Okay, let's talk about sex. Ready, everyone? I'm trusting you to get back to me on this one... We went to see "Lady Chatterley" last night--the new French film based on the second version of D. H. Lawrence's novel, "Lady Chatterley's Lover"--the one that's entitled "John Thomas and Lady Jane." John Thomas, for those unfamiliar with English idiom (that's English English) was in my young day--and perhaps still is--a common euphemism for the penis. Lady Jane...? Well, I never heard it used that way, but I'm sure Lawrence had a wry smile when he thought up the title. As I recall, he wrote the second and third versions because he was not wholly satisfied with the first: he wanted it to be less coy, more frank, more explicit than he had originally allowed himself. (Remember, he had been in trouble with the obscenity police already in the past.) This time, I'm guessing, he wanted to get it right, no matter what the morality brigade might say.
The film? Delightful. Erotic. Sensual. It's slightly odd, I'll confess, to see this French take on the English landscape, the English social structure, English mores. The landscape is beautiful, and captured with loving attention to detail. Those who saw Andy Goldsworthy's "Rivers and Tides" might have some sense of the quality of "nature as art" that we get in the long shots of green landscapes with rolling hills and thick forests of trees, or the close-ups of ferns, wildflowers, grasses... It's breathtaking and all, somehow, so quintessentially English. I could smell the moldering leaves and the rotting wood along the pathways through the woods, and feel them underfoot. The simple close-up of a prickly sweet chestnut casing, fallen from its branch, was enough to awaken long dormant memories of childhood. Delicious.
And the sex? No, I hadn't forgotten it. In fact, I think I've just been talking about it, because in this movie sex and nature are inseparable. The sex is earthy, a bit clumsy, real. The film--remarkably, considering its origin--captures something crucial about the English character, the surface reticence beneath which, often, despite stereotypes to the contrary, a real passion burns. Connie (Lady Chatterley) and Barkin share little in common but for these characteristics. Thanks to the reticence, their sexuality is slow to awaken, and when it does (a great scene, with a baby chick, passed from his hand to hers) it burns slow and awkward to begin with. Clothes, even, are not readily shed--and then not until well into the relationship; which does not mean that the scenes are not infectiously erotic. And once awakened, the sex runs deep and steamy on both sides, and it is shown as good, healthy, human and, let's say it, not a little animal. It is, notably, about both man and woman. It does not take sides.
I'm not sure that the film fully captures the full depth of the social taboos that are violated by Lawrence's novel, though it certainly tries. This is, after all, early twentieth century England, with Victorianism at least very present in the rear view mirror. She is, after all, a "Lady," and he a gamekeeper, a man of the lower orders, a servant to her husband, rude in appearance and in manner (both captured in great performances, by the way.) Her mansion, with its sweeping stairways, its elegant furniture, its ancestral portraits, is amply contrasted with his humble cottage and the shack where they meet, its walls and shelves lined with common tools and utensils--all filmed with equal love of their sheer physicality. It might seem that the affair is somehow more, well, permissible than then current social mores would have allowed: there is little sense of the risk involved for both parties, of the enormity of their action. But that, perhaps, is Lawrence, because he insists on the rightness of it--the rightness of sex as well as the rightness of flouting those old, artificial social barriers that stoof between human beings.
Okay, you may have gathered by now that I enjoyed this film. But what about the moral questions about obscenity that so riled critics--both literary and social--when the book appeared? In view of the pornography that is available at the tough of a few buttons on your home computer these days, the eroticism of "Lady Chatterley," while less explicit, seems to me in some ways more potent than the debased images of human flesh so liberally exposed to the voyeuristic eye. I think it's clear by now that the healthy, human sexuality for which Lawrence made his pitch is regarded by most thinking people as just that: human, and healthy. Would today's morals brigades work up a lather over "Lady Chatterley"? Not, perhaps, when they have so much juicier and more broadly available targets.
Which brings us to the interesting question as to whether obscenity is harmful. Are there still boundaries that should not be crossed, or that are crossed at the cost of damage to the social fabric? Is it anybody's business what I choose to watch, or read? What I have learned about Buddhist teachings in this regard is that the practice of sex is reprehensible only by the standard of potential harm--harm to myself, or harm to other people. So then I have to wonder what is harmful. Rape, clearly, at one extreme, no question there. But how about, um, dare I raise the subject... masturbation? Harmful? I guess if you still believe that it causes acne--or blindness. Seriously, though, to whom? To anyone who indulges in the practice? To those who become addicted? Food for thought. I guess we must all make these intimate judgments for ourselves.
And what about pornography? Is it harmful to those who produce the stuff? To those who watch it? On what basis do we condemn it, if we choose to do so?
Anyway, interesting questions, no? I'd be happy to hear your thoughts...
Oh, yes. I had to take a scrubbing brush to the Buddha yesterday. Our fountain, that is. And a toothbrush, for the nooks and crannies around the mouth and eyes, and especially the traditional curlicues of hair. At least, I'm assuming that those stylized curls are intended to represent the hair. Anyway, over the months, our Buddha had acquired a patina of greenish algae, and it was time for him to get spruced up. It did feel a bit funny, working away at him like that, but he looks a whole lot better for the cleaning.