3 January 2013

Music. 50 Shades, de Sade and People with "Problems"

It's been a while since I riffed on an idea or a statement I found on the Internet.  I thought I'd give it a go.

Background:  I found the following statement when I went to YouTube to listen to a recording of Tallis' Spem in Alium, one of my favourite pieces of music.  As it turns out, the song features prominently in the popular 50 Shades series of books, and fans of the books are looking up the music the read about in the book, and leaving copious comments on YouTube.  The old guard on YouTube is dismayed that these newbies have invaded their territory, and a minor kerfuffle has broken out.  I found this comment as the top comment as of writing from this recording of Spem in Alium

Personally, I'm not a Fifty Shades fan. But there's nothing wrong with those who are. There's nothing "trashy" about sex or erotica: people who think that way tend to be have been brainwashed by religious zealots and/or are terribly insecure.

And what does it matter where one first hears a piece? That's an extraneous detail that affects neither the music nor the listener's appreciation of it. So get off your "genuine" high horse.
Last bit first:1. a minor technical point, but no one 'heard' a piece of music in the book.  They heard of a piece of music in a book.  2.  No, it does not matter.  I am a firm believer in Pliny the Elder's dictum:  "I have never read a book so bad I did not get some good from it." If the readers of this book have been lead to expand their musical tastes an to encounter wonders of the musical world to which they would otherwise have been blind, then some good has come from the book.  My only comment to them is that, in the future, it would be wise if they would, upon encountering this new world of music, say something intelligent, rather than: "Man, I can't wait to (have sex) while listening to that!"

With that out of the way, lets take a look at the rest of what the commenter had to say.  The commenter begins with a "personally opposed, but..." kind of statement, a kind of toned down version of Voltaire's  famous dictum "I disagree with what you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it."  An admirable sentiment, except in the mouth of this speaker, for they contradict it with the next sentence.  The writer admits the right to like this sort of thing, but not the right to dislike it.  They dismiss those who disagree with them as either brainwashed or insecure, as having some kind of problem.  In conjunction, the two sentences are saying: "I somewhat disagree with what you say, therefore you may say it.  That other guy, with whom I completely disagree, however, should just plain shut up." 

I find this to be typical of the writers on the Left.  They tend to regard people who oppose them as somehow flawed, unbalanced or as having a problem.  The Right, on the other hand, tends to simply dismiss those who disagree with them as being idiots.  Thus both sides tend to dismiss, rather than engage, the other side, and debates between the two tend to be both tedious and pointless.  So let's engage with their central idea:  There is nothing "trashy" or wrong with sex or erotica outside of religion and/or insecurity. My opinion: yes, there is. It is terribly, terribly boring, and boredom and sex are a bad combination. I do not say this because I was brainwashed by religion.  In fact, I'll leave religion out of what follows.  I was 'brainwashed' into that opinion not by religious zealots, but by the most famous pornographer of them all, the man who put the 'S' in BDSM, the Marquis de Sade himself.

Sade's writings turned up on a few course lists during my long university career.    We were supposed to read them as philosophy rather than pornography, and were told that Sade used pornography as a vehicle to explain his philosophy.  His philosophy, such as it was, was rather thin, albeit honest.  At a time of revolution, Sade argued for the revolution to complete its course and go all the way.  The freedom envisioned  of the revolutionaries in France was the freedom to agree with the revolutionaries in France, to go thus far, and no farther.  Sade argued for absolute and total freedom.  He openly mocked the idea, so common today, that anything between two parties is acceptable as long as both parties consent, and no one is harmed, and argued that there was no reason for any such restriction.  His philosophy was, in the end, a sexualized version of Thrasymachus:  The strong will do what they will, and the weak will accept what they must.  His absolute freedom was only the absolute freedom of those who could afford or inflict it.

His masterwork was  the 120 Days of Sodom, a long work exploring what one of my professors called, in the jargon of the day, "every possible transgressive sexual passion."  I found it to be incredibly stultifying.  The section dealing with coprophagy in particular left a bad taste in my mouth.  The most interesting part, for me, was Sade's introduction, wherein he stated that he was writing to display how unrestricted sex degenerated into crime, and ultimately murder.  He wasn't writing a how to manual, it seemed, but a warning.  The boredom I felt was the point: this book was about the effects of boredom on those who dedicated their lives to the pursuit of unrestricted pleasure.  A short time after I read the work the trial of Paul Bernardo occurred, and I realized Sade had been, in his own way, absolutely correct.

I am not saying that everyone who reads this book will move on to become a murderer.  I am saying that those who seek a new thrill in the book will soon find only tedium and boredom.

Imagine you like steak, but haven't had one for a long time. One day you go to your favourite steak house, and order one.  It will be the best steak you ever ate.  So you have another, and another, and another.  They're still good, but not quite as good as the first.  By the twentieth, you are sick of steak, and start hankering for some bacon. 

Or imagine a roller coaster.  The first time you ride the coaster, it's terrifying, but thrilling.  So you get on it again.  Still thrilling, but not as much.  Then again and again.  By the thousandth ride, you are yawning through the loop de loops.  The roller coaster can no longer deliver, but you still yearn for that heady rush of the first time.

Now let's talk about sex.

At this point, our culture has abandoned the sole biological function of sex- reproduction- and pursues it for pleasure alone.  Our culture simultaneously touts sex as the best thing in life, the be all and end all of our existence, a force that cannot be controlled or stopped, and at the same time, no big deal, and casual sex has reached the point where songs are written calling former lovers "just someone that I used to know." 

When I was young, the teenagers would visit each other's houses.  Boyfriend and girlfriend would make out on the couch while the parents weren't looking.  They might get caught, which could be a dangerous (and potentially fatal) situation for them, if they got caught by their parents or if they caught something nasty, as this was the time of the AIDS scare.  It made what they were doing scary, but, like the roller coaster, that was the thrill of it.  Sex was transgressive, and it gave them a thrill to do something they weren't supposed to do, because virginity still meant something, back then.

(I say "back then", because it is increasingly apparent that it means next to nothing now.  In an era where parents regularly buy protection for their children, there is no danger in being caught by your parents, and no sense that you are doing something you are not supposed to do.  I even heard of one case where a father walked in on his high school attending daughter having sex with her boyfriend.  The father admonished the daughter for not informing him earlier of her intentions, so he could have known to stay out of her room.)

The problem with that thrill is that it is both fleeting and addictive, yet we live in a culture which tells us that the thrill should be permanent, as though we should be able to glut ourselves on steaks, and every steak as rich and delicious and appreciated as the first.  From what I have seen in the lives of my friends, it seems that women are most particularly vulnerable to the foolish idea that the thrill should always be present.  Those who learned that thrill on their parents couch find it lacking in marriage, when sex is not only not forbidden and not transgressive, but actually expected and required.  Some begin to look for the thrill of the forbidden again: and what is forbidden when one is in marriage?  Little, save adultery, or perhaps some peculiar tastes found in a book.  These will deliver the thrill again.  For a while.

As I said. that was then.  Now, it seems very little is forbidden even before marriage.  No wonder the book has gained popularity.  It can give a sense of that forbidden thrill.  For a while.  And then...?
What we have here is a badly written (from the few pages I read of the first book, the spelling and grammar are atrocious) little series of books that are introducing a new generation to an old set of transgressive pleasures with which they will most likely soon grow bored.  The thrill they seek, the alleviation of boredom will be only temporary.  At that point, their options are to escalate, or move on to something else.  Those who like the book, from what I have seen, heard and read from they themselves, like it not despite the fact that it is transgressive, but because it is transgressive,  But what makes it transgressive is not the pleasures it represents, but the fact that others deem it to be taboo.  The book and its readers need people to condemn it, they need someone to make taboos so they may break them.

The temptation is to prognosticate, and predict where we are going from here. There are those who believe we are progressing to a point where we leave the forbidden and transgressive behind once and for all.  I believe that nothing is ever once and for all.  Our generation has nothing to teach Rome, pre Revolutionary France, or Restoration England about sex.  We have nothing to teach Victorians about pornography.  These ideas have flourished from time to time, then faded.  Consider: the young, in particular, like to be transgressive. Right now, almost nothing is forbidden and unthinkable, except chastity.  It may become transgressive, and therefore popular, once again. 

In the meantime, go read a good book. Perhaps some Shakespeare.  If you were to read Shakespeare, you might read Richard II, and if you read Richard II, you would read this passage where Richard meditates on life and finding happiness and contentment not in things, or wealth,  or even sex, chains and whips, but in nothing:

Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented: sometimes am I king;
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am: then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I king'd again: and by and by
Think that I am unking'd by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing: but whate'er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing.


Lori said...

Very well said. I love the way you write. I really liked the part about the left and right..very funny and true.

Anonymous said...


I just wanted to say that I've read some of the book "50 Shades of Grey", but not all of it. I don't think I'll go and see the movie. I think it's a very silly and highly improbable story. The main character, Christian (how ironic he is named Christian?!) comes accross as a very weak, unhappy man with a lot of problems. How we are supposed to find him 'romantic' and 'heroic' is beyond me. I find him rather pathetic, which I know is extremely uncharitable. It's quite obvious to me that the female character is only interested in 'Christian' because he is rich and good looking, which I find very shallow. If he were unattractive and poor then we wouldn't have a story, would we? The movie itself has been compared to a narrative about domestic violence, which probably does miss the point somewhat, but I'm relieved that it doesn't look anything like a real romance to most people.

I'm enjoying reading your blog, so thank you.
Sue from Australia.