If you fear, fear not. If you fear not, fear.
---J. Reuben Clark
Let me start by saying that I am afraid, very afraid. Now on we go.
When I wrote about May Swenson a few months ago, I mentioned Levi Peterson's article "In Defense of Mormon Erotica" and said I had once wanted to blog more completely on that article (and its companion piece by B.W. Jorgensen).
A couple people expressed regret that I hadn't done so immediately, and if two people want me to write on this topic I figure that there must be, worldwide, oh, seven? who want me to write about the erotic in Mormon art. And I seem to remember something in the Bible about seven people wanting something and getting destroyed, so maybe I play the angel in this drama.
I heard the above quote from Brother Clark in regards to avoiding adultery (although whether or not that was its original context, I can't say), so it seems appropriate to start our discussion by applying this fearsome quote to our fearsome discussion, viz. are we too comfortable flirting with the edges? or, conversely, are we too worried about things we are not guilty of?
Do you know the parable of the semi truck? I think I first heard it as a deacon. The boss has a truck he regularly needs driven over a narrow mountain road and wants to determine the best driver to take this dangerous route. He asks Driver Number One how closely he can drive to the edge without falling over.
"Oh, I reckon I can get within three inches."
"How about you, Driver Number Two?"
"Oh, I reckon I can drive the whole way with half my tread hanging in the air."
"And you, Driver Number Three?"
"I would stay as far away from the edge of that cliff as I could, sir."
And Driver Number Three gets the job.
The problem with driving as far away from the edge as one can get, is that one is liable to crash into the mountain wall on the other side.
I actually think this story works better on foot:
"I would hug the wall and inch my way forward, sir."
"The wall that's twenty feet from the cliff?"
"I don't want to fall over!"
I think this incapacitating fear of falling over the cliff has been a great affliction in Mormon art --- literature specifically, which is my primary interest. The uproar over Angels Falling Softly would seem to illustrate this. (I can't comment on that specifically until my copy comes in the mail.) (And, you know, I read it.) (And form an opinion.) (And so forth.) So I think it might be helpful to talk about the erotic and its role in LDS literature. I'll start with the articles linked to above, but I have some of my own ideas that I will also bring up, some today, some later.
Perhaps we should start with some definitions:
Erotica is generally understood as giving a "positive" depiction of sex. So the Song of Solomon would count, but Ezekial 23 would not. It often may titillate and arouse, but that is not its sole purpose --- it also desires to be beautiful.
Pornography is the term our guests will focus on and they will alter the definition slightly as we go along, but let's start with D.H. Lawrence's definition: "Pornography is the attempt to insult sex, to do dirt on it." It is artless and ugly and serves just one purpose: to give your brain an unnatural (and unholy) injection of the sex drug.
Obscenity as I usually use it means something utterly without even pretended redeeming value. Peterson will use it in reference to profanity ("obscene" language), but I'm mostly glossing over those parts of his article. In fact, we will not be needing this term much today, but I want you to remember this word when we get to later parts of this series.
All three of the above terms I am, by implication, applying to works whose primary purpose is provoke a sexual response in its reader/viewer/consumer. And I want to say now that neither Peterson nor Jorgensen is promoting such art or "art."
Instead, returning to our cliff-road metaphor, sticking too close to the wall is what Peterson calls the "obverse sin of prudery . . . [which] forces the sexual impulse underground, banishes it to the territory of the abnormal and forbidden." And this is what we are talking about: not a prurient focus on sexuality, but a recognition of its central role in human life. And if you doubt its centrality, riddle me this: Where exactly did you come from?
Peterson has "difficulty believing that God has infused the human psyche with the powerful sexual impulse merely to sift the obedient from the disobedient, the self-controlled from the self-indulgent, the ascetic from the sensuous." And so do I. Sex wasn't given to people simply to speed along their damnation. Does that sound like the God you know?
LDS doctrine doesn't fit the above chart at all. Sex may not have gotten an explicit shoutout in the Proclamation, but you can only be told to love your spouse in so many ways before you have to be rather dense not to make the conceptual leap. I think we can safely assume Mormons have sex and even that Mormons should have sex. So long as it's within doctrinal bounds (ie, husband and wife), we can even assume enthusiastic approval on the part of deity. Still with me?
Peterson: "If God's people are sexual creatures . . . the literature which expresses God's people should reflect those facts. Literature should reflect life. Ultimately it should reflect all life. Nothing that people feel, nothing that they do, should be denied a place in literature."
This is an argument you can agree with or not as you like. Generally, I tend to agree with it. Granted, inclusion has, at times, been made a focus unto itself, thereby ceasing to be a virtue and just becoming a list of sketchy things to demonstrate a warped version of honesty --- not so good. But my goal here isn't to talk about how things can go awry, but to discuss the need for an erotic element in even LDS literature, as discussed by my guests.
Let's start by looking at these excerpts from Peterson, which will help us understand his distinction between a pornographic emphasis on sex and a healthy recognition of sex:
"Then how shall I distinguish between an acceptable expression of sexuality and pornography? It is a matter of proportion. Proportion . . . suggests a variety of elements standing in harmonious relationship with one another, none without due representation, each fitted to each, each shaped by the shape of the whole."
"It is gross disproportion that creates pornography. . . . [When things (sex, violence, &c) are] amassed, concentrated, enormously emphasized --- if they become the single end and purpose of the writing --- they are pornographic. But if they are intermittent in an action, if they mingle with other images and deeds, balancing proportionately, appearing as a part rather than the whole of life, then they are not pornographic."
Got that? Sex, as I hope you will agree, is an important and healthy and spiritually sound part of a full human life. But if someone were to spend all day and night seeking sex, that would not be good or healthy or sound. It would be sick and evil and wrong. So it is with literature. Literature for-by-and-about sex will be pornographic. Literature which recognizes the role of sex in life is merely honest and true and good. Or potentially so, at least.
Peterson also says that no writer is required to write such aspects of life, but that "Timid authors [do] fall into the error of incompleteness." A novel about a happy marriage without any indication that their home has a bedroom would not feel entirely honest.
A lot of what is and is not pornography has to do with who is reading it. No one has called "The Widower" pornographic, but if you're looking for sex, you'll find plenty.
Welcome to the good LDS marriage, sex included.
No one's accused the Queen or Silly of being pornographic for recognizing the role of marital congress in their marital relationships. Why would they?
Let me be clear: I'm not demanding constant sex scenes. I'm not even arguing that every reader should read about sex at all, let alone as part of a regular literary diet. I'll come back to this in Part IV, but, when I was a teenager, the briefest mention of sex could overwhelm my hormone-charged brain. Even "The Widower" might have been dangerous to me then. And I don't want to suggest that I know what's best for you. That would be wrong.
But you know the story about the laughing husband closing the bedroom door, right? How that scene made its book so terribly controversial in LDS circles? Have you heard about when Covenant took their bookstore managers to The Mayan for dinner and had several walked out, offended by the bare-chested men doing cliff dives? Can anyone pretend that this suggests a healthy relationship with sex?
I find such prudery bizarre for such a profamily religion, don't you? And these are our gatekeepers into the world of LDS literature!
(Note: I'm not trying to paint with too broad a brush. Dean Hughes's Children of the Promise books, for instance, dealt with sex directly and with maturity and intelligence.)
Sex is real and important in our world and it has real and important consequences that a mature literature will recognize.
As a Publishers Weekly reviewer said, "It is one of the tropes of pure pornography that events are without consequence. No babies, no STDs, no trauma, no memories best left unexamined." That is most assuredly not what I or either of my guests is suggesting.
But we're already waxing long, so let's hold off on Mr Jorgensen for now, except to say that he will start us us off with what I know you've been thinking from the beginning: "We are frequently, duly, and properly warned, over the pulpit in general conference, against the evil of pornography --- an attitude Levi and I share, though we both also value and wish to allow a place for the erotic."
How is this possible? We'll continue our discussion next time. Look for Part II of this series one week from today.
Fabulous! It's going to take me a week to unpack all this.ReplyDelete
Well that's perfect, since next Wednesday Part II will show up.
(If I used smileys, I would put one here.)
Brilliant post, Theric. I've been meaning to start something similar over the past few months, but I've yet to get around to it. Maybe I'll take it on now, though I'll follow a different avenue than you've taken here.ReplyDelete
I wrote my master's thesis on the erotics of Sharon Olds book The Dead and the Living and my wife tells everybody that I'm obsessed with sex now, that this was my venture into porn. She even asked me once how I, as a faithful Latter-day Saint, could write about sex. Myself, I wonder how Latter-day Saints can be so utterly dismissive of sex (esp. in literature), though I do have my reservations, like you, about who should read it and how much. I didn't feel it was particularly damaging to me, although it may have been in my teenage years and it may be now to someone of lesser spiritual stature than myself (ha, ha, ha).
Anyway, I enjoyed the distinction you assert between eroticism and porn and look forward to Part II.
Yeah, a lot of books I know and love now and even press on people (The Time Traveler's Wife screams to mind) would have been genuinely terrible to my soul had I read them at fifteen.
We need to recognize that we are not always as weak as we were at our weakest.
I hope you do write on the topic because, frankly, I get tired of listening to myself. (Well, sometimes.)
Phew. I'm glad people (you at least) don't consider my blog pornographic. Great post.ReplyDelete
Oh, you're borderline, Celia. But at least you haven't led as many souls away unto destruction as I'm about to.....
But at least you haven't led as many souls away unto destruction as I'm about to.....ReplyDelete
Hey. I called dibs.
It's an interesting paradox to be an LDS woman and a student of literature sometimes. Especially when the uptight roomie who doesn't read randomly pulls a book off my shelf, flips it open, and realizes there's sex in it. (Apparently, I--*gasp*--advocate dirty books!)ReplyDelete
I haven't chosen to skip any of my required reading since my sophomore year of high school . . . and that point, I genuinely felt I couldn't have handled it. (And I'm pretty sure that back then, I couldn't have handled it.)
And since I've stuck around you, I still get labeled as so darn liberal when I attempt to argue that I don't mind sex in literature as long as it serves a purpose. It's when the sex is there just to be there that I get irked.
Also, as my dad once pointed about thinking about such things--the sin is not that in the thinking of it, but in the dwelling on it long past when your thinking time should have ended. (If that makes sense. Running on too little sleep here.)
And in a completely random but not completely unrelated note: one of my favorite professors once compared Mormon culture to Victorian culture--a whole bunch of little kids running around, and nobody ever EVER talking about how they got there.
I cite the stagecoach paradox in chapter two of The Path of Dreams. Then again, the whole novel is about sex and resolving the paradox in the most expeditious way possible. It's free and online for your amusement.ReplyDelete
Curse you, Eugene. Preemptively stealing all my ideas!
My comment should have said "stuck around Utah," which makes much more sense. I should get more sleep . . .ReplyDelete
I'm going to reply to your comment in Part VI, Conf. It's the one where I'll be addressing people's questions and comments more fully.
And I'll remember your correction.
My mother is one who has always stayed as far from the edge as possible. She doesn't like books with sex in them. She doesn't like it when museums display art of nudes. She never discussed any bodily functions (including sex) with me (or my siblings, as far as I know). The only time I have ever heard her use the word penis was when she was trying to convince me that we ought to circumcise my son. I've found it increasingly frustrating the last several years, as I've learned/realized that nudity and sex do not automatically equal pornography and shame. I'm still working on appreciating sex when depicted in art.ReplyDelete
I look forward to the rest of the series.
Thanks, Kadusey. And that's a perfect intro for Part IV. Which is a month off, but still....
Excellent beginning! This all should be published somewhere.ReplyDelete
I would be okay with that.
That was me. I don't really know if Lady Steed would be or not. I could ask her....
Great topic, greta post.ReplyDelete
Is that really true about Covenant and the Mayan. If so perhaps I am glad Covenant didn't sign me and that they may not have me in Seagull. I was told that they (my publisher) is supposedly getting my book into DB and I was dumbfounded. Oh well if it does it does- could be a controversial week.
On to the next post
[Edit: Added tag "The Widower".]