That’s Men: Joyce, Mozart and other eminent sexters

Erotic letters have long been popular. New technology just means they arrive faster

Furtive: the appeal of ‘sexting’ may have to do with its secretive nature and the human capacity to get a physical kick from language. Photograph: Thinkstock

Furtive: the appeal of ‘sexting’ may have to do with its secretive nature and the human capacity to get a physical kick from language. Photograph: Thinkstock

Tue, Jul 22, 2014, 01:00

Listening to Jim Norton’s wonderful reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses on CD the other day, it struck me that the only new thing about the current practice of “sexting” is the technology employed.

Shortly after we are introduced to Leopold Bloom, he is strolling along to the post office on Westland Row to see if anything has arrived for him. Indeed, something has: a letter from a woman called Martha, sent to him under the pseudonym Henry Flower, Esq.

Martha warns him that if he does not write her a long letter she will punish him. “So now you know what I will do to you, you naughty boy, if you do not write,” she says in the course of the letter. As a postscript she asks: “Do tell me what kind of perfume does your wife use. I want to know.”

Pretty mild stuff, you might say. If you want something hot and heavy, try Joyce’s letters to Nora Barnacle. If texting had been around in Joyce’s day the phone would have melted.

Not long after Leopold Bloom’s stroll through Dublin, Warren Harding, who tends to score pretty consistently as one of the worst US presidents ever, was writing to his mistress Carrie Fulton Phillips about her “thrilling lips”, “matchless breasts” and so on.

“I love your poise

Of perfect thighs

When they hold me

in paradise . . .” he wrote in a poem in 1912.

Ms Fulton Phillips seems to have been rather unconventional. She went cold on Harding because, she told him from Berlin, she wanted to go with other men. She was also a strong supporter of Germany in the first World War and that worried Harding, who knew that the Bureau of Investigation (later renamed FBI) was snooping around her. Ultimately, when he was preparing a run for president, she extracted money for her silence.

Again, we can only wonder what Harding would have written had he had access to a smartphone. From the tone of the letters there is no doubt that a considerable number of texts would have been making their fevered way to his lover.

He was particularly given to recalling New Year’s Eve in Montreal in 1911 when the two of them made love as the bells rang in the New Year. This stayed with him as a high point of their carry on. Can you imagine the flurry of instant messages the succeeding New Year’s Eves would have generated?

If you go back even further to Mozart’s letters to his female cousin, you find the great genius writing the most scatological stuff to her. It’s not the sort of thing that most people find erotic but Mozart seems to have been quite excited by it. All I can say about the contents is that if you track down the letters on the internet, the movements will never be the same again.

I expect that if you went back to the beginning of writing, you would find erotic correspondences, which suggests that sexting might just be a new way of engaging in a very old but always secretive human behaviour.

What’s behind it? Perhaps it’s our human capacity to get a physical kick from language. Added to that may be the furtive aspect of the activity. There’s Leopold Bloom with his pseudonym, going well out of his way to a post office on Westland Row to collect his letter from Martha; his frustration at being accosted on the pavement by M’Coy talking nonsense when he wants to sneak off and read the letter; then walking to Cumberland Street where he finally gets to read it after assuring himself that there is “not a sinner” nearby.

The difference between then and now, I suppose, is that now the ability to send and receive these furtive messages is in everybody’s hands. Technology has brought to the masses a behaviour which probably causes shame and excitement in equal measure.

But there is little new in the behaviour itself. Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness on the Go. His mindfulness newsletter is free by email: pomorain@yahoo.com