The Erotic Arms Race

A young man learning of how Les Fleurs du Mal was condemned for obscenity during Napoleon III's uptight times can only be left speechless if he has happened to read Baudelaire. For the young generations of today, the poet's depiction of lesbian delights appears like some sort of kindergarten exercise. Petre Petre's rape of the aristocrat Nadia in Rebreanu's The Uprising is, undoubtedly, an extremely brutal scene. However, its erotic value, that is the capacity of arousing sexual imagination, is extremely limited. The same young man I was referring to is little aware of the bashfulness of the Ceausescu period. While the West was subject to a genuine erotic arms race, as writings with sexual content were more and more overt, the ears, eyes and mind of the Romanian people were passionately protected. So far did the purification of texts go that even contents that were dealing rather with sexual biology than with eroticism were censored (at a certain time, The Scientific Magazine was compelled to replace the word semen by the seed of life. Caution is the parent of safety).So, after 1990, we were faced with a situation similar to Mr. Waldemar's. The body of Poe's hero, dead but exempt from decay, suddenly starts rotting when the magic is dispelled. Romanian literature and art have turned hypersexual overnight, after having gone through an extensive therapy of austerity, meant to preserve their chastity.Meanwhile, the Western World became more and more liberal. This freedom is now manifest in terms of quality: the area of the "showable" is getting wider and wider. And also in terms of quantity: sexual representations are more and more invasive of the public sphere. We are witnessing a state of things where sex has become almost compulsory in either low or high manifestations of culture. The esthetic concern – where is the border of vulgarity? – no longer exists.Baudelaire, a dandy who was always right, said: "the most euphoric quality of vulgarity is the aristocratic pleasure of displeasing."I shall briefly comment on this quotation: a) vulgarity is only cherished if it is euphoric; b) this vulgarity implies an "aristocratic" pleasure. It is obvious that we are not dealing here with any kind of vulgarity. We are talking of transgressions of common sense that scandalize and innovate at the same time. Beethoven, Picasso could appear – when they actually appeared – to be vulgar. It is obvious that this innovative esthetic heresy is not the issue of contemporary vulgarity.Showing sex for the sake of sex (and because it sells the product!) triggers a non-"euphoric" vulgarity. This is only one of the aspects of the death of art.But the phenomenon we would particularly like to focus on is a different one. Human psychology has the quality of always demanding more than it is offered: it is the temptation of overbidding. Satisfied desire prompts the satisfaction of an even greater need. Theologians have argued that Hell was nothing but a desperate desire, an unfulfilled wish for more. This movement is subject to a natural acceleration. The evolution of erotic representations depends on the law of overbidding desire (this is also the case of violence!). What was challenging and exciting yesterday may seem ordinary today. This is why we always need more. It is like an exhaustion of imagination. A tiring one. Are we in Hell?Well, that makes Eastern eroticism, where one must capture the subversive curl escaping from underneath the veil, or the forbidden sight of an ankle, the promise of one minute of happiness, seem even more economical!The metaphor that came to my mind was the arms race: the more weapons one of the belligerent states will produce, the harder will the other strive to surpass it. The more eroticism will be fabricated, the more the need for eroticism will grow. States may sign treaties of non-proliferation. Eroticism is private: there is no conscious mechanism to stop it. We may imagine that, being restricted, possible representations will reach a limit.I am not sure that imagination does have limits.The erotic arms race can lead where many trails of human evolution go: to the supremacy of the virtual over the real. There are many signs that pornography, for instance, is overrated, in relation to natural sexuality. Sociologists (and policemen!) noticed that real prostitution, the one involving people, decreases as virtual pornography (movies etc.) increases. It is not fair to consider the virtual a substitute. A substitute to what? It is, purely and simply, a mutation in collective mentality and we do not know how reversible it is. Present day man accuses reality and worships the virtual.The precision of pornographic image radically differentiates it from a fantasy (and the same thing can be said of a letter!), as the latter leaves room for divagation. There is nothing more different from the terrible realism of a porn movie than a dream, the indescribable, the impossible. The first is more of a demonstration of physiology, whose perfect accuracy it shares.I do not believe in conservative revolutions – unless they are transitory manifestations; I wonder whether the harsh and generalized pornography of the present may be nothing more than a manifestation of how the human migrates towards other forms of support than the body. I prefer to believe that such a science-fictional script is a nightmare, and that the future generations will relive the extreme pleasure of being stimulated by the sight of an inch of an ankle (I am just not sure whether women would approve). from Dilema veche 59/4-10 March 2005

by Ion Vianu