LIBERTINES AND SEXUAL EXCESS IN WORLD LITERATURE–SAIKAKU’S “LIFE OF A SENSUOUS WOMAN,” “THE LOVE POEMS OF THE SIXTH DALAI LAMA,” “DON JUAN,” THE EARL OF ROCHESTER AND THE MARQUIS DE SADE—–FROM THE WORLD LITERATURE FORUM RECOMMENDED CLASSICS AND MASTERPIECES SERIES VIA GOODREADS—-ROBERT SHEPPARD, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
The word “libertine’ entered the English language not as a sexual term but as a by-product of the wars of religion between Protestants and Catholics in Sixteenth Century Europe, being the name of a French Protestant sect that believed individuals should be guided in religious matters “by their own lights”—-meaning reason, direct divine inspiration, spiritual intuition, or personal free interpretation of holy scripture, rather than by the clergy or traditional dogma. Later the word became synonymous with freethinkers whose behaviour, foremost sexual, is unconstrained by social norms or ethical considerations, even to the point of “outraging public morality.” Nevertheless the history of the term underlines its concern not simply with sexual deviance or excess, but with the ideal of freedom and self-determination, even against the pressure of public hostility or condemnation. It also raises the deeper question of how absolute personal freedom may be once released from political tyranny, religious dogma or blind social prejudice, and when liberty may degenerate into a license heedless of the needs, benefits or rights of others.
Not only in Europe but across Asia to Japan from the Sixteenth to Eighteenth centuries did sexual and social libertinage flourish, a generalized cultural drive towards breaking out of the bondage of traditional authority of all kinds, driven by the global rise of urban culture and the merchant class. Nevertheless, especially in those early days freedom was more a luxury than a right, and characteristically any true measure of individual freedom was enjoyed almost exclusively by the aristocracy or merchant elite, rather than the majority of the population constituting the lower classes, and the libertine was most likely a freethinking wealthy aristocratic male in an Asian or European city.
THE “FLOATING WORLD” OF IHARA SAIKAKU AND “THE LIFE OF A SENSUOUS WOMAN”
Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693) the author of “The Life of a Sensuous Woman” was a Japanese poet and creator of the “floating world” genre of Japanese prose (ukiyo-zōshi). Later in life he began writing racy accounts of the financial, amorous and erotic affairs of the merchant class and the demimonde. These stories catered to the whims of the newly prominent merchant class alongside the declassé aristocracy, whose tastes in entertainment leaned toward the arts and pleasure districts of the rising commercial cities such as his native Osaka.
“The Life of a Sensuous Woman,” an atypicaly female narrative as a sequel to his prior “Life of a Sensuous Man,” is an aging woman’s extended confession to two young men in which she describes her various experiences, beginning from her early childhood as the daughter of a former aristocrat in the capital Kyoto, her life as an attendant in the Imperial Palace, then through a descending order of fates as a courtesan, geisha, teacher of courtly manners and calligraphy to young ladies, hairdresser, go-between for marital engagements, and finally as a common streetwalker, losing her beauty in aging into an unattractive old woman. It structurally echoes the genre of the Buddhist confessional narrative in which someone who becomes a priest or a nun recounts the sins of their past and their moment of crisis leading to spiritual awakening. Hdowever, in this case the old woman in her narrative is implicitly initiating her young visitors into the secrets of the “Way of Love,” describing a life of vitality and sexual desire of which she does not essentially repent. En passant, she satirically reveals the underside of the lives of ministers and lords, powerful samurai, wealthy priests, and upper-class merchants. Often compared to Cleland’s “Fanny Hill” the narrative also celebrates the female protagonist’s pluck and resourcefulness in adversity, reminiscent of Becky Thatcher in Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair.” Only at the end of her life’s narrative, in sight of the five-hundred statues of boddhisatvas arrayed in a Buddhist temple does she have a vision of the five hundred men with whom she has had sexual relations arrayed in their place, and is moved to commit the end of her life to spiritual enlightenment, not essentially renouncing, however, the fated vitality of her former life’s path which had led her there, observing with a cautionary smile of spiritual melancholy to her departing two young initiates:
“A beautiful woman, many ages have agreed, is an axe that cuts down a man’s life. No one, of course, escapes death. The invisible blossoms of the mind finally fall and scatter; the soul leaves; and the body is fed like kindling into a crematorium fire in the night. But for the blossoms to fall all too soon in a morning storm—ah, how foolish are the men who die young of overindulgence in the way of sensuous love. Yet there is no end of them.”
THE SHORT EROTIC LIFE OF TSANGYANG GYATSO, THE SIXTH DALAI LAMA
In the Sixteenth Century, the Mongol Khan proclaimed the head of the leading Buddhist sect the “Dalai Lama,” who enjoyed considerable secular power alongside the spiritual authority of his office. When one Dalai Lama died, a search was undertaken to find his newly reborn reincarnation, who would be raised in the Potala Palace by a Regent until coming of age to reign again as the Dalai Lama. After the the Fifth Dalai Lama died in 1682, Tsangyang Gyatso (1683-1706) was proclaimed the new Dalai Lama, but the unscrupulous Regent schemed to keep him effectively under house arrest in the Palace, retaining all power to himself. In this unfortunate condition, deprived of his destiny, the Sixth Dalai Lama dedicated himself to three passions: the study of Buddhist Scriptures, the erotic worship of beautiful women, and the penning of love poems to his beautiful lovers. As he was a “Living Buddha” it was considered by the girls and their families a great and divine honor to be sexually united with the Dalai Lama, and when a girl residing in the elite Shol district of Lhasa below the Palace became a lover her family painted their house yellow, exalted beyond the common white, celebrating the act of divine favour. Gyatso was so successful in “painting the town red,” although in this case yellow, that a scandal ultimately ensued in which the outside power of the Mongol Khan in the north united with the conservative priests to depose,exile and ultimately assassinate him, claiming that the son of the Mongol Khan was the true Sixth Dalai Lama in a coup d’etat. Nonetheless, the Sixth Dalai Lama left behind a rich body of erotic poetry dedicated to his lovers:
Residing at the Potala
I am Rigdzin Tsangyang Gyatso
But in the back alleys of Shol-town
I am rake and stud.
Lover met by chance on the road,
Girl with delicious-smelling body–
Like picking up a small white turquoise
Only to toss it away again.
If I could meditate as deeply
On the sacred texts as I do
On you, I would clearly be
Enlightened in this lifetime!
THE UNPURITAN LIFE AND VERSE OF JOHN WILMOT, EARL OF ROCHESTER
The Earl of Rochester (1647-1680) was unquestionably one of the “bad boys” of English letters. Born during the dour administration of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Commonwealth, he came of age just in time for the Resotation of monarchy, sexual excess and extravagance, and his attitude in word and deed as to libertine sexuality was “cavalier” in the extreme. As his father had engineered Charles II’s escape from England he became a favorite in the Restoration court, yet cavalierly endangered his status with such acts boxing the ears of high lords in the King’s presence and delivering caustic diatribes against the king to his face in fits of anger, accusing the king of being more addicted to sexual excess than the good of the kingdom. Nonetheless, Charles II took a protective interest in Rochester, continuously bailing him out of scrapes and predicaments.
As related in Samuel Pepys’ famous Diary, Rochester, who was poor, contrived to forcibly abduct the heiress of one of England’s wealthiest families, who despite the King’s encouragement, refused to consent to her marriage to Rochester because of his poverty and profligacy. The daughter nonetheless chose to elope with him and they were married. He was a notorious rake, had innumerable mistresses, including the finest actresses of London, and shared some mistresses with the king.
After a brawl between his gang of friends and the police in which a man died, Rochester in disgrace was forced into hiding, disguising himself as a “quack doctor” treating women for “barrenness” or infertility and other gynocological complaints, under the name of “Dr. Bendo.” Rochester in this reputedly attained great success in inducing pregnancy in infertile wives, largely utilizing his own sperm, introduced willingly or surreptitiously. To overcome occasional hesitancy of the women’s mothers or husbands to allow a male doctor to conduct the gynocological examination or treatment, Rochester dressed in drag to impersonate a fictive “Mrs. Bendo,” the putative doctor’s wife, who would conduct the examination and administer the treatment in lieu of the considerate doctor himself.
Rochester died at the age of 33 from a combination of syphillis, gonnorhea and alcoholic liver failure, reportedly wearing a false nose in lieu of the one lost to the disease. After his death several Puritan religious societies circulated an account of his deathbed repentence of his libertinage, the authenticity of which remains uncertain. Nevertheless, many of his forceful poems remain anthologized classics, such as “The Imperfect Enjoyment:”
Naked she lay, clasped in my longing arms,
I filled with love, and she all over charms;
Both equally inspired with eager fire,
Melting through kindness, flaming in desire.
With arms, legs, lips close clinging to embrace,
She clips me to her breast, and sucks me to her face;
Her nimble tongue, Love’s lesser lightning, played
Within my mouth, and to my thoughts conveyed
Swift orders that I should prepare to throw
The all-dissolving thunderbolt below.
My fluttering soul, sprung with the pointed kiss,
Hangs hovering o’er her balmy brinks of bliss,
But whilst her busy hand would guide that part
Which should convey my soul up to her heart,
In liquid raptures I dissolve all o’er.
Melt into sperm, and spend at every pore.
A touch from any part of her had done ‘t:
Her hand, her foot, her very look’s a cunt.
Smiling, she chides in a kind murmuring noise,
And from her body wipes the clammy joys,
When, with a thousand kisses wandering o’er
My panting bosom, “Is there then no more?”
She cries. “All this to love and rapture’s due”
Must we not pay a debt to pleasure too?”
LORD BYRON’S IMMORTAL CLASSIC “DON JUAN”
George Gordon, Lord Byron was celebrated in life for aristocratic excesses, including huge debts, numerous love affairs, a scandalous incestuous liaison with his half-sister, and self-imposed exile and European wanderings, culminating with his sponsorship of a military campaign to win Greek freedom from Ottoman oppression in which he fought and died. He was one of the greatest literary celebrities of Europe, and along with Wordsworth, Keats, Leopardi and Shelley one of the founding patriarchs of the Romantic Movement in Europe. He was regarded by his contemporaries as “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” He became the exemplar of what came to be known as “The Byronic Hero” presented an idealised, but flawed character whose attributes include: great talent; great passion; a distaste for society and social institutions; a lack of respect for rank and privilege (although possessing both); being thwarted in love by social constraint or death; rebellion; exile; an unsavory secret past; arrogance; overconfidence or lack of foresight; and, ultimately, a self-destructive manner.
His classic epic of erotic love is “Don Juan” which ironically and satirically re-casts the famous serial lover whose name itself has become synonymous in the English language with libertinage, rather as a weak man who cannot resist the uncontrollable sexual agressions of women, than as a seducer himself. The epic follows the hero Don Juan from scandal-caused exile from his home in Spain through an unending series of amourous adventures including his rescue from shipwreck and seduction by the dark and beautiful island girl Haidée. The love of Haidée and Juan is however ill-fated as her father Lambro, a pirate master, discovers their affair, seizes and sells Juan as a slave to Constantinople, and Haidée dies of a broken heart with their unborn child within her womb. In Constantinople Don Juan is purchased by a black eunuch at the behest of the Sultana, who desires to make love to him. To smuggle him into the Sultan’s Palace the eunuch forces Juan to dress as a woman, threatening him with castration if he refuses. Brought to the Sultana, he however refuses to make servile love to her, remembering his love for Haidée. Discovered by the Sultan, the Sultan himself is attracted to Juan dressed as a woman, who regrets the “she” is not a Muslim. Don Juan escapes, however, then joins the Russian armies attacking the Ottomans where he becomes a hero. He adopts a ten-year old Muslim girl orphaned in the war, Leila. Taken to the Russian Imperial Court as a war hero, he is seduced by the Empress, Catherine the Great, who becomes his lover until she sends him to England on a mission. There he is seduced by numerous lecherous Englishwomen until he begins to fall in love with Aurora, who reminds him of his lost love Haidée. We do not know how the epic ends, as Byron died before completing it.
THE ULTIMATE LIBERTINE BAD BOY, THE MARQUIS DE SADE
The Marquis de Sade, belying his reputation, was too much of a masochist for his own good. Time and again he proved himself too eager to be caught and punished for his sexual outrages, and the French government, whether of the ancien regime or of Revolutionary France was all too happy to oblige him. The errant aristocrat spent most of his life in jail writing furiously, or when at liberty, conceiving escapades of excess that would send him promptly back to incarceration. He served as an officer in the Seven Years’ War, then married, then committed outrages in whorehouses or with abducted females and males, including flagellation, sodomy, and poisioning prostitutes that landed him in the Bastille. Liberated by the Revolution, he quickly offended again, at the cost of imprisonment and having all his property confiscated, leaving him penniless at the end of his life.
A philosopher of liberty in addition to a sexual libertine, in his classic “Philosophy in the Boudoir” he advocated the absolute freedom of the individual, even at the expense of the injury of others, claiming that such absolute liberty would strengthen and catalyze the growth of all individuals in creative equilibrium and produce much more good than ethical repression of even deviant expressions of freedom. “Nothing is a crime” he declared defiantly….”Laws are not made for the individual but for the generality, which is what puts them in perpetual conflict with self-interest, given that personal self-interest is always in conflict with society. Laws that are good for society are bad for the individuals that compose it, becuase for every time they actually protect or defend an individual, they obstruct or ensnare him for three-quarters of his life.” He denied the bonds between children and parents, husband and wife, and advocated the reign of an absolute liberty in their stead. He called on the people to deny and overthrow both the state and the church: “The only gods should be courage and liberty” he declared. He dauntlessly championed the first of the three ideals of the French Revolution—-liberty, taken absolutely, while ignoring the second two of the triumverate, equality and fraternity. Ironically, his philosophy is often more entertaining than his pornography. His pornographic classics such as “120 Days of Sodom” often become arid and mechanical exercizes in carnal repetition which soon lose interest after the initial prurience and shock value are dissipated.
SPIRITUS MUNDI, SEXUALITY AND SEXUAL LIBERTY
Sexuality and sexual liberty have a stong presence in my own work, the recently published contemporary epic Spiritus Mundi. I grew up as a writer very much in the tradition of D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce, both of whom embraced the central importance of sexuality in human consciousness and existence in their works and worldviews. We are all living intellectually in the wake of the Freudian and Darwinian revolutions, as well the “sexual revolution” in popular culture since the Sixties. Our sexuality is the life blood of our lives and of our consciousness, not to mention our unconsciousness, collective or individual. In my view of sexuality, common with D. H. Lawrence and C.G. Jung, sexuality is intimately connected with the spiritual dimension of human existence as well—sexuality can lead to dehumanization and animalization of our beings but alternatively sexuality can also lead just as naturally in the direction of the humanization of our natural and biological impulses, their civilizing, and even to their spiritualization, as Jung observed.
In regard to sexuality I take as a starting point that it is a natural part of our lives and should be positively embraced in all dimensions of our existence—that it is a necessary and wholesome part of our individual and collective mental health. That is not to deny that it has its chaotic, selfish, destructive and socially disruptive side as well, which society has difficulty managing, which it always must, but it is important that it should not be irrationally repressed in the individual or the society at large, as Freud and Jung have taught us.
The sexual lives of the characters in fiction are a vital dimension of their beings, and a vital dimension for judging the viability, mental health and value of the worldviews of their authors. Hollywood and Washington have long judged their projects asking the question “Will it play in Peoria?” and writers similarly have tested their worldviews by asking “Will it play between the sheets?” In Spiritus Mundi sexuality is linked to the spiritual lives of the characters, but also to the “life force” which drives human evolution and the collective unconscious of the human race, necessary to its survival. The progressive humanization, civilization and spiritualization of our most primal sexual animal impulses in the forms of love, family, community and communion is the story of the progress of our individual lives in microcosm and of our civilizational lives in macrocosm.
For a fuller discussion of the concept of World Literature you are invited to look into the extended discussion in the new book Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard, one of the principal themes of which is the emergence and evolution of World Literature:
For Discussions on World Literature and n Literary Criticism in Spiritus Mundi: http://worldliteratureandliterarycrit…
World Literature Forum
Author, Spiritus Mundi Novel
Author’s Blog: http://robertalexandersheppard.wordpr…
Spiritus Mundi on Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17…
Spiritus Mundi on Amazon, Book I: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CIGJFGO
Spiritus Mundi, Book II: The Romance http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CGM8BZG
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