Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Hey, Rare Book Guy! Is It Erotica, Curiosa, Or Pornography? (May be NSFW)

By Stephen J. Gertz

Hey Rare Book Guy!

I was looking through a rare book catalog from the early 1980s. The dealer subtitled his business, Erotica, Curiosa, and Sexology. What's curiosa? What's the difference between erotica and curiosa? And what’s the difference among erotica, curiosa, and pornography?

- Lost in Intercourse, Pennsylvania, USA.

Dear Lost:

Nice, though exhausted double-entendre, place to be lost in; the burg of biped bonomos in hominid drag. I'm sure the Amish who populate the town enjoy being the object of a cheap sex joke.

Yours is a highly serendipitous query. It’s almost as if I made it up.

First edition, Histoire d'O, 1954.

On May 11, 2012, Christie’s - Paris is offering eighteen lots of “Curiosa”  in its  Importants Livres Anciens, Livres d'Artistes et Manuscrits sale.

I’ve spent a lot of time considering curious literature, of which there is no shortage: strange, bizarre, and weird books occupy a warm space in my heart, with a large library of volumes archived within my right cerebral hemisphere. This accounts for my head always being slightly pitched to the right, as if I'm observing the world with analytical interest instead of merely leaning so due to heavy internal bookshelves.

If you’re outside of Rio De Janero, the carioca is certainly curiosa. Curious literature and carioca, however, have nothing to do with the curiosa that Christie’s is auctioning off.

Edouard Chmot, Rêves et Masturbation.

Early in my career I specialized in sex-oriented literature. I’ve studied it going on thirty years now. So, when I was reading through the Christie’s catalog my head snapped back when I saw “Curiosa.” It’s not a word one comes across very often these days. It’s a throwback to an earlier era. I was amused. I suspect the cataloger was amused when he/she used the word. To those below fifty years old it’s a “Huh?”

By Hans Bellmer, from: Lautréamont, Les Chants de Maldoror, 1971.

 So, what exactly does curiosa mean?

John Carter, in his classic, ABC For Book Collectors, states, “This familiar subject heading may cover anything from the risqué or the indecent, which would be more properly listed under Erotica. It will sometimes include medical or pathological works, but these are nowadays mostly cataloged frankly under ‘Sex’ or more generally under ‘Sexology.’”

By Carter's standard, curiosa encompasses the suggestive through the explicit, decent sex to indecent, the entire universe of sexual literature, pornography and erotica included, as well as sexual folklore and humor, but excluding the sciences. 

But flip to the index to G. Legman's The Horn Book: Studies in Erotic Literature and Bibliography (1964) in search of curiosa and here's what you'll find: "Curiosa see Erotic Literature." Go to Erotic Literature in search of curiosa and there is no mention of it. To Legman, curiosa and erotic literature are one and the same thing.

Curiosa, a noun found in the titles of books as far back as the 17th century,  originally referred to the unusual, the wondrous, the intriguing, the eye-opening, the, well, curious. By the 1880s it had evolved in meaning to describe books concerning tabooed subjects, the tabooed subjects 99.9% of the time being, sex, sex, and you get the drift. For the Victorian era, it was perfect: innocent yet delicately suggestive and tempting with a sly wink.

Erotica is, by Carter's definition, indecent literature expressly meant to arouse sexual desire.  Most people think that's the definition of pornography (writing of prostitutes), a word originally coined to describe the  sixteenth and seventeenth century literary dialogues between whores, i.e the Ragionamenti (1534-36) by Pietro Aretino; La Retorica delle Puttane (The Whore's Rhetoric,1642) by Ferrante Pallavicino; L'Ecole des Filles (The School for Girls, 1655), attributed to Michel Millot and Jean L'Ange; and Aloisiae Sigeae Toletanae Satyra Sotadica de arcanis Amoris et Veneris (The Dialogues of Luisa Sigea, c. 1660) by Nicolas Chorier. From this humble and narrow beginning, the word has been conflated to represent the wide world of graphically open sex.

Most people now think that erotica is literature (or art) meant to arouse the mind as well as the genitals. Yet we also now understand that the mind and flesh are one; even the worst written porn engages the mind; the flesh follows. Erotica, though nice sounding and redolent of Eros, remains a messy word: what qualifies a book as being erotica? Is sexual content enough or is there something more involved than the "indecent"?

If erotica and pornography are synonymous, there is still no chance that an auction house or respectable rare book dealer will employ "pornography" as a catalog category; an aesthetic distinction is made: pornography = smut, and respectable auctioneers and rare book dealers do not purvey the vulgar and obscene. Unless, of course, it is of historic and/or literary significance, rare and desirable. It is then magically transformed into toney "erotica" and rendered acceptable. It's the literary equivalent of money-laundering with fabric softener thrown in for fresh-air scent and good feel. 

By Hans Bellmer, from: Kleist, Les Marionettes, 1969.

Just what titles is Christie’s offering under the curious rubric, curiosa? A first edition of Histoire d’O (The Story of O,  illustrated by Hans Bellmer, 1954); a collection of Tijuana Bibles, the sexually explicit comic books issued during the 1930s in the U.S.; Le Paysan Perverti ou les dangers de la ville (1776), Restif de la Bretonne’s  first autobiographical novel, a moral tale in epistolary format about the corrupting influence of Paris upon a peasant whose flesh is stirred; a mixed edition of Sade’s seven-volume Histoire de Juliette ou Les Prosperités du vice (“En Hollande: 1797,” i.e. Bruxelles, 1865, the final volume from the first edition of 1801-1802); a first edition of André Thiron’s Le Grande Ordinaire (1943), illustrated by Oscar Dominguez; artist Martin Van Maele’s Le Grande danse macabre vifs (c.1907-1908); Francis Carco’s L’amour vénal (1926); the Bellmer-illustrated edition of Lautreamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror (1971); Dali’s Les Métamorphoses érotiques (1969); a collection of illustrations by Edouard Chimot, all explicit; etc.

By Marcel Vertés, from: Caroco, L'amour vénal, 1926.

The tame to the feral is represented

It's all curiosa but is it erotica or pornography?

From a Tijuana Bible, c. 1930s.

There are those who make distinctions between the two genres of sexual literature. These differences generally concern class and art. Erotica is high class, pornography is low; erotica has artistic merit, pornography does not. Erotica is beyond the law and legal, pornography is often subject to censorship. Erotica can be charming, pornography is graceless. Erotica enlightens the human experience, pornography debases it. Erotica is literature; pornography is trash. Erotica is healthy, pornography is sick.

By Oscar Dominguez, from: Thirion, Le Grand Ordinaire, 1943.

Clearly, these are opinions and highly subjective. “What is pornography to one man is the laughter of genius to another” (D.H. Lawrence, Pornography and Obscenity). Yet in the same essay Lawrence posits that “pornography is the attempt to insult sex, to do dirt on it. This is unpardonable.” Lawrence goes further: “even I would censor genuine pornography, rigorously.”

Restif de la Bretonne, Le Paysan Perverti, 1776.

Yet what constitutes “genuine” pornography? Inauthentic erotica? Lawrence circles back on himself here, and we’re back to the subjective. Nuance creates a general, agreed upon need for a different word to express a concept that possesses objective shades of meaning; synonyms are never absolutely and exactly synonymous. Yet because erotica and pornography are entirely subjective concepts whose meanings have yet to be objectively agreed upon, arguing what’s what and which is which is a hopeless exercise in sophistry.

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's 1964 threshold for pornography - "I know it when I see it" -  just won't to. It's a tad imprecise.

Susan Sontag didn’t bother with these distinctions. The word erotica never passes her lips; the word that does, she's not happy about.

“I’m willing to accept (in the privacy of serious intellectual debate, not in the courts) the dubious label of pornography...The ratio of authentic literature to trash in pornography may be somewhat lower than the ratio of novels of genuine literary merit to the entire volume of subliterary fiction produced for mass taste” (The Pornographic Imagination).

From: Sade, Histoire de Juliette, 1797 (1865).

What I’ve noticed over the years is that If it’s current and crude, it’s called porn. If it’s old and crude, it’s erotica; age plays a role. The engravings to Sade’s Histoire de Juliette were pornographic and obscene when originally published but two hundred years later they possess a vintage, ye olde dirtie booke charm, erotic artifacts from a bygone era and somewhat quaint. The medium of engraving, no longer in general use, plays a role in distancing us from the subject matter, implicitly disarming whatever danger the imagery once explicitly threatened. The image above, in modern color photography, becomes Debbie Does Dallas And Then Some and we enter lewd, rude, and crude land, which is just fine if lewd, rude, and crude interests you. A hundred years from now, DDDATS, if a DVD survives, will become a curious relic worthy of collection and study. Age will lend acceptance and credibility. YIKES! will settle into lower case and lose the exclamation point.

From: Martin Van Maele,  Le Grande danse macabre vifs.

Perhaps the only work being offered by Christie's that can safely, without question, be called curiosa is Martin Van Maele’s Le Grande danse macabre vifs, a work that contains, as seen here, a strange, bizarre, and weird image that is definitely curiosa. Oh, is it curious, a troubadour strummin' on the ol' banjo as he croons O Sole Mio to Aphrodite in his room with a callipygian view.

I expect that some readers will disagree, perhaps vehemently, that there is no rational and objective difference between erotica, curiosa, and pornography. That's fine, as long as you understand that the perceived differences are purely subjective. Put three people in a room and you'll get five opinions on the matter.

I propose that the word curiosa be deep-sixed as a catch-all for sex-lit. It's a curious euphemism, an indirect word so mild, ambiguous, and detached from what it attempts to describe that, while useful in the Victorian Age when sex was not openly discussed or written about,  is now useless as a classification. Livres libre - liberated or "free" books - covers it nicely, I think, with an upscale Continental gloss. It's a phrase the French have often used to describe sexually open and graphic literature, and dodges the erotica v. porn conflict, ultimately a false dichotomy.

Of course, no auctioneer or rare book dealer will ever market "free books." It sends a mixed message guaranteed to inspire knuckleheads to demand the books, gratis.

Perhaps the best way to resolve the issue is to simply catalog sex-lit. as Pornographie, the French spelling that classes it up and turns the rough flannel into silk thus providing the oh-la-la! without the oy vey.

In the meantime, I hereby hijack curiosa as a precise category to cover curious literature.

The Carioca I leave to Fred and Ginger:


All images courtesy of Christie's, with our thanks.


  1. A great post, though use of the term "pornographie" represents the last stand of the cultural royalists. Underweight in the argument is the democratic trajectory of porn, which is the term that today best suits our relationship to the literature. While porn may be artistic or crude in the manner of its technical execution, its primary motive is to engage the imagination in sex play, and for that reason it essentially levels differences between people. Porn is radically egalitarian. Of particular note in this regard is the fact that large numbers of younger people especially have used new technology (cell phones, Facebook, Twitter) to make their own porn (e.g., sexting, nude pics), with them in their own starring roles. Porn star nation!

  2. how about a more simple definition: Erotica is stuff you wank to; Pornography is stuff you wank to that gets you off, while Curiosa is stuff other people wank to (like the story about Egyptians having post mortem sex with their wives -- Now i just have to figure out how the Carioca got in there.

  3. Pornography is what you like. Erotica is what I like.

  4. Great! These all the stories are very nice and excited for me!


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