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.


In a recent post I mentioned that one of the sports journalists on ESPN referred to Russell Wilson, the quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks, as “boring.” He is a quiet, unpretentious young man who has pretty much kept his mouth shut and stayed out of trouble. That’s the problem. The talking head on ESPN preferred players like Richard Sherman who give the journalists something to write about. Writing about folks like Wilson might put the reader to sleep. Or something.

There is a certain element of truth in this comment, of course. But much of that is a result of the fact that the journalists seek out the sensational stories and leave the others alone. And that’s what we have become used to: it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. We prefer the “exciting” stories and find anything that isn’t about violence, sex, and general mayhem “boring.” As the special effects people take over the making of movies, the movies themselves are excessively violent and horrifying, dulling our sensibilities and requiring no imagination whatever. In order not to be bored many of us now require smash-mouth images — on the TV and movie screen and in our books and papers. Sensationalism sells.

I have always thought that the word “boring” describes the mental state of the person using the word. One usually hears it from the mouths of those who have run out of diversions. It’s not so much that the situation, the book, or the person being discussed is boring; it’s more a matter of the person making the judgment. They can’t think of anything to do and have nothing going on between their ears. A person who is alive to what is going on around him or her will not be bored no matter where they happen to be or who or what they are reading about.

But I will grant that writing about the Russell Wilsons of the world might be less than scintillating to the one who worries only about selling his stories to a jaded audience.  After all, Dante whizzed through his Inferno and found writing about Paradise very taxing. And if Dante found Paradise hard to write about one can perhaps pardon the journalist who doesn’t want to write about Russell Wilson. Perhaps. On the other hand, it would appear that the real test of a good writer is his or her ability to make the boring exciting. After all, Dante did finish writing about Paradise and it was a stunning achievement.

Along these lines, Daniel Defoe explains the difficulties of writing about the “reformed” and “penitent” Moll Flanders, as contrasted with the “wicked” woman of the first parts of the novel by that name:

“It is suggested that there cannot be the same life, the same brightness and beauty, in relating the penitent part as in the criminal part. If there is any truth in that suggestion, I must be allowed to say, ’tis because there is not the same taste and relish in the reading; and indeed it is too true that the difference lies not in the real worth of the subject so much as in the gust and palate of the reader.”

Defoe almost certainly has his tongue planted firmly in his cheek in this Author’s Preface to his novel. But he makes a good point. We are hoist by our own petard. Wouldn’t it be better for us all if the writers occasionally wrote about the “boring” folks who do remarkable things, even heroic things, in a quiet and unassuming way? Should we insist, like the journalists themselves, that life’s only interesting when awful things happen? As Defoe suggests, that says more about us than it does about our world which is full of beauty and goodness if we only know where to look. Or are we, in fact, too busy looking for the sensational and the exciting because our sensibilities have become deadened by the journalists, movies, and games that keep pushing our faces into the pages or images of the scum of the earth?