I had the pleasure of attending a discussion between Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa and the renowned critic John King last night. While all of the wide-ranging discussion was interesting, it was Vargas Llosa’s take on eroticism and its role in society that I found particularly intriguing and worth sharing. In response to a question about how he identifies with his characters, Vargas Llosa mentioned Don Rigoberto and the importance of the erotic.
Specifically, Vargas Llosa believes that eroticism is the sign of a culture’s strength and vitality. In his mind, the existence of eroticism in a society signals a highpoint where even the most base animal instinct of man has been incorporated into the broader culture and elevated to another level of experience. Eroticism takes something that is physical and adds a mental component. Suddenly, sex isn’t just about finding a partner and reaching orgasm. It becomes much more than that. New components are added. There’s flirting, romance, passion, and new styles of dress. The physical act of sex evolves into a much grander experience. For some it becomes spiritual, others intellectual. It gets incorporated into art, literature, dance, and countless other forms of expression. Consequently, even the concept of pleasure changes. It evolves from its animal-based physicality into an all-encompassing phenomenon. Eroticism takes all that mankind is, brings it together, and transforms it to more than the sum of its parts. It’s an elevation of the species to another level.
After establishing his love for eroticism, Vargas Llosa then moved to deplore what he sees as its destruction by the increasing prevalence of explicitness in society. What some argue is just another step toward freedom, Vargas Llosa believes is a step backward for mankind. Eroticism and explicitness may seem similar, but they are in fact two completely different approaches to the same thing. Whereas eroticism frees us from our base animal instinct by refining it and building upon it, explicitness tears away all that eroticism builds around sex and leaves only the physical act intact. Being explicit, or what Vargas Llosa calls pornographic, doesn’t make us more free – it makes us slaves to desire once again. If eroticism elevates us to a new plane and represents a highpoint of culture, explicitness represents the exact opposite. It’s something to be dreaded, not welcomed.
Vargas Llosa talked about many interesting things last night but it was this bit on eroticism that stuck with me more than anything else. I’d never thought of the issue this way and given the debate over promiscuous behavior in society today, it seems especially relevant. It also showed me why Vargas Llosa is such an expert at his craft. He has the amazing ability to dissect any aspect of the human experience and incorporate it into his writing. It was a true pleasure to hear him talk.