The Pornographic Imagination  

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"Human sexuality is, quite apart from Christian repressions, a highly questionable phenomenon, and belongs, at least potentially, among the extreme rather than the 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 the extinction of one's consciousness, for death itself."


"Not only do Pierre Louys' Trois filles de leur mère, George Bataille's Histoire de l'Oeil and Madame Edwarda, the pseudonymous Story of O and The Image belong to literature, but it can be made clear why these books, all five of them, occupy a much higher rank as literature than Candy or Oscar Wilde's Teleny or the Earl of Rochester's Sodom or Appolinaire's The Debauched Hospodar or Cleland's Fanny Hill."


"Everyone has felt (at least in fantasy) the erotic glamour of physical cruelty and erotic lure in things that are vile and repulsive."


"In fact, the same fundamental approach to the subject is shared by recent eloquent defenders of society’s right and obligation to censor dirty books, like George P. Elliott and George Steiner, and those like Paul Goodman, who foresee pernicious consequences of a policy of censorship far worse than any harm done by the books themselves."


"A definition of literature that faults a work for being rooted in "fantasy" rather than in the realistic rendering of how lifelike persons in familiar situations live with each other couldn't even handle such venerable conventions as the pastoral, which depicts relations between people that could scarcely be more reductive, vapid or unconvincing." --"The Pornographic Imagination"

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Pornographic Imagination (1967) is a nobrow essay by Susan Sontag first published in the Partisan Review of spring 1967. It was collected in Styles of Radical Will.

The subject is erotic literature and Sontag contends that five French literary works are not 'just' pornography but literary fiction and thus genuine literature.

Her 'case' is based on these five novels:

Although the term paraliterature had not been coined at the time of its writing (we have to wait 17 years for Fredric Jameson to do that), the connection between science fiction and erotic fiction makes this essay one of the first defenses of the nobrow or paraliterary category.

Bataille understood more clearly than any other writer

One reason that Histoire de l'oeil and Madame Edwarda make such a strong and unsettling impression is that Bataille understood more clearly than any other writer I know of that what pornography is really about, ultimately, isn't sex but death. I am not suggesting that every pornographic work speaks, either overtly or covertly, of death. Only works dealing with that specific and sharpest inflection of the themes of lust, "the obscene," do. It's toward the gratifications of death, succeeding and surpassing those of eros, that every truly obscene quest tends. -- p. 60, Picador USA

Notes

  • "Another argument, made by Adorno among others, is that works of pornography lack the beginning-middle-and-end form characteristic of literature. A piece of pornographic fiction concocts no better than a crude excuse for a beginning; and once having begun, it goes on and on and ends nowhere." --where did Adorno say this?

References




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Pornographic Imagination" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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