Classically Inclined

October 27, 2016

A monstrous case study: the sirens and porn

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 5:32 pm
Tags: , ,

One of the pleasures of working on classical reception in popular culture is that every so often, an absolute gem of a case study falls into your lap. Earlier this week on Twitter, Natalie Collins shared this video from the Naked Truth Project, and as you’ll see it’s extremely relevant to my current monstrous interests:

The video uses the myth of the sirens to offer handy tips on how to deal with your porn addiction. Learning from Odysseus putting beeswax in his men’s ears and having himself tied to his ship’s mast, and from Jason getting Orpheus to sing a sweeter, louder song to drown the sirens out, the men (and the target audience is very clearly men) watching this video should avoid what they can; ask others for help; and pursue the better song.

Where to begin.

Let’s start with the underlying premise that the ancient and the modern world have no distance between them. In a line that would generate floods of red ink in any undergraduate essay, the voiceover informs us that “throughout history and the arts, sirens became the personification of sexual temptation” and that “a few thousand years later, and pornography is more accessible than ever, with the same deadly pull of the sirens’ song.” Notice the grand generalisation, the chopping of several millennia of culture, the flattening of the cultural register. Sirens = porn, and from the Greek heroes we can learn how to deal with them. We being we men, and heterosexual men at that – the sirens of the start of the video are echoed by the women on the representative screen, as if they have moved from their rock to the internet, erasing the existence of gay porn. The shallowness of the cultural comparison speaks to a real modern problem in dealing with the classical world – the idea that the Greeks and the Romans were ‘just like us’. If the Argonauts had had to handle pornography, this is what they’d have done. The strangeness and difference and peculiarity of the ancient world disappears.

Yet there is also a strange desire to be authentic in this video, to give an accurate tale about the myths. The fact that the video uses not only the well-known story from Homer’s Odyssey but also the less well-known story from Apollonius’ Argonautica speaks to a wish to engage with the classical sources – or, quite possibly, some intelligent and careful perusal of the Sirens’ Wikipedia page. Either way, the desire to make sirens look ‘real’ gives us the visual representation of the monsters as having the form of women with bird wings – we’ve returned to a ‘classical’ model of what sirens look like rather than the mermaid-like figures who have, in some ways, replaced the sirens in the popular imagination of the last century or so. Again, this could be down to someone on the design team with a bit of classical education under their belt, or some judicious Wikipediaing – but, either way, this desire to be ‘authentic’, tell the real tale, get a bit of legitimising classical reference in there, is in operation. I’d say the same about the video’s observation that the sirens want either to get sailors to drown in shipwrecks or to eat them when they get to the island – including the lesser known fate of the victims adds to the sense of aiming for authenticity and authority, which of course is then used to give the advice in the second half of the video more moral weight.

The desire for authenticity, then, sits at odds with what this version of the story leaves out, and I particularly want to focus on Odysseus. Yes, he has himself tied to the mast… but why not just have beeswax put in his ears as well? The video doesn’t address the fact that Odysseus expressly wanted to hear the sirens sing for himself, or the power relations between him and his crew that lets him order them to plug their ears while he enjoys the dangerous pleasure of song. The advice to ‘avoid what you can’ was not something Odysseus had any intention of doing. Equally, getting support from friends isn’t the same as ordering around peons. From a classical perspective, judicious omission for the purpose of creating a moral example is actually de rigeur – it was common to use an episode from a person’s life to teach a moral lesson whilst leaving out the other episodes which undermined it. But the people reading the lesson knew the rest of the story – and, as here, the parts that got left out still echoed.

Another interesting aspect of this video how it plays into the rich Christian moral tradition that existed around sirens in medieval bestiaries. Bear with me here while I take you on a brief detour. I’m going to rely very heavily on Debra Hassig’s examination of twenty-eight English medieval bestiaries, of which twenty-three included sirens. The bestiaries took examples of sirens from classical literature, including Homer, and moralised them. The early bestiaries saw the sirens as ‘aquatic harlots’, playing on the link between the sea and Venus, who was born there. The moral was that like sailors who listen to siren songs, those who indulge in earthly pleasures will meet disaster. Another way to allegorise the myth was taken from the writings of Clement, Ambrose and Jerome – namely, that as Odysseus bound himself to the mast to avoid the sirens’ song, so we should bind ourselves to the wood of the cross to avoid destruction.

The visual language of the bestiaries wavered – although the classical description of the siren as bird-like is where the bestiaries began, around the seventh or eighth century descriptions of them having a fish tail also enter the texts. So the question of what sirens look like is already up for grabs – which is not surprising, since it’s not what they look like that matters. The two accounts live side by side in the written descriptions, but in the pictures, the fish-siren becomes more prominent – it’s quite common to find texts talking about bird-sirens illustrated with pictures of fish-sirens, for example. The symbolism of the items that sirens appeared with also spoke to temptations beyond sex. They were often depicted with mirrors, representing the sin of vanity and the temptation of luxuria. However, the physicality of the siren made the problem of text and image run into each other. The siren’s monstrous nature gave the medieval artist the opportunity to draw female breasts in an acceptable context, which totally undermines the idea that we should be trying to avoid the snares of eroticism. There are various ways to get around this (strategically placed harps, for instance), but the conflict between moral and illustration remains.

As the language of the siren develops, Hassig sees a parallel drawn between sirens and prostitutes. This originates from the description of Isidore of Seville, who called them meretrices in his Etymologies. We now argue about how to translate this word when it appears in (for instance) the comedies of Plautus, but in the medieval period, this is enough for justify depicting sirens in similar clothes to prostitutes in other illustrations. Because of the religious aspect of the bestiaries, this depiction taps into a discourse about prostitution that mixes misogyny and compassion – on the one hand, women’s sexuality is the massive temptation, but on the other, women can’t be expected to control this ingrained promiscuity. The model of Mary Magdalene means that there’s always the potential for a prostitute to be spectacularly redeemed and thus become a recruiting tool for the faith.

While I can’t find out a great deal about the Naked Truth Project, they do seem to have an explicitly Christian starting point. However, in their representation of the sirens, they’ve lost this medieval ambiguity towards sex workers – there’s no sense that the sirens are redeemable. They are embedded in a detritus of sexual temptation – “a parable of dangerous enticements leading to bad decisions, broken relationships, shipwrecked lives”. I’d say that represents a difference in how prostitution and pornography is viewed – the shift away from an individual who can be described in the Magdalene narrative and the depersonalisation of ‘pornography’, which doesn’t account for any of the mechanics, economics or power structures behind it and its production, or the men who are involved in creating the content as well as the women who may appear in it.  It’s the result of a cultural depersonalisation, made easy by the virtual nature of the content that’s discussed as the ‘temptation’ – don’t worry about actual ‘people’, think about setting up blocks on your internet browser instead. The monster thus becomes controllable – which is part of what the video is trying to tell its target audience.

The final thing I want to point out is that the video draws a rather strange equivalence between two kinds of temptation which points to a broader cultural point about the sirens that I want to think more about. The draw of the sirens in classical myth is their song. It is what they sound like, not how they look – they appeal to the pleasure of the ears, not the eyes. Being literal about it, using advice from avoiding sirens doesn’t work because porn is fundamentally visual in nature, not aural. (Pauses for obligatory smutty pun on aural/oral.) Avoiding hearing something requires different strategies to avoiding seeing something: a monster that seduces through its voice is different to a monster that seduces through its appearance. Yet this, too, indicates a shift in the use of the siren – namely, it speaks to the power of metaphor. The song of the siren has become more powerful than the siren herself; the metaphor means that the gulf between these two modes of temptation can be easily bridged, at least in this video’s rhetorical terms. Whether the bridge is strong enough to withstand some analytical stamping remains to be seen.

To wrap up – drawing on the sirens is an attempt to culturally legitimate the advice that the video offers. However, without apparently being aware of it, it also follows in the steps of a long tradition of Christian use of the sirens for moralising purposes. The underlying assumption that temptation is inherent in the woman, and the depersonalisation of porn as an independent unified monster rather than a diverse economic and cultural system of its own, mean that the video reinforces the structures that it actually wants to take apart. But this is the problem with adopting the position of the hero, rather than looking through the perspective of the monster – the attraction of the grand conquering narrative obliterates the other voices that have stories to tell.

 

 

Reference

Hassig, Debra. 1996. Medieval Bestiaries: Text, Image, Ideology. Cambridge.

4 Comments »

  1. Let’s leave aside the strong implication that, if you are feeling tempted by porn, what you should do is get your mates round and have them tie you up … (Did they think this through? They didn’t think this through, did they?)

    A more serious question is, what did Homer think Sirens looked like? He doesn’t, I think, describe them. By the beginning of the fifth century, they are conceived of by the Siren Painter as birds with women’s heads, but is it safe to assume that this conception is shared by Homer? If they do look ‘monstrous’ in that fashion, why doesn’t he say so? Only a few lines after the first mention of the Sirens he does describe Scylla. Of course, part of why he doesn’t describe the Sirens is, as you say, that it’s not what they look like that matters, but what they sound like. Nevertheless, I think it’s worth asking what Homer’s audience would have imagined the Sirens to look like without any visual cues (Apollonius Rhodius, I note, does describe them), and worth questioning the assumption that the mental image would be in line with later characterizations.

    (As an aside, the fish-siren has so effectively overwritten the bird-siren in the public consciousness that I once saw a distinguished professor wondering why a modern image was depicting the Sirens as bird-women, forgetting that there were Classical precedents.)

    Comment by tonykeen46 — October 28, 2016 @ 3:50 pm | Reply

    • I think it’s safe to say that no, they didn’t think that particular bit through – thank you for putting it so elegantly! I wanted to mention that somewhere but couldn’t quite think where to say it…

      On the more serious topic – yes, the lack of visuals is very striking in the case of the sirens – it really allows them to be a blank slate for the audience’s imaginations.

      On the dominance of the fish-siren, I think I’m starting to notice a bit of a swing back towards the more ‘authentic’ bird-sirens… I’ve heard or read something (can’t find details right now) about the representation of sirens in children’s picture books, and what’s at stake in those choices. There does seem to be a bit of a trend of going back to ‘authentic’ depictions – and I do have to say I wonder how much one blames Wikipedia for this sort of thing.

      Comment by lizgloyn — October 28, 2016 @ 4:18 pm | Reply

  2. Greetings,

    With great effort and confusion I once read Bacon’s Wisdom of the Ancients. The only gem I found in all that hard mining was that Orpheus sang not only louder and more sweetly, but that he was singing hymns to the gods.

    Bill

    Comment by williammoulton2 — October 29, 2016 @ 8:40 pm | Reply

  3. ‘Pursue the better song’. I wandered here in a (fortuitous) break from marking some commentaries on the Pygmalion narrative in Met. 10. A sculptor who despises the vices of women creates his own perfect woman – a story of manufacturing woman as erotic object told sung by a misogynistic Orpheus. I doubt the Naked Truth Project had the Ovidian Orpheus in mind but his better song has imagery with closer parallels to porn than either Siren episode!

    As you say, Odysseus didn’t avoid the song. What has also struck me in the past about the episode besides that demarcation between Odysseus and ‘the crew’ is the way he passes it off as Circe’s instruction as well. Her conditional ‘if you want to listen to them then…’ (Od. 12.49) becomes his ‘Circe told me to do it (and just me)’ to the crew (Od. 12.160). So (and pretending for a moment you haven’t dismantled the various conflations, generalisations and assumptions of their Naked Truth!) their role-model for porn avoidance is a man who in fact does the opposite and blames it on a woman.

    Comment by timkenny44 — November 7, 2016 @ 6:16 pm | Reply


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