What is less well known are the circumstances in which the Can-Can rose to itsenormous popularity. In the relaxed atmosphere of the Naughty Nineties, moralcensorship of stage performances in Paris virtually ceased to exist and theresprung up in the city a large number of nude shows. Naturally these attractedlarge audiences, especially at first. But numbers began to diminish as thepublic realised that nudity, once you have seen it a few times, is not reallyall that exciting.
Then the Follies opened with the Can-Can and its delightful display ofclothed feminine charm. It swept the board, virtually killing thenude-show trade overnight.
This is a prime example of Aphroditism. The Can-Can succeeded by playing on avital truth of human psychology--that the crude and obvious is essentiallyunerotic; that eroticism thrives on what is hidden and dies in a climate oftotal exposure; that what can be freely seen ceases to be worth looking at,while what is never quite revealed becomes an object of increasing power andattraction.
Is this a sexual perversion? Well, if we accept the assumptions of Freud, theman who invented the concept of sexual perversion, then it certainly is.Indeed, it is sexual perversion in its purest form. Freud believed that thesole purpose of eroticism was consummation; that the entire erotic aesthetic ofhumanity (indeed, ultimately the entire aesthetic of humanity passim)was merely a deviation from the animal instinct for procreation. Curiously,Freud's view, although based on Darwinism and the dogma that man is no morethan an animal, is very close in this respect to that of the Catholic Church,which also holds that procreation is the only legitimate aim of eroticfeeling.
From this point of view, subtilism is the purest and simplest form of sexualdeviation. De-via-tion means literally "going out of one's way". Per-version isa "turning-away". If the true aim and goal is the sexual act, then anythingwhich leads away from this is a perversion or deviation.
To move voluntarily from the more explicit to the less explicit, from thecrudely obvious to the subtly suggestive, is sexual perversion parexcellence. The whole climate of sexual "frankness", the intensely andcrudely sexualised (and correspondingly de-eroticised) atmosphere of the late20th century is based squarely on this theory.
It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of Freud in these matters. Notonly the very concept of sexual perversion, but the entire way we talk about"sex" (including the very fact that we use the word "sex" as we do) comes fromFreud.
People who have scarcely heard of Freud use Freudian concepts every day oftheir lives; not simply in speaking, but in acting. The way they conduct theirrelationships, their expectations of other people, even the way they dress, arefounded on Freudian concepts. The simple facts of existence, the things we seefor ourselves and cannot imagine to be otherwise are Freudian, because althoughwe are "seeing for ourselves" we are looking through Freudian eyes.
The question, therefore, which needs desperately to be asked is was Freudright? Given that we are living in a Freudianised society, are we livingaccording to truths that the great man discovered, or are we living out thefalsehoods and misconceptions of a turn-of-the-century Viennese theorist?
Was Freud right about the erotic nature of man? And the erotic nature ofwoman?
A vulgar bongo has said--in a typically vulgar bongo way--"sex is one percentfriction and ninety-nine percent imagination". It is vulgar, but it is true.Now the Freudian theory asks us to believe that the entire imaginativeachievement of human civilisation is ultimately founded on the one percent thatis friction. We are asked to believe that King Lear and Beethoven'sninth and Chartres cathedral are all merely elaborations--essentiallyunnecessary elaborations--upon an activity which we have in common with dogsand beetles.
But let us narrow the discussion down to human erotic sensibility. Areall the myriad subtle feelings and emotions which have been associated with ourerotic nature: are they all nothing more than "deviations" from alley-catcopulation? And when we opt for subtler more thrilling manifestations of theerotic, are we simply putting the "real thing" at one or more removes? Simplyteasing ourselves in the manner of one who looks at a bar of chocolate and thenputs it away again?
We say no. And the chocolate example helps to demonstrate our case. C.S.Lewis,writing in the 1940s, talked of striptease shows, and commented upon thestrange way in which we treat the "sex appetite", as I believe he called it.Could one imagine, he asked, a stage performance at which a roast chicken wasunveiled slowly before a hungry audience, and then, just as they had a fullview of it the lights were turned out?
Of course not: nor do we tantalise any other of our appetites--thirst, the needfor sleep or for air, etc.--in this way. But what this proves is that "the sexappetite" is not an appetite like the others. It is different. It worksdifferently. It is not necessarily satisfied by ordinary physical consummationas the appetite for food is, because it has a non-physical dimension. Even whenwe satisfy the physical craving we may leave deeper and more importantcravings unsatisfied. Even the 1940s strip-show (as opposed to what onesupposes would be a much cruder and more explicit performance in later decades)retains a strange element of idealisation. The unveiling is all. The thingunveiled had best be plunged into darkness before excitement dies ofover-exposure.
"Idealisation", "sublimation": these are the words that the Freudianised worlduses for older attitudes to the erotic. But they beg the central question. Theyassume, without examining the matter, that there never was anythingideal or sublime in human erotic nature. They assume that we are merely nakedapes satisfying the same urges as birds, beasts and bugs in exactly the sameway, and that everything beyond that is mere frill and decoration;--mereillusions of the past to be cast away in the light of our "new knowledge". Thewhole of late 20th century civilisation is founded on these assumptions.
One trouble with them is that, like many modern theories, they seek to derivethe greater from the less. If vast areas of human culture are nothing more thandisguised "sexual appetite" then one can only say that the disguise is moreimportant than the thing disguised. The "unnecessary decorations" are deeperand more vital than the mere animal act to which they are unnecessary.
But we believe there is more to it than this. We believe--in common with allcultures before the present one--that human beings are essentially spiritualcreatures. We believe that the erotic urge, while it is reflected in theinstinct for procreation, is ultimately something much more than that and thatfor those of us whose eroticism is feminine-directed, a fundamental part of thesupra-physical roots of eroticism lies in the urge toward the Eternal Feminine,the feminine mystery at the heart of creation.