Profiles in Prurience

“For she had a tongue with a tang,
Would cry to a sailor, ‘Go hang!’
She loved not the savor of tar nor of pitch,
Yet a tailor might scratch her where’er she did itch.
(Shakespeare The Tempest, ii, 2)

The adjective prurient has long signified an inflamed sexual appetite.  We have this word prurient from the Latin prurire, which literally means “to itch,” and our language has recognized the metaphorical “itches” of various importunate hankerings for a very long time.  Metaphorical prurience was most strongly associated with the itch for venery, whether in a woman or a man, as can be seen in the epigram above, but the metaphor always had wider application.

In 1640, for instance, the English churchman Henry Hammond wrote of “prurient tongues and itching ears,” the first hankering to spread, the second hankering to hear, scandal, gossip and defamation.  One still hears a person say “I’ve been itching to tell you something,” the something being in most instances a tasty tidbit of misfortune, infamy or degradation.

The Gossip, Albert Edelfelt (1887)

We all know the prurient “itch” to hear such tidbits (vide 2 Corinthians 12:20).  To have this “itch” scratched is what the Germans call schadenfreude.  Indeed, a hankering for schadenfreude may be the one “itch” that never dies, for there are many old men who would not leave their easy chair for a willing woman or a good meal, but who would walk two miles through the rain to savor details of a brother’s misfortune.

A hankering is truly prurient when, like an itch, it is inflamed by scratching.  If you have ever suffered from a suppurating poison ivy rash, you understand the fundamental character of the metaphorical itch that we call prurience.  There is at first the unbearable itching of the rash. This normally triggers an ecstasy of furious scratching.  And this is normally followed by guilty despair, as the itch returns, inflamed, redoubled, and more unbearable than before.

It is much the same with our itch for schadenfreude, and for many and perhaps all varieties of sexual release.  First, we are beset with a hankering that we cannot shake.  (The word hanker most likely comes from the word hang, so that to hanker is to be “hung up” or “snagged” on a desire).  Then, we seek relief by “scratching” the itch.  Then we are dismayed to discover that scratching has only inflamed the itch, and that we are now more securely snagged by our own prurience.

* * * * *

I am sure you have seen a photograph of Marilyn Monroe standing atop a subway grate, her white dress billowing before a blast of air that is rushing up as a train plunges through the tunnel below.  The photograph is from the movie The Seven Year Itch, a 1955 comedy in which a married man is stricken by a prurient hankering for bachelorette Monroe.  The photograph is a popular icon of mid-century Freudian expressionism, not to mention a vector that spread the itch for a peep at Monroe’s knickers and thighs.

Alarmed by his “itch,” the prurient husband seeks the assistance of Dr. Brubaker, a psychoanalyst who has written a book arguing that “the ‘urge curve’ in the husband rises sharply during the seventh year,” and who has named this uptick in the urge curve “the seven-year itch.”  Because he is a psychoanalyst, Dr. Brubaker’s advice to the prurient husband is,

“lf something itches, scratch.”

Dr. Brubaker’s advice of course departs from that of older moralists who, perhaps owing to a better understanding of poison ivy, told those who suffered from prurience,

“lf something itches, leave it alone.”

* * * * *

We can find the old view in the Hypnerotomachia, a late medieval romance by the Venetian monk Francesco Colonna. The title translates as The Strife of Love in a Dream, the dream being that of a young swain named Poliphilo, and the strife arising from the fact that his itch for the lovely Polia is unrequited.

In the hope of finding lawful relief from this itching, Poliphilo seeks out the Queen of Love, and is guided to her palace by a party of winsome nymphs.  When they reach the Court of Love, these nymphs disrobe at a fountain, and plunge naked into the water.  Poliphilo suddenly feels another itch.

They did impoverish their apparel . . . in the casting of it off from their celestial bodies . . . . And without any respect at all, they gave me leave to look upon their faire and delicate personages . . . . Ah, woe is me, I found my heart to rise and open itself and altogether to be addicted to a voluptuous delight.”

But Poliphilo at once remembers himself and fights the urge to scratch this new itch.

“For a refuge and succor, I dared not look so narrowly upon their enticing beauties, heaped up in their heavenly bodies. And they perceiving the same did smile at my bashful behavior, making great sport at me.  And . . . they entreated me to enter in with them, where I stood like a crow among white doves.”

Polyphilus in the Bath of the Nymphs, Eustache Le Seur (c. 1640)

One of the nymphs then asks the crow about his ladylove, Polia.  Indicating the nymphaeum, the nymph inquires:

“If she were here present, what would you do?”

Itching like the dickens (but still not scratching) Poliphilo stammers:

“That which were agreeable with her honor, and fit for your companies.”

The nymphs continue to tease and titillate Poliphilo until, at last, the itch is nearly unendurable, and he begins to see the sense in Dr. Brubaker’s view that an itch ought to be scratched.

“Upon a sudden I found myself so lasciviously bent, and in such a prurient lust, that which way so ever I turned, I could not forbear, and they . . . laughed the more, knowing what had happened unto me.”

The teasing nymphs are naturally amused by the prurience they have aroused, and their laughter drives Poliphilo to a mad double desire, which is an itch for venery and an itch to punish the temptress who caused the itch.

“And it did so increase in me . . . that I knew not wherewithal I might bridle and restrain myself from catching of one of them, like an eager and hot falcon coming down out of the air, upon a covey of partridges.”

Young Naiad, Charles Emile Chabas (c. 1910)

Poliphilo does, in fact, manage to bridle and restrain himself, and does not therefore pounce on the nymphs like a hot falcon, but his prurience still rages like a house on fire.

“Give me leave [he begs] to destroy myself in a lascivious fire.”

Or, in other words, “for the love of all that’s holy, let me scratch this itch!”

And thereat they burst out all in a laughter and said, “Ah ha!  And if your desired Polia, if she were here, what would you do, how?”

Of course, Poliphilo knows perfectly well what he would now do to that coy coquette, and it would not be “agreeable with her honor.”  Oh, the burning itch of prurient lust!  Oh, the burning itch of venery!

“I beseech you [Poliphilo cries] put not flax and rosin to the fire which burneth me out of all measure.  Put no pitch to the fire in my heart . . .”

And at this, finally, the seductive nymphs relent, and send Poliphilo to the equivalent of a long cold shower

“upon the odoriferous flowers and cool grass, by means whereof, I became somewhat opportunely to be eased, my heat assuaged and relenting by little and little.”

* * * * *

That is how prurience was understood for hundreds of years.  But it is not quite what the word meant when it first came to the attention of the young JMSmith, sometime around 1970.  Prurience was by then no longer the name of the “lascivious fire” that blazed in the heart of Poliphilo at the nymphaeum.  Prurience had become, in common usage, the itch that afflicts pimpled youth and dirty old men.  It was the itch to watch Poliphilo and the nymphs.

In 1499 Poliphilo was “prurient” because he had been brought to the very brink of raping a naughty nymph. In 1970 a man was prurient because he itched to think about naughty nymphs, and because he would not have fought the itch to creep up behind a bush overlooking a nymphaeum, had a nymphaeum been near at hand, and had the giggles and splashing suggested good sport.

The larger reason for this change was, of course, that men like Francesco Colonna had been replaced by men like Dr. Brubaker, and that Christian sexual morality had been replaced by Freudian sexual morality.  For Dr. Brubaker and the Freudians, prurient men (and boys) suffered from a sexual “itch” because they were too repressed and inhibited to scratch it in the right way.

And for Dr. Brubaker and the Freudians (although perhaps not Freud himself), the right way to scratch the sexual itch was to come down out of the air like “an eager and hot falcon . . . upon a covey of partridges.”

The proximate cause of the change was the pornographer’s absolute rout of the censors in a series of court cases in the 1960s.  You may recall that the 1957 Roth decision of United States Supreme Court had set three criteria for obscene material: (1) it must primarily “appeal to prurient interests,” (2) it must be “patently offensive” to an average member of the community, and (3) it must lack “redeeming social value.”  Even if you don’t recall the Roth decision, you can infer from our bordello culture that this Maginot Line did not hold.

As a lawyer explained in testimony before Congress in 1970, printed material “appealed to prurient interests” when it had “the tendency to excite lustful thoughts.”  He did not mention the behavior of those naughty nymphs in the fountain of the Court of Love, but I expect he would have agreed that they intended to excite lustful thoughts in Poliphilo, and were therefore appealing to his prurient interests (although not in printed material).

The obvious way around the Roth decision was to package material that “appealed to prurient interest” with a reasonable amount of padding that did not “appeal to prurient interest,” and then wait for “community standards” to soften.  In other words, wrap the fish in classy journalism until the community gets used to the smell of fish, and then serve it to them straight.

This was also the reason for the gratuitous “sex scenes” that began to crop up in movies around 1970s. I remember that the scene known as “Keep Goin’ Teacher Lady” set me itching like nobody’s business, but Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) was not, on the whole, a prurient movie.  If you went by page count, Playboy and Penthouse were not prurient magazines.

Unless, of course, you tore out the pictures and threw away the fish wrapper.

* * * * *

And that, I think, was what the word prurience had come to mean when it first nuzzled its way into the vocabulary of young JMSmith, sometime around 1970.  Prurience was the itch to see more of Katherine Ross in that bedroom with Robert Redford, and less of Katherine Ross on that bicycle with Paul Neuman.  It was the itch to tear out more pictures and throw away less wrapper.  It was the itch, not for sex, but for what D. H. Lawrence called “sex in the head.”

“Introduce any trick, any idea, any mental element you can into sex, but make it an affair of upper consciousness, the mind and the eyes and mouth and fingers. This is our vice, our dirt, our disease.”  (D. H. Lawrence, Fantasia of the Unconscious [New York: T. Seltzer, 1922], p. 174).

Lawrence was, of course, a Freudian soulmate of Dr. Brubaker who taught

“lf something itches, scratch.”

* * * * *

You may have read that the Manchester Art Gallery recently removed the painting Hylas and the Nymphs, by John William Waterhouse (1896).  None of the explanations I have read used the word prurient, but it is pretty clear that their phrase “male gaze” means much the same thing.  Public display of Waterhouse’s painting was said to validate the male habit of erotic fantasy, and therefore to encourage men to look at women with “prurient interests.”

Hylas and the Nymphs, John William Waterhouse (1896)

I do not believe the Manchester Art Gallery had a problem with males scratching their itch as they stood before Hylas and the Nymphs, or even with male patrons running for the exits in search of some compliant scratcher. The problem was not that men were scratching, but that they might start itching.

In other words, the problem was “sex in the head.”

But this sex in the head was not a problem for the reason D. H. Lawrence and Dr. Brubaker saw it as a problem, which was that it might not get scratched. And it was not a problem for the reason Francesco Colonna saw it as a problem, which was that it might get scratched.

It was a problem because it was in the head, and therefore outside the control of the bitter harridans who had the painting removed.

What I believe worried the bitter harridans was that viewing Hylas and the Nymphs might give a man the itch for world in which there were more nymphs and fewer Harridans.  This would not be, I hasten to add, a fantasy of the global bordello, since that is what we actually have. It is a fantasy where the male gaze is met, as it is being met in this painting, by an equally prurient gaze.

That is, after all, what happened when Hylas came to this grotto.  He fell for the nymphs and they fell for him.  Everyone got the itch and their itches all got scratched.

Release me, O Nymphs, I implore ye!  For when through these waters I sank.
Ye promised to lead me back thither,  Now must I return on my way
But vainly he pleaded in accents, Now angry, now tearful, now soft
The nymphs flung their white arms around him ‘O Hylas, we love thee, here dwell!’
. . . .
So softly beguiled with their voices, he gave him to lover’s delights,
And the nymphs of the grotto, as servants, attended his slightest behest.”

(Cecil Roberts “Strayed Hylas” [c. 1920])

8 thoughts on “Profiles in Prurience

  1. The two poles of sexuality are: Entirely in the mind; and entirely in the body. Entirely in the mind is masturbation, which, in imagining a partner, attests at least to mentality. Entirely in the body eliminates mind altogether and reduces the sex-act to a bestial, transient, and merely physical conjunction. Body without mind is meaningless. The moral sexual act must occur at something like a halfway-point between only mind and only body. I find it difficult to blame on Hylas for admiring the nymphs. I, too, have admired nymphs, but that is not to say that I have trafficked with them sexually, nor would I, except under conditions. I would want first to have courted one nymph, to have gotten to know her, and then to have made a permanent bond with her looking forward to a lifetime. I am in favor of nymphs, but I am also in favor of selecting them carefully and instructing them, morally, just as I am in favor of saying no to them, both as according to a practical and as according to a moral dispensation. Nevertheless, I like nymphs, who are mothers potentially by instinct, even though they live in a morally uninstructed, usually watery, hence also formless, environment. A lascivious girl and a lascivious boy are natural partners precisely because of their uninstructed condition. Instruction would elucidate both mind and body and instill caution. Under such instruction, the two-backed beast would at least be informed. A paradox: The age of “sex education” is, in fact, the age of sex ignorance.

    • There has no comment, that I have seen, on these pages about Mary Eberstadt’s The Prophetic Power of Humanae Vitae, in the April issue of First Things. Many, myself included, had come to the conclusion that the destroyer of worlds was not cultural Marxism or the internet or any of the other contenders, but little packets of oestrogen produced by the pharmaceutical industry. Every affliction of Western society flows from The Pill, and it provided the environment in which cultural Marxism could flourish.

      For men, it opened a vista of nymphs, all of whom, within the limits of one’s own attractiveness, one could try out, with the obverse promise for women, for whom the barriers to en passant sexual encounters were always lower. In the process, trust between men and women has been utterly destroyed, as conversations with young women, in particular, at any time in the past twenty or thirty years would attest.

      There may well be two types of many, genetically marked out, like bearers of the mutually exclusive dry or greasy ear wax gene. For the one type, women are always sexual opportunities. It is a matter of pride to take maximum advantage of every opportunity that presents itself. The other might be described as uxorious; tending to bond with abiding affection to one woman; monogamous. I know the latter type can be drawn, by circumstances and disappointments, into something of the behavior of the former, but I do not know to what extent the former can be converted. Many of them seem to have been converted by their fondness for a particular woman, but our bordello culture makes it impossible to assess the extent to which such conversions woudl have “stuck” in more innocent times.

      • If we place your two types on a continuum, the pill moved marginal individuals over the line from generally monogamous to generally promiscuous. The pill certainly was important, since it allowed female assurance of infertility, but there was also the concurrent demoralization of sex, so that a non-virginal female remained marriageable within her class. And it wasn’t merely social. Plenty of young men and women sincerely believed sex before marriage was a sin that was punished in Hell. So, the pregnancy risk was radically reduced at the same time as radical reductions in social and (perceived) eternal risks. Essentially, the “price” of sex went way down, and so the marginal non-consumers crossed over and became marginal consumers. When it became clear that there were other costs (STDs, psychological damage (and maybe revived concern about the whole Hell business)), some marginal consumers crossed back to the non-cumsumer side.

    • The polarity you describe is embodied in the nymph, who is at or close to the “all body” pole, and the one who enjoys thinking about nymphs, who is at or close to the “all mind” pole. I know that mythology as many types of nymph, but they seem generally to be “beyond (or perhaps before) good and evil. In any case, Lawrence’s fantasy about sex-not-in-the-head is the quintessence of “sex in the head.” It takes a very cerebral type to get turned on by the idea of animalistic rutting.

      • Daphne and Syrinx are nymphs, but they belong to the Militant Virgin subspecies of nymphdom and characteristically they abhor the very notion of sexual union, from the prospect of which they fly. Their respective myths treat them harshly, dissimulating the violent end in the prettifying metaphors of magical transmogrification. The Greek numphe means “bride,” a young woman who on one side of the threshold is virginal and on the other side not so much. But the bride becomes a mother and the race extends itself future-wise. Both the easy nymphs who sport in water and flirt with young men, and who therefore encourage promiscuity, and the militant virgins who, in effect, refuse marriage pose problems for the community.

  2. It just occurred to me that your title, “Profiles in Prurience,” makes a Kennedy allusion — and most aptly and richly. I would begin teasing out the implications one by one, but, practically speaking, how would I make an end?


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