Art, Sex, and Augustine

I’ve always found Augustine’s take on art particularly interesting. Most of the time when he’s talking about art he’s talking about the depravity of Roman theatre, which, in all fairness, was pretty depraved. There was a great deal of sex and lewdness, and actors were generally looked down on, even by lascivious Roman society. The other half of the time he’s debating over whether or not music distracts from worshipping God – in Confessions, he tentatively permits it, although he reserved the right to change his mind at any moment. That’s a story for another day.

Anyway, so I’m still reading City of God – nearly there! – and I came across this great line: “to find entertainment in a fictitious crime is itself a real crime” (XVIII, 18). Augustine’s criticising what he saw as the immorality of contemporary theatre, and basically saying that if you enjoy watching this kind of stuff, it’s a problem. We still uphold that belief in our society today – at least in some forms. For example, various countries ban material they find to be offensive. Here’s an excerpt from a report on a book banned in New Zealand:

“The classification of this publication interferes with the freedom of expression, but this is… a reasonable limitation on the freedom of expression that reflects the concern of a free and democratic society to limit the availability of publications that promote and support the exploitation of children for sexual purposes and tend to promote and support the use of violence to compel a person to participate in, or submit to, sexual conduct.”

So there’s some works that we, as a society, collectively tell to fuck off. Because the West is very individualist, that line tends to be around consent – children can’t give informed consent, so you’re not allowed to have sex with them, and if your work of art is about having sex with them, it’s going to be banned. This decision becomes more interesting when you run into something like Nabokov’s Lolita – which was also banned, for a couple of years, but which is also rated #4 in the Modern Library’s list of top 100 novels in the 20th century. I haven’t read it, personally, but it is on my ‘To Do’ list.

So here’s the interesting question: given that the protagonist of Lolita, Humbert Humbert, has sex with a 12-year old, is there any reason to read the book? Is there an aesthetic value that can counterbalance the vile content, or is the mere act of reading the book morally unjustifiable? Of course, it’s not that you’re reading about filthy crimes that’s the issue: nobody kicks up a fuss if we read history books about the Holocaust. What this suggests is that the issue is the fiction – that people read Lolita for some sort of entertainment value. Again, fair enough – if people are getting their rocks off reading Lolita, that’s fucked up. That’s where I’d agree with Augustine: “to find entertainment in a fictitious crime is itself a real crime”.

At the same time, we’ve also got to deal with the pack of (Christian) idiots who rage against J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, on the grounds that it’s full of witches and wizards. This particular group seem not to realise that Rowling herself is a Presbyterian, and thus unwittingly align themselves with the same pack of (Christian) idiots who savaged C.S. Lewis’s Narnia – yes, that was a thing that happened, and yes, it happened for the exact same reasons. Narnia has pagan elements like dryads, naiads, and even the Greek god Bacchus – and a significant chunk of Christians (Americans, mostly) hated the books because of it. In both cases, we’ve got a superficial reading with little attention paid to the deeper themes and ideas.

Anyway – so what seems to be necessary is a way of distinguishing between being close-minded and being safe when it comes to engaging with art. Although I think the argument against reading Harry Potter is generally motivated by foolishness, the valid underlying principle is Augustine: “to find entertainment in a fictitious crime is itself a real crime”. Let’s use a less contentious example. If you run around in feminist circles for long enough, you’ll come across people who actively avoid stories about rape. That seems entirely reasonable. However, many of them aren’t avoiding these stories because of personal past trauma – rather, many feminists feel that stories about rape are used in a disrespectful manner – we see this attitude coming from Hannibal show-runner Bryan Fuller, for example. I’d agree that there’s a point where certain crimes can be used in a disrespectful manner. That said, I’m a huge fan of Hannibal, and that’s a show about cannibalism, so I guess that makes me a hypocrite. In the interview in that link, the interviewer describes cannibalism as “almost a fantasy crime, not a societal problem” – maybe the outrageousness of the idea makes it less offensive. Not sure.

It almost seems that what people get really offended by with Lolita is the proximity to Humbert. It’s long been tradition to cloak objectionable behaviour in euphemism and off-screen action – that’s partly the Victorian influence, but it’s also older than that. The Latin word for genitals (particularly female genitals) was pudenda, meaning ‘organs of shame’, and Augustine, when he wants to talk about them, wishes that it wasn’t such a shameful topic. He writes that if humans were without sin,

“…there would be no cause for modesty to object when I wish to discuss this subject [the sexual organs] in detail, no reason for decency to insist on my asking pardon, with an apology to pure ears. Discussion could then have free scope, without any fear of obscenity, to treat of any idea that might come to mind when thinking about bodily organs of this kind.” (XIV, 23).

I think there’s some serious conversation to be had around this concept of obscenity and proximity, and how it applies to art, and how it impacts our relationship with the real human beings around us. I might need to think about it a bit further first though. Tune in next week…

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