Commentary Magazine

An End to Pornography?

The image of humankind which pornography presents to its readers is that of a sad, ape-like creature trapped forever behind the bars of its own being, fenced in immutably by its own body. Reading such works it is as if one again and again sees the ape stretching out toward the infinity of sensation and power which it believes must lie just beyond its reach. But it can never grasp what it seeks, it is held back and frustrated at every attempt. For there is an economy to the structure of the body which even in fantasy the ape cannot overcome: the body has only so many limbs, members, orifices, only one sex, one skin, there are only so many positions it is able to adopt. So, desperately, still reaching out, the ape imagines more bodies, and yet more, a whole crowd of them, a school, a brothel, an inferno; it imagines everyone in the inferno to be tireless and immortal, able to survive the most extravagant floggings and agile enough to take part in the most complicated debaucheries, always ready to thrust or be rent again, always ready—one can say—to come again. But all of them together can do no more to each other than what the first imagined solitary figure (himself), or couple, or trio had been able to do; and so the same limbs, members, orifices, and postures recur inevitably, displaying in permutation their aboriginal poverty and paucity.

“This is the monstruosity in love, Lady,” says Shakespeare's Troilus to his Cressida, “that the will is infinite, and the execution confin'd; that the desire is boundless, and the act a slave to limit.” Like all lovers, Troilus is exaggerating a little. The desire desires to be boundless, altogether unfettered; but can never manage it. However, the real “monstruosity” of which Troilus speaks is the fact that the sad, ugly, brutish, enraged creature which I have tried to describe is not the body, but the mind, the will, the imagination, the consciousness, the soul, the “higher self.” It is enchained, imprisoned, prevented everywhere by the dumb, immovable body.

Which is exactly what centuries upon centuries of Christianity and Platonism have taught us to believe is the truth about the relationship between the soul and the body. But that lesson has not been taught to us so that we might admire the body and pity its simplicity and innocence. On the contrary. Nor are we ever supposed to find ape-like and ugly the yearning-consciousness of man, his soulful out-reachings. On the contrary, again: they are supposed to be his noblest feature, his redeeming power. Yet, in spite of the vastly different attitudes they appear to adopt toward the picture each is putting forward, the identity between the view of man propagated by the traditional morality and that presented by the underworld of pornography remains unmistakable. This seems bewildering and incomprehensible, until we realize that what the two views have in common, what really unites them, is a hatred of the body.

The traditional morality, of course, has never made a secret of its hatred of that “body of corruption” from which St. Paul begged to be delivered. But pornographers? Haven't they always claimed to be devil-may-care subverters of morality, connoisseurs of the pleasures of the flesh, relishers of the body's splendid, intricate gifts? Yes, these have always been their claims. But they are liars. Admittedly, they are liars who sometimes take themselves in; but that hardly makes them liars any the less—like sentimentalists who weep over their own spurious emotions, or politicians who believe for the moment the speeches they make. From pornographers the body can look for no tenderness, no appreciation, no respect, no real acknowledgement of its power, no ready submission to the fact that it is in our bodies we live and by them that we die. It is precisely the body's tenderness, changeability, and mortality that they hate, its power that they fear, precisely the fact that we can never step beyond it that makes them want to destroy it.

Of this the literature itself offers the most ample and decisive proof. Doubtless there are many reasons why a literature which is supposed to cater, first and last, to the body's pleasures is so largely given over to accounts of the infliction on it of every conceivable kind of pain and physical humiliation. But I am convinced that one of the most important of these reasons is an unconscious hatred of the body, a mental lust for revenge against it. Hence all those whippings, brandings, tearings, and disembowelments which figure so frequently among the descriptions of the varieties of intercourse, and which are often quite indistinguishable from it.


The sentimentalities of our period being what they are, it is just because pornography has until very recently been a persecuted genre, because its publication and distribution have been criminal activities, that people are inclined to imagine that it must contain essential information about our society which we are in dire need of, liberating insights which cannot be obtained elsewhere. In his new book, The Other Victorians,1 Professor Steven Marcus analyzes this view and exposes its error pretty decisively. Pornography has its functions, but the bringing of information has never been among them, nor the liberation of the self from unreality and unawareness. With regard to the claim that pornography must somehow express aspects of social history which would otherwise go unrecorded, Mr. Marcus points out that “observation is incidental rather than organic to pornography—its governing tendency is in fact toward the elimination of external or social reality.” As for the internal reality (so to speak) of pornographic fantasy:

Pornography is, after all, nothing more than the representation of the fantasies of infantile sexual life, as these fantasies are edited and organized in the masturbatory daydreams of adolescence.

Or again, in another context:

Inside of every pornographer there is an infant screaming for the breast from which he has been torn. Pornography represents an endless and infinitely repeated effort to recapture that breast, and the bliss it offered, as it often represents as well a revenge against the world—and the woman in it—in which such a cosmic injustice could occur.

The Other Victorians is subtitled “A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England”; it is in fact by far the best book on the subject of pornography as a whole that I have come across. As a piece of scholarship, Mr. Marcus's study is perhaps shorter on facts and longer on interpretations than it should be, its language is often unnecessarily clotted, and the author is inclined to regard some of his own formulations—“the ideas constitutive of the modern self,” for example—with a solemnity that one can find a little dismaying. But these are minor faults when put in balance against the book's humanity and intelligence, its originality of approach, and the scope of its achievement in making a complex critical and historical order out of material which might seem to lie utterly beyond the reach of the critic and the historian.

What Mr. Marcus has done is to analyze the nature of the ruling obsessions of a group of Victorian individuals whose work can be said to have transected the fantasy-world of pornography, rather than to have fallen totally within it; only toward the end of the book, in two fairly brief chapters, does he analyze directly a group of works which are purely pornographic in character. The longest and most strenuously argued section of the book is devoted to an analytic account of the eleven volumes of My Secret Life, by an unknown Victorian gentleman of enormous sexual appetite, who, at the end of his career, like some demented Certified Public Accountant striking a final balance, was able to say of himself that he had “probably fucked now . . . something like twelve hundred women,” among whom were “women of twenty-seven Empires, Kingdoms or Countries, and eighty or more different nationalities, including every one in Europe, except a Lapplander.”

Mr. Marcus treats this extraordinary document as being of value in two ways: firstly, he believes a great deal of it to be an absolutely authentic account of experience (and many of the quotations he gives do have the ring of truth; they sound true, one can say, even when they are describing the author's delusions); and secondly, and perhaps even more significantly, the book presents to us the attempt, by a man of great means, prodigious stamina, and demonic compulsions, actually to “live out” in the external world the essential pornographic fantasy, in all its insatiability and reiteration. “The monotony of the course I have pursued towards women,” says the writer of My Secret Life, in a confession of devastating frankness, sadness, and circularity, “has been as similar and repetitive as fucking itself.”

As a convinced Freudian, Mr. Marcus considers the widespread dissemination of pornographic literature which took place throughout the Victorian era to have been the direct result of the isolation and denial of sexual experience which the official, respectable culture insisted upon. Pornography he sees as a symptom of a pathological withdrawal from reality, an immersion in a fantasy “whose special preconditioning requirement is that it deny, delay, and stave off for as long as possible the recognition that it is a fantasy.” But his major, antithetical point is that the respectable culture of Victoria's England was also living in terms of a fantasy, which it too refused to recognize and wished to prolong indefinitely. The larger culture had its exact, inverted complement and counterpart in the subculture of the underworld writings about sex.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the argument continues, the contradictions between reality and official doctrine in sexual matters became intolerable, and at that point a “breakthrough” took place, most notably in the work of the avant-garde writers, and in psychology, as well as in social attitudes and practices. Unlike the pornographers, whose fantasies represent a form of profound, unwitting connivance with the official morality, the great creative artists of the modern movement were true revolutionaries; it could be said that they took into their fantasies as much of the reality of the external world as they were able to, the better to overcome it. Psychology, or psychoanalysis rather, Mr. Marcus describes as “the one mortal enemy of pornography.” Sexuality having become an admitted part of human nature, and a set of concepts being available in which to discuss it and through which to try to understand it, pornography is deprived of the darkness it flourished in, the fears, repressions, and denials it depended on for its function, its very meaning. It follows therefore that he is able to see as “inevitable” and “benign” the legal publication of pornography which has been taking place within the last few years. “It does not,” he writes, “indicate to me moral laxness, or fatigue, or deterioration on the part of society. It suggests rather that pornography has lost its old danger, its old power.”

By and large Mr. Marcus seems to me to make his case with great persuasiveness; and by the end of it we are in a better position to understand the scale of the social and psychological changes that are involved in, and symbolized by, the open sale today of pornographic works. In a way, one of the most striking things about this book is that it does in effect confirm what all the “reactionaries,” the moral policemen and Mother Grundys, said about the psychoanalytic movement, and about the books of writers as different from one another as Flaubert and Lawrence: “If you let in that kind of filth in the name of ‘science’ and ‘literature,’ then you'll never be able to draw the line, there'll be no end to it, you'll have to let in the sweepings of the gutter, too.” They were right; but in Mr. Marcus's view this does not make a mockery of the campaigns fought by Freud and the others. On the contrary: though they did not know it, policemen and pornographers alike had nothing to lose but the chains that bound them together, and that weighed with equal heaviness on them both.


So here we are, up-to-date—more or less, for in these matters developments are always unequal within society. One can't really hold it against The Other Victorians that events which have had so decisive an effect on our sexual attitudes as the feminist movement and the spread of contraception go unmentioned in it. The book deals with a particular cultural and literary problem; and for the most part does so within the context of a specific period in history. However, I do have reservations of two kinds about Mr. Marcus's account of his subject: the first being about the nature of the pornographic impulse itself, and the second about developments in our culture at large.

With regard to the first, I agree that the pornographic impulse or taint is of a special, distinctive sort, recognizable by its intensity, its narrowness, its repetitiveness, the constancy of its withdrawal from reality, and its hyperbolic movement toward a final, never-to-be-attained, all-in bang, the uttermost spasm of de-creation. Such a compulsion, such an ambition, can only be described in pathological terms. But when all has been said about the pathology which the compulsion is or expresses, I still cannot believe that the pornographic impulse (and hence our response to it) can have a “mortal enemy,” to quote again Mr. Marcus's phrase about psychology. For that implies that the impulse can be not merely alleviated by social change and intellectual advance, but can be abolished entirely. The fact that every one of us is a pornographer behind his own forehead is not what makes this seem so implausible, or is no more than a part of it. The major problem is that for the pornographic impulse to disappear, men will have to cease resenting the immense disparity between what they are capable of willing and desiring and what they are capable of doing. But how can they, under any conceivable dispensation, in any society?

In my first paragraph I said that pornography presents man to us in the image of a creature in a cage.2 The reader will, I hope, have seen how that image of imprisonment, and my comments on it, can be translated into the terms of Mr. Marcus's approach and reconciled with some of his insights. But I do feel impelled to insist at this stage that the prisoner's rage and despair at the immutability of his own condition are in some measure justified. It isn't only our culture that afflicts us. Even the most effective psychology imaginable could never entirely rid us of the grievances we are bound to have against our own nature. Pornographic writings show us what those grievances can make of us, can turn us into. Literature shows us what we can make of our grievances.

As for the developments in the culture in general, it may well be true that in today's changed circumstances, pornography is losing or has lost much of its old danger. But I can't help wondering if it hasn't attached itself to dangers of quite a new kind, which Mr. Marcus does not mention. I am not thinking here merely of the fact that pornography which is legally published is bound to reach many more people than illegal pornography, and will have some kind of an effect on them: an effect which is as unlikely to be “benign,” after all, as that of all the other vulgar, sentimental, and brutal trash which is constantly being flung at us from so many sources and through so many media. The real trouble, as I see it, is that most of the other trash I have just mentioned is itself sodden with a false, lying, completely obsessive sexuality. So far from our society stumbling at last into an open recognition of its sexual needs, and hence into a condition of relative health or maturity, it could be argued from the evidence of our public communications that we seem to be living in a kind of babbling, neurotic, sexual trance, a state of unreality quite as profound as that out of which the pornographers spoke or in which the Victorian guardians of the morals went about their duties. But the present state is perhaps all the more menacing because it has the full sanction of the official culture—is in a sense the official culture—and apparently now has the power to make use of practically anything: not just the ordinary delusions and fantasies we recognize it by, but those of pornography also, as well as the work of a host of writers with literary pretensions who have a reputation for sexual explicitness, the achievements of Freud, and the literature of the great masters of the modern movement. And, if it comes to that, a book like The Other Victorians, too.

Let me give a single, small example of what I mean. At the time of the trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover in London a few years ago, I saw one day a report in the Evening Standard of the latest proceedings in court. The report filled the top half of the page, with solemn arguments by counsel and distinguished literary witnesses as to what constituted obscenity, etc. etc. The bottom half of the page was taken up by an advertisement for a “naval comedy” of some kind. Apart from the names of the movie and the actors in it, the advertisement consisted of little more than a drawing of three diminutive sailors carrying, just below the level of the waist, one end of an enormous torpedo. On the other end of the torpedo there sat a girl in a bikini, her legs astride the rounded tip of the object, and an ecstatic grin on her face. (For the people who designed that advertisement were Freudians of a kind, too.)

Well, Lady Chatterley's Lover was acquitted, as we all know, of the charge of being lewd and corrupting; a charge never brought against the designers of that advertisement. Penguin Books, the defendants in the case, sold something like three million copies of their edition in Britain and the Commonwealth, I believe. But can one really hope that the truth and the tenderness which the book does contain, for all its faults and self-contradictions, have prevailed against the culture represented by that advertisement? Is it unreasonably pessimistic to suspect that the book merely swelled the volume of the babble, added its share to the hysteria on the subject of sex which is being so sedulously fostered on every side: in the book trade, the movies, on television, in advertising, in the theaters and the pop-music business, in the mass magazines, and most of the minority ones as well?


Obviously, one must have faith not only in the survival of superior work, but in its ability to exert its own kind of power, to get through all the distorting barrages which are thrown in its way. But in view of what is constantly going on all around us, it hardly seems alarmist to suggest that sexuality, or the exploitation of sexuality, has become something more than an industry: it could be called an omnipresent soporific and distraction, a new opium for the people. If that is so, one can suspect that the new degree of candor which has suddenly been permitted in public may have no more effect than simply to make yet more potent the tranquilizing drug we all love to take.

To say this is not to suggest that somewhere on Madison Avenue or Wall Street there is a group of sinister, ascetic manipulators who are able to assess exactly how profits will be increased, or revolutionary discontents diminished, by the spectacle of yet more girls in even tinier bikinis; and who take their decisions accordingly. But it is very much to the point that some of the most telling passages in Mr. Marcus's book are about the immense complexity of the hidden, mutually-reinforcing connections in Victorian society between the operations of the economic system, the nature of the English social structure, and the prevailing sexual doctrines and practices. I should add that at one point in the book Mr. Marcus does very briefly indicate misgivings, related perhaps to those I have in mind, about aspects of the freedom we enjoy; he remarks on the way in which the sexual revolution we are living through appears to have been sundered from the “socially radical” impulses that might have been expected to accompany it. But he warns us that it would be far too simple to suggest that one revolution has taken place because another has not.

Anyway, the job of looking the gift-horse of our new liberty in the mouth seems to me an essential one. Perhaps speculations of the kind I have just indulged in are not the way to do it; at least, such speculations are likely to be more useful if they arise out of particular judgments, honestly made, on the various kinds of article we are now allowed to buy and recommend to others. In his classic essay, “Pornography and Obscenity,” D. H. Lawrence drew the distinction between what he called the “mob self” and the “individual self” which lives within each of us; when we are confronted by any new work, he suggested, we should ask ourselves from which of the two selves we are responding. Almost forty years have passed since Lawrence wrote his essay, and though social and literary conditions have changed greatly since then, the task he set us has become no easier; the pressure of the mobs, and of the mob-selves within us, are certainly no less powerful than they were. Lawrence directed his remarks against the kind of mob he was most threatened by; today, though the mob of pure souls he was attacking still exists, still has great power, and still is as rabid as ever in defending itself, we must acknowledge that there is also an advanced mob, a modish mob, a huge, amorphous mob of free spirits, whose bay or bray can be heard all too clearly through the pages of our intellectual and literary journals as well as in a host of other places. It is just as necessary to resist that mob as any other. The gaps between our lives and our opinions will seem as grotesquely improbable to our successors as those of the Victorians seem to us.


1 Basic Books, 292 pp., 15.95.

2 It is curiously appropriate that the archetypical pornographer, the Marquis de Sade, should have written his works while actually incarcerated in a prison.

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