There was no sex in Western literature until 1857.
This is an exaggeration and a simplification of course. (You are reading this on the internet after all.) But not by as much as you might think. Sex does play a role in literature before 1857, but it is very seldom a straight-forward one. Between…
Beowulf (ca 800 to 1,100 CE) and Leaves of Grass (1856)
… there is very little direct examination of sexual desire. Sex is there, of course, but it is always contained within a related topic. Passion is one such topic, giving desire nobility and a certain amount of respectability with its parallels to spiritual ecstasy and religious transcendence.
To conceive a great passion was certainly admirable. To give in to it was less so – although somewhat understandable – unless you happened to passionately repent afterwards, in which case you were back in the clear, and also had something new to do with all that animal energy.
Love was another one of these topics, a step down from passion in terms of intensity, but a step up in terms of stability, and was perfectly respectable.
This is not to say that passion and love are not valuable human experiences, or that they can’t exist along with desire, or all the literature dealing with either is false.
But the language of passion and love are also a means of not talking about sexual desire, or a means of excusing it, or most importantly a means of dismissing physical desire’s power, whether it’s tales of courtly love, or the story of Emma and Mr. Knightley, or Walt Whitman who with his great moving exuberance unites the body and soul together.
When sex does appear in Western literature before 1857, it is played for comedy through lower-class characters, such as Chaucer’s Wife of Bath or Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones or, much more explicitly, Cleland’s Fanny Hill.
There are more troublesome outliers to muddy the picture. (Did I mentioned you were reading this on the internet? Okay good.)
The Decameron comes to mind and the work of the Marquis de Sade. But let’s agree for the sake of my personal convenience that these are exceptions that prove the rule
Madame Bovary (1857)
Flaubert’s novel caused a scandal and it’s not hard to see why. In Madame Bovary, he both plainly describes sexual desire and attacks the language in which it had previously been discussed.
Flaubert’s language seems quite tame by today’s standards, but he left no doubt about what he meant. For example, during a meeting with a lover, Flaubert writes that “[Emma] tiptoed over on bare feet to check once again that the door was locked, and in one motion she shed all her clothes; — pale and silent and serious, she fell upon him, shivering.”
Flaubert is just as direct when comes to the romantic language of “passion”. Emma’s first lover, Rodolphe, deliberately and cynically uses that language, and plays the role of the passionate lover, to seduce Emma, and Emma willingly embraces the role, out of a desire for something other than the stifling, self-satisfied, and clueless adoration of her husband Charles.
She again embraces the role with her second lover, Leon, and embraces it more desperately the more she senses the intensity of their relationship fading, and the more she feels the consequences of her deceptions bearing down on her.
Flaubert may have been the first voice to speak plainly about sex and to decouple the physical act from the language of passion and love, but he was followed by a long silence. It seems that Western literature needed the massive social disruption caused by the First World War to make books like …
Ulysses (1922) and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928)
… possible. Joyce’s Ulysses is quite explicit about sex, but it wasn’t the perfect book to break the taboo, largely because it was so difficult for many readers to understand.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover did a better job with its plain speaking, and caused a scandal. But instead of silence, these books were soon followed by others, such as Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934). Lady Chatterley and Tropic of Cancer were involved in obscenity trials as late as 1960, but these failed, and the subject of sex became ubiquitous in books by the end of the decade.
I don’t see this change as an unqualified success. A great deal of sex in books these days ranges from the merely gratuitous to the frankly pornographic, and is rendered with such an appalling, puzzling, frequently hilarious lack of skill that it can chase you right back to Jane Austen.
On the other hand, the fact of sexual desire, and the fact that desire demands satisfaction, are different matters. These need to be addressed in literature because, like in life, they don’t go away just because they’re ignored. And when desire and love are denied, between consenting adults not restrained by other promises, this denial blights the soul. We can put up with the occasional internet sensation trilogy to gain that.
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