Thursday, January 20, 2011

Victorian and Modern

At the moment I'm reading the rather odd book by Robertson Davies, Murther and Walking Spirits, in which the narrator (a man killed by his wife's lover in the first paragraph) views 'films' of his ancestors' lives. In the section I was reading last night there was a long story about his Victorian grandparents and the awful way in which the wife treated the husband in terms of conjugal relations (or rather, the lack of them).

I'm also reading Helmut Thielicke's The Ethics of Sex (translated by John Doberstein), in which he discusses in chapter 2B the way in which the Victorians kept sex (eros) in its place and the way in which we moderns have made it so open that it's lost its power.

Here's a quote from that section:

"Today we speak not only about the power but also about the details of eros, even in the best society. We talk in a free and easy way about our complexes and are capable of revealing things about ourselves in the code language of objective terminology which were formerly uttered only in the confessional. This, however, does not reveal a more intact eros, but rather an eros that has been domesticated, exhausted, and robbed of its elemental character. We no longer need to be exorcised. Since it has changed from a wild, rushing torrent, confined to a narrow riverbed, into stagnant flood waters that inundate the whole country and since we are always wading in it and coming into touch with it everywhere (in nudifying concealments and concealing nudifications, in the omnipresent exploitation of sex appeal on stage and screen, in magazines and newspapers), it cease to be something ecstatically seductive and enjoys the prescriptive right to have at its beck and call at any time those whom it formerly had to seduce. Already there are highly civilized countries in which even young children are given sex education by means of films and talks in order that the ecstatic demands of nature may be normalised and reduced to ‘second nature’ at an early enough age, and in order that what is by nature a mystery may be shown to be merely an objective triviality and thus make it harmless. And as a matter of fact, here adjurations and reticences are no longer needed in order to prevent the elemental force from coming too close. The stagnant waters surround us on all sides. The fleeting moment of eros has become an extended flat surface. Has this brought us closer to eros?"

I love that phrase: 'nudifying concealments and concealing nudifications'.

Incidentally, I discovered that this book, which I've had for some time, and which is secondhand, formerly belonged to someone in Christchurch with whom our office has had a great deal to do with over the last year! Books have a way of connecting up: I once put a copy of the book, The Bone People, in the Regent Book Sale only to have it was bought by the person I worked with, who had no idea that it had been mine until she got home with it.

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