Thursday, October 23, 2003

Writing and Seduction

Is writing about seduction? I think good writing almost certainly is. While the word seduce is most frequently attributed a sexual connotation in English, there are two other definitions: 1) to lead astray, as from the right action 2) to win over, attract, allure. The word is derived from the Latin "seducere," to lead apart, from "se," away, and "ducere," to lead (Collins English Dictionary, 1979).

The first seduction and, many would argue, one of the most compelling seduction references in Western literary tradition is none other than the Serpent's Tempatation of Eve in Chapter 3 of Genesis.

Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?
And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:
But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:
For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.
And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked: and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons (King James Bible).

Michel Gresset examines the role of christian theology in founding a "psychologie du regard" (the French word "regard" as both a verb meaning "to look" and a noun meaning "glance" or "gaze" is problematic to translate into English as it tends to be more comprehensive than any English equivalent I can think of) in his book Faulkner ou la Fascination. According to Gresset, if the Fall has for theological cause temptation, it derives its phenomenological cause from the act of looking. "Before the fall, Adam is innocent; Eve is naked but she doesn't know it. Paradise is beautiful, but it isn't seductive." Before man gained the faculty of sight, there is only the world as God created it, and no staging is possible beyond that which God wishes to see. The demon uses the eye of the serpent as an instrument of seduction, of leading away, because he knows that nudity signifies nothing if it is not looked upon. The serpent diverts Eve's gaze, turns it upon the apple, and awakens in her a desire for the forbidden fruit. The eye is the organ of substitution, not of satisfaction. When Eve eats of the fruit and shares it with Adam, the arc of desire is completed as they move from gaze to consommation, in the shared act of transgression (Gresset, Faulkner ou la Fascination, 1982).

Milton's serpent is one of my favorite literary seducers. He comes to Eve in a dream and calls into question the beauty of a Creation that none can "see." He awakens in the woman the desire to truly see the world around her, "to have her eyes opened," by first leading her to believe that she, herself, is seen and desired.

Thy face, and morn returned; for I this night
(Such night till this I never passed) have dreamed,
If dreamed, not, as I oft am wont, of thee,
Works of day past, or morrow's next design,
But of offence and trouble, which my mind
Knew never till this irksome night: Methought,
Close at mine ear one called me forth to walk

With gentle voice; I thought it thine: It said,
'Why sleepest thou, Eve? now is the pleasant time,
The cool, the silent, save where silence yields
To the night-warbling bird, that now awake
Tunes sweetest his love-laboured song; now reigns
Full-orbed the moon, and with more pleasing light
Shadowy sets off the face of things; in vain,
If none regard; Heaven wakes with all his eyes,
Whom to behold but thee, Nature's desire?

In whose sight all things joy, with ravishment
Attracted by thy beauty still to gaze.'
(John Milton, Paradise Lost)

But I have let myself become distracted, seduced perhaps by phenomenology and poetry and my readers are possibly practical people, with little time for either, so back to the point. If we take Genesis as literary reference, the first seduction had to do with with man wanting to comprehend his place in Divine creation and wanting to rival the Creator; it had to do with "opening of eyes" and knowledge that would allow one to "be as gods." One might suppose that Paradise was rather chaste (if we ignore what the beasts might have been doing) because the serpent's seduction and the Fall preceed the passage "And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived and bare Cain..." which denotes, not the creation of the world, but the creation of the human race and the beginning of history.

When we write, we create worlds or amplify and share worlds created by others. If we exclude the moral or value judgment implicit in a supposed separation from Good and a venturing towards Evil, seduction is simply a leading apart, a diversion from ordinary perceptions. It is an attempt to make others "see" what we see: places, states of mind, ideas, connections between things they might otherwise have ignored. Effective writing communicates and transmits the pleasure of images and sounds, hints at knowledge, leads us, makes us want to think or to see things in a different way.

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