Some argue that the first novel was The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatan) written by an 11th century Japanese noblewoman called Murasaki Shikibu. It has been praised as a book of great subtlety and psychological insight. Yet it is also porn. It was written as a series of installments and read to the women of the court to entertain and to titillate. Some of the detail is quite shocking. One of the major plot lines involves Genji’s attraction to a beautiful 10 year-old girl who bears the same name as the author, Murasaki. He kidnaps her to train her as his ideal companion and he consummates their relationship when she is just 12. In another scene he seduces a boy of 12. And all this written by a woman to amuse other women.
The Tale of Genji is regarded as a classic of Japanese literature – the Japanese Shakespeare – and it had an enormous impact on the Japanese erotic imagination, inspiring a substantial body of erotic literature and of course, art, even to this day.
But we need not turn to exotic cultures, to the ‘other’, to find the erotic imagination at play. Within in our own culture we have the transgressive myths of the Greco-Roman tradition, filled with tales of incest, paedophilia, pederasty, bestiality and uninhibited lust. Even in English literature we start with the work of Geoffrey Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales. Everyone knows Chaucer could be bawdy and vulgar, as this example from The Miller’s Tale demonstrates.
Derk was the night as pich, or as the cole,
And at the window out she putte hir hole
And Absolon, him fil no bet ne wers,
But with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers
Ful savourly, er he was war of this.
In the modern porn parlance this is called ‘rimming’, a part of oral/anal play. Rimming in English Literature? Who’d have thunk it?
What all this points to is one simple, and as it turns out, obvious point. That humans have a very vivid sexual imagination and this finds expression in just about every culture and in every historical milieu.
In my previous entry on Emma Rush I stated quite bluntly that I thought she was ignorant of human sexuality. But it’s not just the complexity and variety of human sexuality that she seems not to understand. She also seems to be woefully ignorant of the rather obvious fact that an important part of human sexuality is our sexual imagination, which we express through our arts and crafts; our literature, our theatre, sculpture, painting, dance, music and so on. Some of this can be quite vulgar and explicit, some of it can be subtle and insightful.
As I’ve mentioned before, the Indians of the Hindu Golden Age didn’t think it was a problem and they developed a highly sophisticated theory of aesthetics that incorporated the erotic as an important subject for art. The ‘silencing’ of the erotic imagination is almost entirely a product of Christian theology and its bizarre aversion to sex. It is censored because it might cause arousal outside of marriage.
It is the importance of the erotic imagination that Michelle Griffin was invoking in the opinion piece that so riled Emma (and Melinda). A point that Emma seems to have missed entirely – or was incapable of seeing.
But readers are free to create their own visuals, to skim anything they don’t like, to break free of the narrative and simply daydream. Browse the overheated world of fan-fiction to discover how readily readers imagine the sex lives of wizards, vampires and Jane Austen heroines.
What Michelle is clearly saying is that erotic literature can free the erotic imagination, in opposition to ready-made Internet porn which is ‘brutal’ and ‘reductive and samey’.
In the first part of my critique of Emma’s article I said it was nasty because it intentionally misrepresents Michelle’s argument. Michelle makes it very clear that much of the porn that is available is ‘brutal’ and that by clear implication this is ‘limiting young men’s visions of a good time to mere delivery-man thrusting’. Despite this, Emma ‘verbals’ both Michelle and, gratuitously, Alan McKee (whom, it seems, she despises).
And researchers like Alan McKee, whom Griffin cites approvingly, seem to believe that the pornography industry is well prepared to fill that gap, a pornography industry that promotes cruelty, brutality and inequality.
This one sentence is a blatant lie, and it is defamatory. Let me make this clear, no one, not Michelle or Alan, supports cruelty, brutality and inequality. This is just outrageous slander.
Here Emma collapses the complex, multi-faceted erotic imagination as expressed in literature and art into a single, monolithic ‘pornography industry’. How is a small press publishing erotic fiction connected to a company producing porn in California? To suggest a connection is to believe in paranoid conspiracy theories. It’s bizarre.
What Michelle is arguing is that we should engage adolescents’ erotic imaginations through a wide variety of literature. What is wrong with that?
Indeed, isn’t the purpose of education to teach children about our culture and about human nature? Why should sex be excluded? Emma asks this question.
The socio-emotionally disconnected version of sex provided by parts of the education system gives rise to the question: how do teens link this school-based information with their actual lives?
I agree with the first part. However, after understanding Emma’s real position I think she is entirely unsuited to advising anyone on a proper sex education program. Why? Because she has no understanding of human sexuality and the role of the erotic imagination. This means that she has no understanding of people’s complex sexual desires, or of the play of Eros in the ‘actual’ lives of ‘real’ adolescents.
Emma’s vision is extremely limited and constricting. It excludes any adolescent who does not conform to her narrow sexual idealism.
It turns out that Emma lacks an erotic imagination. In fact I accuse her of being downright dull.