Dionysus or Aphrodite? The Porn/Erotica Distinction, Prt. 1

Observe the cover image; is it pornographic or erotic or is there no worthy distinctions to be drawn between such fickle words at all?

The argument about how human sexuality should be properly represented in the arts is a extremely old one with three broad factions splitting up the lion share of opinions. Either sexuality should be displayed as the artist pleases – no holds barred – or, there should be some kind of restrictions placed upon sexualization (whether in regard to sex acts or simply mood/lighting/setting and more numinous aesthetic parameters) or that sex and sensuality in art should be harshly suppressed if not outright banned. Regardless of which camp (if any) one falls into in this discussion, on matters of sex-in-art there is a ever present question: Is it erotica or is it porn? Let us turn our attention, briefly, to some linguistic definitions for these two words to help use in navigating the murky terrain established by these two rather nebulous terms.

pornography (n.) – 1843, “ancient obscene painting, especially in temples of Bacchus,” from French pornographie, from Greek pornographos “(one) depicting prostitutes,” from porne “prostitute,” originally “bought, purchased” (with an original notion, probably of “female slave sold for prostitution”), related to pernanai “to sell” (from PIE *perə-, variant of root “to traffic in, to sell”) + graphein “to write”. A brothel in ancient Greek was a porneion.

erotica (n.) – 1820, noun use of neuter plural of Greek erotikos “amatory” (see erotic); originally a booksellers’ catalogue heading. erotic (adj.) – 1650s, from the French érotique (16c.), from Greek erotikos “caused by passionate love/referring to love,” from eros (genitive erotos) “sexual love.”

There is then, something inherently commercial and prurient about pornography embedded within the word itself whereas erotica, definitively, is more inter-personal (booksellers’ catalog connotation aside).

Archetypally speaking, these distinct categories are perhaps best personified by the Greek gods, Dionysus and Aphrodite. Dionysus was classically represented as a young, beautiful man (in older depictions he was bearded and gaudily dressed), often nude; the deity of wine, intoxication, rituals, madness, religious ecstasy and theatre. Aphrodite, contrary to many modernistic conceptions of the goddess, was not a being of carnal delight but of love, child bearing, civic unity, the sea (from which she was born) and, in dire times, war (due her relationship with Ares, god of War). Dionysus – (or Bacchus, as he was later known) a transient being of lasciviousness, celebration and epiphany, who appeared to his followers randomly, wildly bestowing gifts of wine and joyous madness, disappearing just as suddenly as he had come – might then be seen as an embodiment or harbinger of both the brevity and bliss of carnality.

In contrast, Aphrodite was a lasting goddess, that is, she was a being of continuance, of that which lasted and withstood the test of time (births being the most notable example of this – a continuation of the species being the most potent and lasting of all human pursuits).

Sex, under the auspices of Aphrodite, was ultimately tied to love and was seen as an eminently sacred enterprise, so much so that her priests (all female) took strict vows of chastity. Bacchanalians, however, were possessed of no such sacral impulse (due to Dionysus’ affinity for transgression of all things) as Dionysus and would often congregate in orgiastic rituals where all sexes and ages would copulate with wild abandon. So disturbing were these lascivious displays of Dionysian Orgia in 186 BC the Roman Senate attempted a catch-all ban – called the Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus (senatorial decree concerning the Bacchanalia) – on the Dionysian religion itself to put an end to the supposedly sexually depraved displays.

Senatus_consultum_de_bacchanalibus
Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus, 186 BC

So as a linguistic dialectic, the pornographic/erotic distinction might best be seen as a distinction between these two divine aspect, that of Dionysus and Aphrodite, bliss of momentary carnal delight and the dutiful cultivation of those emotional bonds and by extension, social bonds, which foster the continued procession of humanity itself.

Pornography, thus, is generally considered “in bad taste” or “base” because it is a inherently selfish enterprise and one which has very low time-horizons. Any individual who pleasures himself or herself to the Bacchanalian displays of the thousands of porn sites across the web is elevating the senses for but a brief moment. The action can not be built upon in any meaningful way, societally speaking (and in this age to speak of the actions of people is, in no uncertain terms, to be speaking of some aspect of some society – for how common are the hermits!). In many ways the pornographic ritual of self-pleasuring is lower than the Bacchanalia, for in the latter instance one was, at the very least bonding both with his/her community and with the terrestrial aspects of Dionysus himself.

 


Sources:

http://www.etymonline.com: [1. Pornography] [2. Erotica]

Oxford Classical Dictionary, eds. S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth (Oxford, 20033 ), pp. 479-482

 

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