Thursday, July 16, 2009

"The Erotics of Abstinence"

Reader: Where have you been, Schütz? You haven't put up a post for a whole week!

Schütz: I'd like to say that I have been deeply studying the new Encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, or writing my paper on NT Wright's understanding of Justification for the John Paul II Insitute Colloquium on St Paul, but...

I have to admit that what I have really been doing is reading all four books in Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series. I have already posted below on my initial reaction to reading the first novel, but I want to add something more here.

Two comments from the Commentators while the port was being passed around got me thinking. The first was from Matthias who said something about Meyer being a Mormon and the other was from Mrs Doyle who said that the attraction of Edward Cullen had nothing to do with him being a vampire and everything to do with him being a gentleman who "who encourages Bella in maintaining and developing certain virtues". And this, she points out, is "presented as [something] equally attainable for any man".

A google search brought up this article from Time Magizine more than twelve months ago. As I mentioned before, the unusual thing about the Twilight novels is the very restrained and decidedly traditional attitude it takes toward sexual ethics. Bella is a seventeen/eighteen/nineteen year old who has only ever had one boyfriend. Edward insists that they get married before they have any sexual relations beyond kissing, hugging and holding hands. After their marriage (plot-spoiler here) comes the baby and then the house. All in the traditional order - but absolutely NOT in the order that it generally happens today. (Is there any marriage celebrant out there who can say that you have married more than one couple in the past twelve months who - to your knowledge - did it this way?)

Now, I know that these novels are written for teenage girls, but it is still very unusual for a series of novels in which sexuality and romance were so front and centre not to stray from the straight and narrow in this way. So what's going on? Here is what the Time article has to say:
But it is the rare vampire novel that isn't about sex on some level, and the Twilight books are no exception. What makes Meyer's books so distinctive is that they're about the erotics of abstinence. Their tension comes from prolonged, superhuman acts of self-restraint. There's a scene midway through Twilight in which, for the first time, Edward leans in close and sniffs the aroma of Bella's exposed neck. "Just because I'm resisting the wine doesn't mean I can't appreciate the bouquet," he says. "You have a very floral smell, like lavender ... or freesia." He barely touches her, but there's more sex in that one paragraph than in all the snogging in Harry Potter.

At first I was a bit shocked to hear from a friend that their 12 year old daughter had read all these novels. After all, as the article points out, this is not Harry Potter (side comment - I saw film no. 6 with the kids yesterday - Cathy and I are doing a review of that at the moment which I will post soon). But the more I think about it, if the Twilight novels encourage a new kind of sexual ethics in the name of true romance, then perhaps they are a good thing.

OR do they hold up an impossible ideal? Despite the fact that Meyer IS a practicing Mormon, there is no religion in the novels. Religious virtue is therefore not put forward as the motivating factor in this abstinence. So what is? Respect for one another, not wanting to hurt one another, being committed to a single permanent relationship, respect for parents, respect for all human life (abortion is an issue raised by the final book), the desire for motherhood... These are good things.

And, okay, maybe Edward is an impossible benchmark for the average teenage male to aspire to (no real man sparkles in the sunlight or can uproot whole trees with a flick of the wrist), but at least in this character Meyer has put out a challenge for young men to learn a little more about the kind of masculinity and romance that will make them attractive to a life-mate and help them to live with themselves in good conscience.

At the films yesterday, Maddy saw the shorts for the next Twilight movie, "New Moon". She asked when she would be allowed to read the novels. Answer: Not yet. Ten is toooo young for this. But when the time is right, I don't think reading the novels will do her any harm, and possibly a bit of good.


At Friday, July 17, 2009 8:32:00 am , Anonymous Schütz said...

Hey, just read the review, and it is a good one - quite thought provoking at points.

I rather agree about the "abusive boyfriend" angle - it could certainly be read that way...

And about the school aristocracy thing? Well, she was inspired by Jane Austen, so what does one expect. And Wuthering Heights. And Romeo and Juliet. Explains a lot!

But as far as the eros thing goes, after reading the review, I'm still with the definition of eros as Pope Benny put it in his encyclical, and in the following five paragraphs. It fits this novel to a T.

At Saturday, July 18, 2009 6:48:00 am , Anonymous Louise said...

the “erotics of chastity” is a phrase that makes complete sense in the context of holy matrimony.

At Sunday, July 19, 2009 7:49:00 am , Anonymous Schütz said...

But surely not restricted to holy matrimony? Surely Courtship is also about eros?

At Monday, July 20, 2009 12:31:00 am , Anonymous Louise said...

True. Hadn't really thought about that. I am such an old woman, now!

At Tuesday, July 21, 2009 12:03:00 am , Anonymous Schütz said...

Yes, there is a lot of lying in bed together and hugging, unbeknownst to "Dad" who is in the house at the time (vampires in Meyer's world have the ability to quietly enter houses and quickly exit when there is danger of discovery). I'm not quite sure what one should make of that morally...

At Tuesday, July 21, 2009 12:04:00 am , Anonymous Schütz said...

Although I do know how I would react if I discovered some bloke was doing that with my 17 year old daughter...


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