Not long ago, the Library of America put out a beautiful new three-volume edition of the novels and memoirs of Vladimir Nabokov,1 and I decided to seize upon it as a convenient occasion for reacquainting myself with his work. Which explains why I happened to be reading Lolita on the very day a story by Nina Bernstein appeared on the front page of the New York Times that cast a horrifying new light on Nabokov’s masterpiece. It also brought memories to the surface that had long been buried, and simultaneously forced me into rethinking a number of questions I had up till then considered fairly well resolved. As I was going through this difficult process, I was given a few more pushes by Milos Forman’s movie, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and two recently published books, Roger Shattuck’s Forbidden knowledge2 and Rochelle Gurstein’s The Repeal of Reticence.3 By the time I was through, my peace of mind had been so disturbed that I was left wishing that those old memories and those settled questions had been allowed to remain in their contentedly slumberous state.
Nina Bernstein’s story concerned the unearthing of a list of thousands of children “whose names were secretly compiled, annotated, and stored with a cache of child pornography on a computer used by a convicted pedophile in a Minnesota state prison” just north of Minneapolis. Minneapolis! The mere mention of it in this lurid context prodded the first of those long inert memories back to life. It featured my late mother-in-law, Rose Rosenthal, who in a sociologically unusual wrinkle of American Jewish history was born almost exactly a century ago in Minneapolis’s “twin city,” St. Paul, and lived there until her death in 1972.
A loyal Jew and a fierce Zionist, Rose Rosenthal was in all other respects so typical a Midwesterner that a character modeled on her would have been entirely at home in one of the novels of her fellow Minnesotan, Sinclair Lewis. Before meeting her, I had thought I understood—precisely from reading Lewis and many others—what the word “bourgeois” meant, but I soon began to realize that I had never known the half of it. After all, where would I—born and bred in a Brooklyn slum in the 1930’s and then moving in the years after World War II from college and graduate school into the milieu of the New York intellectuals—ever have had a chance to encounter a true member of that much-derided species in the flesh?
Obviously I had run into many middle-class people, but such a battering had the “bourgeois” world view taken over the past several decades that they had either given up on it themselves or had lost the nerve to exhibit any of the traditional stigmata of their moral and cultural background. None of them, for example, would have risked appearing so unsophisticated as to condemn a movie star like Ingrid Bergman for flaunting an adulterous affair and then bearing a child out of wedlock. But my mother-in-law did, loudly, and with total confidence in the rightness of her judgment.
Intransigently provincial as she was, the only moral standards she recognized as valid were the rigidly puritanical standards prevailing in the St. Paul of her day. Any violations of those standards outraged her, and the more they were violated by the outside world, the more she felt confirmed in her commitment to them. So far as she was concerned, the rest of the country, and especially New York, was going to hell, while St. Paul, and the Midwest generally, remained an enclave of goodness and purity and rectitude. But surely, I would protest, the things that appalled her must be happening out there, too. “No,” she would reply with a stubborn set of the jaw, “not in our part of the country.”
Not in our part of the country: it was those words that started ringing in my head as I read the Times story about the inmate with “multiple convictions for child sexual assault” sitting in the Lino Lakes Correctional Facility, just a stone’s throw away from St. Paul. There, in that prison, this monster had free and easy access to a state-of-the art computer and a modem, and using that equipment he had compiled a huge data base mostly of little girls between three and twelve for circulation on the Internet to other pedophiles.
The names came not from the Internet itself but from local newspapers all over Minnesota, to which he also had free and easy access through exchange subscriptions with a prison newspaper (founded, in a piquant detail, by members of the Jesse James gang in 1887 and still going strong). By combing through birthday announcements and such features as “Citizens of Tomorrow,” he was able not only to collect names for his data base but also to embellish it with many helpful pointers.
Thus, the Times reports, the children “appear by age and location . . . in dated entries that . . . include personal details written as ‘latchkey kids,’ ‘speech difficulties,’ ‘cute,’ and ‘Little Ms. pageant winner.’ ” Even more to the point of my ancient argument with my mother-in-law:
The towns where the children live are alphabetized and coded by map coordinates, as though on a road atlas to the American Midwest. Most are hamlets in northern Minnesota, places born of the railroad in the last century and bypassed by the highway in this one.
Not in our part of the country indeed.
To be sure, even in the late 1950’s, when I first met her, my mother-in-law was wrong and I was right about life in places like St. Paul. Premarital sex, adultery, illegitimacy, homosexuality, and—yes—pedophilia were by no means entirely unknown there. (In the year of her death, the very pedophile who would later use a computer to locate potential victims did the same thing with the more primitive tool of a notebook, and was caught and then convicted for the first time after breaking into a home in St. Paul itself.) Such goings on, however, were sufficiently rare, or anyway well enough hidden, so that a novel like Peyton Place could create a huge sensation merely by revealing their presence in small-town America.
This revelation, like so many others before it in the literature and polemics emanating from the higher reaches of American culture, carried the additional satisfaction of confirming the charge of hypocrisy that invariably accompanied attacks on the moral professions of the middle class. But those who so loved to yell “hypocrite” at the bourgeoisie always seemed to forget that hypocrisy, being “the tribute vice pays to virtue,” testifies to the commanding power of the standards being violated, not to their weakness or fraudulence.
As for my mother-in-law, I would bet my life that she was no hypocrite and that she practiced what she preached. But she was without any question a great denier, who simply refused to see what she did not wish to see or to know what she did not wish to know. In thus adopting what amounted to a private form of censorship, she withheld even defacto recognition from anyone or anything that disrupted or challenged the moral order in which she believed with all her heart.
There were millions upon millions like her in America, and their practice of private censorship was mirrored and reinforced by the law. And if this dual system did not work well enough to wall off their “part of the country” entirely from the “bad examples” being set by my part of the country, it did afford at least some measure of protection. Certainly it is hard to imagine the Minnesota of my mother-in-law’s day becoming, of all things, the center of a network of child molesters.
Those walls, wherever they were built in America, have all long since been blasted to smithereens, as I first realized when, on a visit to Salt Lake City in the early 1970’s, I discovered pornographic books and magazines being sold openly in a drugstore right across the street from the Mormon Temple. It amazed me that even a city dominated by Mormons had given up trying to defend itself against the tidal wave of pornography which had followed in the wake of a series of increasingly liberal court decisions. True, those decisions had still left a bit of room for restrictive local ordinances, but it had evidently become too troublesome and too expensive for local prosecutors to take advantage of them. For all practical purposes, then, the fight against censorship had already been won.
As a young literary critic and as an editor, I had taken part in that fight. It was not a very large part, consisting only in the writing and publishing of a few articles, the delivering of a few lectures, and on one occasion the giving of testimony in an obscenity trial. But this brings me to another cluster of long-dormant memories that rereading Lolita in conjunction with Nina Bernstein’s story in the Times has prodded back to life.
One of these is of a talk I gave in defense of pornography at Bard College in the late 50’s. In those days I never lectured from a prepared text and the notes on which I relied have gone the way of all notes, so that now, after nearly 40 years, I am a bit hazy as to what exactly I said. But as best as I can reconstruct it, the case I made in defense of pornography began with a literary analysis. Conceding that the purpose of pornography was to arouse lust, I argued that there was no reason why this should be considered any less legitimate than the arousal of such other emotions and passions as anger, sorrow, pity, and so on. Like any other literary genre, pornography could be well written or badly written, and the appeal to lustful thoughts and impulses could be artfully managed or unskillfully and crudely done.
I believe I then went on to claim that, aesthetic considerations apart, pornography had a value all its own. It represented a kind of Utopian fantasy of pure sex, sex liberated from consequence and into unalloyed ecstasy (“pornotopia,” as my old college friend, Steven Marcus of Columbia, would later call it in a book on pornography in the Victorian era). And this fantasy demanded and deserved recognition for the role it played in attacking—I cringe at the thought that such words ever came out of my mouth, even when I was young—the stifling proprieties and unhealthy repressions of bourgeois society.
The students in the audience at Bard (a “progressive” college, and as such already in tune with the spirit of the 60’s to come) loved it. They applauded wildly when I was through, and their questions in the discussion period were all requests for more of the same. But then Professor Heinrich Blücher, whom I knew slightly through his wife Hannah Arendt, raised his hand. Though overshadowed by her growing fame as a political philosopher, this obscure German scholar was rumored to be working on a (never-to-be-completed) monumental History of Everything that would put her work to shame; and Hannah herself had told me more than once that he possessed one of the great minds of our age. With this reputation adding to the fearsomeness of his aristocratic Prussian bearing, he jumped to his feet and shouted at the top of his lungs in the heaviest possible German accent, “You are taking all the fun out of sex!”
I needed a small pause to shake off this stinging left hook, but after a second or two I recovered myself enough to counterpunch with the insistence that it was not necessary for sex to remain hidden in order to be fun. “But,” he shot—or rather shouted—back, “don’t you know that pornography soon becomes boring?” To this I replied that I knew no such thing, and that I was hard put to take people at face value who said they were bored by pornography. Embarrassed, yes; ashamed, yes; repelled, yes; disgusted, yes; but the claim of boredom seemed to me an affectation of superiority to something which only a saint could be superior to.
I now realize that Heinrich Blücher, who had probably grown sated with pornography as a young man steeped in the sexually unbridled culture of Weimar Germany, knew what he was talking about. But unlike the America of today—which has exceeded even Weimar in sexual license and licentiousness, and where pornography can be piped into any home at the click of a mouse or the flick of a television remote or the activation of a VCR4—in the America of the 50’s there was still very little of it around. In the world in which I lived, it was easy enough to borrow copies of Fanny Hill or the novels of Henry Miller or a few other equally classy pornographic books that had been smuggled in from Paris by friends. But in general, getting hold of pornography was like trying to buy illegal drugs. One had to have a “connection,” and one had to venture into seedy and possibly dangerous places to “score.”
As it happened, I had such a connection in the unlikely person of an uncle of mine who was more like an older brother to me than an uncle. Unlike his brothers, who included my father and who all acted as if there was no such thing as sex, he made no bones about his obsession with it. But so far as I could tell, he indulged this obsession exclusively through the consumption of pornography. (That acting on it was not for him was something he discovered to his eternal regret when a friend told him that in order to participate in an orgy, he would have to do certain things that he did not think he could bring himself to do. “But can’t I just do what I want?” he asked plaintively. “No,” said his friend. “If you want to be a pervert, you have to act like a pervert.”)
It was thanks to my uncle that I had seen a pornographic film starring a young woman named Candy Barr (a model who was reputed to be the “moll” of a famous gangster). The film was very short, hardly more than a five-minute clip, but the great beauty of the star and the apparent enthusiasm with which she performed had made it a classic and a collector’s item among connoisseurs of hard-core pornography. They were right: even in a very bad print projected by a primitive camera onto a portable roll-down screen that resembled a cheap window shade, it was overwhelming—more so even than the few pornographic books I had read by then, and they were quite overwhelming enough.
Because I had actually seen a pornographic film, I was the envy of my circle, very few of whom had ever had this kind of first-hand experience (not that it stopped them from theorizing endlessly on the subject). And as the only one with a connection, I was under constant pressure to arrange a showing for them. At last I agreed, only to discover that my uncle’s supplier had been arrested, and that he himself was very reluctant (justifiably, as it would turn out) to let his precious copy of the Candy Barr clip out of his hands. But when I explained that a group of distinguished writers and critics was eager to see the movie, he gave in out of deference to “educated people” whose readiness to lower themselves to his level simultaneously puzzled and pleased him.
The great event was scheduled for a party at the home of another old college friend, Jason Epstein, then a rising young book editor who would subsequently be active in the ultimately successful campaign to find an American publisher for Lolita; and among the many writers and critics who did indeed turn up was Susan Sontag, who would later deliver herself of a famously solemn essay in defense of pornography. By the time I arrived directly from Brooklyn with Candy Barr in the can and my uncle’s projector and screen under my arm, the excitement, punctuated by many jokes, was intense. But the biggest and best joke of all was to come. First it emerged that not a single one of these “educated people” knew how to work a projector, and then the person who volunteered to try succeeded only in tangling the film and finally burning it in the heat of the projector’s lamp. The sickening smell of smoldering celluloid pervaded the room, and when I thought of confronting my uncle, it sickened me even more. Everyone else was either deeply disappointed or convulsed with laughter at the fiasco which seemed to have a message hidden in it somewhere.
Not long afterward, I agreed to join another (though somewhat overlapping) group of distinguished writers and critics in traveling to Provincetown, Massachusetts, to testify on behalf of a local bookseller. For stocking a novel by Hubert Selby, Jr. entitled Last Exit to Brooklyn, which was notorious for the graphic description it contained of a gang rape, this bookseller had been put on trial for violating the local law against the dissemination of obscene materials. But since the Supreme Court had exempted any work that, taken as a whole, possessed literary value, the defense in such cases usually consisted in summoning expert witnesses to grant the necessary certification.
I did not much like or admire Selby’s unrelievedly grim novel, but there was no doubt that it was a serious piece of work by a talented writer. Hence I had no problem with testifying as to its literary merit when I was put on the stand. But then the judge, a local magistrate who had been scowling at all these interlopers from New York throughout the presentation of the case for the defense and who seemed to take an especially sour view of my testimony, suddenly decided to cross-examine me himself. “Do you have any children?” he demanded. “Yes,” I said. “Any of them girls?” “Three,” I replied. He grinned malevolently. “Well, how would you like it if they read books like this?” The question took me by surprise, and I hesitated for a few seconds before coming up with an answer. “Your honor, there are hundreds and hundreds of books in my apartment. I don’t forbid my daughters to read any of them, and I don’t keep track of the ones they do.” To which his honor snorted: “I’ll bet.”
Strictly speaking, I was telling the truth, but it was not the whole truth and nothing but the truth, given that the few specimens of hard-core pornography I owned were deliberately kept out of the reach of our kids by being placed on the top shelf of a very tall bookcase. Like Heinrich Blücher’s charge that I was taking the fun out of sex, the judge’s sarcastic remark stayed with me. Whenever I told the story, I would mock him with Menckenesque gusto, and so would my audience. But that “I’ll bet” must have given me my first inkling that hypocrisy in these matters was no longer a monopoly of Mencken’s “booboisie.”
Though the pornographic books I kept up on that high shelf were all of the literate variety usually known as “erotica,” they were still hard-core in the sense that their whole point was to provide highly explicit descriptions of sexual activity. To the extent that they made use of genuinely novelistic elements like a plot and carefully drawn characters, the purpose was to set off and heighten the impact of the dirty passages. (And “dirty” was the word that I and every other fighter for the legalization of pornography used in the privacy of our own minds, and indeed everywhere else except in a courtroom or when the politics of the issue required us to mouth the standard liberal pieties.) But a few other books that were not in the least pornographic in that sense were also up on that top shelf, and among them was the original edition of Lolita, published in Paris in 1955.
Nabokov had sent the manuscript to Paris with some reluctance and only after numerous rejections had convinced him that he would never find an American publisher for it.5 One of those rejections had come from Doubleday, where the fierce battle being waged for its acceptance by Jason Epstein had foundered on his superiors’ quite reasonable fear of prosecution. At any rate, it was from Epstein that I first heard of Lolita, and it was from him, if I remember rightly, that I got my copy of the cheaply bound and printed edition put out by the Olympia Press, a young company that specialized in erotica written, as Lolita was, in English.
English was not exactly a foreign language to Nabokov—he had learned it as a child in czarist Russia from governesses and tutors—but it was still not his own in the way his beloved native Russian was. In fact, before venturing in his forties on a novel in English, he had already written many volumes both of fiction and poetry in Russian (most of them published in Europe after he had been driven into exile by the Bolshevik Revolution). And although he was not the only writer ever to have pulled off this trick of switching to English from a radically different native tongue, he outdid even his closest rival, the great Joseph Conrad, in his amazing mastery of the new language. More: in my judgment, to which I still hold today, he could even give James Joyce, born to English and its most spectacular contemporary virtuoso, a close run for his money.
But as I have now come to understand on rereading Nabokov in the new Library of America edition, there was something less admirable that went along with his linguistic genius and that he also had in common with Joyce: a contempt for his audience. I realize this is a very harsh charge, but how else can one honestly describe the attitude implicit in a style so in love with itself that it often loses sight of what it is supposed to be conveying, and so aesthetically narcissistic that it intransigently refuses to make any concessions whatsoever to the reader, even to the point of often requiring an editor’s footnotes to decipher the pyrotechnical wordplay in which it so mischievously indulges?
Discussing this very issue in the course of deigning to engage in the “fatal fatuity” of explicating a series of such allusions, Nabokov was unusually frank about it. “It may be asked if it is really worth an author’s while to devise and distribute these delicate markers whose very nature requires that they be not too conspicuous.” Who, after all, will notice them or, having noticed, will be able to make sense of them without the help of footnotes? No matter. “In the long run, . . . it is only the author’s private satisfaction that counts.”
Far from being peculiar to Nabokov and Joyce, this attitude was shared by practically every novelist and poet associated with the modernist movement. In a manifesto issued in Paris in 1926, for instance, a large group of writers declared, among other things, that “The writer expresses. He does not communicate,” and ended with “The plain reader be damned.” It must further be acknowledged that in arrogant authorial indifference to the reasonable expectations of the reader, “plain” or fancy, Nabokov was a mild sinner when set alongside Joyce. Asked how he expected anyone to understand Finnegans Wake, Joyce once replied: “The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works.” Nabokov never went that far either in theory or in practice (he admired Ulysses but not Finnegans Wake). Still, as a relentless player of what the editor of the Library of America edition calls “intricate games of deception and concealment” (meaning this, in accordance with good modernist doctrine, as a compliment), a sinner he was nevertheless.
Here Lolita is an exception among Nabokov’s novels. It is relatively easy to follow, and the linguistic pyrotechnics, while still on display, are kept under unusually strict control. Yet if Lolita is more or less free of this species of modernist sin, it is just as driven as Nabokov’s other novels by the radical modernist aestheticism of which their “intricate games of deception” and their stylistic excesses are only one symptom or expression. This kind of aestheticism was once summed up in the slogan “art for art’s sake,” which was to say, not for the sake of God or morality or ideology or society. Often for better (as a protection against the dictates of politics) and sometimes for worse (as an encouragement to mandarinism and hermeticism), the aestheticist creed thus represented a declaration of the artist’s independence from any and all obligations other than those imposed by the laws of his art.
No more fanatical devotee of this creed existed than Vladimir Nabokov. There were only two things he cared about as a writer. One was capturing the exact feel and color and shading and texture of a perception or an emotion or a memory, and the other was fooling around with language for the sheer fun of exercising his enormous power over it. The subject matter of a novel was of little importance to him except as an occasion—I might almost say a pretext—for doing these things. Here is how he himself put it:
For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. . . . All the rest is either topical trash or what some call the Literature of Ideas. . . .
Whenever he could, Nabokov made sure to disabuse anyone who might be led by the subject matter of his own work to misinterpret it (even sympathetically) as belonging to either of those dread categories. A good example of how he did this was the introduction he provided to a later reissue of Bend Sinister, one of his earliest novels in English.
Set in a fictional country that has fallen under totalitarianism, and written by a man who had fled the Soviet regime and clearly hated it with all his heart, Bend Sinister was in danger of being taken by the innocent “plain reader” to be about Soviet Russia, much as George Orwell’s roughly contemporaneous Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four were. But Nabokov repudiated any such reference. Bend Sinister, he insisted, had no kinship whatever with “Orwell’s cliches” (which he clearly consigned to the category of “topical trash”):
I have never been interested in what is called the literature of social comment. . . . I am neither a didacticist nor an allegorizer. Politics and economics, atomic bombs, primitive and abstract art forms, the entire Orient, symptoms of “thaw” in Soviet Russia, the Future of Mankind, and so on, leave me supremely indifferent. . . . Similarly, the influence of my epoch on [Bend Sinister] is as negligible as the influence of my books, or at least of this book, on my epoch.
In short, despite being interlarded “with bits of Lenin’s speeches, and a chunk of the Soviet constitution, and gobs of Nazist pseudo-efficiency,” Bend Sinister was “not really about life and death in a grotesque police state.” Its main theme was the love of a father for his son, and what mattered most in it was certain recurrent images, such as a puddle that appeared at the very beginning and then reappeared at various points later on as an ink blot, an ink stain, spilled milk, and several other similarly interesting mutations.
As with politics, so with morality. “Lolita,” Nabokov declared of this novel about a pedophile (Humbert Humbert) who seduces his twelve-year-old stepdaughter (Lolita) and continues forcing himself on her until she runs away, “has no moral in tow.” Indeed, those “gentle souls who would pronounce Lolita meaningless because it does not teach them anything” are more right than they know. For “the nerves of the novel, . . . the secret points, the subliminal coordinates by means of which the book is plotted” and through which it affords the discerning reader the “aesthetic bliss” whose achievement is the only purpose for which it exists, are not located in the story of a pedophile and his victim, let alone in any lessons that might flow from it. They lie, rather, in
such images as Mr. Taxovich, or that class list of Ramsdale School, or Charlotte saying “waterproof,” or Lolita in slow motion advancing toward Humbert’s gifts, or the pictures decorating the stylized garret of Gaston Godin, or the Kasbeam barber . . . , or Lolita playing tennis, or the hospital at Elphinstone, or pale, pregnant, beloved, irretrievable Dolly Schiller dying in Gray Star (the capital town of the book), or the tinkling sounds of the valley town coming up the mountain trail. . . .
Now, Nabokov was undoubtedly right when he then proceeded to deny that Lolita was a work of pornography. While it did, in his words, “contain various allusions to the physiological urges of a pervert,” it did not contain obscene language or explicit descriptions of sexual activity. The problem, then, as Nabokov recognized, was not with his treatment of the theme, but with the theme itself. It was, he wrote, one of three “which are utterly taboo as far as most American publishers are concerned,” the other two being a successful interracial marriage and an “atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106.”
Yet here, for once, the snobbish sarcasm to which Nabokov was always given outraced his immense intelligence and trumped his normal passion for precision, since the other two themes were not remotely in the same class of the forbidden as the idea of adults molesting children. Nor did they inspire the same kind or degree of horror, assuming they even inspired it at all outside of certain restricted social circles. Hence in telling the story it told, Lolita was admitting something truly forbidden into public consciousness, and by doing so it was—whether Nabokov liked it or not—insidiously seducing its readers into “thinking about the unthinkable.”
I have borrowed that phrase from the debates over nuclear war which were being conducted around the same time Lolita came out in an American edition. It was charged then that strategists like Herman Kahn who speculated about the waging of nuclear war were breaking the taboo against it and thereby making it more likely to happen. Could an analogous charge be lodged against Nabokov’s novel about a pedophile? In the case of Kahn and the others, they defended themselves by saying that, on the contrary, they were making nuclear war less likely by teaching us how better to deter it. But no such defense was available to Nabokov. By his own account, he was not trying to teach us anything one way or the other about pedophilia. And while he did not hesitate to label pedophilia a perversion, the way he treated it was emphatically not calculated to deepen our horror over it. Just the opposite. And herein lies a paradox.
Because, as D.H. Lawrence said, the point of pornography is to “do dirt on sex,” and because it also depends for its effect on the feeling that sex is dirty, a straightforwardly pornographic treatment of pedophilia would inevitably retain the sense of it as a taboo and would play on the horror attached to violating it. Not so with Nabokov. The very brilliance of his language, the very sharpness of his wit, the very artfulness of his treatment all help to shatter the taboo and thereby to rob pedophilia of its horror. In other words, in aestheticizing the hideous, Nabokov—as I can now clearly see—comes very close to prettifying it.
Worse yet, he comes very close to excusing it. Reviewing the first American edition of Lolita in 1958, my old teacher and mentor, Lionel Trilling, began with an acknowledgment of how shocking the book was, but then added:
And we find ourselves the more shocked when we realize that, in the course of reading the novel, we have come virtually to condone the violation it presents, . . . to see the situation as less and less abstract and moral and horrible, and more and more as human and “understandable.” Less and less, indeed, do we see a situation; what we become aware of is people. Humbert is perfectly willing to say that he is a monster; no doubt he is, but we find ourselves less and less eager to say so.
It is important to understand that Trilling was saying this not to bury Lolita but to praise it for fulfilling what he considered one of the primary moral duties of the novel, which was to deepen the reader’s sense of the complexity of life. On this point I agreed enthusiastically, but I was also less ambivalent than Trilling about the smashing of taboos, from which—as it seemed to me at that age and at that time—only good could come.
Be that as it may, the sort of effect Trilling described never happens in reading pornography. There are no people to understand in pornography; there is only a succession of graphically represented sexual acts performed by faceless creatures who are driven by lust and nothing but lust. This may arouse the reader’s own lustful urges, but at least it can be said that pornography never plunges him into a state of moral confusion—not even on those rare occasions when it tries to do just that.
The most notorious instance of a pornographer trying to sow moral confusion is to be found in the 18th century and in the person of the Marquis de Sade. “Evil, be thou my good,” declares Satan in Paradise Lost, and Sade set out to follow that invocation into regions that would have been way beyond John Milton’s most lurid antinomian imaginings. For this, Sade’s books were banned in his own time. But in ours he has come to be hailed as a great writer, a great philosopher, and a great moralist—the “Divine Marquis,” as his countryman, the early-20th-century avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire, called him.
I was reminded of all this by the appearance of Roger Shattuck’s Forbidden Knowledge, which spends many pages refuting the case for the rehabilitation and canonization of Sade. Shattuck does a very good job of it, but as I went through those learned and carefully nuanced pages with their earnest and respectful analyses of the arguments advanced by the (mostly French) intellectuals to whom Sade’s work resembles (as one of them actually put it) “the sacred books of the great religions,” I could not help thinking—again—of Orwell, and specifically of what he once said about certain obviously ridiculous ideas: “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that; no ordinary man could be such a fool.”
If Shattuck had been addressing the ordinary man, he could have won his case simply by juxtaposing the claims made by admirers of the “Divine Marquis” with the samples of Sade’s own writings he quotes in Forbidden Knowledge. So disgusting are those writings that even today, when anything goes, it is daring of Shattuck to quote them, and even then he (or his publisher) must have thought it the better part of prudence to print a notice at the head of the book warning parents and teachers of material to come that is “inappropriate for children and minors,” and still another notice in the chapter on Sade flagging “passages that many people will consider offensive and obscene in the extreme.” Why then use them? Here is Shattuck’s justification:
Most writings on Sade and even some anthologies avoid such explicitness and limit their quotations to philosophical discussions of crime, passion, nature, freedom, and the like. To bowdlerize Sade in this fashion distorts him beyond recognition. The actions described in his works directly complement the ideas and probably surpass them in psychological impact.
Except for that “probably”—“most assuredly” or “infinitely” would have been more accurate—this is excellent, and it brings to mind the first time I finally read Sade himself after having read a number of the critics taken on by Shattuck. Encountering Sade in the flesh, so to speak, I was almost as shocked by the mendacity of those critics as by what I found in his books.
First of all, none of them had made clear that for Sade the supreme sexual act is buggery, both of men and of women, but of the latter mainly as an expression of revulsion for the female sexual organs so great that he could imagine—and actually describe with great relish—sewing them up. Though he does include plenty of the whipping and other forms of torture that have come to be associated with his name, buggery is by so wide a margin his favorite sexual activity that the term “sadist” might more precisely have been used as a synonym for sodomite.
I confess that I do not understand why the commentators I read some 35 or 40 years ago on Sade, who exalted him for his “unfaltering demand for the truth” (Jean Paulhan) and for “daring to look [his dangerous fantasies] in the eye” (Georges Bataille), were so prissily reticent about the homosexual content of those fantasies. Perhaps in passing lightly over the connection in Sade between homosexuality and a loathing of women—who are represented as foul in themselves and foul too because they breed (Sade, as Shattuck points out, regarded “propagation of the species as contrary to nature”)—his apologists were being protective of homosexuality.6
Another possibility is that Sade’s admirers were being protective of him, fearing that to call attention to his homosexuality would limit his allegedly universal relevance and compromise their claim that his fantasies are directly relevant to everyone. If so, this would be of a piece with the general bowdlerizing about which Shattuck complains, and which was the second source of my astonishment when I first read Sade after having read some of his defenders. Just as they glided so lightly over Sade’s homosexuality that I was amazed to discover how blatantly pervasive it was in his books, so they also failed to convey a sense of what Sade’s pornographic scenes were actually like.
Like Shattuck, I believe that the only way to convey such a sense is through quotation and paraphrase, and I now mean to borrow from Forbidden Knowledge in doing so. Being less nervy than he is, however, I will for the most part reproduce not Sade’s own language but only a small segment of one of Shattuck’s summaries, from which in addition I will omit a few details. Of course, even in this slightly cleaned-up version, the passage remains utterly revolting:
After a bizarre double wedding ceremony in drag among members of the same sex, . . . the sons are forced to bugger the father, who imitates the shrieking behavior of a young virgin. Whippings begin, blood flows, breasts are ripped off, limbs are broken and dislocated, and eyes are torn out while Noirceuil sodomizes the victims. . . . Brought to extreme arousal by the excruciating torture to death of two female victims, Noirceuil buggers one of his sons while literally eating the boy’s heart, which has been torn out of his body by Juliette.
Noirceuil then violently rapes Juliette’s seven-year-old daughter (“this disgusting product of the sacred balls of your abominable husband”), after which, with the mother’s enthusiastic assent, he throws the child naked into the flames. Sade writes, in Juliette’s voice:
I help him with a poker to arrest her natural compulsive responses to save herself. . . . Others are diddling us and buggering us. Marianne is roasting. She is consumed. Noirceuil discharges. I do the same.
One must indeed “belong to the intelligentsia”—or perhaps the French intelligentsia—to see moral value and wisdom in the abstract lectures about freedom and nature with which Sade surrounds such scenes and for which they are supposed to serve as concrete illustrations.
What Roger Shattuck does in discussing Sade is precisely what the director Milos Forman lacks the honesty and/or the guts to do in The People vs. Larry Flynt. As I have already indicated, I caught this movie while I was rethinking the issue of pornography, and quite apart from turning out to be wildly overrated as a work of cinematic art, it nudged me in exactly the opposite direction from the one it wanted me to go.
Flynt is the publisher of a magazine called Hustler whose stock-in-trade has been vividly described by Bob Herbert in his column in the New York Times:
A photo of a man driving a jackhammer into the vagina of a naked woman was captioned: “A simple cure for frigidity.” One of the magazine’s covers showed a disembodied woman’s head in a gift box. . . . [Another feature] showed four photographs of women’s bodies in various stages of mutilation. The photos are attached to what appears to be charred human skin. Razor blades are scattered about. Nipples and what appear to be clitorises are attached to the skin with fishhooks and safety pins. Some of the women in the photos have been decapitated, or have lost limbs. A dead woman, naked, is shown lying beside a toilet.
Not that you would guess any of this from Forman’s movie, any more than you would suspect that a Justice Department report once calculated that children were shown as sexual objects in Hustler on an average of fourteen times per issue.
No doubt out of fear that seeing what Hustler is really like would alienate the audience’s sympathy for Flynt (not to mention the fear of losing money by bringing an X rating down on his head), Forman bowdlerizes his subject much as, mutatis mutandis, the defenders of Sade used to do. Thus he conveys the impression that Hustler is nothing more than a downmarket version of Playboy, a bit raunchier perhaps but also more given to prankish humor and satirical high-jinks. In fact, a piece of satirical high-jinks is precisely how the movie characterizes the notorious Hustler cartoon that showed the evangelist Jerry Falwell committing incest with his mother in an outhouse. It was this cartoon which led to the libel suit whose resolution in Flynt’s favor by the Supreme Court forms the triumphant climax of the movie.
Forman’s cheerleaders—compounding his dishonesty with their own—make a big point of insisting that he never “glorifies” or even “whitewashes” Flynt himself. Yet the plain fact is that through the omission or misrepresentation of many damaging details about Flynt’s life and career,7 he too is bowdlerized—into a high-spirited and mischievous good old boy, a mixture of Huck Finn and Abbie Hoffman. Not only does this likable rogue mean no harm; he is actually a courageous fighter for freedom—sexual freedom and freedom of the press—against the puritanical hypocrites who wish to suppress both. Furthermore, never is there so much as a faint hint that there might exist other kinds of people with other grounds for objecting to the open circulation of a magazine like Hustler.
Prominent among these missing people and perspectives are feminists like Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin who regard pornography as degrading to women and who are for that reason no less eager than the Christian Right to censor it.8 Now I happen to disagree with these feminists about heterosexual pornography in general. In my opinion, what the critic Louis Menand observes about the mass-market pornography which emerged into full public view in the late 60’s and early 70’s—namely, that it was based on the idea “that women enjoyed sex as much as men, and in the same way as men were imagined to enjoy it—that is, actively, promiscuously, and without guilt”—has always been true of heterosexual pornography. This idea may be “just another male fantasy,” and it may be false to the sexual nature of women, but it cannot be said to degrade them. (Of course Dworkin and MacKinnon believe that normal heterosexual intercourse, which they regard as almost always indistinguishable from rape, is just as degrading to women as the pornography that describes it.)
Where Hustler is concerned, however, I think these feminists have a point. If there is a case of heterosexual pornography that truly does degrade women, it is Hustler, in whose eyes they are all filthy sluts who deserve to be brutalized. Flynt, a kind of straight subliterate Sade, also forges the same “association of sexual gratification with malevolence, pain, torture, and murder” that Shattuck identifies as the distinctive mark of the “Divine Marquis.”
There is also another opposing perspective whose existence is not acknowledged either by Milos Forman himself or by the admirers of his movie. Less visible for the moment than the feminist argument but intellectually far more formidable, it is represented by the two recent books I mentioned at the outset. The first, Roger Shattuck’s Forbidden Knowledge, I have already touched on in discussing Sade (though it covers much more ground). The second, Rochelle Gurstein’s The Repeal of Reticence, carries the rather unwieldy subtitle “A History of America’s Cultural and Legal Struggles Over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art.” Both these books—neither, by the way, written by a conservative—raise troubling questions about the price we have paid for what I myself once applauded: the shattering of all taboos (Shattuck) and the dragging of everything that was once private into full public display (Gurstein).
The great service Shattuck and Gurstein perform is to remind us forcibly that there is more—a great deal more—to say about the legalization of pornography than is dreamed of in the philosophy of the writers and artists for whom unrestrained freedom of expression is the supreme value and civil libertarians for whom the discussion begins and ends with the First Amendment. Here Gurstein is especially relevant. Reaching back to the late-19th and early-20th centuries, she revisits the writings of the mostly forgotten members of the “party of reticence” (among them the once well-known essayist Agnes Repplier and two college presidents, Charles Eliot Norton of Harvard and William Trufant Forster of Reed), and shows how much stronger and more intellectually sophisticated their arguments were than almost anyone remembers today.
Those arguments pointed to the deleterious effects of pornography on the moral and cultural environment, on standards of taste and judgment, and on sexual life itself. But the “party of exposure” (whose members included practically every prominent young literary figure of the age, along with sexual reformers like Margaret Sanger and political radicals of every stripe) managed to banish all such considerations from the debate. It did this first through the relentless Menckenesque campaign of ridicule that stigmatized them as hopelessly bourgeois and retrograde, and then by dragging the issue into the courts where, one by one, the objections to pornography registered by the “party of reticence” were ruled out as irrelevant, leaving the narrowly legal question of a given individual’s constitutional rights as the only one that mattered.
One could scarcely dream up a more perfect epitome of this process than The People vs. Larry Flynt. To Milos Forman (and most of the reviewers of his movie), The People are all joyless troglodytes who have nothing to say that is worth hearing. As for Larry Flynt, he may not be to everyone’s taste but everyone’s freedom is nevertheless so inextricably implicated in his that when he wins his fight against Jerry Falwell in the Supreme Court, the ultimate guardian of all rights, he becomes an American hero.
Yet not even so great a victory can allow us any rest: the enemy is still there, and the fight goes on. Thus in a fawning piece, Frank Rich (whose opinion of The People vs. Larry Flynt is at the opposite pole from that of his fellow New York Times columnist Bob Herbert) writes of Forman’s great anxiety over “the growing power of American cultural commissars on the secular and religious Right.” “I spent my most sensitive years in two totalitarian regimes,” Forman (who was born and raised in Czechoslovakia) tells Rich. “The Nazis and Communists began by attacking pornography, homosexuals—it always starts very innocently.”
Never mind that neither the Nazis nor the Communists “began” in this way. (The original paramilitary unit of the Nazi party, the SA, was filled with homosexuals, including its commander, while in the early days of Communist rule in Russia, “free love” was elevated over marriage and the avant-garde dominated the arts.) Never mind that comparing “the secular and religious Right” in America to Nazis and Communists is a vile insult. Never mind that if we do have “cultural commissars” in this country, they are the very critics and reviewers who have cheered Milos Forman and pronounced his movie a great work of art.
Never mind all that, and never mind too that until only yesterday (as Gurstein demonstrates), no one ever imagined that the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment extended to pornography. So far as Forman and his admirers are concerned, anyone who opposes the likes of Larry Flynt is still backward or wicked or both, and the corrupting effects of pornography on our society and on our culture (if indeed there are any) are still a small price to pay (if indeed a price it is) for our most precious freedom.
I never knew until I read Rochelle Gurstein that one of the original and most influential authors of this line of reasoning, the famous civil-liberties lawyer Morris Ernst, came to have second thoughts about its validity. As far back as 1970, Ernst admitted that he was repelled by the “present display of sex and sadism on the streets” and “sodomy on the stage or masturbation in the public area.” Surely, Gurstein comments,
his lifelong project had miscarried when purveyors of pornography could claim they were completing the movement begun by his own brilliant defense of Ulysses, where, as he put it, he had “legitimatized a four-letter word.” “I deeply resent the idea . . . that the lowest common denominator, the most tawdry magazine, pandering for profit, to use the Supreme Court’s word, should be able to compete in the marketplace with no constraints.”9
Here, then, we have a third perspective whose existence goes unacknowledged by Forman’s movie and its admirers.
Of the many points emerging from these varied perspectives, there are two that have hit me with special force. The first is the emphasis placed by the “party of reticence” on pollution. This is a word we now use only about the physical environment, having forgotten that we also live in a moral and cultural environment that is equally vulnerable to contamination. We have forgotten too that our minds and spirits, no less than our lungs, can be damaged when the air they breathe is fouled by pollutants. If we are willing to place restrictions on the manufacturers of material goods in order to protect ourselves against pollution of the physical environment, why should we not be willing to take measures that would offer protection against pollution of the moral and cultural environment?
The second point that has hit me hard has to do with the effect of pornography on sex itself. In this connection, Rochelle Gurstein leans heavily on a phrase that comes from Milos Forman’s countryman and contemporary, Milan Kundera, who used it as the title of one of his novels: “the unbearable lightness of being.” This phrase has long been one of my own favorites because it so wonderfully defines what life is like when the burdens of responsibility and consequence are lifted from it. These burdens may seem intolerably heavy, but it is the lightness experienced in casting them off that is really unbearable. And this is what has happened to sex in our time.
Listen to the testimony of Katie Roiphe in her new book Last Night in Paradise.10 A liberated young woman who talks openly and even boastfully about her many affairs, Roiphe has begun to understand on her own pulses what the unbearable lightness of being means:
We find ourselves living without the pain, reassurance, and clarity of late-19th-century social censure. We are on our own . . . yearning for consequences. Meaning. A tiny ruffling of the social order. If an act has serious social ramifications, . . . then it appears to have transcendent meaning as well. It matters. It changes things. . . . The end of consequences has created a new moral universe in which events such as Anna Karenina’s adulterous affair can seem formless and weightless.
It was, I recognize, the sexual revolution, not pornography, that created this state of affairs, but pornography helped trigger that revolution and, accompanying it every inch down the slippery slope, also played an autonomous part of its own. Heinrich Blücher, all those years ago, accused me of taking the fun out of sex by defending pornography, but he might better have charged me with turning it into something weightless. For sex without consequence of any kind is precisely what pornography sells: sex that is cut loose from morality, from love, from pregnancy, from marriage, from jealousy, from hurt. In this “pornotopian” world, sex thus liberated brings unalloyed ecstasy. In the real world, it brings the unbearable lightness of being.
And so it is that I have fallen to wondering un easily whether, if we wish to clean up our moral and spiritual environment and at the same time put at least some of the weight back into sex, we should consider a restoration of censorship. Roger Shattuck provides all the materials needed to construct a case for doing just that, but he answers No to Simone de Beauvoir’s question, “Must We Burn Sade?” (and a fortiori less extreme variants of pornography). Rochelle Gurstein, after providing a complementary set of materials, ends with a sympathetic account of a book by Harry Clor which forthrightly advocates censorship, but she herself falls short of a ringing endorsement of it.
Daring, then, as Shattuck and Gurstein are in trying to promote a return of the now-repressed arguments for respecting taboos and banishing obscenity from the public square, they are not quite daring enough to drop the other shoe. Neither, if truth be told, am I. This is not, as I have already indicated, because I think that censoring pornography is the first step on the road to totalitarianism. And it is not because I buy the specious historical and legal contention that the First Amendment applies no less to pornography than to political speech. No, the reason I hesitate to come out for censorship is that I cannot conceive of government bureaucrats I would trust to do the censoring. In the past, such officials could detect no difference between the likes of D.H. Lawrence and the likes of Larry Flynt; it seems unlikely that their successors would be any more discriminating.
And yet, having acknowledged that, I also ask myself whether the banning of some genuinely good books would be too high a price to pay for getting rid of the poisons in the moral and cultural air we breathe. Once upon a time, when I was a devotee of the religion of art and a leftist to boot, the very question would have struck me as nothing short of blasphemous. But I ask it of myself today because it is no longer all that obvious to me that my mother-in-law, who certainly would not have been able to tell the difference between Lolita and Larry Flynt, was wrong in trying to protect her “part of the country” from both. If we cannot have Lolita without taking Larry Flynt, or for that matter the Marquis de Sade, maybe we should refuse the whole package deal.
But what about Lolita itself? Must we have Lolita? I ask myself this even more blasphemous question because I can no longer dismiss out of hand the possibility that Lolita bears at least some share of the blame for the plague of pedophilia that has been raging through this country and that has now hit my mother-in-law’s home state with a special vengeance. By helping to make pedophilia thinkable, may not Nabokov have to some indeterminate extent been responsible for the greater toleration that gradually came to be accorded what had previously been regarded as perhaps the most horrible of all crimes?11
Thankfully, not all the horror has been drained out of pedophilia. Child molesters are still excoriated, and the fear of them is still great enough to generate outbreaks of hysteria in which innocent parents and teachers are falsely accused by little children at the prompting of overzealous prosecutors and by grown women with “recovered memories” planted by quack psychotherapists. (I suspect, incidentally, that the credence given to these outbreaks is the displaced and distorted product of an uneasy conscience. After all, with so many little children being guiltily left in day-care centers, it is no wonder that lurid imaginings should arise of the dangers to which they are being abandoned; and it is also no wonder that an escape from guilt should then be sought in the idea that children are as much at risk from their own fathers at home as they are from custodians in nursery school. Even then, there is no escape from the guilt everyone surely feels over doing so little in general to protect the children of this country from the moral poisons in the air.)
In any event, even when the accusations of child molestation are true, these monsters are either sent for “help,” which is what usually seems to happen to fathers who have committed incest with a child, or imprisoned with shorter sentences than they deserve. (If it were up to me, they would either be executed or put away for life without possibility of parole, instead of being released after a few years with nothing to stop them from preying again but a sadly ineffective Megan’s Law.)
Nabokov’s own fictional pedophile, Humbert Humbert, was not so gently let off by his creator, who arranged for him first to lose Lolita and then to die in prison (of a heart attack). But Nabokov stood at the top of this particular slippery slope, down which he did his part to push us. Now, after 40 years of sliding, we have landed in a region where the condition of being has become so light and so weightless that the only consequence suffered by a real-life Humbert Humbert like Woody Allen is a short-lived scandal that does not even deprive him of his Lolita or leave him sufficiently disgraced to ruin his career.
Little did I ever expect that I would wind up on the edge of endorsing the censorship of pornography, and not in my wildest conservative dreams did I ever before entertain the thought that we might have been better off if even a masterpiece like Lolita had never been published. But such is the uncomfortable pass to which I have been driven by the dormant memories that were evoked and the settled questions that were reopened by that story about a ring of pedophiles in Minnesota which appeared in the paper just as I happened to be rereading what I now see as a dangerous book paradoxically made all the more dangerous by its dazzling virtues as a work of art.
1 Edited by Brian Boyd. Vol. I, Novels and Memoirs 1941-1951, 710 pp.; Vol. II, Novels 1955-1962, 904 pp.; Vol. III, Novels 1969-1974, 825 pp.; $35.00 each volume.
2 St. Martin’s, 369 pp. $26.95. Reviewed by J. Bottum in COMMENTARY, December 1996.
3 Hill and Wang, 357 pp., $27.50.
4 In 1996, according to a recent survey in U.S. News & World Report, the number of hard-core video rentals in this country reached a total of 665 million, almost all of them from “mom and pop video stores.” Americans also spent an additional $150 million bringing “adult” films into their homes on pay-per-view TV, and yet another $175 million “to view porn in their rooms at major hotel chains such as Sheraton, Hilton, Hyatt, and Holiday Inn.”
5 He finally did in 1958, when Putnam put out the first American edition.
6 I learn from Shattuck that some critics are now finally acknowledging that “the central Sadean doctrine is the primacy of the act of sodomy.” Shattuck himself agrees about “the all-pervasiveness of sodomy in Sade’s writings,” but interestingly enough, both he and the critics he cites, while talking easily about “anal intercourse” and perfectly willing to call it “buggery,” still shy away from identifying it as a largely homosexual practice.
7 In the February 17 issue of the Weekly Standard, Matt Labash digs up a host of such details.
8 If in making his movie Forman was unaware that such feminists exist, he discovered after its release how influential they could be. A piece on the op-ed page of the New York Times by Gloria Steinem attacking Forman for glorifying Flynt was credited with damaging the movie’s commercial fortunes, and feminist ire was also blamed for the film’s failure to be nominated for an Academy Award even though it had been praised to the skies by all the leading reviewers (including the conservative John Simon writing in National Review).
9 Ernst was not the only leader of the “party of exposure” who later developed second thoughts. Even Mencken did to some degree, and others like Walter Lippmann and Joseph Wood Krutch also came to feel as they grew older that the complete rout of “the party of reticence” had brought with it unforeseen and unfortunate consequences.
10 Little, Brown, 208 pp., $21.95.
11 Lolita has by now sold more than fourteen million copies, and a new film version will soon be released. It will star a first-time actress in her early teens named Dominique Swain (whose saucy photograph recently adorned the covers of both Esquire and Vanity Fair). Unlike the relatively tame version done by Stanley Kubrick in the early 60’s, or indeed the novel itself, the new Lolita will feature explicit scenes of copulation in the nude. Miss Swain reportedly had no objection to appearing nude in those scenes herself, but to avoid running afoul of the kiddie-pom laws, a nineteen-year-old “body double” was used in her place.