On Pornography

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Sexual fantasy is as old as civilization (as opposed to as old as the race), and one of its outward and visible signs is pornographic literature, an entirely middle-class phenomenon, since we are assured by many investigators (Kinsey, Pomeroy, et al.) that the lower orders seldom rely upon sexual fantasy for extra-stimulus. As soon as possible, the uneducated man goes for the real thing. Consequently he seldom masturbates, but when he does he thinks, we are told, of nothing at all. This may be the last meaningful class distinction in the West.

Nevertheless, the sex-in-the-head middle classes that D.H. Lawrence so despised are not the way they are because they want deliberately to be cerebral and anti-life; rather they are innocent victims of necessity and tribal law. For economic reasons they must delay marriage as long as possible. For tribal reasons they are taught that sex outside marriage is wrong. Consequently the man whose first contact with a woman occurs when he is twenty will have spent the sexually most vigorous period of his life masturbating. Not unnaturally, in order to make that solitary act meaningful, the theater of his mind early becomes a Dionysian festival, and should he be a resourceful dramatist he may find actual lovemaking disappointing when he finally gets to it, as Bernard Shaw did. One wonders whether Shaw would have been a dramatist at all if he had first made love to a girl at fourteen, as nature intended, instead of at twenty-nine, as class required.

Gore Vidal
Pornography (1966)
United States: Essays 1952-1992

Photo by Frank KovalchekWhat’s been on man’s mind for a long time! Carnivale mask, Venice (2007)

Gender: No Limits

Photo by Jan Saudek: Women et Men

If identity becomes the problem of sexual existence, and if people think that they have to “uncover” their “own identity,” and that their own identity has to become the law, the principle, the code of their existence; if the perennial question they ask is “Does this thing conform to my identity?” then, I think, they will turn back to a kind of ethics very close to the old heterosexual virility. If we are asked to relate to the question of identity, it must be an identity to our unique selves. But the relationships we have to have with ourselves are not ones of identity, rather, they must be relationships of differentiation, of creation, of innovation. To be the same is really boring. We must not exclude identity if people find their pleasure through this identity, but we must not think of this identity as an ethical universal rule.

Michel Foucault
Sex, Power and the Politics of Identity (1984)

Photo by Jan Saudek: Women et Men

Related: Eros: No Limits

The Edge

Photo by Juliet van Otteren: Sand Embrace (1978)

Eros is an issue of boundaries. He exists because certain boundaries do. In the interval between reach and grasp, between glance and counterglance, between ‘I love you’ and ‘I love you too,’ the absent presence of desire comes alive. But the boundaries of time and glance and I love you are only aftershocks of the main, inevitable boundary that creates Eros: the boundary of flesh and self between you and me. And it is only, suddenly, at the moment when I would dissolve that boundary, I realize I never can.

Infants begin to see by noticing the edges of things. How do they know an edge is an edge? By passionately wanting it not to be. The experience of eros as lack alerts a person to the boundaries of himself, of other people, of things in general. It is the edge separating my tongue from the taste for which it longs that teaches me what an edge is. Like Sappho’s adjective glukupikron, the moment of desire is one that defies proper edge, being a compound of opposites forced together at pressure. Pleasure and pain at once register upon the lover, inasmuch as the desirability of the love object derives, in part, from its lack. To whom is it lacking? To the lover. If we follow the trajectory of eros we consistently find it tracing out this same route: it moves out from the lover toward the beloved, then ricochets back to the lover himself and the hole in him, unnoticed before. Who is the real subject of most love poems? Not the beloved. It is that hole.

Anne Carson
Eros: The Bittersweet (1986)

Photo by Juliet van Otteren: Sand Embrace (1978)

Smelling Is Desiring

Photo by Beata Wilczek

The nose is really a sexual organ. Smelling. Is. Desiring.

We have five senses, but only two that go beyond the boundaries of ourselves. When you look at someone, it’s just bouncing light, or when you hear them, it’s just sound waves, vibrating air, or touch is just nerve endings tingling…

Know what a smell is? It’s made of the molecules of what you’re smelling. Some part of you, where you meet the air, is airborne. Little molecules of you…Up my nose.

Mmmm…Nice, Try it. Inhale…

Sssshhhh…

Smelling. And tasting. First the nose, then the tongue. They work as a team, see. The nose tells the body – the heart, the mind, the fingers, the cock – what it wants, and then the tongue explores, finding out what’s edible, what isn’t, what’s most mineral, food for the blood, food for the bones, and therefore most delectable…

Salt…Mmm. Iron. Clay…Chlorine. Copper. Earth…

What does that taste like?…

It tastes like ”nighttime”?…

…Stay?

From Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America (1991)

Photo by Beata Wilczek

Damage Control

Screen shot: Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally (1989)

The difficulty with saying ‘no’ to someone to whom we have already said ‘yes’ is that he is bound to think there was something unsatisfactory about the first sexual encounter. Having already lost our immortal soul, something more than a simple ‘no’ is required in situations where we are badly compromised. We must conduct ourselves as if the world were a more spiritual place than it actually is. We must be painstakingly considerate of others – especially those whom we must disappoint.

When one accepts another date with a man (or a woman) who has every reason to believe that we are already conquered, one cannot feign surprise when he or she makes a move to wrap up the evening in physical congress. Once you have let down your guard and allowed strangers to cross your moat you are bound to find it a hassle to get them out of your castle. A second date with a conquering hero will undoubtedly be interpreted as a sequel to the first, perhaps even the beginning of a long-running serial in which one will be expected to ‘break a lance’ with the horny knight whenever he’s inclined to joust. Saying ‘no’ to a man bulging with expectations is never easy, but saying ‘no’ to a man who has cast us in the feature role of his X-rated dreams (note who gets to be writer and director) requires consummate tact to prevent a tactless consummation.

You cannot say or imply that the sexual encounter which you allowed to take place on an earlier occasion was a mistake, or a waste of time and that you don’t intend to go through the bother again. You must find an excuse for saying ‘no’ that does not cast even a thin shadow of derision upon his human frailties. You can plead temporary insanity (‘I don’t know what came over me, I can’t think what I was doing…’) or you can drag in your conscience to play one of its occasional roles (‘I realize that what we did was wrong, the fault is entirely mine – such an incident must not occur again’). You should be aware, however, in having to make these excuses, that you have passed from the stage of birth control to that of abortion, for in saying ‘yes’, even once, to a man, you have planted a seed in his mind that his actions are acceptable to you, perhaps even desired by you, and now you are frustrating those hopes. While bringing a man’s illusions to an end at an early stage is ultimately kinder than allowing them to grow into some monstrous misunderstanding, the responsibility for terminating his expectations is not to be shrugged off.

Quentin Crisp
Manners from Heaven (1985)

Screen capture: Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally (1989)

The Way Love Used to Be

Art by Frans Mensink: Modern Dating (2012)

INTERVIEWER: Hey Frank. In Robot & Frank you play a forgetful retired cat burglar whose kids hire him a home-help robot. Are you sceptical about tech?

FRANK LANGELLA: It’s generational. Younger people see it as another means to communicate and I just don’t agree. I think walking up to a pretty girl at a party and saying: “How are you? I’d like to take you for a cup of coffee,” is much more exciting than: “Hey, I saw you last night at the whatever. Text me.” Tech is giving people the opportunity to protect themselves from just saying: “Thank you very much but I don’t like your looks and I don’t want to go out with you.”

So it makes people less courageous?

Also more protective. Too many people sit in front of that [Langella taps my dictaphone. But he means computers.] and figure out what to do. Pornography is enormously popular on technological machines because people can just go into their own fantasy world.

Where do you see that taking humanity?

Not at all to a good place. It risks people having less and less of a sense of being vulnerable. And, when that happens, a certain amount of dignity goes and when dignity goes dishonourable behaviour begins. Because you just don’t think you’re worth it. Or you just don’t think you should bother. “What do I care about this person? I’m not looking into anybody’s eyes; I’m seeing little black dots on the screen.”

So it makes us less compassionate?

Absolutely. I really would much rather have a fight with you in person than do it on a computer screen. And I’d rather make love to a woman in reality than some game on a machine. I’d rather disagree, agree, laugh, cry in person. One of my relatives is 31 and she’s been living with a guy for a long time. I said: “Did you date?” and she looked at me like I was crazy. It doesn’t work that way any more.

Why is that terrible?

Because I cannot tell you the fun I had picking out a flower or a little sweet thing and writing a note and leaving it at a girl’s door. That private sense of: “You’re someone I would like to spend time with”, as opposed to I winnowed you out in a group of a lot of other people. There’s something about that makes you feel good. When a person decides. It’s nice when people call or you get an invitation to dinner, even if it’s nothing to do with romance.

Yet you’re so much in the minority…

No one wants to expose themselves any more; no one wants to risk rejection. You never did anyway. When I was your age it was terrifying to me if someone would say no to my advance. But I did it. I managed somehow. Nowadays there’s so many ways you can protect yourself from the direct question. “I’ll get drunk enough to take that person to bed and then the next day I’ll decide if we like each other.” That went on in my generation but there was still not so many tools to prevent intimacy. I’m an older guy now and I work with a lot of young actors and they all talk to me about their lives and so many of my young friends fall crazy for each other, go to bed and then within a couple of days they’re lying in bed and each is texting. God, when I was a young man when you got into bed you were there for years. Your relationship grew. You lusted for each other, you loved each other, you were interested in each other. In the morning you made each other breakfast, all the natural courtship things. There’s a new show in America called Girls which is all about: “Let’s get the business done. Then let’s go off and do something else.”

It’s a strange mix of pragmatism and emotional reticence.

So then you never really know. People talk to me all the time about the power of mind-altering drugs. I don’t take anything. I had a furious argument at dinner with friends of mine. I said put on the table what’s in your pockets. And they said: this helps me, that helps me, how dare you talk against it. I said: well, I know how I feel right now. I know I’m angry with you. How do you know what you feel about me? Because that pill is doing it. You keep on taking them you’re never going to really know who you are. “No, no, no, no, I need it I can’t get along without it.” That’s bullshit. Again, it’s fear.

But you’re being nice. Maybe it’s really about not having the balls.

Exactly. Not having the courage to be frightened. To be scared and lonely and dealing with it. I’ll just take something. Move in a pack of other people my age. And I’ll stay safe. In fact all it’s doing is stalling your humanity. Enabling you to use a machine and say: “Ah I’m protected here. She doesn’t really know who I am. I can hide behind this.” Much better to just leap into the void and see what happens. What’s so bad about a no?

Interview with Frank Langella by Catherine Shoard
The Guardian, 20 December 2012

Illustration by Frans Mensink: Modern Dating (2012)

Related: The End of Courtship?

happy birthday

Photo by Jan Saudek: Untitled 6 (1985)

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.

Anaïs Nin
The Diary of Anais Nin, Volume Three: 1939-1944

Photo by Jan Saudek: Untitled 6 (1985)

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