Thursday, November 5, 2015

Thor’s Day: Eroticism and its discontents

A response to last week’s column on pornography

By Bob Boldt

Moristotle asked me whether Kyle Garza, in his column last week, “Why Christians Aren’t Celebrating Playboy’s PG-13 Move,” left any room to distinguish pornography from erotica.
    Some time ago, in response to adverse reactions to my erotic fiction on these pages, I suggested that a transcript be generated of a group discussion on erotica v. pornography. At the time, a discussion just seemed too technically difficult to be attempted. If anyone has the link to such a discussion on YouTube or other venue, I would like to be linked to it.
The novelHenry Miller
    After the post-1964 Supreme Court decision in Grove Press, Inc v. Gerstein, which allowed the novel Tropic of Cancer into the bookstores of Amerika, a no less illustrious figure than Henry Miller himself [the book’s author] decried the quality of pornography that had burst through the broken dam. He regarded the the vast majority of the material being produced as unaesthetic and boring and of no artistic or erotic value whatsoever. I see no reason to revise his assessment in light of current examples.

    As one of the few men in the sixties who actually read Playboy, I found Hef’s “Playboy Philosophy” to be didactic, sophomoric, insipid, and derivative. That is not to demean much of the cutting-edge fiction and essays the editorial staff did publish (but that’s another story).
    Hef’s “Playboy Philosophy” is a perfect demonstration of the old adage, “If you want to be a leader, find a parade and start marching in front of it.”

    Actually, I never found most of Hef’s writing all that interesting. He just reminded me of a dirty young man (and later a dirty old man) living out the fantasies of a white, repressed Midwestern undergraduate from the fifties. His rag was successful not just for the prurience but also because he at least had the intelligence to hire some of the best editorial and graphics people working at that time.
    I think Kyle and I would agree on the commodification of the sexual experience and the deleterious effect that the objectification of people has had on our culture. Of course, eroticism is not the only thing that has been degraded and commodified. Nearly every authentic experience a human can have has been degraded by mass culture and the media.
    The degree to which the simulacrum has replaced real experience was beautifully illustrated in Edward Albee’s short play, The Zoo Story. Jerry, one of the protagonists, sez,

...the value difference between pornographic playing cards when you’re a kid, and pornographic playing cards when you’re older: It’s that when you’re a kid you use the cards as a substitute for a real experience, and when you’re older you use real experience as a substitute for the fantasy.
Erotic art and pornography are as old as the 25,000-year-old Paleolithic Venus of Willendorf. Of course, it is technically inaccurate to use the term “pornography” prior to the Victorian era and outside of a culture of Christian sexual repression and obsession. Nudity and overt sexual expression outside of a Christian culture certainly had less evocative power than it had in a Christianity that wished to degrade human life, sex, and female autonomy and identity. It follows that a religion as anti-life and obsessed with death as Christianity would have a real problem with as vibrant and life-celebrating an item as the artistic depiction or description of sexual union.
    The publication or portrayal of pornography has been at the cutting edge of technology from the development of printing to the transition from 16mm film, to analog video, to digital video technology. We largely have the pornographic impulse to thank for cutting decades off of many of the technological breakthroughs from graphics, to photography, to digital communication, and beyond.

    The cultural breakthrough that occurred in the 1960’s looked to overthrow the whole structure of Christianity-based capitalist imperialism. It was not difficult, then, to see Hef’s Playboy as just another false alternative, fraudulently trading on the new counter-culture of sex and drugs and rock-and-roll. Nothing had so threatened the prevailing straight culture of repression and exploitation since the labor disputes of the early 20th Century. Both movements, the Socialist/Communist movements and the Flower Children, were dealt with harshly and virtually decimated both from within and without. Hippie and its political offshoot Yippie were swept into the dustbin of historical irrelevance by the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the Altamont Free Concert (December 6, 1969), and Charles Manson.
    It is sometimes difficult to distinguish porno from erotica. I, for one, can easily tell the difference when I see it. I view erotic art as the perfect antidote to some of the more degrading forms of pornography. But that may just be my own bias showing.

[Author’s Note: Here’s an enlargement of the inset photo at the top. It shows me (far right with earphones) conducting an interview with Playboy bunnies in 1967:]

Copyright © 2015 by Morris Dean


  1. Bob, I think you may be singling out Christianity a little unfairly on this. I was surprised to learn by personal observation that the cultures of both Nepal and China are quite prudish. Nobody worries about the the virtue of his daughters more than a Brahmin. And the less said the better about the attitudes of Muslims toward overt sexuality. Our culture has no monopoly.

  2. Interesting distinctions, Bob. I hadn't considered differentiating between pornography and erotica. I read an article on how people distinguish between the two (after reading your column), and it seems that the primary distinction is that erotica doesn't necessarily have to be sexually titillating; rather, it can merely draw one to an appreciation of one of the two sexes through the aesthetics of the human body. Whereas lust is the goal of pornography, in erotica, it can merely be a by-product. Is that your understanding of erotica?

  3. And I wholeheartedly agree with you on how mass media culture is degrading our daily experiences of life. There's a great book by Neil Postman called Amusing Ourselves to Death that covers that subject quite well. I've written on that text here for Morris in the past. I highly recommend giving it a read; it's just a great, well-researched piece on media influences and how it shapes our ability to do discourse.

  4. But I do have some head-scratchers regarding that paragraph of yours that includes the Venus of Willendorf and some lines after it. The idea of sexual "repression" has long since been buried with much of Freud's other pseudo-psychology by advances in modern behavioral psychology. There's nothing unhealthy about not having sex until marriage (the Christian ideal), or being unwilling to tantalize oneself with sexual urges--just look at how the word tantalizing has changed over time from its original negative connotation to how it is commonly used today.

    And besides, have you not noticed that every Bible contains a poetic celebration of God's gift of sexuality in marriage: the Song of Solomon? You'd have to completely ignore that book to say that Christianity "degrade[s] human life, sex, and female autonomy and identity," even more so if you don't realize that the whole book celebrates that which you describe "as vibrant and life-celebrating an item as the artistic depiction or description of sexual union." Have you perhaps just not read that book?

    Also, can you clarify where or how we can conclude that Christianity is A) anti-life B) obsessed with death C) has anything to do with capitalist imperialism? I'm just wondering if those impressions are coming from the Bible, Christians you know, Christians in the news, etc. I wasn't aware that I was any of those three.

    1. Kyle, I think that Bob has addressed your final question elsewhere (perhaps in comments on other posts), and I suspect that he doesn't have the time to repeat himself. I'll try to find the comments that I think I have seen somewhere on Moristotle & Co. If I do find them, I'll excerpt them in additional comments below.