sontag: the pornographic imagination/ the failure of modern capitalist society

“Bataille’s works, better than any other I know of, indicate the aesthetic possibilities of pornography as an art form: Histore de l’Oeil being the most accomplished artistically of all the pornographic prose fictions I’ve read.” …..

story-of-the-eye

Human sexuality is, quite apart from Christian repressions, a highly questionable phenomena, and belongs, at least potentially, among the extreme rather than ordinary experiences of humanity.  Tamed as it may be, sexuality remains one of the demonic forces in human consciousness –pushing us at intervals close to taboo and dangerous desires, which range from the impulse to commit sudden arbitrary violence upon another person to the voluptuous yearning for extinction of one’s consciousness, for death itself.  Even on the level of simple physical sensation and mood, making love surely resembles having an epileptic fit at least as much, if not more, than it does eating a meal or conversing with someone.  Everyone has felt (at least in fantasy) the erotic glamor of physical cruelty and erotic lure in things that are vile and repulsive. These phenomena form a part of the genuine spectrum of sexuality, and if they are not to be written off as mere neurotic aberrations , the picture looks different from the one promoted by enlightened public opinion, and less simple.

One could plausibly argue that it is for quite sound reasons that the while capacity for sexual ecstasy is inaccessible to most people – given that sexuality is something, like nuclear energy, which may prove amenable to domestication through scruple, but then again may not. That few people regularly, or perhaps ever, experience their sexual capacities at this unsettling pitch doesn’t mean that the extreme is not authentic, or that the possibility of it doesn’t haunt them anyway. (Religion is probably, after sex, the second oldest resource which human beings have available to themselves for blowing their minds. Yet among the multitude of the pious, the number who have ventured very far into that state of consciousness must be fairly small,too) There is, demonstrably, something incorrectly designed and potentially disorientating in the human sexual capacity – at least in the capacities of man-in-civilization.  Man, the sick animal, bears within him an appetite which can drive him mad.  Such is the understanding of sexuality – as something beyond good and evil, beyond love, beyond sanity; as a resource for ordeal and for breaking through the limits of consciousness – that informs the French literary canon I’ve been discussing.

The Story of O, with its project for completely transcending personality, entirely presumes this dark and complex vision of sexuality so far removed from the hopeful view sponsored American Freudianism and liberal culture. The woman who is given no other name than O progresses simultaneously towards her own extinction as a human being and her fulfillment as a sexual being. It’s hard to imagine how anyone would ascertain whether there exists truly, empirically, anything in “nature” or human consciousness that supports such a split.  But it seems understandable that the possibility has always haunted man, as accustomed as he is to decrying such a split.  .  .

Perhaps the deepest spiritual resonance of the career of pornography in its “modern” Western phase under consideration here is this vast frustration of human passion and seriousness since the old religious imagination, with its secure monopoly on the total imagination, began in the late eighteenth century to crumble. The ludicrousness and lack of skill of most pornographic writing, films, and painting is obvious to everyone who has ever been exposed to them.  What is less often remarked about the typical products of the pornographic imagination is their pathos.  Most pornography – the books discussed here cannot be excepted – points to something more general than even sexual damage. I mean the traumatic failure of modern capitalist society to provide authentic outlets for the perennial human flair for high-temperature visionary obsessions, to satisfy the appetite for exalted self-transcending modes of concentration and seriousness..  The need of human beings to transcend “the personal” is no less profound than to be a person, an individual.  But this society serves that need poorly.  It provides mainly demonic vocabularies in which to situate that need and from which to initiate action and construct rites of behavior.  One is offered a choice among vocabularies of thought and action which are not merely self-transcending but self-destructive. .  .