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“I Love the Thought of Those Old Naked Days” by Charles Baudelaire

VenusDiMilo

Venus di Milo

I love the thought of those old naked days
When Phoebus gilded torsos with his rays,
When men and women sported, strong and fleet,
Without anxiety or base deceit,
And heaven caressed them, amorously keen
To prove the health of each superb machine.
Cybele then was lavish of her guerdon
And did not find her sons too gross a burden:
But, like a she-wolf, in her love great-hearted,
Her full brown teats to all the world imparted.
Bold, handsome, strong, Man, rightly, might evince
Pride in the glories that proclaimed him prince —
Fruits pure of outrage, by the blight unsmitten,
With firm, smooth flesh that cried out to be bitten.

Today the Poet, when he would assess
Those native splendours in the nakedness
Of man or woman, feels a sombre chill
Enveloping his spirit and his will.
He meets a gloomy picture, which be loathes,
Wherein deformity cries out for clothes.
Oh comic runts! Oh horror of burlesque!
Lank, flabby, skewed, pot-bellied, and grotesque!
Whom their smug god, Utility (poor brats!)
Has swaddled in his brazen clouts “ersatz”
As with cheap tinsel. Women tallow-pale,
Both gnawed and nourished by debauch, who trail
The heavy burden of maternal vice,
Or of fecundity the hideous price.

We have (corrupted nations) it is true
Beauties the ancient people never knew —
Sad faces gnawed by cancers of the heart
And charms which morbid lassitudes impart.
But these inventions of our tardy muse
Can’t force our ailing peoples to refuse
Just tribute to the holiness of youth
With its straightforward mien, its forehead couth,
The limpid gaze, like running water bright,
Diffusing, careless, through all things, like the light
Of azure skies, the birds, the winds, the flowers,
The songs, and perfumes, and heart-warming powers.

(Translation by Roy Campbell)

This is a poem of contrasts. In the opening stanza, Baudelaire describes classical Greek and Roman statuary. These statues depict the human form as it truly is—a work of divine art. These cultures believed that there is nothing obscene about the naked human form. The human body is such a thing of beauty that the ancients used it as the ideal for depicting their gods and goddesses.

In the second stanza, we are assaulted with the contrast to the human body as art. Here we are shown the exploitation of human beauty in the form of pornography and prostitution. Baudelaire presents us with a vision of a society that fails to see the beauty of the naked body from a divine perspective, but instead uses the naked human form as a focus for our baser desires. It could also be argued that in addition to this stanza being a critique on the sex trade, it is a statement about inner corruption. Our bodies often reflect our inner health and happiness. In a society plagued with vice, decadence, and ennui, it stands to reason that our physical bodies would reflect the decay that festers within us.

In the third stanza, I sense that Baudelaire is seeking to reconcile these two opposites. He concedes that modern society provides “Beauties the ancient people never knew.” It seems that Baudelaire is seeking a merging between the wonders of the modern world and the appreciation for human beauty that was the ideal of the ancient Greeks.

The last thing I want to say is that this poem stirs the emotion I felt as I watched the video clips of ISIS members destroying artwork. Throughout history, fanatics have destroyed art because it was deemed obscene or heretical. My feelings are that any work of art that portrays humanity, in any of its diverse forms, should be appreciated and preserved.

I hope you have a wonderful and artistically inspired day.

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“London” by William Blake

LondonBlake

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

This poem is a strong criticism against government and corporations. In the first two lines, Blake describes the London streets and the Thames as both being “charter’d.” It’s not clear whether this is a political or a business charter. What is clear is that he feels all of London is owned and controlled, and that humans are suffering as a result. My personal feeling is that Blake was referring to both the government and the corporations, both of which held an oppressive hold on the citizens during that period.

In the second stanza, we have the image of “mind-forg’d manacles.” For me, this is the most powerful metaphor in the poem. On one hand, it symbolizes the mental oppression inflicted upon individuals by a repressive society, where a person’s creativity and intellectual freedom are restricted. But I also see this as self-inflicted bondage, too. We are all slaves to our own thoughts, fears, and obsessions. It is most often our own thoughts that keep us trapped in our misery. If we could just free our minds from fear and resentment, we would find the freedom and courage to become fully enlightened individuals.

The final stanza was the most challenging for me. After reading it several times and thinking about it, I believe that Blake is describing poor, young women who are forced into a life of prostitution, likely because they had sex out of wedlock and got pregnant, which would be the “youthful Harlots curse.” I suspect that these women were often visited by married men, who would then contract venereal infections, such as syphilis, which they passed on to their unsuspecting wives. As a result, the marriage bed becomes a coffin; sex ultimately leads to death.

This is an extremely dark and viscerally wrenching poem. There is no glimmer of hope in here. In fact, even God appears weary and sick. At the top of the illustration, God is being led through the London streets by a boy. God appears hunched, ailing, about to die. Essentially, government and industrial society is not only killing humanity, but is also destroying the Divine spirit.

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 15

CirceAndSwine

This episode corresponds with the section in Homer’s Odyssey concerning Odysseus’ encounter with Circe. According to Greek mythology, Circe is the goddess of magic and sorcery and is renowned for her knowledge of potions and herbs.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Circe is described as living in a mansion that stands in the middle of a clearing in a dense wood. Around the house prowled strangely docile lions and wolves, the drugged victims of her magic; they were not dangerous, and fawned on all newcomers. Circe worked at a huge loom. She invited Odysseus’ crew to a feast of familiar food, a pottage of cheese and meal, sweetened with honey and laced with wine, but also laced with one of her magical potions, and drunk from an enchanted cup. Thus so she turned them all into swine with a wand after they gorged themselves on it. Only Eurylochus, suspecting treachery from the outset, escaped to warn Odysseus and the others who had stayed behind at the ships. Odysseus set out to rescue his men, but was intercepted by the messenger god, Hermes, who had been sent by Athena. Hermes told Odysseus to use the holy herb moly to protect himself from Circe’s potion and, having resisted it, to draw his sword and act as if he were to attack Circe. From there, Circe would ask him to bed, but Hermes advised caution, for even there the goddess would be treacherous. She would take his manhood unless he had her swear by the names of the gods that she would not.

(Wikipedia)

In Joyce’s novel, this episode takes place in the red light district, most of which is in a brothel. The entire episode, which is the longest in the book at around 180 pages, is written in the form of a play script. The majority of the “action” that takes place is in the form of hallucinations and mental visions induced by intoxication. This draws on the symbolism of Circe as a sexual temptress and one who can ensnare men using drugs and potions. I see the use of the play form as symbolic of the action playing out on the stage of the individuals’ minds and psyches.

In Homer’s epic, Circe turns Odysseus’ men into swine. Likewise, Joyce uses pig metaphors throughout the episode to reinforce the image of the men who are soliciting the prostitutes being nothing but swine.

Most of Bloom’s hallucinations are tied to feelings of guilt regarding his sexuality. At one point he imagines himself on trial where all his dark secrets are exposed. It is like he is being accused and confronted by his conscience which is no longer comfortable with the things he has done and imagined.

THE CRIER

(Loudly.) Whereas Leopold Bloom of no fixed abode is a well-known dynamitard, forger, bigamist, bawd and cuckold and a public nuisance to the citizens of Dublin and whereas at this commission of assizes the most honorable…

(p. 470)

In one of the hallucinations, Bloom has a cross-dressing fantasy. He imagines himself being forced to assume a female role and become a prostitute. This ties in with Hermes’ warning to Odysseus that Circe would take his manhood.

BELLO

(Points to his whores.) As they are now, so will you be, wigged, singed, perfumesprayed, ricepowdered, with smoothshaven armpits. Tape measurements will be taken next your skin. You will be laced with cruel force into vicelike corsets of soft dove coutille, with whalebone busk, to the diamond trimmed pelvis, the absolute outside edge, while your figure, plumper than when at large, will be restrained in nettight frocks, pretty two ounce petticoats and fringes and things stamped, of course, with my houseflag, creations of lovely lingerie for Alice and nice scent for Alice. Alice will feel the pullpull. Martha and Mary will be a little chilly at first in such delicate thighcasing but the frilly flimsiness of lace round your bare knees will remind you…

(pp. 535 – 536)

In another of Bloom’s hallucinations, he encounters the Goddess in the form of The Nymph. She accuses him of exploiting her, using her sacred image in advertising as a means to sell things. I found this to be a powerful critique on how women continue to be exploited by the media.

THE NYMPH

Mortal! You found me in evil company, highkickers, coster picnic makers, pugilists, popular generals, immoral panto boys in flesh tights and nifty shimmy dancers, La Aurora and Karini, musical act, the hit of the century. I was hidden in cheap pink paper that smelt of rock oil. I was surrounded by the stale smut of clubmen, stories to the callow youth, ads for transparencies, truedup dice and bustpads, proprietary articles and why wear a truss with testimonial from ruptured gentleman. Useful hints to the married.

BLOOM

(Lifts a turtle head towards her lap.) We have met before. On another star.

THE NYMPH

(Sadly.) Rubber goods. Neverrip. Brand as supplied to the aristocracy. Corsets for men. I cure fits or money refunded. Unsolicited testimonials for Professor Waldmann’s wonderful chest exuber. My bust developed four inches in three weeks, reports Mrs Gus Rublin with photo.

BLOOM

You mean Photo Bits?

THE NYMPH

I do. You bore me away, framed me in oak and tinsel, set me above your marriage couch. Unseen, one summer eve, you kissed me in four places. And with loving pencil you shaded my eyes, my bosom and my shame.

(pp. 545 – 546)

This is such a long episode and there is so much that can be analyzed and explored, way too much for a single blog post. As such, I will look at one last quote that struck me as interesting. Stephen (who was with Bloom in the brothel) gets into an argument with a soldier. He criticizes the soldier’s willingness to die for his country. It is a display of anti-nationalism. Considering that Joyce wrote this at a time when nationalism was on the rise in Europe, I found it a poignant critique on the socio-political climate of the time.

STEPHEN

(Nervous, friendly, pulls himself up.) I understand your point of view, though I have no king myself for the moment. This is the age of patent medicine. A discussion is difficult down here. But this is the point. You die for your country, suppose. (He places his arm on Private Carr’s sleeve.) Not that I wish it for you. But I say: Let my country die for me. Up to the present it has done so. I don’t want to die. Damn death. Long live life!

(p. 591)

My next post on Ulysses will cover Episode 16 which ends on page 665 in my copy with the phrase “… and looked after their lowbacked car.”


 

Previous Posts on Ulysses:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

Episode 8

Episode 9

Episode 10

Episode 11

Episode 12

Episode 13

Episode 14


 

References:

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ulysses/section15.rhtml

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circe

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