Literary Sensuality

By Billie Daddario


Literary Sensuality

          Diane Ackerman, in her postscript for a Natural History of the Senses, asserts that,

There is a point beyond which the senses cannot lead us. Ecstasy means being flung out of your usual self, but that is still to feel a commotion inside. Mysticism transcends the here and now for loftier truths unexplainable in the straitjacket of language; but such transcendence registers on the senses, too as a rush of fire in the veins, a quivering in the chest, a quiet, fossillike surrender in the bones. Out-of-body experiences aim to shed the senses, but it’s still an experience of vision. (300)

Literature and the imagination feed the senses, and in return, the senses feed both literature and imagination.  In the same manner that a beautiful painting can move you to cry, or driving through farm country at summer sunset provides a host of smells: cut grass, lilacs, spearmint, hay, manure translate in the imagination to memories of childhood. The process then works in reverse: the imagination can provide pictures, smells or physical sensation in the mind. For the artist we can use these fantasies as a tool to create, and for the patron, the experience is virtual transportation.  The sensuality of the arts makes them both relevant and enjoyable in our lives.

Plato in the Republic, Book X agrees in the power of poetry. However, his thoughts about the value of this virtually differ considerably.

And we may say the same of lust and anger and all the other affections, of desire and pain and pleasure, which are held to be inseparable from every action-in all of them poetry has a like effect; it feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up; she lets them rule, although they ought to be controlled if mankind are to increase in happiness and virtue (28).

It was Plato’s belief that “poetry… is not to be regarded seriously…” (29). He defends his ideas by stating,

For if you go beyond this and allow the honeyed Muse to enter, either in epic or lyric verse, not law and the reason of mankind, which by common consent have ever been deemed best, but pleasure and pain will be the rulers (28).

Plato did not understand the value of the imagination in the same manner that his student Aristotle.

          Aristotle believed that poetry had a useful and positive purpose in the Poetics. Aristotle discusses the use of poetry as a catharsis, a cleansing of the emotions which Plato believed would cloud our thoughts. Aristotle also held poetry to be educational, and believe it or not, pleasurable.          

The cause of this is that the act of learning is not only most pleasant to philosophers but, similarly to other men as well, only they have an abbreviated share in this pleasure. Thus, men find pleasure in viewing representations because it turns out that they learn and infer what each thing is (44).

The act of learning important in Aristotle’s defense of poetry is in the instance of tragedy a result of the catharsis brought on by imagined feelings of terror, pity, love, or anger. The audience of the literature becomes involved in the artist’s action’s imagination so they are temporarily swept away into a shared experience.

Nietzsche in his treatise The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music states the case that the poet’s work is that of a translator of dreams; he quotes Hans Sachs’ Die Meistersinger, by Richard Wagner:

My friend, it is the poet’s work

Dreams to interpret and to mark.

Believe me, that man’s true conceit

In a dream becomes complete:

All poetry we ever read

Is but true dreams interpreted. (Sachs 420)

Nietzsche’s idea that art creation results from dream interpretation is an example of the artists’ role as guide through a shared experience. The guided, shared experience is for Nietzsche a learning experience.

… for it is by these images he interprets life, by these processes he rehearses it. Nor is it by pleasant images only that such plausible connections are made: the whole divine comedy of life, including its somber aspects, its sudden balkings, impish accidents, anxious expectations, moves past him, not like a shadow play for it is he himself, who lives and suffers through these scenes… (420)

Nietzsche’s ideas echo Aristotle’s ideas of the purpose of poetry: That art should instruct the public the “educated public,” that the real purpose of art is found not in the Apollonian tradition of art but in the Dionysiac qualities provided by art. The Apollonian tradition is the didactic, and the Dionysiac is the barbaric, spiritual, all-consuming, rapture of indulgence that moves beyond lesson to grief or euphoria emotion for the sake of emotion.

          Art for the sake of sensation is the true art. According to Victor Shklovsky:

Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war… And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stoney. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. (699)

That the educated public can learn a didactic lesson from Hamlet or any other work of art is not amazing. It is amazing however that it is possible to feel Hamlet’s agony with no physical stimulation. The audience shares with Shakespeare a metaphysical experience.

It is the metaphysical phenomenon that Susan Sontag calls an “erotics of art” (696). Sontag clings to the art for sensation, art for eroticism while arguing against literary criticism. She believes that “Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from the work there… What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more” (696). The solution to Sontag’s plea is found in Shklovsky’s theory. Art or Literature allows the sharpening of the senses. In the same manner, lifting weights grows muscle.

          Art as an exercise to enhance the senses and add even more sensations to the world is a valid justification for its existence. It is the pull to erotic a pull to the sensual that makes literature different from the grocery list or any other group of random words like the dictionary. The human drive to connect with others, to learn, to be stimulated is what separates humans from the animals. It compels the audience to accept and dismiss Derrida’s warnings concerning linguistic ambiguity with the same urgency as Chicken Little’s warning, “The sky is falling. The sky is falling.”

          The first two essays in this portfolio exemplify my idea of art. They focus on the power of sensation in literature to transform the human spirit using poetry. The third essay considers the effect culture and personal experience have on interpreting Hamlet.

The first essay, “Sensual Arid Poetry of Post World War I,” discusses the post world war I poetry of Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost and Rene Rilke. The essay focuses on the differences in the work of American versus European poets. It also suggests some causes for those differences.

The second essay looks at progression in the work William Butler Yeats “Reverberations of Style in the Poetry of Yeats,” explains the influences of other writers and takes advantage of his poetry to track the changes in the personal life of the writer. The result is a convincing argument that his reading of other poets, his life and his work are directly reflected in the stages of his poetry.

The final essay was required to be included in this portfolio and discusses the cultural and personal influences that affect the interpretations of Hamlet. The essay assumes that the ambiguities in the play are intentional and add to the power and longevity of the play directly result from; Shakespeare’s skill as a writer, his understanding of not only the human nature and psychology of his characters but also of the audience.

Works Cited

Ackerman, Diane.  A Natural History of the Senses. New York: Random House, 1995.

Aristotle.  “Poetics.” The Critical Tradition.. Ed. David H. Richter. 2nd edition Boston. St. Martin’s, 1998. 42-64.

Derrida Jacques. “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” The Critical Tradition. Second edition. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston. St. Martin’s, 1998.

Neitzsche, Friedrich. “The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music.” The Critical Tradition. Second edition. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston. St. Martin’s, 1998.

Plato.  From “The Republic. The Critical Tradition. Second edition. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston. St. Martin’s, 1998.

Sontag, Susan. “Against Interpretation.” The Critical Tradition. Second edition. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston. St. Martin’s, 1998.

Shklovsky, Victor. “Formalism.” The Critical Tradition. Second edition. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston. St. Martin’s, 1998.

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