I was just going through some screenshots with articles about Quiet Flows the Don
premiere last year. It’s been a very long while, unfortunately, since I wrote anything about the latest adaptation by the late Sergei Bondarchuk
. In part, it had to do with the fact that I only recently managed to start watching the film, which I am yet to finish. So far in general I feel that I like this film more than the previous adaptation. However, it is the previous adaptation’s subject and the recent interpretation of it that made me remember about this short essay by Alberto Moravia. As I mentioned previously, this year is the 100th
anniversary of his birthday, so it is appropriate to mark it with this text.
Alberto Moravia, Eroticism in Literature (1961)
Eroticism in modern literature has no resemblance to eroticism in pagan literature nor to eroticism in the literatures that followed it, though if there are any resemblances at all these are to the former rather than the latter. But there is the difference that in pagan literature eroticism has all the innocence, brutality and cohesion of a nature not yet divided and turned against itself by the Christian sense of sin, whereas eroticism in modern literature is bound to take the Christian experience into account. In other words, eroticism in modern literature derives not from a situatio of nature, but from a process of liberation from pre-existent prohibitions and taboos. With the pagans, freedom was an unconscious, simple fact, whereas with the moderns it has been reclaimed, rediscovered, rewon. In compensation eroticism in modern literature has, or should have, the character proper to subjects that neither shock nor draw undue attention to themselves – that are, in short, normal if we understand normal to mean the transformation of the sexual act into something scientifically known and poetically valid, and therefore insignificant from the ethical point of view.
The result of this is, or should be, that for the first time since the pagan literatures sex is becoming material for poetry without the need to recourse to the props of symbols or the disguises of metaphor. Today, for the first time for many centuries, the sexual act can be represented directly, explicitly, realistically and poetically in a literary work, whenever the work itself makes it necessary. At this point someone will ask: but is it necessary to talk about the sexual act and, if so, when? My answer is that it is not always necessary to talk about the sexual act, just as it is not always necessary to talk about social questions or adventures in Africa, but that, as the prohibitions and taboos that stood in its way no longer exist today, to pass it over in silence when it is necessary is no longer, as it once was, a moral question but an inadequacy of expression. To take an example: the contemporary writer who does not speak of the sexual act when the subject-matter of his book requires it, is behaving like the citizen who refrains from talking about politics in a democratic regime because the dictatorship that preceded it forbade him to do so. Of course, let me repeat, it is not always necessary to talk about the sexual act; but it is necessary to talk about it when – to make a play on words – it is necessary.
Our objector now asks why on earth it seems so often necessary to talk about the sexual act in modern literature. To this we answer very simply that in the modern world sex is synonymous with love, and who could deny that love is a very common subject in the literatures of all times and places?
But how in the world, someone else will say, has love been transformed into sex in modern literature; in other words how has it lost the indirect, metaphorical and idealised character that it had in the past, to end up as identified with the sexual act? There are many reasons for this identification, the principal one being, as we have already pointed out, the collapse of the prohibitions and taboos that only too frequently and artificially lay at the root of the false idealisations of eroticism.
These taboos and prohibitions were only in appearance of Christian origin; in reality Christianity confined itself to counselling chastity. Probably the taboos and prohibitions were the outcome of a slow social involution, an involution not unlike the one that can be observed in, for instance, class relationships in some Western societies.
However, the collapse of these taboos and prohibitions has been caused mainly by what is called depth psychology, or psychoanalysis and the related psychological sciences. The discoveries of psychoanalysis have had a crucial result in two ways: they have broken down the taboos, and have raised the sexual act from the ignominy into which the taboos had cast it, and have reinstated it among the few ways of expression and communion available to man.
The sexual act in modern literature is, or should be, neither diabolical temptation, as with the medieval ascetics, nor an almost gastronomical pleasure as with the eighteenth-century bourgeoisie, but as it shows itself when we manage to separate it both from moralistic horror and vulgar hedonism: an act of insertion into a cosmic and superhuman order. Seen in this way the sexual act is effectively something higher, more mysterious, and more complete than love, especially if love is interpreted as the simple physico-sentimental relationship between man and woman.
How does this relate to the 1957 and 1992 (2006) adaptations of Quiet Flows the Don? At the heart of the novel is a love story of Grigory and Aksinia. One of the arguments against the most recent film was that it showed the protagonists having what we may call an openly sexual relationship. I must point out that there are still no bed scenes similar to some we’ve seen in other films. At the most, we can see their bare torsos (right, although the image is quite modest), but this is obviously very different from what the viewers have been looking at since 1957 (left). Some of the Bondarchuk’s critics were saying that Aksinia would never go to bed with Grigory totally naked. It may certainly be true if we remember that it was a custom even in Europe for many centuries to exercise one’s marital duty in a nightgown (which used to be worn by both men and women). From this point of view, any historical film with a romantic scene in which both protagonists appear totally naked, is potentially historically incorrect.
What is interesting, however, is that the kind of romantic love we usually witness on screen and which makes up one of the subjects of Sholokhov’s novel is rather often than not a forbidden love. As the narrator tells us, the love of Aksinia and Grigory was forbidden not simply because it was adulterous – it flew in the face of a traditional view of how to conduct an affair. Had they concealed it or treated it as if it didn’t matter, the villagers would quickly forget about it. They, however, didn’t conceal it, and in particular Aksinia, for whom this was the first time she fell in love and had her affection returned, put herself entirely into enjoying her womanhood. Hers is a tragic character, and I can absolutely not picture Aksinia keeping her cool while burning with love – that is, wearing a nightgown at all times, figuratively speaking.
I wouldn’t want to comment in too much depth on the Russian take on eroticism in cinema as follows from the Quiet Flows the Don‘s critique, since those opinions may not be entirely representative. As with everything else elsewhere, much is built upon assumptions, in this case – an assumption that Russian culture and eroticism are alien to each other, which, of course, is nonsense. But in the case of reception of this recent adaptation of Sholokhov’s novel we find assumptions not only about the life in the Cossack village, but about the novel itself. The fact is that Sholokhov’s text is long and rich enough to include many story lines, some of which never made it to the screen. And certain portions of the text are undoubtedly erotic, although they may be too demure for our time. Nevertheless, they do exist, and since the question seems to be about whether or not it was appropriate for the protagonists to bare on screen, the answer is that it was not only appropriate, but even necessary – to underline the unconventional and tragic fate of their life-long affair.