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What the Gentleman Saw

Eileene borrowed a documentary video on pornography, subtitled “the Secret History of Civilization.” She’s cautioned me that the last couple episodes are pretty dull, but the first two, and especially the first, have been informative and hilarious.

It begins with a discussion of the sexually explicit art of Pompeii, and especially on its discovery by Victorians. The mental image of watching the initial excitement among these upright scholars turn to surprise, then distress, then horror, as they continued to uncover room after room of, of…smut! is hilarious.

So great was the horror of these Victorian gentlemen that they engaged in a conspiracy to conceal the truth: archaeological treasures were sealed away in back rooms at the museum, and only those with the highest and purest of credentials were allowed to examine them, or even know the rooms existed. They would deliberately give incomplete descriptions, and deliberately draw inaccurate facsimiles, of anything deemed inappropriate lest someone learn the dreadful secret. Bad scholarship.

Some of the experts interviewed for the show talked about why phallic statues, etc., were so horrifying to the Victorians as a matter of self-identity. Nineteenth-century Europe considered itself the rightful inheritor of Greco-Roman virtue; if the Greeks and Romans were so abominably sinful, what did that say about modern Europe? Best not to let anyone know Europe’s secret shame, or at least make sure that unsophisticated minds didn’t leap to the wrong conclusions. And I’m sure that attitude played a role.

But more experts talked about the sexually explicit artifacts as a perceived threat to social order, in a way that has a greater ring of truth. Upper-class and upper-middle-class adult males, who comprised the entirety of the archaeological community by virtue of having the leisure to pursue it, considered anyone outside that exalted group—base laborers, fragile women, children, savage non-Europeans as literally and irredeemably inferior. The lower classes and others simply couldn’t handle exposure to sexual images; their bestial natures, barely repressed as it is by strict social convention, would simply burst out and society would collapse. Hiding statues of Pan screwing a she-goat wasn’t about sex; it was about power. The gentry had a good thing going; best to maintain the ruling class’s image of rectitude and entitlement, and ensure that the underclasses weren’t exposed to ideas that might upset the apple cart, even at the expense of those very same intellectual pursuits that “proved” a natural superiority. A dedication to Truth, in archaeology or eslewhere, was less important than the appearance of dedication to Truth and similar virtues.

In the end, the prudes lost the battle, and pornography escaped into the hands of the common man (At least into the hand that isn’t otherwise occupied—ba-dum! Ksssh!), so it’s safe to laugh at the gentlemen turning an anxious green in Pompeii. But some of the harm they did remains with us, so we can’t laugh too hard. It reminds me a lot of the medieval church’s attitude toward vernacular translation of the bible: if you let the laity read it, they might get ideas of their own. Best to keep them ignorant and obedient, even at the expense of actually spreading God’s word.

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