman, she would lose all legal rights to her child—and psychological. For Kamyar, or so his mother suspected, the disintegration of his family would mean the collapse of his entire world. Addressed to the lover she longs for but refuses to join, “Captive” rearranges the love triangle of a husband, a wife, and her paramour into a tug-of-war between erotic longing and maternal obligation, between freedom and its collateral damage:

I want you, and I know that never
will I hold you as my heart desires
You are that clear bright sky
I am a captive bird in the corner of this cage…

I am thinking and I know that never
will I have the resolve to leave this cage
Even if it were the jailor’s wish
I have no strength left for flight

From beyond the bars each bright morning
A child’s gaze smiles in my face
When I begin a joyous song
his lips come to me with a kiss

O sky, if I wish one day
to fly from this silent prison
what will I say to the eyes of the crying child?
Leave me be, I am a captive bird

I am the candle whose burning heart
lights up a ruin
If I choose silence
I will shred a nest

“Captive”, …may trade in familiar tropes of bondage and imprisonment, but its speaker’s grievances are surprisingly complex. She does not resent her spouse, nor does she ask her lover to come to her rescue. She is afraid of the consequences for someone who can neither choose nor refuse them. The poem ends with images that suggest a total dereliction of parental duty: a child left alone in the dark, in the rubble of a home made uninhabitable by his mother’s absence. NYRB, May 12, 2022.

John Updike #

Updikian heroes ‘revolt’ against the ‘oppression’ and ‘emotional enslavement’ of marriage through adultery.

Orhan Pamuk, reviewing Adam Begley’s biography of John Updike, writes that Updike had a talent and a reverence for the ordinary problems of ordinary people.

Begley’s biography, though, shows that Updike’s writing and ultimately his entire life were shaped by his attachment to the ordinariness of his suburban middle-class life, and his desire to reach beyond its boundaries.

Rabbit, Run (1960) and the three books that followed it in the Rabbit tetralogy — “Rabbit Redux” (1971), “Rabbit Is Rich” (1981) and “Rabbit at Rest” (1990) — to be Updike’s biggest and most lasting achievements, this is due in no small part to the news-like quality of these novels.

The adventures of Harry Angstrom are a very enjoyable chronicle in decennial installments of the lifestyles, emotions, politics and daily lives of America’s endlessly growing middle classes. Unlike historical novels that look back in time to events they describe, the Rabbit novels were about life as it unfolds; Rabbit’s adventures functioned as a social history of sorts, each installment a summary and a representation of the previous 10 years — as Updike himself wrote in his introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition of the series, “a kind of running report on the state of my hero and his nation.”

The fact that Rabbit is a demonic, ethically troubled but also entirely ordinary character, together with Updike’s signature richness of style and his use of the present tense (one of the peculiarities of the Rabbit series), all serve to steer these novels away from didacticism and banality, dangers that can plague chronicles and social novels.

After moving to Ipswich, Mass., which he wrote about in “Couples” (1968), “he threw himself with reckless enthusiasm into the tangle” of suburban infidelities. He wrote so much about sex, as this admiring biography tells us without too much irony, because “he was writing about what he knew.” But there were “only two extramarital affairs of real significance” in his life.

Ian McEwan #

John Updike describes Ian McEwan’s writing in Atonement as

.. “how the novel’s lovers, in their moment of mutual possession, find their way to unself-conscious passion through “the contact of tongues, alive and slippery muscle, moist flesh on flesh.” Lust and disgust keep close company; in McEwan’s hypnotic first novel, “The Cement Garden” (1978), another set of children left to their own devices, in another summer of unusual heat, experience the debility and putrescence of the body as well as its tabooed allure.”

Atonement concerns, among other historical phenomena, puritanism in 1935, when an impulsive four-letter word in a man’s love letter could draw the attention of the authorities. The frail, moist flesh, mutilated in war, corseted and shamed in peacetime, and subject, in the long view, to swift decay, gives this intricately composed narrative its mournful, surging life.

McEwan’s Lessons, like Bernhard Schlink’s, The Reader, Germany 1995, charts the lives of young boys, seduced by older women with the resulting inability to form satisfying relationships later in life.

At 14, Roland responds to a sexual overture that his former piano teacher, Miriam, made a few years earlier.

At the age of eleven, Roland was already partly groomed by his piano teacher, Miriam. Now, as the world “teeters on the brink” of civilization’s end, he heads off on his bike to her house. She is, in a sense, reeling him in, thanks to the damage she did three years before. Roland believes that he is the initiator. But I don’t think there can be such a thing as consensual sex with a fourteen-year-old.

Roland is sexually abused by Miriam, although he is too young to identify it as such. But, beyond the sexual act, her behavior—the way she alternates between seductress/lover and dominating teacher/authority figure—seems almost expressly crafted to cause psychological damage. How do you imagine Miriam views what she’s doing?

In a later section of the book, Roland confronts Miriam forty years on. She attempts to explain herself. To her horror, she says, she found herself falling in love with an inky little boy at a boarding school. She couldn’t escape the power that her feelings had over her. She tried to explain them away, but in the end she used all her psychological superiority to insure that Roland could never leave her. She was a brilliant woman, but she was unhinged, and whether that was part of her nature or caused by her passion I leave to the reader to ponder.

Roland, as an adult, understands how damaging this encounter was, how it warped his view of sex and his expectations of love.

Grace Tame #

Grace Tame on child sexual abuse: ‘I could not seem to fully release my body from the wreck’

Published in The Guardian, October 2022.

Grace Tame, traumatised beyond repair, felt shamefully bound to the stereotypes of victims.

There is no other way to put it than to say, in the years immediately following the abuse, and during the abuse itself, I was a mess. I was still a child, and I was in uncharted territory without a guide or any information about how to deal with any of it.

I didn’t know a single other person I could relate to back then. It would be seven years before I met another survivor of child sexual abuse. As far as I was concerned, I was a freak. Until then, in my town, I just felt like I was that girl. I got a Facebook message one day that said, “Is she that girl who fucked the teacher?” I shut my account down after that. I wished I didn’t exist.

Between disclosing the abuse in April 2011, and leaving the country in July 2013, I had one boyfriend, from January to March of 2012. It would be another three years before I dated another man, and that lasted all of a month. My next two relationships were with women. I had occasional one-night stands and short-lived flings, but I could not seem to fully release my body from the wreck. There were glimpses and flashes of hope, but I was stuck. Conventional intimacy was a language I didn’t speak.

Even what I had with my boyfriend was unconventional. It was profoundly special, but it was also atypical.

Test the boundaries all you want. The only thing that causes abuse is an abuser.

One night I was drinking heavily with an old friend, a boy I’d known since childhood. I remember getting quite emotional. There was a lot that was irreconcilable and tangled close to the surface. For instance, I didn’t understand why boys were expressing interest in me, when in my mind I was worthless. I was looking for an answer to why I was to blame for being abused.

“Go on and fuck me!” I was screaming. I was drunk, hysterically sobbing my way through iterations of “Just do it!” and all kinds of inebriated nonsense that I had never said out loud before. In the company of strangers this would never happen. It was the kind of melodrama that was all front and no meaning.

He just listened. He knew I had to cry. He knew I wasn’t angry at him. He just allowed me to be. To be whatever I needed to be. He made up a bed, and we watched Dogma. He gave me water and talked me back down to earth. He let me sleep alone. To this day he has never laid a hand on me.

“You were asking for it” might just be more insulting to everyday people than it is to survivors of abuse. For it relies upon the logic that every person, when presented with the opportunity to have sex with a vulnerable person, will not be able to help themselves.

When it came down to it, it didn’t matter what I did, how I behaved, or what I said. The people who understood me, and who knew the right thing to do, did not “take advantage” of my confusion and vulnerability. There was nothing I could do that could provoke them into being a bad person. And they weren’t about to let me believe that I was a bad person either.

I’ve moved around a lot in life and in love. I have had to leave people and places, but the lessons they taught me will never leave me.

By Grace Tame, The Guardian, Oct. 2022.