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.

1 comment:

That Girl in Glasses said...

I've never even thought of antique erotica. As a lover of books (even more so than a reader, these days, if I'm honest)I do think that is utterly fascinating.