Licking salt from your neck
tarte au citron
Stitching fig-leaf fictions
is a pun, a Hebrew word meaning both naked and aware. In the first garden / life cycle myth of Genesis, the man and woman eat from the Tree of Knowledge; in translation, they realise they are naked; in the original, they are self-aware.
© Bronwyn Angela White (2000)—
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License
essay: song of songs - allegory or erotica?
Song of Solomon - Dan Roth
“Is the Song of Songs allegory or erotica?”
Allegory or erotica?
Immediately one is faced with a plethora of definitions.
A sample of references [see Appendix, below] not only provided varying definitions of the key terms, but suggested a range of possible media: stories, poems, pictures, books, films—one might add video, CD-ROM, virtual reality, pub readings, liturgy—creative works through which meaning is revealed.
The Song of Songs may work, the question implies, as private titillation or performance art.
private titillation or performance art?
Song of Songs III by Marc Chagall, 1960
Clines2 and Trible3 each make a convincing argument—for quite contradictory interpretations. Clines concludes that the Song of Songs is at least mildly pornographic, in that the subject woman is the victim of men’s humiliation and their enjoyment of her humiliation, although she—having no option—accepts this role. Trible reasons that, in light of the particular setting she outlines, “there is no male dominance, no female subordination, and no stereotyping of either sex”.
Maybe the Song of Songs is intended to make some moral or religious point and arouse erotic feelings, both.
How should the reader choose, if a choice is required, between these two contradictory yet persuasive arguments? By examining the different treatments, one might emerge as preferable or more convincing.
return to paradise
Clines regards the Song as a text, not a song or a performance, and is concerned with its effect on the putative reader. He hypotheses that the text was written by an Israelite male to meet male readers’ “desires and needs” for pornographic or at least erotic literature. For him, the woman is an object to the male subject; she sees herself as he sees her, and has no existence outside the male imagination. Clines’ interpretation is the more scientific, more “ideonic”, exegetic: he draws a male fantasy out of the Song of Songs, and concludes the text is a “dangerous” one—its basically pornographic nature is disguised in beguiling, rather than blatantly sexist, language.
I find that Cline, however, demonstrates in his arguments the very problem he invests in the text: he misinterprets female notions of power, seeing pornography where Trible sees play, making of the woman a male invention, rather than the dramatis persona of a woman singing of seduction and fulfilment.
redeeming the lyrics
"His banner over me is love"
Trible sets out to “redeem” the lyrics from the type of interpretations represented by that of Clines. Her treatment is itself a more lyrical one, and she sees the Song as a “musical score” for several voices. Trible treats the Song as performance art, presenting equality between lovers who project their animus/anima on each other; she has the lovers, “naked without shame or fear”, undo the banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden. Their eroticism is a liturgy of recreation, “becomes worship in the context of grace”. Trible’s midrashic interpretation enjoys and expands on the allusions, linguistic and sexual; her treatment is eisegetic, adding an emancipated Garden of Eden story to the bravura performance—erotic and literary—which is, for her, the Song of Songs.
Allegory or erotica? Or, as I chose to re-phrase the question, ‘Israelite pornography or Genesis Part II: Return to Paradise’? Having found the interpretations of both Trible and Clines credible, their methodology equally plausible, I must choose on the basis of instinct, hermeneutics, on my experience as a woman, as a writer and performer of sometimes provocative liturgy, and—frankly—someone who has just spent a long-anticipated weekend with her lover, mindful of the divergence and convergence of fantasy and reality.
Song of Songs
Trible’s poetic, pun-loving, playful and utterly serious reading sings to me!
Tragedy is reversed; all the world’s a stage, and Eve and her Adam, the woman and her lover and the entire audience—daughters of Jerusalem, animals, rivers and winds and fruits of garden and of the Tree of Life—join in the Song of Songs: that love cannot be vanquished, that sexual love can recreate the world, that love-making is a sacrament, a litany of emancipation.
Moreover, significant religious and interpretive differences—Judaic and Christian—are resolved for me in the litany of a world reclaimed by love.
In Trible’s treatment of the Song of Songs as redemption liturgy, I find—or deduce—the themes of Salvation and Passover united in a Song of liberation, equality, fulfillment and release.
appendix & bibliography
Definitions and synonyms from two dictionaries and a thesaurus:
Allegory = a story or description in which the characters and events symbolize some deeper underlying meaning—Oxford Paperback Dictionary 1988
Allegory = a story, poem, picture, etc in which the characters and events are symbols of something else. Allegories usually make some moral, religious, or political point—Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary 1987
Allegory = apologue, emblem, fable, myth, parable, story, symbol, symbolism, tale—The Collins Paperback Thesaurus 1986
Erotic = of sexual love; arousing sexual desire— Oxford Paperback Dictionary 1988
Erotic = (1) activities and situations that are erotic involve sexual desire and feelings; (2) Paintings, books, films, etc that are erotic describe or show situations that involve naked people or sexual acts, usually in a skilful and artistic way… Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary 1987
Erotic = amatory, aphrodisiac, carnal, erogenous, rousing, seductive, sensual, sexy…—The Collins Paperback Thesaurus 1986
Erotica = erotica are works of art that show and describe naked people and sexual activity, usually in a skilful and artistic way, and are often intended to arouse sexual feelings in the viewer or reader; compare pornography —Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary 1987
[No entry for “erotica” in Oxford Paperback or The Collins Paperback Thesaurus]
Pornography — Collins Cobuild definition differs little from that of erotica, except for the inclusion of the phrase “used showing disapproval”.
Pornography — writings, pictures, or films, etc that are intended to stimulate erotic feelings by description or portrayal of sexual activity—Oxford Paperback Dictionary 1988
Pornography —dirt, erotica, filth, indecency, obscenity, porn—The Collins Paperback Thesaurus 1986
Clines, DJA “Why is there a Song of songs and What Does It Do to You If you Read It?” in Interested Parties — in Course Reader pp 124-137
Trible, P, “Love’s Lyrics Redeemed” in A Feminist Companion to the Song of Songs — in Course Reader pp 100-120.
poem: Ghazal & variations on the Song of Songs
endless as this
Let us spend ourselves
strong as passion,
my love, to the market
is on your shoulder, breast
You are more beautiful
than all the skinny girls
Remember the first time
when we kissed?
and come, and come away
We will catch our voices
squander this while
smooth, cool cleavage
Winter becomes you