Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017...5:15 pm

On “On Pornography”

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[page 3] Fault lines / Brion Gysin ; Keith Haring. EC95.G9995.986f

Here at Harvard we recently concluded Sex Week, an annual week of events focused on issues of sex, sexual health, sexuality, gender, gender identity, relationships, and more. In my capacity as 75th Anniversary Fellow here at Houghton, I brought a Sex Week focus into my work with Houghton and examined the collection for materials related to the history of sexuality, from erotica and pornography in their many forms to academic and critical pieces on the topic. Sex is actually widely represented in the Houghton collection, and the materials I came across were a mix of the intellectually enticing and the bizarre. Looking through so much from so long ago, however, got me thinking about how different the experience of a 19th or early 20th century pornography consumer was from the way modern society perceives and uses pornography. As I was mulling over this, I came across a fascinating book review by none other than Gore Vidal. Titled “On Pornography,” it does much to analyze the way in which people interact with textual pornography in creative and collaborative ways, harnessing the imagination and weaving our own mental creations into the text to excite ourselves. That was, however, when I began to realize that this is not how most modern porn works anymore.

Vidal begins the essay by arguing that pornography is a tool created by the human species to escape its societal prisons. One of the reasons it exists, he argues, is because we marry late and eschew adultery or premarital sex. The result of these stringent mores is bleak. According to Vidal—who lived in and was writing about very different times than our own—husbands met wives after spending “ideally, the sexually most vigorous period of [their lives] masturbating.” But how, he ponders, would one continue “to make that solitary act meaningful”? To Vidal, the lag between puberty and sexual experience forces one to become a creator of sexual fantasy. He concludes that “the theater of his mind early becomes a Dionysian festival and should he be a resourceful dramatist he may find actual love-making disappointment when he finally gets to it, like Bernard Shaw.” Of course, not all of us have been gifted with Bernard Shaw’s artistic genius, but the point Vidal makes here is that we do have an artist’s spark within us, especially when it comes to our desire for sexual satisfaction. Left to ourselves, we will build fantastical narratives in our heads to compensate for the lack of real sexual experience; we become porn producers, creative masters in our own right.

Vidal’s “Dionysian festival” and the visions it conjures up also reflect the surreality of any attempt to transfer them to paper, a picture, or a screen. The arousal of pornography does not quite map onto that of real life—in fact, our creations are sometimes so good that we would, as Shaw, rather have them in place of reality. Vidal actually begins the essay with that idea, narrating the following post-orgasm dialogue: “Then she whispers, ‘I’ll tell you who I was thinking of if you’ll tell me who you were thinking of.’” To him, pornography cannot be divorced from our sexual lives, even after we are supposed to outgrow it.

Vidal, however, is interested in more than the psychology of sexual fantasy. The piece is, after all, a book review, and Vidal is fascinated by the way the written word can interact with our minds to create the “Dionysian festival.” In a passage about the generic attributes of written pornography, Vidal explains that “pornographers seldom particularize.” Written porn, in his opinion, is actually “so impersonal that one soon longs to read about those more modest yet entirely tangible archetypes, the girl and boy next door, two creatures far more apt to figure in the heated theater of the mind than the voluptuous grotesques of the pulp writer’s imagination.” This adds an interesting dimension to his argument: he posits, here, that we need a certain measure of reality in our sexual fantasies. Our mental creations, our “theaters of the mind,” however fantastical they might be, need to be connected to the outside world in such a way that we could relate to them—see them as possible, as realizable.

Vidal, in fact, concludes that section precisely with an amalgamation of fiction and reality. To him, “by abstracting character and by keeping his human creatures faceless and vague, the pornographer does force the reader to draw upon personal experience in order to fill in the details, thereby achieving one of the ends of all literary art, that of making the reader collaborator.” Written pornography simply enhances our original drive to create our own fantasies. It is a tool for the imagination, not a mere replacement for it. Under this light, pornography becomes an act of creation rather than the passive reception of a sexual stimulus.

plate VIII Fleurettens Purpurschnecke : erotische Lieder und Gedichte aus dem achtzehnten Jahrhundert / gesammelt und herausgegeben von Franciscus Amadeus ; mit Zeichnungen von Franz von Bayros. GC9.B6157.905f

The way I found “On Pornography” in the first place is because Houghton actually owns the original copies of all of the drafts of the piece. I went through each of them and was surprised to find that Vidal, in fact, deleted a passage from the first draft of the essay that argues precisely the opposite of what the excerpt above defends. In that passage, he actually claims that “The cliché must do the work of the imagination,” that “the cliché must do the essential work of description” (MS Am 2350 [589]). This actually strikes Vidal “as odd indeed. One would think that in pornography one would want to know exactly how things looked and precisely what was done.” Maybe, as he was rewriting the essay, he realized that the fact that “hardcore pornographers tend not to describe anything” allows for the mind to figure out for itself “how things looked and precisely what was done.” The cliché, in fact, does not to “the work of the imagination”: it leaves just enough to wonder for the imagination to fill in the gaps as it sees fit and create the best possible “Dionysian festival” for the producer-consumer.

The pornography Vidal describes—the pornography we read, or used to read, and even the still-picture pornography we look at—yields itself to, according to him, a level of engagement not uncharacteristic of one’s interaction with art. Art asks for our mental energy: it wants commitment and imagination from us. An exploration of pre- and early-twentieth century pornography validates that characterization to a large extent. Books such as Fleurettens Purpurschnecke (GC9.B6157.905f), an illustrated compendium of erotic songs and poems from the nineteenth century, is not only traceable back to a certain time and cultural tradition because of its language and physical appearance; it is also an exquisite example of Jugendstil, a true artistic endeavor as well as something meant to excite sexually. This did not disappear altogether by the end of the century. Fault Lines (EC95.G9995.986f), a 1986 pornographic illustrated book by Brion Gysin and Keith Haring, intersperses image and text that work together create an aesthetic experience while also enticing sexually. The conjunction of language and visual arts allows some room for the imagination of Vidal’s “reader collaborator.”

That creative, collaborative dynamic seems to have changed a lot in our age of free online video porn. Jon Ronson’s recently released Audible podcast The Butterly Effect explores many stories related to rise of the PornHub empire, and some of the testimonies he collects speak a lot to the way Vidal’s truths about pornography do not hold in this different medium. One porn star claims, referring to herself and her fellow workers, that “You’re a fantasy. You’re not a real person.” In another episode, a former porn addict claims that she never learned porn stars’ names because she could not perceive them as real people and continue to watch as much porn as she did.

As much as video porn still keeps to the impersonality that Vidal points to in written pornography, that impersonality becomes much more complicated to resolve when the reality of it is blatant. What we are looking at is, of course, definitely removed from our own personal reality, and it is defined to be so, but it is real nonetheless. In fact, it is much harder to imagine someone else’s head where the porn star’s is, much less to conjure up the voice and mannerisms of someone we know, when we are watching video porn. There is no conceived “girl and boy next door” anymore; the Vidalian cliche is given to us fully formed, concrete, with no room for an individual’s creative addenda from the “heated theater of the mind.” We go from producers to consumers.

This passivized consumption and the easy access to it—the Internet—mean that we are exposed to ready-made fantasies of which Shaw could not even conceive in his masturbatory hazes. He was disappointed by sex, and we are too. Young people today have less sex than their parents did, and, as The Butterfly Effect exposes, there are strong indications that the ubiquity of streaming, free online porn is to blame. Teenage pregnancy rates have gone down, and erectile disfunction rates have shot up 1,000% among men under 40 in the past 15 years because reality is just not as appealing to the brain as instantaneous, industrial online pornography is. Shaw was let down by reality because it came short of what his brain could produce, but we do not even have the artistic urge to excite ourselves with our own creations anymore. In turning to online porn, we forsook our imagination. Maybe a new longing for this lost sexual creativity explains the renewed rise of written porn—see Fifty Shades of Gray—of the past few years. We want the “Dionysian festival” back, and going back to the books—and the library—is a good place to start and you could do worse than starting with an exploration of Houghton’s current exhibition: Altered States: Sex, Drugs, and Transcendence in the Ludlow-Santo Domingo Library!

Post contributed by:

Arthur Schott Lopes ’19
Houghton Library 75th Anniversary Fellow
A.B. Candidate in History


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