Erotic Media Throughout History: James Joyce to Nora Barnacle

Erotic Media Throughout History james joyce

Joyce’s fondness for description and details leaves very little of these intimate moments to the imagination. His erotic letters to his wife Nora Barnacle were certainly never written for anyone else’s eyes. After their deaths, award-winning biographer Richard Ellmann published some of their correspondence. While the ethics of publishing personal letters is widely debated, there are few examples of such writings in history, which makes these invaluable.

Joyce’s Letters

Amidst words that could make anyone blush are sweet phrases of tenderness;

“I love your body, long for it, dream of it”

“A hundred thousand kisses, darling!

However, it is hardly the romance that makes these letters so notable. Instead, the boldness of the language sets them apart. Not only is it explicit and graphic, but the language itself is intriguing. Dated around 1909, the colloquial terms that Joyce uses to refer to various aspects of intimacy are now outdated. The term “frig,” for example, now stands in for a somewhat censored expletive but once meant ‘to masturbate’ or finger. It wasn’t just foreplay that got a vocabulary update.

Joyce writes “I was the first man that blocked you,” and to a modern reader, it suggests a falling out on social media. What it meant though, was sex and that he was her first partner in bed. It is interesting to see how language regarding sex has shifted over time.

Not everything has changed with time, though. Joyce opens up about the effect of all this erotic correspondence had:

I have done so much and so often that I am afraid to look to see how that thing I had is after all I have done to myself,” which is a sentiment many lustful men have felt.

The Replies

While Nora’s replies to these letters have never been published, it’s clear that her thirst for passion matched her husband’s. Joyce reflects “Tired of lying under a man one night you tore off your chemise violently and began to ride me up and down.”

While there are plenty of private messages I would rather not have resurface, there is a certain comforting relatability to these old letters. Throughout time, people have shared their most intimate thoughts through whatever medium was available to them. Their “wild filth and obscenity” is an integral part of human sexuality. Though I must admit, I much prefer the convenience of an instant message to the days, weeks or months between letters. 

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