Fifty Shades of Red

Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.
Loveliness extreme.
Extra gaiters.
Loveliness extreme.
Sweetest ice-cream.
(from ‘Sacred Emily‘ by Gertrude Stein)

Besides collecting art, Gertrude Stein wrote experimental poetry. Weary of linear patterns, her poems are meditations to be experienced rather than understood.Her most famous citation, “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” – note the initial added “A” – is not a misquote. It is the sentence Stein made up herself, a tweak on her own poem. If things are what they are, Stein says, only naming them makes them real, both visually and emotionally.
Stein’s quote is often contrasted with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet‘s “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.
Names, Juliet argues, do not affect their true identity.
Juliet was of course blinded – or illuminated? – by love and in vain she wishes, “… Romeo, were he not Romeo called, …”

What, indeed, is in a name?

Romeo, true lover, agrees .
“Call me but love,” he says, “….
Henceforth I never will be Romeo.”
Ah, the intricacies of love. Sweet and new, bathed in the smell of roses. Most precious sentiment, most sought after emotion. Praised and lamented. Forever celebrated.
When Saint Valentine of Rome, imprisoned after performing weddings for persecuted Christian soldiers awaited his execution he wrote a farewell letter to the daughter of his jailor, signing it, “Your Valentine”. Little did he know a tradition was born.
Valentine’s popularity received a boost thanks to Chaucer, father of English literature who expanded the legend of St. Valentine, associating him with the idea of romantic love.

“For this was in Saint Valentine’s Day,
When every fowl comes there his mate to take,”
(from “Parlement of Foules” by Chaucer)

Chaucer’s ideas of romantic love could however not have taken root had it not been for Eleanor of Aquitaine, who besides being first Queen of France, then Queen of England, cultivated and established, at her court, the customs and rituals of chivalry. High ideals of honour, courtesy, bravery and knighthood that found their way into the hearts of lovers. So in come the troubadours and minstrels, the courtly romances, allegories and poems, courtesy books and, should we wish to believe, courts of love.

Exchanges of confectionery, gifts of flowers, the dedication of a poem. Red, the favorite color of the occasion. Red is the color of passion, of danger, of joy, of suffering, of celebration and ceremony. A red carpet, a red traffic sign. Red is ardor. Red is lust. Red is immediate. Tout de suite. Red is hot. Red is now.
But not this year. This year red has been superseded and grey is the new red. All fifty shades of it.
The release of the ‘erotic romantic drama’, based on E. L. James’ bestselling first installment of the Fifty Shades trilogy coincides – not incidentally – with Valentine celebrations. James’ book, conceived as Twilight fan fiction, has broken all records. Dubbed “mommy porn”, and despite its success, Fifty Shades of Grey has received broad criticism. BDSM (Bondage Discipline Sadism Masochism) circles are unhappy about the depiction of their favorite fetish, equating being submissive with being victimized. Others regret the glorification of BDSM. And the literati are still digesting Mrs. James clunky, dated and depressingly humorless poor writing style. Erotica, but not Mrs. Chatterley’s Lover. Not Tropic of Cancer. No Lolita, Nana or Belle de Jour. Instead Mrs. James gives us salsa moves, tampon exchanges, baby oil, penis popsicles and silver balls.
Agent provocateur? Spark plug? Innocent fun?

“Do anything but let it produce joy. Do anything but let it yield ecstasy.”

Henry Miller’s words. Not a man associated with candlelight and chocolates. Still, there he is, “smouldering with passion” for Anaïs Nin, the same Anaïs for whom “The secret of joy is the mastery of pain”.
But Anaïs Nin is not E. L. James is not Ana Steele. Nor is Henry a Christian Grey.
Words, names and colors may vary. Hot red. Foggy grey. Joy and pain. The pleasures of love remain. Today and on Valentine’s Day. At the cinema or by candlelight. Gifts of flowers, of sweets, of diamonds, of whips or spanking paddles. Whatever, wherever … a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.