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   Sex, Sade, Paglia and the Romantic Imperative


For Sade, getting back to Nature (the romantic imperative that still permeates our culture from sex counselling to cereal commercials) would be to give free rein to violence and lust.' (Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae). Does the 'back to Nature' element in Romantic poetry give any such 'free rein'?

Maudit soit a jamais le rêveur inutile
Qui voulut le premier, dans sa stupidité
S'
éprenant d' un problème insoluble et stérile,
Aux choses de l'amour meler l'honn
êteté
[
1 ].

Before attempting to tackle this question I would like to examine the surface structure of the above idea, that is to say the particular way in which it has been phrased, regarding such things as choice of vocabulary, connotations, as well as references to specific proper nouns and concepts.

And when I talk about proper nouns I mean of course 'Sade' and 'Camille Paglia'. It is all too easy to take an extract of somebody's work, or refer to somebody's ideas in a sweepingly laconic manner, without further discussing one's philosophical stances. And when it comes to Sade (known to the layman simply as the man who is etymologically responsible for the concept of sadism) one cannot ignore the magnitude of his philosophy. Some of the greatest thinkers of the two last centuries have acknowledged his importance. According to Paglia 'his absence form university curricula illustrates the timidity and the hypocrisy of the liberal humanities
[ 2 ]'.

Two semantically charged with negative connotations expressions are 'lust', and 'free rein'. Examining the politics and ideology of these concepts we can easily identify them with a moral attitude towards life and the universe which could very well be the Christian one. It is not accidental that I bring into my argument the word 'Christianity': it stands for the moral background of the romantic era; it is the dominant moral background of the romantic era. Christianity has condemned the primary instincts, which are the legacy of Nature to man, by coining words that reflect this human superstructure of morality upon the intricate works of nature. Thus sexuality is reinterpreted as 'lust'.

None of us wants to appear 'lustful', or as giving 'free-rein', thus, it is clear that the way the question has been phrased is one that demands from us an 'anti-lust' and 'anti free-rein' approach. Of course, the linguistic and ideological exigencies of this 'interrogative' text will not necessarily make us oblige. Of course I shall not proceed to such sweeping statements as 'there is no such thing as romantic morality
[ 3 ]'.

A further point I want to make is the force with which words and phrases connote other ideas. For example 'back to Nature' which connotes 'back to basics' and 'romantic imperative' which connotes the 'categorical imperative', and the whole Kantian concept of a moral world order with its concomitant inevitability. One cannot ignorer this web of meaning stretching far from a sterile and superficial semantic examination. One cannot even ignore the possibility of writing a satire based on this text.

Another point we have to make clear -since our discussion is concerned with ethics- is that the ethical standards reflected in each particular poet's verse are not necessarily the ethical standards applied to his life. Therefore, we limit our discussion strictly to the literary element of ethics which is indeed very illusive and very deceptive. It is like basing our judgements on a politician by what he says before he gets elected.

Having made all these clarifications I feel slightly more justified to proceed in the discussion of poetry and poets. My first choice will be a poet that possesses a certain affinity with Sade due to his emphasis upon instinct, energy and imagination: 'Sade's British brother [ 4 ]' William Blake. Blake and Sade contradict Rousseau insofar as man is not naively considered inherently good but violence is considered as the authentic spirit of mother nature. Thus, they prefigure the amoralistic theories which re-evaluate old values in the works of Nietzsche, Darwin and Freud.

There is no naive division in Blake between body and mind. His poetry is suffused in sex and violence. He celebrates the physical and its manifestations extolling 'energy' instead of 'wise passiveness'. He is more concerned with the quality of his poetry and of how well he portrays human characters rather than subjecting it to inappropriate moral censure: 'Cunning & Morality are not Poetry but Philosophy the Poet is independent and Wicked the Philosophy is dependent & Good
[ 5 ]'. He is Dionysian insofar as he celebrates intoxication and the free expression of desire without any moral inhibitions: 'The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom' a notorious statement which equates philosophy with the ability to let go or should we say 'free rein'. In other words 'You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough'. Desire for Blake is sacred and the inability to satisfy it is sacrilege. He castigates repression as a supreme evil; to use an anachronism we cannot avoid thinking of Freud who maintained that the basis of psychoanalysis is repression. Probably Blake's most pungent 'moral' statement: 'Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires [ 6 ]'. The moral is quite clear here:: if you lead a life of asceticism and renunciation of desires then it is not worth living. He also equates the genitals with beauty - another dionysian credo.

If for Blake nature is 'energy' then for Wordsworth it is 'contemplation'. Action is replaced with 'wise passiveness', a wise passiveness probably not unalloyed with a sour grapes element. Conspicuous in Wordsworth's poetry is the absence of the adult man with an active sexuality. His poems teem with old men, children, women and animals; that is when his poems obviate from paying tribute to mother nature's brooks, stones, woods, clouds etc. As Paglia says 'a stone in the road arouses more fellow-feeling in Wordsworth than does a masculine man [ 7 ]'.

Thus, Wordsworth becomes the paradigm example of repression and sublimation. Strangely enough his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads can be read as a manifesto of hedonism. I refer to the sentence in which he speaks of what he calls 'the grand elementary principle of pleasure', and says that it constitutes 'the naked and native dignity of man' that is the principle by which man 'knows, and feels, and lives, and moves'. Here one is perplexed: should we trust Wordsworth's literary theory or his poetry as the true expression of his soul? Wordsworth believes in nature and 'unaccomodated man' but a nature deprived of its crass amorality and vulgarity, s spiritualised nature. He talks about 'an impulse form a vernal wood...' using something inanimate in his metaphor to avoid the sexual explicitness of Blake. Notwithstanding his abstemiousness from explicit metaphors he declares nature as the supreme moral agent and guide '...may teach us more of man/Of moral evil and of good/than all the sages can'. Thus, it is made clear that the human morality is artificial morality; but he is paradoxical insofar as he claims that there is morality in an amoral nature where the exigencies of survival crassly disregard the individual life. Perhaps, if Wordsworth had been a peripatetic in some African jungle instead of Lake District, he would have had a more realistic conception of the 'laws' and 'morals' that guide nature.

But ultimately one can understand Wordsworth's poetry as sublimated eroticism which has been projected into nature. His sexuality has undergone the most admirable vicissitude, it has become an abstract and spiritual love for nature which corroborates the Freudian theory of sublimation as the cause of civilization, without resolving the question for Wordsworth himself. But sublimation is not a panacea as i) not all libido can be displaced ii) only a minority of people are capable of creative sublimation and iii) sublimations by virtue of their intrinsic nature are not capable of really complete satisfaction. And we reach to the crux: 'the desexualization intrinsic to all sublimation... involves a necessary component of dying to the life of the body, and therefore cannot ever satisfy the life instinct
[ 8 ]'. Thus what Wordsworth so insistently portrays in his obsession with nature is the reaction of his Id to the stress it suffers through sublimation. In the light of this we can understand his later pessimism.

I have decided to juxtapose Blake with Wordsworth because of their antipodean world-view which entertained the potential of resulting in an interesting synthesis, ultimately justifying my dialectical approach. To recapitulate: Blake is the advocate of the Id's Liberation Movement (or 'free rein') whereas Wordsworth is the onanistic master of repression and sublimation. I have deliberately chosen the psychoanalytic idiom as I believe that the subject merits such an approach. According to Freud the whole structure of modern civilization is based on the desexualization of primal energy and its transmogrification into manual and spiritual labour. However, the curtailment of instinctual impulses has been so dramatic and so severe that it resulted in a cultural neurosis gravely afflicting modern man. Absolute freedom, as it has been advocated by Reich, could not be the answer to this predicament as humans naturally shy away from freedom in absolute terror. What is needed is 'a reduction in the strictness with which instincts are repressed [ 8 ]', or, 'the restructuring of human relationships on a different basis which could reconcile nature with society without friction
[ 9 ]
'. Humanistic psychoanalysis has attempted a reinterpretation and a restatement of the notion of love in a secularised context:

'Man is torn away from his primary union with nature, which characterizes animal existence. Having at the same time reason and imagination, he is aware of his aloneness and separateness; of his powerlessness and ignorance; of the accidentalness of his birth and death. He could not face this state of being for a second if he could not find new ties with his fellow man which replace the old ones regulated by instincts. Even if all his physiological needs were satisfied, he would experience his state of aloneness and individuation as a prison from which he had to break in order to preserve his sanity. (...) the necessity to unite with other living beings, to be related to them, is an imperative need on the fulfilment of which man's sanity depends. This need is behind all phenomena which constitute the whole gamut of intimate human relations, of all passions which are called love in the broadest sense of the word [ 10 ]'.

We cannot ignore the cosmogonic importance of desire as the primary law behind all natural laws. Modern physicists have attempted the analogy of human love with the gravitational forces at work in interstellar space. The same way science cannot comprehend the raison d'etre of the laws that govern the cosmos, interpersonal love cannot be explained. Dante, though, knew it all along that it is:

'L'amor chi muove il sole e l'altre stelle [ 11 ]'



FOOTNOTES

[1]
Charles Baudelaire, Femmes Damnees Delphine et Hippolyte, from Les Fleurs du Mal. (Delphine, the lesbian heroine, goes into a snit and curses the stupid 'useless dreamer' who first mixed morality with love. The 'useless dreamer' can be nobody else but Jesus Christ.)

[2]
Sexual Personae, p.235

[3]
Irving Babbit, Rousseau and Romanticism, p.217

[4]
Sexual Personae, p.231

[5]
D. Erman (ed), Poetry and Prose of William Blake, p.633-4

[6]
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

[7]
Sexual Personae, p.304

[8]
Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id, (Standard Edition) Hogarth Press, vol.XII, p.60

[9]
ibid, p.60

[10]
Erich Fromm, The Sane Society, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1956, p30
It is very interesting how poetry can surpass scientific prose in richness of meaning and brevity of expression. We could very easily paraphrase these 160 words of prose into 25 words of verse and retain the same meaning - if not make it even clearer. Now compare Fromm with, simply, Wordsworth:

There is a comfort in the strength of love
'Twill make a thing endurable
Which else would overset the brain
Or break the human heart.


(Michael, lines 456-460)

[11] It is repeated three times, the the end of each part of his Divine Comedy, and it translates thus: 'love that moves the sun and the other stars'. A very interesting juxtaposition of Dante's 'physics', with modern physics can be found in Luis Racionero's book, Las Filosofias del Underground, editorial Anagrama, Madrid, 1977

 

 

 

 
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