Night Words  

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"The novels being produced under the new code of total statement shout at their personages: strip, fornicate, perform this or that act of sexual perversion. So did the S.S. guards at rows of living men and women. The total attitudes are not, I think, entirely distinct. There may be deeper affinities than we as yet understand between the "total freedom" of the uncensored erotic imagination and the total freedom of the sadist. That these two freedoms have emerged in close historical proximity may not be coincidence. Both are exercised at the expense of someone else’s humanity, of someone else’s most precious right --the right to a private life of feeling. [...] My true quarrel with the Olympia Reader and the genre it embodies is not that so much of the stuff should be boring and abjectly written. It is that these books leave a man less free, less himself, than they found him; that they leave language poorer, less endowed with a capacity for fresh discrimination and excitement. It is not a new freedom that they bring, but a new servitude. In the name of human privacy, enough!" --"Night Words: High Pornography and Human Privacy" (1965), George Steiner


"At certain moments in Western society, the amount of "high pornography" being produced may have equaled, if not surpassed, ordinary belles-lettres. I suspect that this was the case in Roman Alexandria, in France during the Regence, perhaps in London around the 1890's. Much of this subterranean literature is bound to disappear. But anyone who has been allowed access to the Kinsey library in Bloomington, and has been lucky enough to have Mr. John Gagnon as his guide, is made aware of the profoundly revealing, striking fact that there is hardly a major writer of the nineteenth or twentieth century who has not, at some point in his career, be it in earnest or in the deeper earnest of jest, produced a pornographic work. Likewise there are remarkably few painters, from the eighteenth century to post-Impressionism, who have not produced at least one set of pornographic plates or sketches. (Would one of the definitions of abstract, non-objective art be that it cannot be pornographic?)" --"Night Words: High Pornography and Human Privacy" (1965), George Steiner

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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"Night Words: High Pornography and Human Privacy" (1965) is an review essay of The Olympia Reader by George Steiner. It was first published in the October 1965 issue of Encounter magazine and later anthologized in Language and Silence.

The Evergreen Review reviewed it negatively and said: "George Steiner has written an article entitled "Night Words: High Pornography and Human Privacy," published in the October issue of Encounter, which introduces the very newest argument against freedom of expression."

Full text[1]

NIGHT WORDS


High Pornography fc? Human Privacy


Is there any science-fiction pornography? I mean something new, an invention by the human imagination of new sexual experi- ence? Science fiction alters at will the coordinates of space and time; it can set effect before cause; it works within a logic of total potentiality —"all that can be imagined can happen." But has it added a single item to the repertoire of the erotic? I understand that in a forthcoming novel the terrestrial hero and explorer indulges in mutual masturba- tion with a bizarre, interplanetary creature. But there is no real novelty in that. Presumably one can use anything from seaweed to accordions, from meteorites to lunar pumice. A galactic monster would make no essential difference to the act. It would not extend in any real sense the range of our sexual being.

The point is crucial. Despite all the lyric or obsessed cant about the boundless varieties and dynamics of sex, the actual sum of pos-

[Controversy over this article continued for many months, and is continu- ing still. My knowledge of and interest in pornography are, I would suppose, no greater than the middle-class average. What I was trying to get into focus is the notion of the "stripping naked" of language, of the removal from private, intensely privileged or adventurous use, of the erotic vocabulary. It does seem to me that we have scarcely begun to understand the impoverishment of our imaginings, the erosion into generalized banality of our resources of individual erotic representation and expression. This erosion is very directly a part of the general reduction of privacy and individual style in a mass-consumer civiliza- tion. Where everything can be said with a shout, less and less can be said in a low voice. I was also trying to raise the question of what relation there may be between the dehumanization of the individual in pornography and the making naked and anonymous of the individual in the totalitarian state (the concentration camp being the logical epitome of that state). Both pornography and totalitarianism seem to me to set up power relations which must necessarily violate privacy.

Though the discussion which followed on publication has been heated, neither c'. these two issues has, I feel, been fully understood or engaged.]

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sible gestures, consummations, and imaginings is drastically limited. There are probably more foods, more undiscovered eventualities of gastronomic enjoyment or revulsion than there have been sexual inventions since the Empress Theodora resolved "to satisfy all amo- rous orifices of the human body to the full and at the same time." There just aren't that many orifices. The mechanics of orgasm imply fairly rapid exhaustion and frequent intermission. The nervous system is so organized that responses to simultaneous stimuli at different points of the body tend to yield a single, somewhat blurred sensation. The notion (fundamental to Sade and much pornographic art) that one can double one's ecstasy by engaging in coitus while being at the same time deftly sodomized is sheer nonsense. In short: given the physiological and nervous complexion of the human body, the number of ways in which orgasm can be achieved or arrested, the total modes of intercourse, are fundamentally finite. The mathematics of sex stop somewhere in the region of soixante-neuf; there are no transcendental series.

This is the logic behind the 120 Days. With the pedantic frenzy of a man trying to carry pi to its final decimal, Sade labored to imagine and present the sum total of erotic combinations and variants. He pictured a small group of human bodies and tried to narrate every mode of sexual pleasure and pain to which they could be subject. The variables are surprisingly few. Once all possible positions of the body have been tried— the law of gravity does interfere— once the maxi- mum number of erogenous zones of the maximum number of partici- pants have been brought into contact, abrasive, frictional, or intru- sive, there is not much left to do or imagine. One can whip or be whipped; one can eat excrement or quaff urine; mouth and private part can meet in this or that commerce. After which there is the gray of morning and the sour knowledge that things have remained fairly generally the same since man first met goat and woman.

This is the obvious, necessary reason for the inescapable monot- ony of pornographic writing, for the fact well known to all haunters of Charing Cross Road or pre-Gaullist bookstalls that dirty books are maddeningly the same. The trappings change. Once it was the Victo- rian nanny in high-button shoes birching the master, or the vicar peering over the edge of the boys' lavatory. The Spanish Civil War brought a plethora of raped nuns, of buttocks on bayonets. At pres- ent, specialized dealers report a steady demand for "WS" (stories of wife-swapping, usually in a suburban or honeymoon-resort setting).

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But the fathomless tide of straight trash has never varied much. It operates within highly conventionalized formulas of low-grade sad- ism, excremental drollery, and banal fantasies of phallic prowess or feminine responsiveness. In its own way the stuff is as predictable as a Boy Scout manual.

Above the pulp line— but the exact boundaries are impossible to draw— lies the world of erotica, of sexual writing with literary preten- sions or genuine claims. This world is much larger than is commonly realized. It goes back to Egyptian literary papyri. At certain moments in Western society, the amount of "high pornography" being pro- duced may have equaled, if not surpassed, ordinary belles-lettres. I suspect that this was the case in Roman Alexandria, in France during the Regence, perhaps in London around the 1890's. Much of this subterranean literature is bound to disappear. But anyone who has been allowed access to the Kinsey library in Bloomington, and has been lucky enough to have Mr. John Gagnon as his guide, is made aware of the profoundly revealing, striking fact that there is hardly a major writer of the nineteenth or twentieth century who has not, at some point in his career, be it in earnest or in the deeper earnest of jest, produced a pornographic work. Likewise there are remarkably few painters, from the eighteenth century to post-Impressionism, who have not produced at least one set of pornographic plates or sketches. (Would one of the definitions of abstract, non-objective art be that it cannot be pornographic? )

Obviously a certain proportion of this vast body of writing has literary power and significance. Where a Diderot, a Crebillon fits, a Verlaine, a Swinburne, or an Apollinaire write erotica, the result will have some of the qualities which distinguish their more public works. Figures such as Beardsley and Pierre Louys are minor, but their lubricities have a period charm. Nevertheless, with very few excep- tions, "high pornography" is not of pre-eminent literary importance. It is simply not true that the locked cabinets of great libraries or private collections contain masterpieces of poetry or fiction which hypocrisy and censorship banish from the light. (Certain eighteenth- century drawings and certain Japanese prints suggest that the case of graphic art may be different; here there seems to be work of the first quality which is not generally available ^ What emerges when one reads some of the classics of erotica is the fact that they too are intensely conventionalized, that their repertoire of fantasy is limited, and that it merges, almost imperceptibly, into the dream-trash of

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straight, mass-produced pornography.

In other words: the line between, say, Therese Philosophe or Lesbia Brandon on the one hand, and Sweet Lash or The Silken Thighs on the other, is easily blurred. What distinguishes the "for- bidden classic" from under-the-counter delights on Frith Street is, essentially, a matter of semantics, of the level of vocabulary and rhetorical device used to provoke erection. It is not fundamental. Take the masturbating housemaid in a very recent example of the Great American Novel, and the housemaid similarly engaged in They Called Her Dolly (n.d., price six shillings ) . From the point of view of erotic stimulus, the difference is one of language, or more exactly— as verbal precisions now appear in high literature as well— the difference is one of narrative sophistication. Neither piece of writing adds any- thing new to the potential of human emotion; both add to the waste.

Genuine additions are, in fact, very rare. The list of writers who have had the genius to enlarge our actual compass of sexual aware- ness, who have given the erotic play of the mind a novel focus, an area of recognition previously unknown or fallow, is very small. It would, I think, include Sappho, in whose verse the Western ear caught, perhaps for the first time, the shrill, nerve-rending note of sterile sexuality, of a libido necessarily, deliberately, in excess of any as- suagement. Catullus seems to have added something, though it is at this historical distance nearly impossible to identify that which startled in his vision, which caused so real a shock of consciousness. The close, delicately plotted concordance between orgasm and death in Baroque and Metaphysical poetry and art clearly enriched our legacy of excitement, as had the earlier focus on virginity. The development in Dostoevsky, Proust, and Mann of the correlations between nervous infirmity, the psychopathology of the organism, and a special erotic vulnerability, is probably new. Sade and Sacher- Masoch codified, found a dramatic syntax for, areas of arousal pre- viously diffuse or less explicitly realized. In Lolita there is a genuine enrichment of our common stock of temptations. It is as if Vladimir Nabokov had brought into our field of vision what lay at the far edge, in Balzac's La Rabouilleuse, for instance, or what had been kept carefully implausible through disproportion (Alice in Wonderland) . But such annexations of insight are rare.

The plain truth is that in literary erotica as well as in the great mass of "dirty books" the same stimuli, the same contortions and fantasies, occur over and over with unutterable monotony. In most

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erotic writing, as in man's wet dreams, the imagination turns, time and time again, inside the bounded circle of what the body can experience. The actions of the mind when we masturbate are not a dance; they are a treadmill.

Mr. Maurice Girodias would riposte that this is not the issue, that the interminable succession of fornications, flagellations, onan- isms, masochistic fantasies, and homosexual punch-ups which fill his Olympia Reader are inseparable from its literary excellence, from the artistic originality and integrity of the books he published at the Olympia Press in Paris. He would say that several of the books he championed, and from which he has now selected representative passages, stand in the vanguard of modern sensibility, that they are classics of post-war literature. If they are so largely concerned with sexual experience, the reason is that the modern writer has recognized in sexuality the last open frontier, the terrain on which his talent must, if it is to be pertinent and honest, engage the stress of our culture. The pages of the Reader are strewn with four-letter words, with detailed accounts of intimate and specialized sexual acts, pre- cisely because the writer has had to complete the campaign of libera- tion initiated by Freud, because he has had to overcome the verbal taboos, the hypocrisies of imagination in which former generations labored when alluding to the most vital, complex part of man's being.

Writing dirty books was a necessary participation in the common fight against the Square World ... an act of duty.

Mr. Girodias has a case. His reminiscences and polemics make sour reading (he tends to whine); but his actual publishing record shows nerve and brilliance. The writings of Henry Miller matter to the history of American prose and self-definition. Samuel Beckett's Watt appeared with Olympia, as did writings of Jean Genet, though not the plays or the best prose. Fanny Hill and, to a lesser degree, Candy, are mock-€pics of orgasm, books in which any sane man will take delight. Lawrence DurrelPs Black Book seems to me grossly overrated, but it has its serious defenders. Girodias himself would probably regard Naked Lunch as his crowning discernment. I don't see it. The book strikes me as a strident bore, illiterate and self- satisfied right to its heart of pulp. Its repute is important only for what it tells us of the currents of homosexuality, camp, and modish brutality which dominate present "sophisticated" literacy. Burroughs

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indicts his readers, but not in the brave, prophetic sense argued by Girodias. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt of the genuineness of Girodias' commitment or of the risks he took.

Moreover, two novels on his list are classics, books whose genius he recognized and with which his own name will remain proudly linked: Lolita and The Ginger Man. It is a piece of bleak irony— beautifully appropriate to the entire "dirty book" industry— that a subsequent disagreement with Nabokov now prevents Girodias from including anything of Lolita in his anthology. To all who first met Humbert Humbert in The Traveller's Companion Series, a green cover and the Olympia Press's somewhat mannered typography will remain a part of one of the high moments of contemporary literature. This alone should have spared Mr. Girodias the legal and financial harryings by which Gaullist Victorianism hounded him out of busi- ness.

But the best of what Olympia published is now available on every drugstore counter— this being the very mark of Girodias' fore- sight. The Olympia Reader must be judged by what it actually contains. And far too much of it is tawdry stuff, "doing dirt on life," with only the faintest pretensions to literary merit or adult intelli- gence.

It is almost impossible to get through the book at all. Pick it up at various points and the sense of dejd-vu is inescapable ("This is one stag-movie I've seen before"). Whether a naked woman gets tor- mented in Sade's dungeons {Justine), during Spartacus' revolt (Marcus Van Heller: Roman Orgy), in a kinky French chateau (The Story of 0), or in an Arab house (Kama Houri by one Ataullah Mordaan) makes damn little difference. Fellatio and buggery seem fairly repetitive joys whether enacted between Paris hooligans in Genet's Thief s Journal, between small-time hustlers and ex-prize- fighters (The Gaudy Image), or between lordly youths by Edwardian gaslight in Teleny, a silly piece attributed to Oscar Wilde.

After fifty pages of "hardening nipples," "softly opening thighs," and "hot rivers" flowing in and out of the ecstatic anatomy, the spirit cries out, not in hypocritical outrage, not because I am a poor Square throttling my libido, but in pure, nauseous boredom. Even fornication can't be as dull, as hopelessly predictable, as all that.

Of course there are moments which excite. Sin for Breakfast ends on a subtle, comic note of lewdness. The Woman Thing uses all

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the four-letter words and anatomical exactitudes with real force; it exhibits a fine ear for the way in which sexual heat compresses and erodes our uses of language. Those, and I imagine it includes most men, who use the motif of female onanism in their own fantasy life will find a vivid patch. There may be other nuggets. But who can get through the thing? For my money, there is one sublime moment in the Reader. It comes in an extract (possibly spurious?) from Frank Har- ris* Life and Loves. Coiling and uncoiling in diverse postures with two naked Oriental nymphets and their British procuress, Harris is suddenly struck with the revelation that "there indeed is evidence to prove the weakness of so much of the thought of Karl Marx. It is only the bohemian who can be free, not the proletarian." The image of Frank Harris, all limbs and propensities ecstatically engaged, sud- denly disproving Das Kapital is worth the price of admission.

But not really. For that price is much higher than Mr. Girodias, Miss Mary McCarthy, Mr. Wayland Young, and other advocates of total frankness seem to realize. It is a price which cuts deep not only into the true liberty of the writer, but into the diminishing reserves of feeling and imaginative response in our society.

The preface to the Olympia Reader ends in triumph:

Moral censorship was an inheritance from the past, deriv- ing from centuries of domination by the Christian clergy. Now that it is practically over, we may expect literature to be transformed by the advent of freedom. Not freedom in its negative aspects, but as the means of exploring all the positive aspects of the human mind, which are all more or less related to, or generated by, sex.

This last proposition is almost unbelievably silly. What needs a serious inquiry is the assertion about freedom, about a new and trans- forming liberation of literature through the abolition of verbal and imaginative taboos.

Since the Lady Chatterley case and the defeat of a number of attempts to suppress books by Henry Miller, the sluice gates stand open. Sade, the homosexual elaborations of Genet and Burroughs, Candy, Sexus, VHistoire (TO are freely available. No censorship would choose to make itself ridiculous by challenging the sadistic eroticism, the minutiae of sodomy (smell and all) which grace Mailer's American Dream. This is an excellent thing. But let us be perfectly clear why. Censorship is stupid and repugnant for two

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empirical reasons: censors are men no better than ourselves, their judgments are no less fallible or open to dishonesty. Secondly, the thing won't work: those who really want to get hold of a book will do so somehow. This is an entirely different argument from saying that pornography doesn't in fact deprave the mind of the reader, or incite to wasteful or criminal gestures. It may, or it may not. We simply do not have enough evidence either way. The question is far more intricate than many of our literary champions of total freedom would allow. But to say that censorship won't work and should not be asked to is not to say that there has been a liberation of literature, that the writer is, in any genuine sense, freer.

On the contrary. The sensibility of the writer is free where it is most humane, where it seeks to apprehend and re-enact the marvelous variety, complication, and resilience of life by means of words as scrupulous, as personal, as brimful of the mystery of human commu- nication, as the language can yield. The very opposite of freedom is cliche, and nothing is less free, more inert with convention and hollow brutality, than a row of four-letter words. Literature is a living dialogue between writer and reader only if the writer shows a twofold respect: for the imaginative maturity of his reader, and, in a very complex but central way, for the wholeness, for the independence and core of life, in the personages he creates.

Respect for the reader signifies that the poet or novelist invites the consciousness of the reader to collaborate with his own in the act of presentment. He does not tell all because his work is not a primer for children or the retarded. He does not exhaust the possible re- sponses of his reader's own imaginings, but delights in the fact that we will fill in from our own lives, from resources of memory and desire proper to ourselves, the contours he has drawn. Tolstoy is infinitely freer, infinitely more exciting, than the new eroticists when he arrests his narrative at the door of the Karenins' bedroom, when he merely initiates, through the simile of a dying flame, of ash cooling in the grate, a perception of sexual defeat which each of us can re-live or detail for himself. George Eliot is free, and treats her readers as free, adult human beings, when she conveys, through inflection of style and mood, the truth about the Casaubon honeymoon in Middlemarch, when she makes us imagine for ourselves how Dorothea has been violated by some essential obtuseness. These are profoundly exciting scenes, these enrich and complicate our sexual awareness, far beyond the douche-bag idylls of the contemporary "free" novel. There is no

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real freedom whatever in the compulsive physiological exactitudes of present "high pornography," because there is no respect for the reader, whose imaginative means are set at nil.

And there is none for the sanctity of autonomous life in the characters of the novel, for that tenacious integrity of existence which makes a Stendhal, a Tolstoy, a Henry James tread warily around their own creations. The novels being produced under the new code of total statement shout at their personages: strip, fornicate, perform this or that act of sexual perversion. So did the S.S. guards at rows of living men and women. The total attitudes are not, I think, entirely distinct. There may be deeper affinities than we as yet understand between the "total freedom" of the uncensored erotic imagination and the total freedom of the sadist. That these two freedoms have emerged in close historical proximity may not be coincidence. Both are exercised at the expense of someone else's humanity, of someone else's most precious right— the right to a private life of feeling.

This is the most dangerous aspect of all. Future historians may come to characterize the present era in the West as one of a massive onslaught on human privacy, on the delicate processes by which we seek to become our own singular selves, to hear the echo of our specific being. This onslaught is being pressed by the very conditions of an urban mass-technocracy, by the necessary uniformities of our economic and political choices, by the new electronic media of com- munication and persuasion, by the ever-increasing exposure of our thoughts and actions to sociological, psychological, and material in- trusions and controls. Increasingly, we come to know real privacy, real space in which to experiment with our sensibility, only in ex- treme guises: nervous breakdown, addiction, economic failure. Hence the appalling monotony and publicity— in the full sense of the word —of so many outwardly prosperous lives. Hence also the need for nervous stimuli of an unprecedented brutality and technical authority.

Sexual relations are, or should be, one of the citadels of privacy, the nightplace where we must be allowed to gather the splintered, harried elements of our consciousness to some kind of inviolate order and repose. It is in sexual experience that a human being alone, and two human beings in that attempt at total communication which is also communion, can discover the unique bent of their identity. There we may find for ourselves, through imperfect striving and repeated failure, the words, the gestures, the mental images which set the blood to racing. In that dark and wonder ever renewed both the

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fumblings and the light must be our own.

The new pornographers subvert this last, vital privacy; they do our imagining for us. They take away the words that were of the night and shout them over the rooftops, making them hollow. The images of our love-making, the stammerings we resort to in intimacy, come pre-packaged. From the rituals of adolescent petting to the recent university experiment in which faculty wives agreed to prac- tise onanism in front of the researchers' cameras, sexual life, particu- larly in America, is passing more and more into the public domain. This is a profoundly ugly and demeaning thing whose effects on our identity and resources of feeling we understand as little as we do the impact on our nerves of the perpetual "sub-eroticism" and sexual suggestion of modern advertisement. Natural selection tells of limbs and functions which atrophy through lack of use; the power to feel, to experience and realize the precarious uniqueness of each other's be- ing, can also wither in a society. And it is no mere accident (as Orwell knew) that the standardization of sexual life, either through con- trolled license or compelled puritanism, should accompany totali- tarian politics.

Thus the present danger to the freedom of literature and to the inward freedom of our society is not censorship or verbal reticence. The danger lies in the facile contempt which the erotic novelist exhibits for his readers, for his personages, and for the language. Our dreams are marketed wholesale.

Because there were words it did not use, situations it did not represent graphically, because it demanded from the reader not obei- sance but live echo, much of Western poetry and fiction has been a school to the imagination, an exercise in making one's awareness more exact, more humane. My true quarrel with the Olympia Reader and the genre it embodies is not that so much of the stuff is boring and abjectly written. It is that these books leave a man less free, less himself, than they found him; that they leave language poorer, less endowed with a capacity for fresh discrimination and excitement. It is not a new freedom that they bring, but a new servitude. In the name of human privacy, enough!

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