Saturday, November 30, 2013

Ninety: Bibliophilia 2

This morning I'm imagining that collection of antique erotica--- the shelves of carefully-preserved, hand-bound volumes. I can imagine running a possessive fingertip over them and taking pride in having found and acquired them; I can imagine feeling a historian's pride in knowing the biographies of the authors and the travels of the individual volumes. I can even imagine feeling a certain academic pride in being able to apply both critical theory and social history methods to the texts. Yet...there's still a question here. What exactly would I want from the collection? What do I expect the books to do?

That's a legitimate question, I think. Erotica has a tenuous position in the literary world because it's seen not as literature, or even as a text to be analyzed, but as something that's simply utilitarian. The purpose of erotica is simply to produce arousal. To have a collection of erotica is to be assembling a shelf of what are in effect tools for getting off. A collection of antique or high-end erotica, the argument goes, is exactly like a shelf full of Fleshlights.  An erotica collection can be seen as nothing more than a "spank bank" with antique fonts. Let's leave aside how much I despise "spank bank" as a term--- it's part of the whole vocabulary of words (e.g., "wank", "toss", "rub one out") designed to denigrate and mock male indulgence in the Solitary Vice ---and think for a moment about what the books do.

I'd want that erotica collection because...the books are objects with a certain kind of history, with links to a past of underground presses and clandestine circulation, to a specific kind of moneyed demimonde. To some degree, the actual stories inside the books are never as alluring as the stories of the books and their milieu.  And so we're back to what I said earlier: the antique erotica collection is an aspirational thing, aspirational not just in terms of being expensive objects to display, but also in terms of linking the collector to a libertine past. The writer who called herself Debauchette collected antique erotica because, yes, she'd been  a doctoral student in literature, but also because her collection linked her own life as a courtesan to literary courtesans of the past.

I suppose that in some ways a collection of antique or high-end erotica is the very definition of "fetish". Not in the sexual usage,  mind you, but in the anthropological usage: investing an inanimate object with ritual or mystical powers. The books on the shelf aren't there to be used in any direct way. They're not there as a collection of scenes with the power to induce arousal.  They're there to link you to a certain tradition and a certain history. They're markers, not things with intrinsic utility.

It's not the actual sex scenes that matter.  Check on line for video of any kinds of activities you can imagine. Check on line, too, for fiction sites where any kind of specialized scene you'd like will be listed. What matters is the antique volume of erotica as ritual object, as something invested with the power to link you to a past, and to a pose.

I can imagine having those volumes on a shelf, and I can imagine knowing their histories and knowing how to apply Foucault and Barthes and Deleuze to them. I can imagine knowing the names and locations of the presses, and knowing how the books were distributed and what else the authors wrote. What I don't want them for is, well, erotica. Their genre matters,  but only as part of their value as markers. They'd be in a collection on my shelves to say that I understood that there's a history of erotica, and I was linking myself to a tradition of literary libertines. Those things matter to me far more than the actual sex scenes inside the covers.

The collection is something I do want. Let's be clear about that. I'd like to have a collection of antique erotica as good as Debauchette's. There's no question about that. But I wouldn't be collecting it as erotica in and of itself.  I'd want the collection as a statement about other things. And I can imagine looking at the volumes as objects, as things I'd explain to a lovely young visitor the way you'd explain paintings on your wall. But I do have to note that I want "antique erotica" as an aspirational thing, as a concept rather than as something to use. What the books would do is allow me to link myself to traditions I admire and skills I've cultivated.  That's not unlike what all books do for me, and probably all the other objects in my life as well.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

EIghty-Nine: Bibliophilia

A few years ago there was a blogger who signed herself as "Debauchette". She did a very thoughtful, very clever, very hot blog about her career as a high-end escort. She had a second page elsewhere where she talked about the books she was reading. I was a follower of her blog, and I do miss the stories she'd tell. She wrote about always using a fountain pen for her paper journal, and she recommended the Lamy fountain pen. That was recommendation enough for me to order one, and I do give her credit for the pen.

I found an interview with Debauchette where she talked a bit about her life and her transition from grad school into being a "professional companion". The interviewer asked her about her hobbies, and Debauchette talked about her own specialized bibliophilia, about collecting antique erotica. That caught my eye, of course, and on a couple of levels.

I'd known that there was such a thing as "Victorian erotica" since I was in high school and saw the books (some real, some clever pastiches) that Grove Press was putting out in those days. Lots of books about lascivious swells and gents, lots of tales of debauched maidens in Mayfair. I was at university, though, before I read Steven Marcus' "The Other Victorians" and realized that there was a whole subterranean world of Victorian publishing that did expensive editions of erotica.  I read Marcus' descriptions of the printing and distribution and found myself wishing I could have my own collection of erotica.

There were porn novels in those days--- paperbacks printed on the cheapest paper possible, bound in solid dull colours. You'd find them on spinners at bus stations or in convenience stores in the bad part of town. That's not what I wanted, of course. I read Marcus' long essay about "My Secret Life" and wanted a set. I wanted things from the upscale parts of the subterranean world. I remember a passage in (I think) Walter Kennedy's "The Secret Museum" where he noted what "upmarket" meant in the erotica world. A skilled craftsman (say, a master plumber) c. 1890 would've paid the equivalent of three or four month's wages for something like "My Secret Life". That was something I thought was doubly alluring:  transgressive sex, yes, but also a kind of secret world where Dorian Gray types furnished their secret garçonnières with finely-bound illicit novels and memoirs.

I did try to buy a few things in my grad school days. There was a bookseller's in Brooklyn called C.J, Scheiner's that did a mail-order business in antique erotica from ads in the New York Review of Books, and I'd go through their catalogs and try to find things that fit a grad student's budget. I couldn't afford anything extravagant--- folios of hand-coloured prints, Regency survivals, early reprints of Sade. Oh, I did see a set or two of "My Secret Life" for sale, but memory says that even in those days a set brought four or five thousand dollars. I did get a rather nice hardbound edition of "Story of O", obviously handcrafted, and I got a couple of signed prints by Guido Crepax, but never anything that would go into a serious collection.

The interview with Debauchette did include photos of a few of her own treasures--- an early English edition of Aretino, a good copy of "Venice Preserv'd", some 1920s underground reprints of Sade's "Justine" and "Juliette".  I'd like to see what else is on her shelves.

As for mine, though... I'd still like to collect antique erotica. I'd love an authentic set of "My Secret Life", and I'd like to have some of Rochester's plays. I might even like an edition of "The Romance of Lust". Though I wonder where one draws the line at "antique". Aretino or Tokugawa-era Japanese shunga would be all well and good,  but I think I'd like to focus any hypothetical collection on post-1945 editions. Yes, good hardbound copies of "Story of the Eye" and  "The Image", or good editions of Sade--- good meaning well-translated and annotated. And very probably some fashion-noir erotic photo collections from the 1970s through the mid-1990s.

Things like "My Secret Life" would be there as an exemplar of a secret world and clandestine high-end printing. To have things like Bataille or Sade or even "Story of O", though, I would want fairly recent well-bound editions, since the bindings would have to go hand-in-hand with modern translations and illustrations.

I will say that I want erotica in books--- in texts and photo collections. I want something tangible, something with a history. Streaming video can never have that.

But this raises a question. What out there is worth collecting now? Is there a world of high-end erotica done in the last ten or fifteen years that's worth seeing as collectible? And I will ask--- if you were setting up your own secret bookshelves, what would you collect?  What would you collect not just for its value at provoking arousal, but for its sense of style, for its value as an object? Let me know what erotica you'd collect for your own hidden shelves.