I am a documentary film director. Subjects of my films have included love, sex, 9/11, indigenous fisheries, hurricanes, refugees, HIV/AIDS orphans, and visualization of God. I am best known for the Real People, Real Life, Real Sex series of documentaries that simultaneously explore the vital role of sexual pleasure in committed relationships and the problematic place of explicit sexuality in cinema. This is my "Safe" blog.

Obscenity, Fighting Words, and King Canute on the Seashore

Posted: June 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Last week I saw that Youtube video, the one with the congressman and the college students; and since then I’ve been ruminating on camera size, freedom of the press, the limits of morality, the limits of law, terms of service, algorithms, and other stuff.

The more I think, the more the idea expands; and the more it expands, the more I read; and the more I read, the more I think. Even trying to frame up the following fable threatens to spin out of control. So I’ll say simply this:

I came to the story of King Canute by the Seashore late in life, somewhere in my late 20s, and it was told to me by my wife Peggy. I don’t remember the circumstances, but it was well before I became Tony Comstock, and before I started making the movies that brought me in such close contact with the thin edge of law, morality, commerce, community, and all the rest.

I’m recounting the story here because if Tom Atzet’s interpretation of Climax Ecology helps me understand the actions of non-state actors in relation to sexuality in art, the story of King Canute at the Seashore helps me understand the state actors. Any more than that and we’ll be here another 20,000 words:

King Canute on the Seashore

Long ago, England was ruled by a king named Canute. Like many leaders and men of power, Canute was surrounded by people who were always praising him. Every time he walked into a room, the flattery began.

“You are the greatest man that ever lived,” one would say.

“O king, there can never be another as mighty as you,” another would insist.

“Your highness, there is nothing you cannot do,” someone would smile.

“Great Canute, you are the monarch of all,” another would sing. “Nothing in this world dares to disobey you.”

The king was a man of sense, and he grew tired of hearing such foolish speeches.

One day he was walking by the seashore, and his officers and courtiers were with him, praising him as usual. Canute decided to teach them a lesson.

“So you say I am the greatest man in the world?” he asked them.

“O king,” they cried, “there never has been anyone as mighty as you, and there never be anyone so great, ever again!”

“And you say all things obey me?” Canute asked.

“Absolutely!” they said. “The world bows before you, and gives you honor.”

“I see,” the king answered. “In that case, bring me my chair, and we will go down to the water.”

“At once, your majesty!” They scrambled to carry his royal chair over the sands.

“Bring it closer to the sea,” Canute called. “Put it right here, right at the water’s edge.” He sat down and surveyed the ocean before him. “I notice the tide is coming in. Do you think it will stop if I give the command?”

His officers were puzzled, but they did not dare say no. “Give the order, O great king, and it will obey,” one of then assured him.

“Very well. Sea,” cried Canute, “I command you to come no further! Waves, stop your rolling!. Surf, stop your pounding! Do not dare touch my feet!”

He waited a moment, quietly, and a tiny wave rushed up the sand and lapped at his feet.

“How dare you!” Canute shouted. “Ocean, turn back now! I have ordered you to retreat before me, and now you must obey! Go back!”

And in answer another wave swept forward and curled around the king’s feet. The tide came in, just as it always did. The water rose higher and higher. It came up around the king’s chair, and wet not only his feet, but also his robe. His officers stood before him, alarmed, and wondering whether he was not mad.

“Well, my friends,” Canute said, “it seems I do not have quite so much power as you would have me believe. Perhaps you have learned something today. Perhaps now you will remember there is only one King who is all-powerful, and it is he who rules the sea, and holds the ocean in the hollow of his hand. I suggest you reserve your praises for him.”

The royal officers and courtiers hung their heads and looked foolish. And some say Canute took off his crown soon afterward, and never wore it again.

One Comment on “Obscenity, Fighting Words, and King Canute on the Seashore”

  1. 1 Obscenity, Fighting Words, and the story of King Canute on the Seashore. | The Art & Business of Making Erotic Films said at 11:42 am on June 19th, 2010:

    […] join me at The Kōan of Silence for Obscenity, Fighting Words, and the story of King Canute on the Seashore. Share and […]

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