Erotic Literature

views updated


In its widest sense, erotic literature includes all writing that deals to a conspicuous degree with sex and love. Under this norm, there is a vast body of literature that treats these themes from an integral human point of view; that is, sex and love are conceived not merely in terms of their physical aspects, but also as manifestations of the spirit. In this type of literature, the physical is generally quite subordinate to the spiritual aspect. Even when physical details are quite frankly portrayed, they are nevertheless caught up in a total atmosphere that provides aesthetic pleasure, and not sensual titillation. Emotionally immature readers may, of course, read merely to satisfy an unhealthy curiosity, but a sound judgment of the work itself, and of the author's intention as far as it is evident in the work, would conclude that the work is not of its nature seductive or sexually stimulating. Often, as a matter of fact, the very realism of the physical details is a necessary element in bringing alive to the reader the deeper spiritual aspects of the story. Romeo's raptures over Juliet's physical beauty are certainly sensuous, but it would be a most insensitive reader who would think that Romeo did not see much more in Juliet than merely her physical attractions.

Pornography. It can be said that almost all the great literature in the world, and certainly the vast bulk of literature that deals with human relations, is of this erotic type, for the simple reason that love and sex are among the greatest dynamic forces in human life. When these forces get out of hand in literary treatment, they tend to degenerate into writing that is pornographic or obscene. The common quality that runs through all pornographic and obscene writings is emphasis on the physical aspects of sex and love, or on what should be private physical functions, to an extent that makes them the dominant, if not the exclusive, impression on the normal reader. As a result, sex and love become dehumanized and not infrequently disgustingly animalistic. This quality of pornographic writing can often be discerned as the author's deliberate intention (in the so-called "hard-core" pornography); but even when the author's intention is not evident, the quality may be manifest by the very nature of the work itself. It is often argued that in works wherein the author's pornographic intent is not evident the literary quality is frequently of such excellence as to make them genuine art and therefore immune from any censorship. A sounder view would be that works whose chief, if not exclusive, appeal is to sensuality cannot be works of literary merit.

Sensual art can very well be great art. Every art is sensual to a certain degree, and it is easy to see that in many arts the sensual is strongly emphasized. But art whose intention is to arouse the senses cannot be great art. On the contrary, the more this is its purpose, the more decidedly it deserts service for the sake of servility or slavery, the further it is from being art at all. Rubens was an artist; the illustrations in an indecent humor magazine are not art, no matter how well they are drawn. Between Boccaccio and Aristophanes and the pornographic novel lies all the difference in the world. [Van der Leeuw, 279.]

pornography certainly includes all those works that of their nature tend to arouse in the normal reader illicit physical reactions or sexual fancies that of their nature result in such physical reactions (see pleasure; thoughts, morality of). Theoretically, and for the sake of precision in argument, it might be better to restrict the definition of pornography to that type of literature that tends to arouse such physical or psychological reactions (see H. C. Gardiner, Norms for the Novel [rev. ed. Garden City, N.Y. 1960], 6267). Practically, however, this is not the common understanding of the meaning of the word, nor is it the scope of the meaning almost universally envisioned in law. All civilized countries have laws against obscenity. Some endeavor to draw a distinction between obscenity and pornography. In Germany, for example, the obscene is defined as that which "offends grossly against the concept of decency, even if it is not pornographic"; in France the obscene is simply that which is contraire aux bonnes moeurs; in Belgium, the obscene is variously described as that which is of a nature to éviller ouá surexciter des passions sensuelles or that which is of a nature à produire, à la simple vue, un sentiment de réprobation. In Japan, the obscene is that which "stirs up or excites sexual desire, spoils the normal sexual modesty of the ordinary human being, or is contrary to good sexual morals." In other countries the obscene is simply that which is "indecent," "disgusting," "places undue emphasis on sex or crime," "encourages depravity," "offends decency," and so on. One German opinion even includes under a definition of obscenity matter that "extolls wars or racial hatred" (see N. St. John-Stevas, Obscenity and the Law [London 1956] appendix 3, 217359).

Some authors, and generally those whose own works have been accused of being pornographic, have attempted to distinguish between obscenity and pornography. D.H. Lawrence, for example, who claimed that he was a fierce foe of pornography, defended himself against the charge that some of his own works were obscene on the grounds that the use of obscenity is no moral or artistic wrong. It would seem that he and others like him confuse erotic literature, in the sense defined above, with writings that place undue and even revolting emphasis on sex.

Pornography and Censorship. Be that as it may, one fact seems clear: Pornographic-obscene literature, in common understanding, ranges from that which tends to excite to illicit sexual acts or fantasies, through that which tends to debase sex and marriage (this is generally done when woman is portrayed as merely an object of passion, walled off from any love, sympathy, consideration, or esteem), to writings that arouse a justifiable disgust, such as those that dwell on excremental functions. It is evident that a precise definition of pornography does not emerge from these various approaches to it, and this is exactly where, in so many modern societies, the enforcement of laws against obscenity or pornography runs into great difficulty. The search for exactness of legal definition is generally fruitless and frequently not demanded by the nature of the case. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, has stated this fact succinctly: "We must not seek the same degree of certainty in all things. Consequently, in contingent matters, it is enough for a thing to be certain, as being true in the great number of instances, though at times and less frequently it may fail" (Ethics 5.2). And the Supreme Court of the U.S. has echoed this principle: "This Court has consistently held that lack of precision is not itself offensive to the requirements of due process all that is needed is that the language of definitions conveys sufficiently definite warning as to the proscribed conduct when measured by common understanding and practices" (Norms for the Novel, 79). This statement was issued in connection with the 1956 Rothv. United States case, wherein this test to determine obscenity was laid down: "Whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to prurient interest." Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., who wrote the decision, continued:

These words, applied according to the proper standard of judging obscenity give adequate warning of the conduct proscribed and markboundaries sufficiently distinct for judges and juries fairly to administer the law. That there may be marginal cases in which it is difficult to determine the side of the line on which a particular fact situation falls is no sufficient reason to hold the language too ambiguous to determine a criminal offense. [Norms for the Novel, 79.]

Note should be taken of the fact that the presence of the so-called four-letter words does not necessarily make a piece of writing pornographic or obscene. It is true that these words are frequently used in contexts that are obscene; their use betrays vulgarity and crudity, and circumstances under which they are used may make their use sinful (e.g., deliberate use of them to shock or disedify the young and impressionable), but considered merely in themselves, they would not fall under any definition of pornography. Their use is to be reprobated, without doubt, but for the reason that they are vulgar and crude, and even shocking, not because they are ispo facto obscene (see speech, indecent and vulgar).

Despite difficulties of definition for purposes of legal control of obscenity, it is clear that the consensus of thought and the universal operation of law in society recognizes that there is such a thing as pornographic and obscene literature. When a work is recognized as definitely such, public authority has the right and the duty to exercise prudent censorship.

See Also: censorship of books (canon law).

Bibliography: n. st. john-stevas, Obscenity and the Law (London 1956). t. j. murphy, Censorship: Government and Obscenity (Baltimore 1963). m. mead, "Sex and Censorship in Contemporary Society," in New World Writing (New York 1953). c.r. hewitt, ed., Does Pornography Matter? (London 1961). g. van der leeuw, Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art, tr. d. e. green (New York 1963). d. h. lawrence, Sex, Literature, and Censorship (New York 1953). h. c. gardiner, Norms for the Novel (rev. ed. Garden City, N.Y. 1960). e. partridge, Shakespeare's Bawdy (New York 1948).

[h. c. gardiner]