Defoe’s Eroticism

I am no historian of erotic literature, by no means. But I am aware of the writings of the Marquis de Sade (who was declared insane) in the  eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century most erotic literature was apparently written by persons who preferred to remain anonymous (perhaps because of the infamy that was heaped on Sade).  And in the twentieth century the writing style improved and serious writers such as Anaïs Nin, D. H. Lawrence, and Vladimir Nabokov wrote novels that had readers tittering nervously behind the bathroom door. Edith Wharton even tried her hand at it and wrote some steamy passages that she never attempted to publish. But the covers have been removed in our day as the “progress” in erotic literature, like other art forms, has taken us to the point where nothing whatever is left to the imagination.

Early on, when the Victorian writers, even the great ones like George Eliot, wrote love scenes they merely suggested what was about to happen — like the picture fading as the lovers embraced in the early days of cinema. The rest was left to the reader’s imagination — as well it should be. Some things are better left unsaid and merely hinted at. One might even argue that such suggestions are even more powerful stimulants than graphic descriptions of sex and violence (think of Hitchcock’s murder scenes in movies such as “Psycho”).

What is interesting in this regard is the early novel by Daniel Defoe, written in 1683 about the “fallen” woman, Moll Flanders. The author takes several carefully written pages in an “Author’s Preface” to brace his readers, prepare them for a story about a woman whose life was a series of adventures involving more than a dozen men of all shapes and sizes and even a brief marriage, including three children, with her brother. As age begins to catch up with her Moll resorts to theft and pickpocketing in addition to the occasional liaison. Defoe is careful to point out that he is writing about this woman in order to teach his readers to be more virtuous. Every carefully crafted scene — which again, relies on suggestion and hints — is followed by a lesson, as, for example, the following: “. . . yet you may see how necessary it is for all women who expect anything in the world, to preserve the character of her virtue, even when perhaps they may have sacrificed the thing itself.”  At one point early in the novel he takes several pages to give a lecture about the necessity for women to do a better job of “vetting” their prospective husbands, not to “run into matrimony as a horse runs into battle.” He warns that jumping into marriage simply to avoid the life of a spinster can lead to great unhappiness.  As he puts it:

“No man of common sense will value a woman the less for not giving up herself at the first attack, or for not accepting his proposal without enquiring into his person or character; on the contrary, he must think her the weakest of all creatures, as the rate of men now goes; in short, he must have a very comfortable opinion of her capacities, that having but one cast for her life shall cast that life away at once, and make matrimony, like death, be a leap in the dark.”

Much of his advice is wise and understanding of the women in his day who were abused and miserable because their society demanded that they marry early and start having large families. The author is clearly in sympathy with Moll Flanders who was born into poverty, taken from her mother at birth, and who must somehow do whatever is necessary to stay out of the poor house in a society where there are too few options for women generally. One might even argue that Defoe is one of the earliest feminists. The book is fairly racy in a tame sort of way: in its day it must have been rather sensational. It is certainly interesting.

But, in the end, novels that preach, even if the sermon is one we should take to heart, are flawed as works of art. And novels are above all else works of art. Or they should be. Didactic literature fails as art simply because the writer is telling his reader what to think or how to feel when that is better left to the reader. The same flaw can be attributed to graphic erotic novels that leave nothing to the imagination. Above all else, art requires the exercise of the imagination and works that are graphic and leave nothing to the imagination, like works that preach, cannot be said to be works of art.

All of which leads me to the consideration that today’s graphic movies, television, novels, and games cannot be said to be works of art by any stretch of the word. Moreover, they cripple the human imagination in the process of deadening the sensibilities to the subtleties of suggestions and hints — possibilities that are never explicitly mentioned but clearly intended. Works of art demand considerable effort on the part of the spectator to appreciate what the artist is doing, to fill in the gaps for herself or himself. And, more than anything else, that effort is one of the imagination. The more art degenerates into entertainment the less able will future spectators be able to engage complex works and appreciate them in their full presentational immediacy — as works of art that touch us on a variety of levels, and don’t simply get us sexually aroused or scare us to death, killing the imagination and rendering us devoid of feeling.

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5 thoughts on “Defoe’s Eroticism

  1. Great post. I had not thought of Defoe from that perspective. Women continue to be exploited in life and for entertainment and only when we can assure they are exploited less, will we have a flourishing community. As for today’s fare, I agree there is a need to titillate to secure a watcher or reader when it is not needed. In movies, a G rating is the kiss of death for adult watchers, but why does it have to be? Why can’t we leave stuff to the imagination? That is more artful than “opening the kimonos” using an old Navy expression.

  2. Hugh, very thoughtful and thought-provoking! Thank you.

    The book I reviewed the other day on my blog, Kyle Minor’s new “Praying Drunk,” is one that perhaps rides the line between art and the graphic elements that I also don’t like. Whatever sex there is takes place off the page, as it would in some of the classic literature you refer to. The book has more graphic violence than sex, but much of that, too, takes place off page and is referred to in the past tense — referred to graphically, but we don’t see it happen before our eyes. And Kyle does not preach about it, but lets these incidents spool out as a series of tragedies and then lets us gauge them by showing us the many internal and external responses of those affected. We end up judging for ourselves. It’s a rarity in modern literature, I think. Even the serious literature of today — let alone the pop-fiction stuff of suspense novels or endless detective series — is too often loaded with explicit sex and violence. It makes us so immune to the subtler and more intelligent questions that good art should stir within us.

    I also thought of Hardy as I read your description of “Moll Flanders.” His “Tess of D’Ubervilles” has plenty of sex and, similarly, a woman going through a few men — but it is also a cautionary tale and strongly moralistic, although not so preachy. The things happen to Tess as a matter of course, and Hardy doesn’t put his voice in there saying, “now look what she did to herself.” Which is good. But the end of the book, which startled and saddened me, is so harsh to Tess that even without the overt preachiness it preaches overtly with a symbol all the same.

  3. Thankyou, one of the more cogent explanations of the eternal question “What is art?” I cannot count the number of time I’ve stood in front of a picture in a gallery and thought it shows me everything without any need to think about it. Verily, a matter of the emperors clothes.. Cheerio, Tony.

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