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Merchant-Ivory's new clothes

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In their film version of E.M. Forster's A Room with a View, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory make an error that quite possibly is a first for book-to-screen adaptations: they make the sex less controversial.  Specifically, they uncouple the sex from religion, stripping the romance between Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson of the trappings of transcendence and holiness in which Forster had clothed it.  In place of Foster's couple surrendering to the divinity of sexually-vibrant love, Merchant and Ivory give us a pair relieving themselves of silly Victorian repression in order to obtain self-fulfillment.  Superficially persuasive, perhaps, but not what Forster wrote.

In A Room with a View, Forster's didactic side is irrepressible and insistent on teaching that God is in the pleasures of the flesh, that religion errs when it banishes the body from the realm of the holy, and that the only correct response to desire is to act upon it. 

"Passion is sanity," admonishes old Mr. Emerson, and "love is of the body. . . . Ah! for a little directness to liberate the soul!" 

Mr. Emerson's words succeed in "robb[ing] the body of its taint," and his version of reality thereby prevails over that of poor, likable Reverend Mr. Beebe, who agrees to help Lucy because of his "belief in celibacy" and his determination that, by "plac[ing] [Lucy] out of danger until she could confirm her resolution of virginity," he is helping "not only Lucy, but religion also." 

Mr. Beebe's soul shall not be liberated, not in A Room with a View.  

Not when Lucy runs off with George Emerson after finally grasping "the holiness of direct desire."  Sex with George in the loving context of matrimony is a sacred imperative to E.M. Forster.

To Merchant and Ivory, it's little more than an opportunity for an orgasm.  Gone from the film's dialogue are Mr. Emerson's references to the holy-carnal.  (Indeed, the film splits up his critical interview with Lucy, having Mr. Emerson spend half the time speaking to Lucy's spinster cousin, Charlotte, a prude on whom such a sermon would have been wasted.)  Nor does the film include any inkling of Mr. Beebe's religious abstinence.  As for "the holiness of direct desire," all we get is the genial approbation of sexual longing acknowledged and acted upon in a socially responsible way.  In place of the ecstasy and rapture of Saint Theresa, we get Dr. Ruth.  Superficially persuasive, perhaps, but not what Forster wrote.

In a moment of irony, the film includes a quote of something Forster did write: "Mistrust all enterprises that require new clothes."  Possibly Merchant and Ivory felt that makers of costume dramas are exempted from this wisdom.  To the contrary: new clothes often signal new values.  And while it might seem easy to understand the cut of an Edwardian dress, it may be less difficult to comprehend that a modern, sexual-health marriage doesn't fit inside it.
(Image of Helena Bonham-Carter in the Merchant-Ivory film version of A Room with a View from Duke University's website)

Sonnet XX: WTF?

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Tilda_Swinton_as_Male_Orlando.jpgShakespeare's Sonnet XX confounds me.  It praises a person whose gorgeous face, heart and personality - with its absence of womanly faults - captures the narrator's passion . . . though this same person's cock checks the narrator's impulse for sexual consummation of his love.  Here's the poem:

A woman's face with nature's own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion:
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.

I first encountered Sonnet XX at a vulnerable moment, just before bed time, and I naturally assumed that in my exhaustion, I'd lost track of some critical explanatory phrase in the poem.  But an immediate reread suggested that the eyebrow-raising implications weren't a function of my readiness for slumberland.  Indeed, a basic Google search revealed countless others with raised eyebrows.  So provocative is Sonnet XX that Prince might have done well to set its verses to music instead of expending effort to write "Controversy."

Interestingly, more than one commentator seems to think that the poem is an admission of Shakespeare's homosexuality.  Personally, I find that theory absurd.  For starters, such speculation superimposes a patina of modern norms on Shakespeare's Elizabethan consciousness (e.g., that loving another man makes a man gay).  We barely understand how gender and sexually are socially constructed today; to project our incomplete understanding backwards 400 years is at best arrogant and at worst idiotic.

But more importantly, Sonnet XX isn't so much homosexual as it is weird.  For gay men, the love object isn't womanly; a gay male pin-up is hot because he's masculine.  Sonnet XX, on the other hand, idolizes a man with a womanly appearance - or, at a minimum, an Orlando-style androgynous appearance that appeals to men and women ("Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth"). 

Moreover, unlike a homosexual man, the narrator of Sonnet XX is decidedly against sex with his beloved: the narrator is "defeated" by his adored's prick; it brings the narrator's purpose "to nothing."  Instead, the narrator urges his beloved to make love with women, while giving his heart to the narrator. 

This model of love isn't homosexual; rather, it seems to lack a modern analogy.  Same-sex love affairs in modern society aren't typically sexless.  Nor do we usually idolize the looks of one gender when they appear on the other; quite the opposite, especially in the case of men.  From Boy George, to Michael Jackson, to Jaye Davidson (who played Dil in The Crying Game), men who look like women tend to make folks uncomfortable nowadays.

In fact, the very eagerness of modern readers to class Sonnet XX with homosexual literature reflects a variety of discomfort or insecurity with the prospect of a same-sex love relationship beyond our comprehension or experience.  But while the impulse to tame the scary, irrational potentialities of sex by naming, categorizing and analyzing is a positive one, we lose the chance to recognize, explore and appreciate the breadth of human experience if we insist on incorrect classification.

Human love is vaster, more capricious and more irrepressible than Harlequin romance.  And our capacities for loving in multi-faceted and bizarre ways is among our species' the most remarkable and admirable traits.  As G.W. Bowerstock observes in a New York Review of Books review of two books exploring Greek pederasty:

The sexual life of the ancient Greeks was as variegated and inventive as its resplendent culture. It was neither consistent nor uniform.  To this day it stubbornly resists all modern ideologies and prejudices, and yet it had its own principles of decency.  In sex, as in so much else, the ancient Greeks were unique.
Sonnet XX tantalizes with its glimpse of a variegated and inventive sexual life, one neither consistent nor uniform, one that resists modern ideologies and prejudices, for Shakespeare and his Elizabethan brethren.  We might consider to what extent their sexual openness made the Greeks and the Elizabethan not merely unique, but also great.

(Image of Tilda Swinton playing Orlando from Sally Potter's website)

A literary lover

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Byron_Beppo.jpgIn Beppo, Lord Byron's verse play, the poet raises an intractable question: were 99 stanzas necessary?

A comic, bawdy Venetian adventure, Beppo ostensibly tells the tale of a woman, Laura, whose husband, Beppo, goes to sea and disappears without a word.  "And really if a man won't let us know/That he's alive, he's dead, or should be so," explains Byron.  So Laura takes a cavalier servente, an openly-accepted second husband.  Six years go by, and Laura and her cavalier servente are enjoying their life together, when - at a masked ball during Carnival - Laura catches the attention of a Turk . . . who turns out to be her husband.

Despite the drama of this situation, the plot is secondary to scene-setting and musings of tangential relevance.  In Beppo, Byron's digressions, quite self-consciously, rule the poem:  

. . . [F]or I find
Digression is a sin, that by degrees
Becomes exceeding tedious to my mind,
Byron complains in stanza 50.  Just thirteen stanzas later, he's moaning again:

To turn, -and to return; the devil take it!
This story slips for ever through my fingers.  
But however much Byron protests his poetic ADD, he devotes extensive energy to it.  As Jeffrey, writing in Edinburgh Review in 1818 observed, "This story, such as it is, occupies about twenty stanzas."  (My own count is not so condemnatory.  I allow the first 20 verses as appropriate background scene-setting, and I only count 27 or so verses of proper digression.  Nonetheless, even by my generous assessment, 47 verses of 99 do not advance the plot.)  

Explanations of Byron's digressions abound.  Jeffrey calls them "unquestionably by far the most lively and interesting parts of the work."  Harsh condemnation of the story then.

Jeffrey is not the only critic to slight Beppo's story.  Writing in The Guardian, Benjamin Markovits calls the story "scant" and explains the digressions in Beppo as follows:

The real hero of the piece is the poet himself . . . . [engaging in] a series of digressions on worldliness: on how to take pleasure from the world, on how to live.
While I agree with both these comments, I think in some sense they miss the larger picture of how the digressions deepen the reader's experience of the story and how the poem's constituent parts relate to the whole.  

If, as Jeffrey and Markovits suggests, the digressions don't relate to the story, but instead supplant the story, then my inquiry is irrelevant.  The constituent parts don't relate beyond allowing the story to serve as a frame for Byron's digressions.

But to explain the story in Beppo as a thin branch on which to hang the poet's "lively and interesting" observations "on how to live" seems (to my mind) to disserve Byron's skills as a storyteller.  Such an interpretation also fails to give meaning to the stanzas in which Byron calls attention to his own digressions.

My reading is that the digressions are integral to the story.  By calling attention to his digressions, Byron is signaling to the reader that they are not the sloppy tangents of a debauched mind, but deliberate and purposeful additions to the story.  Byron is telling the tale of a woman whose relationship with her cavalier servente is a digression in her marriage.  The digression is entertaining, worldly and broad-minded - just like Byron's digressions in the poem.  In Beppo, Byron is offering himself as cavalier servente to the reader; he is inviting his adoring fans to allow him to be a digression in their day, life, relationship.  (The poet isn't the hero of the poem; the reader is.) 

And, in the reader's acceptance of Byron's service, the reader is implicated in Laura's "sin."  Writing of immoral relations for a conservative British audience, Byron stealthily builds the reader's sympathy for Laura - as well as support for the poem's happy ending that allows Laura to escape without punishment - by inviting the reader to partake via literary effigy in Laura's naughtiness.  

Given such playfulness, 99 stanzas are not only necessary, but possibly insufficient.

(Cover of Beppo from

A passel of brats

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Reading Gone with the Wind, I was struck by Scarlett's response to Rhett in Chapter 19, when he proposes that she become his mistress:

"Dear," he said quietly, "I am complimenting your intelligence by asking you to be my mistress without having first seduced you."
. . .
"Mistress!  What would I get out of that except a passel of brats?"
Of course, moments earlier in the scene, he'd preempted her question.  In a passage that made my eyes widen and twisted my mouth into a smirk (the sad facial composition that results when I goofily try to repress an expression betraying keen interest), Rhett tenderly kisses Scarlett's palm (always a sexy move, gentlemen), prompting in Scarlett a "treacherous warm tide of feeling that made her want to run her hands through his hair, to feel his lips upon her mouth."  Yes!

But by the time Rhett defines (confines) his desire with the label "mistress," Scarlett has forgotten this treacherous tide of feeling -- which, along with the passel of brats (and maybe some money), is what she'd have gotten out of an affair with Rhett.  This forgetfulness is a symptom of Scarlett's fear of sex, and the attendant pleasure, humiliation, and loss of control -- to say nothing of the irrationality, incomprehensibility and general difficulty maintaining one's dignity -- that accompanies it. 

This fear (not shared and underestimated by) Rhett is what dooms their romance.  "Only when like marries like can there be any happiness," warns Gerald, Scarlett's father, in Chapter 2, and Rhett agrees:  "I love you, Scarlett, because we are so much alike, renegades, both of us, dear, and selfish rascals," he says in Chapter 23.  Unfortunately, their sex drives aren't compatible, a problem that seems just as divisive of a marriage in the 19th century as it is in our own day.  

The "passel of brats" betrays Scarlett's prudish fear -- along with the concomitant failure of imagination and lack of experience -- with the economy of a punch.  Reading that line felled me with pity, compassion and a gentle (but nonetheless mocking) incredulity of Scarlett, this silly, willful, immature girl whose vocabulary includes "passel," but not "orgasm."  

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Prudishness category.

Limitations on compassion is the previous category.

Reading and class distinctions is the next category.



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