I’ve been given the task of defining ‘eroticism’ as the first step towards constructing my thesis. When I sat in my supervisor’s office and jotted this down, it wasn’t that I assumed the task would be easy, but I didn’t quite grasp the complexity of the journey I had agreed to embark on. The task wasn’t to define eroticism in literature, but in the general. And there is no better place to start, I think, that to look at the etymology of a word. Here you might think the OED would be the holy grail, but you’d be mistaken.
1. Erotic spirit or character; also, the use of erotic or sexually arousing imagery in literature or art.
1881 Sat. Rev. 9 July 53/1 The religious eroticism of Redi.
1885 Sat. Rev. 11 Apr. 483/1 This martyr [Mme. de Montifaud] to eroticism.
1957 T. Talbot tr. J. Ortega y Gasset’s On Love ii. 43 A theory of eroticism ought to begin by an explanation of its most perfect forms.
1969 Daily Tel. 10 Feb. 10/4 He [sc. Thomas Mann] puts the German character on the operating table..: the loneliness, the smug provincialism, the Wagnerian primitivism, the eroticism.
1978 I. B. Singer Shosha vii. 135 There is no reason why..even our friend Haiml’s blend of eroticism and Hasidism could not exist in a play-city or play-world.
1989 Encycl. Brit. XXV. 358/2 Eroticism was more explicit in the sensuous nudes..of François Boucher.
2. Med. and Psychol. A condition or state of sexual excitement or desire; a tendency to become sexually aroused, usu. by some specified stimulus.
1899 T. C. Allbutt et al. Syst. Med. VIII. 373 The sexual appetite in both sexes is usually reduced or absent, but eroticism and self-abuse may be associated with the condition.
1924 H. Ellis Stud. Psychol. Sex (ed. 3) II. iii. 81 Ferenczi again..accepts ‘the psychic capacity of the child to direct his originally objectless eroticism to one or both sexes’, and terms this disposition ambisexuality.
1975 Obstetr. & Gynecol. 46 315/1 Androgens increase eroticism.
Really not terribly informative, not exactly definitive either.
From the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
From the Collins English Dictionary
eroticism [ɪˈrɒtɪˌsɪzəm], erotism [ˈɛrəˌtɪzəm]
Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003
Clearly it was necessary to step back to the adjective ‘erotic’
erotic, adj. and n.
Etymology: < Greek ἐρωτικ-ός, < ἔρως, ἔρωτ-ος sexual love. Compare French érotique.
Of or pertaining to the passion of love; concerned with or treating of love; amatory.
1668 P. M. Cimmerian Matron in W. Charleton Ephesian & Cimmerian Matrons ii. Pref. sig. G2v, That Erotic passion is allowed by all learned men to be a species of Melancholy.
1776 C. Burney Gen. Hist. Music I. 69 These modes had other..dependent on them; such as the Erotic, or amorous.
1823 tr. Sismondi’s Lit. Eur. (1846) I. xvi. 448 The lyric and erotic poets of his country.
1850 J. Stephen Ess. Eccl. Biogr. I. 158 Arising from these erotic dreams, he suspended at her shrine his secular weapons.
1865 W. F. Hook Lives Archbps. III. i. §9. 101 The common language of civility, as addressed to a lady, was erotic.
a. An erotic or amatory poem.
b. [after nouns in -ic suffix, repr. Greek -ικὴ (τέχνη).] A ‘doctrine’ or ‘science’ of love.
1858 Sat. Rev. 5 266/1 A lecture on popular erotics from the authoress.
1862 Sat. Rev. 8 Feb. 150 Religious erotics are something worse than an offence against taste.
1872 M. Collins Two Plunges for Pearl III. viii. 193 Instruction in the famous science of erotic.
1888 Athenæum 18 Aug. 214/2 A strange doctrine of ‘spiritual wives’—a mystical erotic.
1888 Athenæum 18 Aug. 215/1 The sublime erotic, free from all passional instincts.
Let me skip to the meat – it’s an anglicisation of the French ‘erotique’.
From the online Larousse Dictionary (French)
adjectif (latin eroticus, du grec erôtikos, de erôs, amour)
- Relatif à l’amour ; qui traite de l’amour : Poésies érotiques.
- Qui évoque l’amour sensuel, les plaisirs sexuels et incite au désir sexuel ; voluptueux, licencieux : Rêve érotique.
- Qui traite de sujets sexuels, qui fait appel à l’érotisme : Film érotique.
We need to take a trip back to Ancient Greece, to ‘eros’. The Greeks had no single word for ‘love’, but four: agápe, éros, philía, and storgē. And, although the typical denotation of éros is that of sexual love, Plato via his Symposium and Phaedrus managed to de-sex it by suggesting that all that sexual desire was best put to loftier uses, like the pursuit of the good, the beautiful and, ultimately, wisdom. At the very beginning of European philosophical discourse on sex, we’re already urging ourselves to sublimate it to less physical ends. And in one way or another, we’ve been stuck with this tension ever since.
The human sexual urge scares us. It doesn’t resemble the sexual drives of other animals in that it’s not limited to seasonality or reproductive possibility. The instinct might be aimed at reproduction, and there are a number of behavioral theories on why we evolved to have the urge to have sex even when reproduction could not be affected, but whatever the biological sciences come up with for an explanation, the fact remains that we don’t see our sex drive the way animals see it. We have an urge far in excess of our biological requirements, and we have, from prehistoric times, been driven to impose control on it. With the impositions of limits and taboos (against incest, bestiality, pedophilia, etc) and ritual structures (coming of age, courtship, marriage, etc) which define the boundaries and control how our sexuality should be played out within any given society.
It is interesting, just for a moment, to imagine what our society would look like today had we not believed our sexual drive to be a frightening and dangerous thing. Had we not inherited thousands of years of the products of our fears about it. But one thing is clear, if it had not been for the way we, as humans, have complicated the issue of our sexual drive, we would not have eroticism.
Because all the writers, critics, thinkers, philosophers and poets I have been reading agree: eroticism is our collective social response to the excessive nature of the human sex drive. And, over time, it has accreted meanings that have complicated sex so completely, that its function as a way to perpetuate the species is lost beneath the mountain of clutter. So, even when we talk about ‘sex’ were not talking about a biological instinct, but the incredibly elaborate, rococo abstraction that we have made it.
We turned what scared us into something mystical. And this isn’t unique. We’ve turned most of the other things that have scared us into mystical things also: thunder, earthquakes, death, dreams, violence, pain, even relativity and quantum physics. All the things that we have problems explaining. And as we began to have the ability, through science, to explain some of these things, once we demystified them, they have lost their ability to inspire awe. We know how thunder is caused, and we’ve dispensed with Thor. We understand plate-tectonics, and Poseidon (or Namazu, if you’re Japanese) is consigned to the dustbin of washed up gods. At the most recent end of the timeline, I’d posit that we really do consider, in the Barthian spirit of defining an author, poor Einstein is still up there doing duty as a god for those of us who can’t get our heads around the theory of relativity. And quantum physics scare most people so much, they just pretend it doesn’t exist, other than the brave few who apply themselves to writing its mythologies in the form of hard Science Fiction.
But other phenomenon, like death and dreams and pain and sexual desire, continue to resist explanation. Not that we can’t explain the biological mechanisms of any of them, but because that biological explanation doesn’t even begin to address our emotional response when we are confronted with their realities. For two thousand years, Christianity has harbored these mysteries under its wing, offering us images of heaven and hell, revelations and ecstasies, sacred sacrifice and base profanities. One God, one basket in which to lump all our mysteries, and a set of religious explanations of the whys of all these things.
Then along came Nietzsche who told us, better late than never, I suppose, that God is dead. Although, when it comes to the subject of eroticism, it’s might be argued that the Marquis De Sade killed him first, in giving us a vision – the only vision, in fact – of what our sexual urges, unmitigated by taboo, or law, or religion, might have looked like. This is an argument I disagree with: Sade was as much an inheritor (and probably took them more seriously) of all the controls imposed on our sex drive, and his fantasies of how one might behave, unencumbered by them, are twisted and mutated by the history of those repressions and the shock of their absence. Like a cartoon ball, its shape, after the bounce, is no less distorted than it was when it was squashed, as it hits the ground. Sadean sex is simply eroticism distorted in the opposite direction.
Nonetheless, what we cannot take away from him is his temerity to ask the question: what does sex look like freed from the constraints of religion and the rules social order? That it looks less like something pleasurable and more like Guantanamo Bay might be put down to his seething, underlying rage at the rather despicable hypocrisy of world he lived in.
And the same thing can be said for Nietzsche, Bataille, and Foucault. The same can be said for Duras, and Nin and Carter. Their understandings of eroticism, their visions of it, cannot be untangled from their disappointments with how the world is and what society, through history, has done to us. Not just regarding sex, but with everything.
Reading Freud, Lacan and Zizek, it is clear that, when they do manage to crawl out from under the weight of Greek mythology, they can’t manage to purge their understanding of sexual desire from their own individual disappointments with their societies either. To put it bluntly, Freud tells us to repress it, Lacan tells us we can’t have what we want because it’s an imagined Thing that doesn’t exist, and Zizek tells us that it’s all infantile fantasy layered over a great big field of shit anyway.
But there is, I think, a wonderful, terrible poignancy to those failures. Somewhere underneath all the historic and dialectic detritus, it suggests some essential, universal longing, as a species seeking simple sexual pleasure, to feel free of our encumbrances. And yet we never do. We cannot stop ourselves from dragging all this baggage into the moment of our sexual pleasure, no matter how rational, insightful, critical or analytical we are. Our intellectual prowess doesn’t help us. It only serves to make those encumbrances all the more obvious.
I am not a philosopher. I’m just a writer. I can’t imagine what a world free from our fear of our sexual natures would look like, because there is no world without ‘us’. We are our cultures. We are inseparable from the evolving and complex structures we’ve built to cope with the things that scare us.
My job, as I see it, is to marvel at and tell stories about the strategies we have for attempting to scratch the itch of our instincts through the thick fabric of our social constructions.