Flirting with Danger: Excitement and the Aesthetics of the Erotic

Monet's Water Lillies

Monet’s Water Lillies

In his chapter on the aesthetics of the erotic, Robert Stoller argues a number of considered and fertile points 1.

What is perceived as erotic, like beauty, is culturally constructed and changes over time. “Beauty may be eternal,” says Robert Stoller, “but all the things that represent it will someday somewhere be in someone’s trash or, worse, be incomprehensible or, worst, be of no interest.” 2. And the same can be said of what is perceived of as erotic, which has evolved from ‘a glimpse of stocking’ to the present mainstream popularity with anything sporting the veneer of BDSM.

Though the immediacy of erotic response, like the aesthetic one, may appear to be an unconstructed reaction (amor non cogitur), it is not; erotic fantasies are built with care and particular attention to detail 3. Conscious aesthetic choice goes into the construction of erotic fantasy and, by extension, textual erotic narrative.

Stoller goes on to examine the mechanism of the aesthetic experience, especially that of excitement, which he describes as a mental state between two poles: that of safety and danger.  But, he reminds us, this understanding of the aesthetic experience has been heavily influenced by Kant and Schiller, who believed that any proper enjoyment of art can only be done dispassionately. “Art is in the mind, says its protectors, not in the crotch.” But Stoller makes compelling arguments for why this is a fraudulent stance. Aesthetic (and erotic) excitement is scripted trauma – theatre, masquerade, simulation – and the ‘danger’ pole of the equation is not real, no matter how real it might feel. Therefore, the theory that we indulge in the aesthetic appreciation of art “to experience the truth and thereby purge ourselves” is a conceit 4.

Stoller takes Kris’ point that we indulge in these contrivances of risk in order to figure out how to orient ourselves to them. We may buy a ticket to a war film, but few of us buy tickets to a war 5.  What disturbs Stoller is not that we ‘stage’ our excitements but that we deny we are doing it.

What he doesn’t say, but what I extrapolate, is that there is an aspect of discovery inherent in this simulation. There is one truth we probably can and sometimes do seek in indulging in this simulated trauma, and it is a truth about ourselves. What we discover, if we will admit to the staging of these excitements – and here I am referring to indulging in erotic fiction – is something of the inner landscape of our own desires.

In his conclusion, Stoller is careful to underscore that he is not saying that pornography is art; he is saying that, like art, it has its aesthetics.  He goes on acknowledge that art is not simply craft, not simply the successful skill to amuse or to elicit emotions, but rather the act of expressing them.

Picasso's Guernica

Picasso’s Guernica

I must admit to being a little disappointed in the way Stoller backs out of this discussion at the end.  He goes a long way to a convincing argument that aesthetic responses have significant commonalities, whether they be a reaction to what is identified in the culture as ‘high art’ or to pornography. Neither is an uncomplicated, ‘natural’ response and neither response is solely physical or intellectual.  The elicited response is the excitement of being caught between the two poles of danger and safety, and the outcome may be either pleasure or pain, depending on how each spectator/viewer/reader finds themselves oriented between those two poles by the experience.

Beyond stating that it is a matter of taste, he doesn’t really go into much detail as to the varied responses of the individual. Within any given culture, reactions are not uniform and may be more or less disposed to tolerate tension. But for an erotica writer, this part of the examination is crucial, because pleasure and pain are not opposites for everyone. I’m not speaking here of anything as dramatic as masochism – it’s subtler than that. Our capacity for excitement may lie closer to the pole of danger than society can comfortably admit.

Some people are going to be excited by Monet’s Water Lillies. Some people will find the paintings pleasing to the eye but not exciting. For them, it might be Goya’s Saturn or Picasso’s Guernica that rings their bells.

Erotic fiction differs from personally created fantasies in that the audience is, to some extent, not driving the content. Although classification and genre conventions can mitigate the lack of control, it can never offer the safety of self-generated fictions. This can be a source of either pleasure or anxiety. Readers may be exposed to erotic situations and acts they would not normally imagine themselves. Admittedly, should they encounter something that makes them truly anxious, the reader can always put the book down, but not before he or she is at least fleetingly exposed to it. Whereas in personal fantasy, one seldom fantasizes about what one cannot tolerate. There is, undoubtedly some simulated danger inherent in reading a fiction authored by someone else.

The more interesting aspect of this ‘dangerous encounter’ is the possibility for revelation.  A reader venturing into unfamiliar erotic areas in fiction may be left to wonder why a certain passage, which they themselves would not imagine in comfort, elicits a strong erotic response.  This revelation can result in feelings of shame, of self-recrimination, astonishment.

One way in which this is negotiated is, as I mentioned above, through the narrative conventions of erotic romance. For many readers, there is a sense that the presence of a love-bond ameliorates, excuses or even sanctifies the transgressional quality of the erotics.  The knowledge that there will be a committed emotional relationship by the end of the story seals the transgression in a safe place. This allows the enjoyment of the ‘erotic extreme’ to be a guiltless, shameless experience for certain readers.

Another way this is negotiated is closer to Stoller’s ideal model of not only staging the excitement, but admitting to the staging.  For many readers of non-romantic erotic fiction, there are two levels of excitement: the eroticism in the narrative and the eroticism of self-revelation. For these readers, the anxiety, shame, guilt, or astonishment at their own arousal is an additional site of pleasure. This sounds recursive, if not perverse – and perhaps it is – but I would argue that it speaks to a curiosity of self, an interior adventurism, a willingness to examine and analyze the inner experience and learn something from it.

When framed in this way, it becomes easy to see why ‘erotic romance’ titles like Fifty Shades of Grey will always have more mainstream acceptance than narratives that don’t offer the sanctuary of emotional absolution. Like all traditional comedies, erotic romances bring the narrative to an end at a place of social order 6. Yes, there may be wild and kinky sex going on, but the love-bond acts as an organizing envelope, containing that jouissance in a safe package.

Non-romance erotica, on the other hand, offers no such refuge. Society must depend on the ability of the individual to draw a bright line between fiction and reality, between fantasy and act. The individual’s conscience, ethics, and common sense form the interwoven barrier that allows them to be erotically excited by fictive transgressions, while behaving in an erotically ethical way in reality.

As a society, we have never shown much confidence in our capacity for erotic continence. Historically, we have formulated myriad rules to ensure our aberrant inner erotic lives don’t erupt into the real world.  And we’ve formulated myriad punishments when they do – from legal consequences to social disgrace.

Giving ourselves permission to feel is not giving ourselves permission to act, but it seems that this distinction is too fine for many societies and especially for ours at the present time.  The recent passing of a law in the UK to prohibit ‘Rape Porn’ (fictive depictions of non-consensual sex) is a case in point. There is an astonishing amount a popular prurient excitement at play in the huge interest in news reports of awful, very real sexual abuse, such as the Josef Fritzl case 7. And yet we refuse to allow fictional narratives that depict similar situations. This is, I believe, the cognitive disconnect and social pathology that Stoller speaks of when he says that we ‘stage’ our excitements while refusing to admit that we do.

Perhaps if we allowed ourselves more honesty, latitude and took more conscious authorship in the ‘staging’ of our fictive transgressive excitements, we might not need to go looking for those excitements in inappropriate places, like the evening news.

Notes:

  1. Stoller, R. J. (1985). Observing the erotic imagination. Yale University Press.
  2. p. 48
  3. p. 49
  4. p. 58
  5. p. 60
  6. Regis, P. (2003). A natural history of the romance novel. University of Pennsylvania Press.
  7. Rosewarne, L. (2011). Part-Time Perverts: Sex, Pop Culture, and Kink Management. ABC-CLIO. p.53.

One Thought on “Flirting with Danger: Excitement and the Aesthetics of the Erotic

  1. Hmmm, intriguing points. I think people find their excitement in the news simply because it allows them the facade of shock and disapproval they can’t hide behind when reading fiction with the same themes. It allows them to, in a sense, lie to themselves about their prurient fascination with the transgression. We also need to remember, while it isn’t done now (due to issues of personal danger) it used to be a popular pastime to picnic at the edge of a battlefield and actually watch war being fought. We have always been fascinated by vicariously experiencing such excitements, it is only recently that we have been embarrassed enough by it to try and hide those impulses from view.

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