Positivism or Pornography: The Two Extremes of Textual Sex in Literature.

Back in 2011, Jonathan Beckman, senior editor of the Literary Review, wrote an article explaining how writing qualifies for nomination at the Bad Sex Awards.  He gave this description of what good sex writing should look like:

Good sex writing, by contrast, is clear, precise and unillusioned in both senses: it refuses to take part in a diversionary pantomime of imagery; and it knows that sex is rooted in the physical. It is generally unobtrusive and undemonstrative. For this reason it makes no sense, as our critics have often argued, to institute a good sex prize, any more than it would to reward the best scene involving a kitchen garden or the most skilful use of semicolons.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to this particular paragraph. I can’t help feeling that what is demanded here is a sedate description of animals mating. If the demand is for precise and unillusioned, shorn of imagery, physically-focused, unobtrusive and undemonstrative, what does this give us? It is, as I read it, a plea for a tremendously objective view of sex.  It eschews all possibility that the passage will be erotic or arousing to the reader, even though Beckman points out, earlier in the article, “Unsuccessful, unpleasurable or abortive sex does not qualify per se; nor does kinky, brutal or unwanted sex, however unpalatable that may be.” So, as I read it, it requires that the writer has written a passage in which the sex was intended to be consensual, vanilla, and successful. But not written in a manner that might infect the reader with any echo of the experiences of the characters.

The award also ‘excludes erotic literature.’ I’m assuming Beckman means that nothing from the  ‘erotica’ genre is considered. But reading his description of what might constitutes a well-written sex scene, it’s hard not to wonder if this also might exclude any passage in a novel written with the intent of arousing the reader, as this, then, would put it beyond the scope of ‘literature’. What about novels that straddle genres? What about Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or Miller’s Tropics or Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber or Marguerite Duras’ The Lover? They all contain descriptive passages of sex. They’re not unobtrusive or unillusioned.

His reasons for not having a ‘Good Sex Award’ are equally puzzling. If a passage containing consensual, vanilla, successful sex reads like a description of a kitchen garden, it precludes any reader proximity to the textual event.

Why do we want this? Why is it that, at the beginning of the 21st Century, we are so hell bent on pretending that sex doesn’t have any more impact on us than a well described garden or the deft use of semi-colons? Why do we still insist on viewing it so objectively when it is, I suggest, one of the most subjective experiences we indulge in in our lives?

In his book, Erotism: Death and Sensuality [1. Bataille, G. (1986) Erotism: Death and Sensuality. (M. Dalwood, Trans) City Lights Books] , George Bataille begins his investigation of eroticism by arguing that an objective approach to the erotic is useless, because the experience itself is, by nature, an entirely inner experience. He argues that, like religion, any examination of eroticism that is not phenomenological, subjective and personal, “is something monstruous.”. “Eroticism and religion are closed books to us if we do not locate them firmly in the realm of inner experience” because of the fundamental falseness of believing it it something external to ourselves. [2. The whole first chapter of the book is a  long and robust defense of why Bataille feels that eroticism, like religion, loses its integrity, its reality, any semblance of its truth, when one attempts to examine it objectively. ]

It seems that, in the literary world, we have reverted to the strangely positivist trap of equating human sexual experience with animal reproductive behavior. In that very realm where we should be freest to examine human experience, we have acquiesced to the Foucaultian control of the positivist approach. It seems we are happy to concede that it is permissible to write about sexuality, but not about eroticism. Because, at the core of his paragraph, this is what Beckman is demanding.  We are allowed to portray experiences of grief, horror, war, alienation subjectively, but not sex. For eroticism is exactly that, the subjective experience of human sexuality.

Octavio Paz concedes that the distinctions between sex, eroticism and love are confusing: “Sex is the primordial source. Eroticism and love are forms derived from the sexual instinct: crystallizations, sublimations, perversions, and condensations which transform sexuality.” [3. Paz, O. (2011) The Double Flame: Essays on Love and Eroticism. Random House, p. 15 ].

Although, admittedly, some human experiences of sex are utilitarian, functional and only physical, this seems to be the only kind of sexual experience Beckman wishes to read about. And yet this is, most definitely, not the kind of sex humans yearn for, fantasize about, compromise themselves for. President Clinton did not risk his presidency because he simply had an urge to mate. The sexual experience that drives humans into interesting situations of conflict, danger, moral peril or transcendence is the erotic one. The one that is highly subjective, loaded with cultural and religious baggage, illuminated with imagery that, out of context, wouldn’t even count as sexual. Eroticism is the landscape where language is stretched to and perhaps past its limits and metaphor becomes essential: not as a squeamish way of avoiding explicit description, but because the concrete, explicit physical description doesn’t even begin to adequately communicate the totality of the experience. It is a place where gender roles are ripe for destabilization, where power shifts abruptly and hides in the least expected of places, where the concept of self and other are challenged most concretely. Sex is to eroticism is, as Paz remarks, as language is to poetry. [4. ibid.  p. 13]. And we don’t, as humans, go to the astonishing lengths we go to simply for the utilitarian act of procreation. We do it for eroticism. And that is why sex belongs in fiction. Why it deserves to be portrayed realistically in fiction. There is no story in sex. There is only story – and a great deal of it – in eroticism.

I have to wonder if Bataille wasn’t right. Eroticism and religion are very similar human experiences. And if, like religion, eroticism is a source of embarrassment to self-identified intellectuals. We don’t seem to be embarrassed by other subjective experiences, but these two continue to be considered suspect, illegitimate, adolescent and shameful to us – not because we are prudish anymore, but because we are deeply embarrassed about our desire for the intangible, the unquantifiable, the sublime. It’s so much easier and safer to reduce our experience of the sexual to either objective scientific observation or what Angela Carter identifies as mythological pornographies. [5. Carter, A. (1978) The Sadeian Woman: And the Ideology of Pornography, Pantheon Books. ]

Because this, of course, is the other extreme of sexual representation. Pornography relies on universalities. As Carter argues, “Pornography, like marriage and the fictions of romantic love, assists in the process of false universalizing. Its excesses belong to that timeless, locationless area outside history, outside geography, where fascist art is born.” And so it is not surprising in an age when pornography has become ubiquitous to us, through the internet and pay per view, that literary fiction writers and their readers want to give pornography a wide birth as a mode of writing about sex. But I would argue that this requirement of an ‘objective’, positivistic  portrayal of sexuality is, in its way, as totalitarian as pornography. They both reject the singularity of the individual embodied experience. The objective eye is just as guilty of decontextualization as pornography.

And perhaps this is why our genuine attempts to explore authentic, human sexual experiences in literature so often seem to fall short. Whether it stems from the prudery of pre-D.H. Lawrence society, or the late-20th Century need to attribute all metaphysical experience to neural glitches, we are still circling around the reality of our sexuality like frightened cave-men who acknowledge the allure of fire, but don’t want to stick their hand it it.

And yet ultimately, hasn’t this always been precisely the job of writers? To pry apart the nut of human mystery without rendering it the unrecognizable detritus of a dissection?

 

 

 

 

 

5 Thoughts on “Positivism or Pornography: The Two Extremes of Textual Sex in Literature.

  1. Interesting, especially the comparisons between religion and eroticism but as an atheist and someone who likes the fantastical (erotic or not) I don’t know that – for me – the comparison is valid.

    A sexual, erotic experience is shared but the personal sensation and meaning that goes along with it is subjective. I don’t know that recognising something as a subjective, internal experience necessarily makes it any less beautiful. Understanding, for example, how to ‘unweave a rainbow’ and how it depends on refraction of light etc doesn’t make the subjective experience of viewing it any less wonderful and can – in fact – enhance it.

    Understanding the cues, hormones, psychologically and evolutionary reasons etc behind our desires and erotic experiences equally, IMO, doesn’t render them any less special or wonderful.

    The difference between the sexual experience, or reading a fantasy novel, or watching Star Wars is that we know and understand that the experience is subjective. We may get into arguments “Han Solo is the best character!” but it (normally) doesn’t get as serious as arguments over religion.

    Religion tries to impose itself, its morality, its subjective judgements over others whether or not the greater good is served by it. This is why it so often comes into conflict with other subjective experiences and points of view which it must, necessarily, see as ‘rivals’.

    Erotica, in whatever medium, tries to convey that subjective experience while pornography is more objective ‘mechanical’, hitting the various visual buttons. Weirdly I think this works against erotica more than porn since our kinks etc are so personal and it is much harder to read around them than to take what you ‘need’ from a purely mechanical source of titillation.

    I’m rambling, I’ll shut up now 🙂

    • ” Understanding, for example, how to ‘unweave a rainbow’ and how it depends on refraction of light etc doesn’t make the subjective experience of viewing it any less wonderful”
      No it doesn’t. But, what is more to the point, understanding the physical composition of a rainbow doesn’t even give you an inkling of what the experience of viewing a rainbow is.

      And it is just as true for erotic sexuality as a phenomenon. Describing it physically, explaining it medically may help us to understand its effects on the human body, but it doesn’t inform us in the least about what being in the grip of it feels like. Its not the physical reality of an erotic experience that motivates us to pursue it. It’s the hermeneutic experience of it.

      As to religion, it is important and probably remiss of me not to explain that when Bataille is comparing eroticism to religion, he isn’t discussing organized religion or any specific religion, but simply the human belief in something beyond itself. And so arguments of whether certain religions impose their ideologies on us or not, is not really what he’s talking about at all. This was simply the language he was using. It would be equally valid to say that he saw eroticism as a metaphysical experience.

      I wouldn’t exactly credit most pornography with being ‘objective’, since it doesn’t present even the physical act with any veracity. Porn actors are usually non-normative, physically. Scenes are cut and editted to infer that the acts last longer. Acts are artificially staged to make room and give access to the camera. There is the overriding agenda to assure the viewer that what they are seeing is ‘real’, even as it is anything BUT what most people experience.

  2. I really like this paragraph:

    “I have to wonder if Bataille wasn’t right. Eroticism and religion are very similar human experiences. And if, like religion, eroticism is a source of embarrassment to self-identified intellectuals. We don’t seem to be embarrassed by other subjective experiences, but these two continue to be considered suspect, illegitimate, adolescent and shameful to us – not because we are prudish anymore, but because we are deeply embarrassed about our desire for the intangible, the unquantifiable, the sublime. It’s so much easier and safer to reduce our experience of the sexual to either objective scientific observation or what Angela Carter identifies as mythological pornographies.”

    Both eroticism and religion can also make an individual very vulnerable. We often don’t choose what floats our boat in either domain, and expressing our feelings and experiences in these realms exposes a great deal about ourselves. Talking about them is a great way to open yourself up to ridicule at a very personal level. We like to think of ourselves as rational, reasonable beings, so people tend to laugh off these things as the domain of those foolish mortals who have failed to keep their baser instincts in check. By not taking eroticism seriously, one may safely avoid becoming involved in a potentially embarrassing discussion. The writer of eroticism may also be shamed in order to ensure that general discussion does not drift out of acceptable paths.

    “Because this, of course, is the other extreme of sexual representation. Pornography relies on universalities. As Carter argues, ‘Pornography, like marriage and the fictions of romantic love, assists in the process of false universalizing. Its excesses belong to that timeless, locationless area outside history, outside geography, where fascist art is born.’ And so it is not surprising in an age when pornography has become ubiquitous to us, through the internet and pay per view, that literary fiction writers and their readers want to give pornography a wide birth as a mode of writing about sex. But I would argue that this requirement of an ‘objective’, positivistic portrayal of sexuality is, in its way, as totalitarian as pornography. They both reject the singularity of the individual embodied experience. The objective eye is just as guilty of decontextualization as pornography.”

    Yikes! Where fascist art is born? I guess I don’t have the same aversion to pornography that many other writers express. In fact, I do write some material that probably falls more on the commercial pornographic side. Pornography is the ghetto and eroticism is the upscale neighborhood, but perhaps I spend more time in neighborhoods in transition. But when I write porn material, I guess I focus more on the physicality of the act and less on plot. I do try to include elements of insight into what makes the experience intense for the characters, why the act turns them on, or a particular setting or detail that can make them irrational enough to do irresponsible things. I still try to include details that might stick in the reader’s memory or imagination, although these details may be mainly physical or sensory. Basically, I see my more pornographic material as focusing in on the sexual act, with less regard to taste or intellectualism.

    • Hello there! Lovely to see you weigh in on this.

      Hey, I don’t have anything against pornography myself. And could certainly be accused of writing it. But I think her point about narrative that writes ‘outside history, outside geography’ is a good one. It de-specifies, which in a way, is why pornography is so effective in stimulating sexual desire in so many people. It doesn’t deal with specificity of experience. It doesn’t really call the reader to help construct meaning through memory and prior experience in any deep way. It says: this is sex, here’s how it’s done. Here’s how it’s done well. There are no failures, no fumbles, no flaws that humanize the process and make it singular. If I write about a man going down on a woman for the first time, and his thoughts about how this is both interesting and slightly scary, and I bring his past experiences of other types of orality to bear, then it isn’t pornography. No matter how explicitly I describe it, because he becomes a very specific man, with a wealth of lived-experience going down on a woman. To offer this as pornography simply wouldn’t be fair – because all that singularity does interrupt, for moments, a purely sexual view. In the long run, I think it simply redefines what is sexual, but it is also likely to lose some readers to whom the experience is utterly unrelatable. Characters in porn are supposed to stand in for everyman and everywoman, in a sense, and present ideals of sexual attractiveness and prowess in another. All the things that would prevent or dissuade the viewer or reader from stepping into the shoes of the character are swept away for the purpose of efficient sexual stimulation.

      I think what Beckman is demanding is verisimilitude. But his way of describing how to get to it seems flawed and equally dislocating to me, if he demands that we eschew illusion or the non-physical. Dissecting an insect gives you a very good sense of the mechanics of how the insect body is put together, but tells you nothing at all about what the experience of being an insect is like, and in fact, destroys the possibility of gaining any insight through observation of insect behaviour or the use of metaphor.

  3. Your description of pornography does make sense to me. One of it’s defining traits is often that the reader can insert themselves into the scene. Well, maybe that isn’t unique to porn but it tends to be the case in that genre. While I think that a reader may be turned off or on by their own previous experiences or memories with a particular sex act or fetish, that element, in a way, only has to show up for it to work. And the ultimate goal of porn is to arouse. It doesn’t really have to inform the reader in any other regard.

    I was discussing the article with my wife and she made the point that both extremes, Beckman’s view and pornography, serve the function of avoiding intimacy. Both reference points allow one to engage a topic at a distance. The positivist approach seems to say, “OK, look, let’s not make too much of a big deal about this. We don’t need to talk about it.” And pornography allows one to drop in and out of a scene without having to know too much about the characters.

    Beckman’s approach seems somewhat paradoxical to me because it implies that sex is just biological. But it is a biological function that shapes culture, goads humans into often irrational acts, and occupies a tremendous amount of human thought. In a way, erotica is the most pragmatic of genres because it let’s us know what people are really thinking. And I think the acceptance of humans as beings with complex sexualities may violate some sense of convenient simplicity in dealing with other people. Honestly dealing with sexuality can be a tremendously disruptive act.

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