Story of the Eye
Blue of Noon
What we call pornography has many guises, and it may seem a long way from the dark, patrician pleasures of the Marquis de Sade to the topless, bottomless, endless promises of Forty-Second Street. Roughly the same distance, perhaps, as there is between literary pornography like Story of the Eye and The Story of O and the flood of current films with titles like Steam Heat, Hot Honey, Love in Strange Places, and Pussycat Ranch. And yet all pornography, high and low, hard and soft, innocent and morbid, inhabits a world of fantasy. It makes dreams visible or legible. “Experiences aren’t pornographic,” Susan Sontag wrote in a remarkable essay in 1967, “only images and representations are.”
There is a very slight begging of the question here. Experiences certainly can be obscene, even if they can’t be pornographic. What exactly would we call the behavior of people who performed in fact some of the more murderous deeds found in pornographic fiction: throttling a man to death while mounted upon him, for example, as a woman does in Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye? Still, Sontag’s comment provides an essential clarification. Pornography is meant to remedy the deficiencies of reality, and no one is clearer about this than its vendors. A movie theater on Broadway claims to be screening “the hottest fantasy flick ever made.” A show on Seventh Avenue offers “the fantasy to end all fantasies.” And a recent issue of Playgirl announces “fantasies you dream of…and some you’d never dare to dream.”
The business of pornography doesn’t seem mysterious. Sexual fantasy, like almost anything else, can be made into a commodity, and it is likely that it will be marketed as long as there is anyone to buy it. The purveyors of pornography, I take it, are motivated by the respectable and entirely unfantastic wish to make as much money as possible. But we may still wonder about the needs which nourish the business.
There is a notion about that pornography is simply a reflex, the natural result of our muddled and hypocritical thinking on sexual matters. If the muddle and the hypocrisy were done away with, the argument goes, there would be no more trouble, there would simply be rampant and healthy sexuality all over the place, with a few sad folks sitting it out because they couldn’t find partners or insisted on having peculiar problems of their own. This is nonsense not because it’s utopian, or because we can’t clear the air about sex—we have cleared the air in many respects, and any escape at all from the long Victorian hangover is an achievement—but because sexuality is inextricably entangled with the rest of our lives, and because new freedoms are always caught up in new restrictions. We need quite a few of the taboos we keep breaking—we break them, in part, to make sure they are still there.
A prohibition, Georges Bataille said, glorifies whatever it …