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On Pornography

The man and the woman make love; attain climax; fall separate. Then she whispers, “I’ll tell you who I was thinking of if you’ll tell me who you were thinking of.” Like most sex jokes, the origins of this amiable exchange are obscure. But whatever the source, it seldom fails to evoke a certain awful recognition since few lovers are willing to admit that in the sexual act to create or maintain excitement they may need some mental image as erotic supplement to the body in attendance. One perverse contemporary maintains that when he is with A he thinks of B and when he is with B he thinks of A; each attracts him only to the degree that he is able simultaneously to evoke the image of the other. Also, for those who find the classic positions of “mature” love-making unsatisfactory yet dare not distress the beloved with odd requests, sexual fantasy becomes inevitable and the shy lover soon finds himself imposing mentally all sorts of wild images upon his unsuspecting partner, who may also be relying on an inner theater of the mind to keep things going: in which case, those popular writers who deplore “our lack of communication today” may have a point. Ritual and magic also have their devotees. In one of Kingsley Amis’s fictions, a man mentally conjugates Latin verbs in order to delay orgasm as he waits chivalrously for his partner’s predictably slow response. While another considerate lover (non-fictional) can only reduce tempo by thinking of a large loaf of sliced white bread, manufactured by Bond.

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. As a result, 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. It certainly proves that D. H. Lawrence was not entirely sentimental; however, the sex-in-the-head middle class which he so much 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, ideally, 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 love-making disappointing when he finally gets to it, like Bernard Shaw. In fact, one wonders, would Shaw 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? Here, incidentally, is a whole new line of literary-psychological inquiry suitable at the very least for the Master’s degree: “Characteristics of the Onanist as Dramatist.” Late coupling and prolonged chastity certainly help explain much of the rich dottiness of those Victorians whose peculiar habits planted thick many a quiet churchyard with Rose La Touches.

UNTIL RECENTLY, pornography was a small cottage industry among the grinding mills of literature. But now that sex has taken the place of most other games (how many young people today learn bridge?), creating and packaging pornography has become big business, and though the high courts of the New American Empire cannot be said to be very happy about this state of affairs, they tend to agree that freedom of expression is as essential to our national life as freedom of meaningful political action is not. Also, despite our governors’ paternalistic bias, there are signs that they are becoming less intolerant in sexual matters. This would be a good thing if one did not suspect that they may regard sex as our bread and circuses, a means of keeping us off the political streets, as it were, and in the sack, out of mischief. If this is so, we may yet observe our strenuous President in his mad search for consensus settling for the consensual.

Among the publishers of pornography (“merchants of smut” as they say at the F.B.I.), Maurice Girodias is uniquely eminent. For one thing he is a second-generation peddler of dirty books (or “d.b.s” as they call them on Eighth Avenue). In the 1930s his English father, Jack Kahane, founded The Obelisk Press in Paris. Among Kahane’s authors were Anais Nin, Laurence Durrell, Cyril Connolly, as well as Henry Miller, whose books have been underground favorites for what seems like a century. Kahane died in 1939 and his son Maurice Girodias (he took his mother’s name for reasons not given) continued Kahane’s brave work. After the war, Girodias sold Henry Miller in vast quantities to easily stimulated G.I.s. He also revived “Fanny Hill.” He published books in French. He prospered. Then the Terror began. Visionary dictatorships, whether of a single man or of the proletariat, tend to disapprove of irregular sex. Being profoundly immoral in public matters, they compensate by insisting upon what they think to be a rigorous morality in private affairs. General de Gaulle’s private morality is reputed to be tolerant but unfortunately his public morality is registered in his wife’s name. In 1946 Girodias was prosecuted for publishing Henry Miller. It was France’s first prosecution for obscenity since the trial of Madame Bovary in 1844. Happily, the world’s writers rallied to Miller’s defense, and since men of letters are taken solemnly in France, the government dropped its charges.

In a Preface to the recently published The Olympia Reader, Girodias discusses his business arrangements at length; and though none of us is as candid about money as he is about sex, Girodias does admit that he lost his firm not as a result of legal persecution but through incompetences, a revelation which gives him avant-garde status in the new pornography of money. Girodias next founded The Olympia Press, devoted to the creation of pornography, both hard and soft core. His adventures as a merchant of smut make a most beguiling story. All sorts of writers, good and bad, were set to work turning out books, often written to order. He would think up a title (e.g., “With Open Mouth”) and advertise it; if there was sufficient response, he would then commission someone to write a book to go with the title. Most of his writers used pseudonyms. Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg wrote Candy under the name of Maxwell Kenton. Christopher Logue wrote Lust under the name of Count Palmiro Vicarion, while Alex Trocchi, as Miss Frances Lengel, wrote Helen and Desire. Girodias also published Samuel Beckett’s Watt, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and J. P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man; perversely, these authors chose not to use pseudonyms.

READING OF THESE happy years, one recalls a similar situation just after the Second War when a number of New York writers were commissioned at so many cents a page to write pornographic stories for a United States Senator. The solon, as they say in smutland, never actually met the writers but through a go-between he guided their stories: a bit more flagellation here, a touch of necrophilia there…. The subsequent nervous breakdown of one of the Senator’s pornographers, now a celebrated poet, was attributed to the strain of not knowing which of the ninety-six Senators he was writing for.

In 1958, the Fourth French Republic banned twenty-five of Girodias’s books, among them Lolita. Girodias promptly sued the Ministry of the Interior and, amazingly, won. Unfortunately, five months later, the Great General saw fit to resume the grandeur of France. De Gaulle was back; and so was Madame de Gaulle. The Minister of the Interior appealed the now defunct Fourth Republic’s decision. He was upheld. Since then, censorship has been the rule in France. One by one Girodias’s books, regardless of merit, have been banned. Inevitably, André Malraux was appealed to and, inevitably, he responded with that elevated double-talk which has been a characteristic of what one suspects will be a particularly short-lived Republic. Girodias is now in the United States, where he expects to flourish. Ever since the Puritan Republic became a gaudy empire pornography has been a big business for the simple reason that when freedom of expression is joined with the freedom to make a lot of money, the dream of those whose bloody footprints made vivid the snows of Valley Forge is close to fulfillment and that happiness which our Constitution commands us to pursue at hand.

The Olympia Reader is a collection of passages from various books published by Maurice Girodias since 1953. Reading it straight through is a curiously disjointed experience, like sitting through a program of movie-trailers. As literature, most of the selections are junk, even though the writers include such celebrated contemporary figures as Nabokov, Genet, Queneau; and of the illustrious dead, Sade and Beardsley.

Pornography is usually defined as that which is calculated to arouse sexual excitement. Since what arouses X repels Y, no two people are apt to respond in quite the same way to the same stimulus. One man’s meat, as they say, is another man’s poison, a fact now recognized by the American judiciary, which must rule with wearisome frequency on obscenity. With unexpected good sense, a judge recently observed that since the books currently before him all involved ladies in black leather with whips, they could not be said to corrupt the generality since a taste for being beaten is hardly common and those who are aroused by such fantasies are already “corrupted” and therefore exempt from laws designed to protect the young and usual. By their nature, pornographies cannot be said to proseletyze, since they are written for the already booked. The worst that can be said of pornography is that it leads not to “anti-social” sexual acts but to the reading of more pornography. As for corruption, the only immediate victim is English prose. Mr. Girodias himself writes like his worst authors (“Terry being at the time in acute financial need…”) while his moral judgments are most peculiar. With reverence, he describes his hero Sir Roger Casement (a “superlative pederast,” whatever that is) as “politically confused, emotionally unbalanced, maudlin when depressed and absurdly naive when in his best form; but he was exceptionally generous, he had extraordinary courage and a simple human wisdom which sprang from his natural goodness.” Here, Mr. Girodias demonstrates a harmony with the age in which he lives. He may or may not have described Sir Roger accurately but he has certainly drawn a flattering portrait of The Serious American Novelist, 1966.

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