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. What is romantic love? A mere chemical reaction in the brain? A biological imperative to keep the species reproducing?

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). We need human connection.

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 @:

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.

More @:

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 @:

Homer #

Agamemnon needed to prove his authority, complying with Diana’s demands for the sacrifice of a virgin.

[link] (

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

Summary: [link] (

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)

W.B. Yeats poses the question in a dialogue between the actress and the Bishop:

“Why has love pitched its mansion, at the place of excrement?”

Louise Gluck viewed the sexual act as: the low humiliating premise of union or connection.

Sexual attraction is an inherent and irresistible force for all humans. Helen Garner warns that:

there’s stuff about men and sex and women that are just not amenable to social control, and never will be.

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.

The maiden remains steadfast to her shepherd love, rejects Solomon’s attempts win her over with seductive flattery.

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.

Trained for a career in the law, the young Ovid faced his father’s disapproval for aspiring to become a writer. (“Even Homer died penniless!”).

Ovid revealed a deep sympathy for women’s suffering and a keen interest in female perspectives unusual for the time, going as far as to advising women on how to seduce men.

However when Augustus began a puritan campaign against adultery, ten years later, he banished Ovid to Tomis, on the northwest coast of the Black Sea, where he complained few people appreciated his Latin.

By this time he had already begun his major opus - Metamorphoses, another perspective, like Hesiod’s Theogony or Genesis, of mapping out the path of creation from chaos to order, passing through the stages of myth to history.

Exiled to Tomis, near the Black Sea, in a place where his native Latin was scarcely heard, Ovid’s despair is evoked in one of his most memorable couplets:

“writing a poem you can read to no one
is like dancing in the dark.”

According to Marguerite Johnson, Associate Professor of Ancient History and Classical Languages, University of Newcastle :

Indeed, Ovid’s own silencing by Augustus may be seen to be enacted over and over again in the Metamorphoses in the most grotesque of ways. Ovid’s tales describe tongues being wrenched out, humans barking out their sorrows instead of crying, women transformed into mute creatures by jealous gods, and desperate victims bearing witness to their abuse through non-verbal means.

The Metamorphoses is an epic about the act of silencing.

It was the savage, brutal violence that the immortals subjected the mortals to, that preoccupied Ovid and still causes many readers to demand “tigger warnings”.

Ovid’s The Metamorphoses shows Arachne’s weaving, depicting nine rapes committed by Jove, six by Neptune, a few by Apollo and Bacchus, and one by Saturn, Jove’s father. Ovid questions the arbitrary violence of all deities.

Was Ovid subtlely portraying the creeping authoritarianism of the rule of Augustus, who declared his leadership for life and asserted the right to appoint his successor?

Ganymede, the son of Tros, king of Troy. Because of his unusual beauty, he was carried off either by the gods or by Zeus, disguised as an eagle, or, according to a Cretan account, by Minos, to serve as cupbearer.

The earliest forms of the myth have no erotic content, but by the 5th century BC it was believed that Ganymede’s kidnapper had a homosexual passion for him; Ganymede’s kidnapping was a popular topic on 5th-century Attic vases. The English word catamite was derived from the popular Latin form of his name.

Homo-erotic #

In Gwen Harwood’s poem, Ganymede, Professor Eisenbart finds himself sexually attracted to a young boy:

The cause of his unrest: a boy whose wealth
Of beauty, gathered now beneath the tragic
Green of cypress, had seduced by stealth
Since their first meeting, Eisenbart from his magic


In their assignation in a “rented heaven”, they undress, but then despite the strong attraction, fail to make any physical connection.

Ganymede, with crude mockery, chose to go.
Eisenbart took his pen; let sunset frame him
A city fringed with water and cold light,
Restless with growing life, and turned to live,
To work in his own world, where symbols might
Speak to him their sublime alternative.

Homo-erotic poetry exists through the ages for both men and women.

The Roman view, like the Greek, was that responsible homosexuality was a phase you went through, but then grew out of it as an adult and became respectable family men.

They distinguished between the penetrator and the penetrated, the latter playing a passive and subordinate role.

Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice displays the hidden yearnings as a married father of six for a young boy.

Mann, played a lifelong “game between what was revealed and what was concealed.”

Mann is another sexually repressed artist who did not let himself behave as he wished. published an overtly homoerotic novella, “Death in Venice”; he left behind diaries that acknowledged his attraction to men, stipulating that they could be made public twenty years after his death. Perhaps he became a writer due to his thwarted desire.

Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth had her first lesbian experience at 14, at a summer camp. Later she led an undisclosed promiscuous life with a variety of male and female lovers. Pehaps the most longest and most tragic with Lola from Brazil.

Due to several harrowing experiences, Bishop drove toward alcoholic self-obliteration. yet at other times displayed a lively, engaging career, charged with vindicating energy.

Another newly disclosed group of letters, from the same source, documents a passionate love affair that Bishop began when she was nearing sixty, with a much younger woman, a relationship that lasted until the poet’s death, at sixty-eight, in 1979. (Bishop’s homosexuality was a carefully kept secret in the homophobic fifties and sixties.)

Strong yet mysterious, set in the immediate world, Bishop’s poems demonstrated a way to excavate her past without wallowing in self-pity.

The female Principal of an ultra-orthodox Adass Israel School in East St.Kilda, Malka Leifer, the subject of numerous allegations of sexual improprieties, was spirited out of Australia late at night to avoid involvement with the legal system by a member of the board who owned a travel agency. Steps were taken to have her returned to Australia to face serious charges and she was jailed for 15 years.

Medieval Women #

Fragments from 60 lines of The Rose Thorn (Der Rosendorn) discovered on a strip of parchment in the library of Melk Abbey, Austria, dating from 1300, has been called the earliest form of the Vagina Monologues – an argument in verse between a woman and her vulva, originating in the Middle Ages.

In the poem, a virgin woman (junkfrouwe) argues in a free-flowing, often witty dialogue, with her speaking vulva (fud) about which of them is held in the higher regard by men.

The virgin argues that it is by her looks that men are won over, whilst the vulva, accusing the virgin of putting too much stress on her appearance, says it is she who provides the true pleasure. The two decide to part company, but find themselves deeply unhappy and so reunite to allay their suffering. They conclude that they are better together, as a person and their sex are quite simply inseparable. (Kate Connolly in Berlin – The Guardian 27 Jul. 2019)

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:


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


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:


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


Nay, ‘tis twice two months, my lord.


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:


‘Tis brief, my lord.


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


“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.

REGAN questions Edmund on his relationship with Goneril

But have you never found my brother’s way
To the forfended place?


That thought abuses you.

Albany tells his wife, Goneril, that she is a devil in a woman’s shape, and warns her not to cast off that shape by be-monstering her feature (appearance), since it is this shape alone that protects her from his wrath.

To let these hands obey my blood, they’re apt enough
To dislocate and tear thy flesh and bones:
Howe’er thou art a fiend, a woman’s shape
Doth shield thee.

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? – 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 he 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’.

This could help explain some of the references in Rhapsody on a Windy Night

In a letter to John Hayward, Eliot claims,

“I never lay with a woman I liked, loved or even felt any physical attraction to, and I no longer even regret this lack of experience”.

In his many letters to Emily Hale, he repeatedly claims he will never marry any woman but her.

“A couple have to love God more than each other which will make their love for each other more complete”.

To my limited understanding The Waste Land is the only poem to openly deal with sexual references with failed sexual encounters. It seems permeated by perverted or unwanted sexual assignations. The failed romantic relationships suggest an inability to connect. Men appear boorish and predatory in their pursuit of sexual encounters. Is there an existential crisis of masculinity? There is a lot of violence done to the contemporary women.

Francois Laroque writes:

Sex is joyless and sterile in The Waste Land and such vision echoes Lear’s vision of the vagina as the mouth of hell as well as the pessimism of sonnet 129. “Th’ expense of spirits in a waste of shame” can thus be regarded as Shakespeare’s exploration of the waste/waist land of desire and sex.

Philomel, who is raped and has her tongue cut out, is referenced at least twice. Later a female typist experiences being groped and fondled a man, impassively and afterwards she’s glad the deed is done.

Two women in a bar talk about the sexual demands made by men forcing them to have abortions, while someone (Elizabeth I?) raises her knees in a canoe.

“To Vivienne the marrigae brought no happinesss. To me it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land and it saved me from marrying Emily Hale who would have killed the poet in me.”

The Waste Land is a mystical desperate hope for “shantih” – the peace that passes understanding – and the fragmentation of personality and society.

Eliot may be one of the English language’s greatest poet and critic, but appears sexually immature and repressed.

Dylan Thomas #

By William Christie, Sydney Theatre Company

Under Milk Wood is a comedy of sex. Although Kenneth Tynan’s classifying the play as a “comedy of humours” is arguably more accurate, every incident, every relationship, every aside in this pastoral fantasy is shaped by eros, and never more so than when a character abstains or abominates. Indeed, you could argue that the sexual instinct is most lively in Llarregub this Chaucerian springtime in its repression, for the town offers a gallery of portraits in which sex is most remarkable in its frustration, displacement, or flat denial:

“JACK BLACK There is no leg belonging to the foot that belongs to this shoe” (Under Milk Wood, p. 37).

Instead of a comedy of sex; it is perhaps more a satirical campaign against the smug righteousness and sexual hypocrisy of provincial Wales. Dylan Thomas wrote that he believed:

“the body was given to live, as much as the stars were given to live up to”.

During the night:

Young girls lie bedded soft or glide in their dreams, with rings and trousseaux, bridesmaided by glowworms down the aisles of the organplaying wood. The boys are dreaming wicked or of the bucking ranches of the night and the jollyrodgered sea.

The fanciful love of Mr Mog Edwards, the draper for Myfanwy Price, his shopkeeper will always remain a figment of his imagination, much like the plaint of the Courtly Lover.

Mr Pugh’s comic-book Gothic obsession with poisoning his wife; Mog Edwards’ obsession with money; Organ Morgan’s with sacred music; Myfanwy Price’s virginal neatness; the obsession of the ‘respectable’ generally with other peoples’ promiscuity; “Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard’s terrible death-waiting loneliness”, in Thomas’s arresting manuscript note to himself (Under Milk Wood, p. xxxviii), her refusal to have boarders breathing all over her furniture - obsession (Tynan’s “humour”), more often than not, only thinly disguises the fateful sexual yearning that informs it, as the play ritualistically reenacts the ancient, intimate dance of sex and death towards silence and night:

But I always think, as I tumble into bed,
Of little Willy Wee who is dead, dead, dead.
(Under Milk Wood, p. 62)

Thomas never ceased his satirical campaign against the smug righteousness and sexual hypocrisy of provincial Wales.

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.

Helen Garner #

Helen Garner is an award-winning novelist, short-story writer and journalist. The New Yorker recently led with the headline: The Startling Candor of Helen Garner

One of Australia’s most beloved writers, Garner—who has published novels, nonfiction, and three volumes of diaries—is finally catching on in the U.S.

A product of the 1960’s agitation for greater social freedoms, especially for women. Moving into many communal share houses with transitory partners resulted in a variety of partners and three failed marriages. Best viewed in her first novel Monkey Grip

While subject to jealousy and resentment, Helen has emerged with a level headed assessment of male female relationships and a generous understanding of men’s predicaments.


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.

Nabokov - Lolita #

Sally Breen, Griffith University, sees Lolita as not about a man sexually and mentally abusing a 12-year-old girl, rather about him, a Russian, getting at America. Which is about as damning an assessment of a culture as you’re ever going to get. He turned an outsider’s eye on the Land of the Free. In effect – though he says he didn’t mean to – he ripped it to shreds.

The manuscript of Lolita was initially rejected by every American publisher who considered it. It was eventually published in France in 1955 by the notoriously fearless Maurice Girodias, who also published English language versions of books censored in Britain and America, including works by Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Samuel Beckett and William Burroughs, among others.

After its publication, Lolita was not officially banned by the US government, but it was banned by various local jurisdictions, schools and outlets. It was also banned as obscene for periods of time in France, England, New Zealand, Canada, Argentina and South Africa. In Australia – recognised by many literary researchers as one of the harshest regulators in the world – readers were denied access until 1965.

ANGELA BENNIE maintains that Lolita is as fresh and frisky as ever. Age has not diminished the novel’s seductive powers, its brilliance, or its ability to unsettle, even scandalise. In the literary glamour stakes. Lolita is repeatedly listed as one of the top 10 novels of the 20th century coming in somewhere around No. 5 to Ulysses’ No. 1.

Some critics go so far as to say that Vladimir Nabokov’s famous/infamous novel of pedophilia and sexual obsession is the quintessential novel of the 20th century.

Does Lolita “aestheticise” the enormity of the depravity it depicts, critics ask. Is Lolita a “dangerous” book made all the more dangerous by its “dazzling virtues as a work of art”?

Nabokov’s manipulation of our senses and our reason, our pleasure in the literary pyrotechnics, allows Humbert to take us with him. We are complicit in his violation of innocence.

There are many ways of reading Lolita. In 1959, a Canadian critic thought- that Lolita theme was not, the corruption of an innocent child by a cunning adult; but the exploitation of a weak adult by a corrupt child.

Milton’s God shows that if literature has a function or purpose at all, it is to make one realise that other people act on moral convictions different from one’s own. It is literature’s ability to take us into the mind’s world of another that is its differentiating power.

Lolita is great literature because it is driven by an urgent moral imperative. It takes us into the mind of evil. We glimpse the abyss. We recognise the Mephisto lodged in our hearts. This is why it is also great art. Anne Bennie.

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, perhaps due to the way they felt used and discarded.

In The Reader, a 15-year-old Michael Berg, is seduced by Hanna Schmitz, an older woman who enjoys having classic novels read to her. They enjoy a hot steamy fling, until she begins to become distant. Hanna becomes bad tempered and Michael attempts to placate her, but feels she is treating him as a non-entity. When Hanna mysteriously disappears, Michael feels heartbroken, confused and resentful.

Years later, Michael, now a law student, gets the shock of his life when he sees Hanna on trial for Nazi war crimes. He finally understands.

Schlink quotes Rilke to demonstrate their intense mutual intimacy:

When we open ourselves
you yourself to me and I myself to you
when we submerge
you into me and I into you.

when we vanish
you into me and I into you
am I me
and you are you

In Lessons, 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, (The Cuban Missile Crises) 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.