Jack’s Naughty Bits: Ovid, The Art of Love

Pin it

Jack's Naughty Bits


my penchant for long-deceased authors and moldering books, I am

occasionally asked who I would like to have been, and what I would most

like to have written. Few authors of truly great works lived enviable lives: Who would want to be Milton, the supremely

cantankerous self-proclaimed “church of one,” or the miasmic Plotinus,

rotting publically from the inside out, or, even worse, to be burned at

the stake, like Julian of Norwich when she dared suggest that God’s love

was universal? It’s a commonplace that authors live meager and brutish

lives, so much so that one wonders if it’s worth it to be a Dostoevsky in

order to write a Brothers K.


But then there is that lucky group of writers whose lives were as

extraordinary as their work. Rimbaud set poetry on its heels before he

was twenty, then got bored and started running guns in North Africa.

Marlowe was the jewel of the pre-Shakespearean stage and his generation’s

pre-eminent rake and ladies’ man. The Earl of Rochester was so charming

and handsome that for more than a century after his death popular drama

in England was still modeling characters after him.


It is not, however, from among these fortunates that I would pick my

dream life. No, without a moment’s hesitation, I would choose to be

Ovid, the Roman poet born forty years before Christ, author of, among

other works, the Metamorphoses and the Ars Amatoria (The

Art of Love). These two texts bespeak the glory of both the literary and

personal halves of Ovid’s life, set in perfect harmony. The former work is one

of the great acts of imagination in the history of literature and has

been a deserved bestseller for two millenia. The latter is a raucous

love manual from someone who clearly knew women, loved women and spent

his life figuring out how to snare them. Though predominantly for men,

The Art of Love concludes with a section for the ladies, on how to

behave when caught. Elsewhere Ovid gives make-up tips and rules of

conduct, but here he advises on the vagaries of bedroom performance in

what reads like a head-on challenge to Cynthia Heimel.

* * *

From The Art of Love by Ovid

translated by Rolfe Humphries

We must come to the heart of the matter, so that my weary keel reaches

the haven at last . . . In our last lesson we deal with matters

peculiarly secret; Venus reminds us that here lies her most intimate

care. What a girl ought to know is herself, adapting her method, taking

advantage of the methods nature has equipped her to use. Lie on your

back if your face and all your features are pretty; if your posterior is

cute, better be seen from behind. Milanion used to bear Atalanta’s legs

on his shoulders; if you have beautiful legs, let them be lifted like

hers. Little girls do all right if they sit on top, riding horseback;

Hector’s Andromache knew she could not do this: too tall! Press the

couch with your knees and bend your neck backward a little if your view,

full-length, seems what a lover should crave. If the breasts and the

thighs are youthful and lovely to look at, let the man stand and the girl

lie on a slant on the bed. Let your hair come down, in the Laodamian

fashion. If your belly is lined, better be seen from behind. There are

a thousand ways: a simple one, never too tiring, is to lie on your back,

turning a bit to the right. My muse can give you the truth, more truth

than Apollo or Ammon; take it from me, what I know took many lessons to



Let the woman feel the act of love to her marrow, let the performance

bring equal delight to the two. Coax and flatter and tease, with

inarticulate murmurs, even with sexual words, in the excitement of play,

and if nature, alas, denies you the final sensation cry out as if you had

come, do your best to pretend. Really I pity the girl whose place, let

us say, cannot give her pleasure it gives to the man, pleasure she ought

to enjoy. So, if you have to pretend, be sure the pretense is effective,

do your best to convince, prove it by rolling your eyes, prove by your

motions, your moans, your sighs, what a pleasure it gives you.


So our sport has an end: our swans are tired of their harness. Time for

their labors to rest, time to step down from our car. As the young men

did, now let the girls, my disciples, write on the votive spoil, “Ovid

showed us the way.”