Jack’s Naughty Bits: Dante Alighieri, Inferno

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Jack's Naughty Bits

Three and a half years ago, when Rufus told me he and Genevieve were going to start a smart sex magazine on the Internet, I was in the middle of doing a Ph.D. in medieval literature and was steadily getting as moldy as most of my books. He wanted to hire me, and offered to triple my salary. I had been making a whopping 4 digits at that point and thought it high time to break 5. I packed my suitcase.

My first assignment was to do an article on banned books and to compile some sexy excerpts from banned classics. Putting together the predictable Henry Miller, Boccaccio, James Joyce, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and the Marquis de Sade, I got the sense that there was a lot of sex in the history of literature. So I started looking for it, and found that there’s a lot in places you wouldn’t expect. I said to Rufus that I wanted to do a weekly column on the steamiest scenes from books past. The Naughty Bits was born.

Every Monday since then I’ve introduced and excerpted everything from Greek myths to Japanese cult novels, from Sanskrit lyrics to New York slam. I wanted to include books from the entirety of world literature, but I knew that there was no way I could be exhaustive, nor even to include all the most famous passages. But in a sense, that’s not what I was after. Alongside all the usual suspects, I wanted to feature writers and works that most people would be unlikely to associate with sex. Ana?s Nin, sure. Chaucer, of course. But Dante on erotica? Joyce on rimjobs?

So while it might have been nice to call this column The Best Sex Scenes from the History of Literature, it’s not, nor could such a thing really exist. Sex is too varied, personal and intricate to qualify for Bests; what works at one point for one person doesn’t necessarily work for someone else, or even for that same person at a different time. I also realized that the column would be a lot more interesting if I included scenes that reflected truth and diversity of sex, not just idealized fantasies. Cormac McCarthy writing about necrophilia; a medieval poem equating homosexuality to bad grammar: these are not what you’d expect to find in your basic erotica anthology, and I’m happy about that. If you come looking for brief and steamy diversions, you’ll find them; but if you are looking for the ecstasy, agony, absurdity and poignancy of sex, you’ll find that too.

Though I’m often asked if I’m close to exhausting all the naughty bits out there, I’ve found that the more I read, the more it’s clear that sex has permeated literature to such an extent that I could probably collect naughty bits for the rest of my life. Sex is everywhere in writing, but it’s not always there in the form we think it’s going to take. And not all authors are up to the challenge. I often joke that half the sex scenes in the history of literature consist of only one word: AFTERWARDS. And it’s almost true. You get all the build-up, perhaps even some heavy breathing and the taking off of shoes, and then….Afterwards, Gary and Bunny picked up their fallen clothes and… Yeah, yeah. Cop outs we have known.

The Naughty Bits is a celebration of all the writers who decided that a single word wasn’t enough, that something in the knocking together of the bodies, the mixing of memory and desire, the slip of skin and sweat on skin and sweat was an integral part of the human experience — something vital to their characters and thus their stories, not to be missed.

Of course not everyone agrees. Some people believe that sex is better left behind closed doors, and that to bring it out for public scrutiny somehow demystifies it, strips it of its magic. To me, all human experience shimmers with the nacreous luster of miracles, if we can bring ourselves to see it. Poets and fiction writers do their best to point it out; in those rare moments that they succeed, they are really creating art. Yes, sex is full of mystery, but it would take a lot of monkeys sitting at a lot of typewriters for a lot of eternities to begin to catch any of that magic on paper. When we are examining what’s worthy of spilled ink, we should be less concerned with robbing something of its mystery as catching some measure of it. It’s doubtful that any art, even photographs, steal the soul of the subject; the bigger question is whether, when the negatives are tweezed out of the fixer, any soul is visible on the film. We have to hope it does. And if sex is so likely to be divested of its gravity by writing about it, then what of love? And what of death?

The irony, of course, is that the accomplished sex writer, not unlike the effective psychiatrist, neurosurgeon or relief worker, undoes the need for his or her labor in the very act of doing it. You write well about sex and your readers close the book — to move on to better things. That’s why the most first naughty bits I excerpted is also my favorite: Dante’s story of Paolo and Francesca in the Inferno. Banished to Hell for adultery, Francesca tells how it was a book that did them in. They were reading the tale of Lancelot when things got a bit steamy. Paolo looked at her, they kissed, and the book fell to the floor. So grab your Paolo, or your Francesca, or just that special part of you that has you reading Nerve in the first place, and enjoy.

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From Inferno by Dante Alighieri

(translated by Jack Murnighan)

. . . There is no greater pain

Than to remember happy days in days

Of sadness . . .

But if to know the first root of our love

You have so strong a desire,

I’ll do as one who weeps while he speaks.

One day, for pleasure simply, we were reading

Of Lancelot, and how love overpowered him;

Alone we were, and free from all suspicions.

Often that reading caused our eyes to meet,

And often the color from our faces went,

But it was a single passage that overcame us:

When we read how the desired smile was

Kissed by one so true a lover, this one,

Who from me will never be taken,

Kissed me, his body all trembling, on the mouth.

. . . And no more did we read that day.