The Book Club

The Influence of Pornography

Dear Roger Shattuck,

I’m also enjoying our debate. This isn’t a form for the unfit, though. It’s a cross of essay writing and mud wrestling, staged along the lines of a non-stop cross-country drive. You’re on the day shift; I’m on the night shift. I’m getting groggy.

You have correctly identified me as belonging to the “mere words” cadre. There are nevertheless distinctions to be made here. Deliberate efforts to mislead–which include yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater, Holocaust-denial screeds, certain kinds of pseudo-science, various imprecations from the pulpit, and a large percentage of advertising claims–are clearly not no-fault propositions. They are specifically intended to incite a certain kind of behavior that will either harm the recipient of the message or cause the recipient to do harm, and they do this not by advancing opinion but by alleging as fact matters that can be shown to be false, if not immediately so by their target audience. It is one thing, for example, to say “Killing New Yorkers is great sport;” quite another to say, “The New Yorkers will kill you if you don’t kill them first.”

Sade throws an assorted bag of messages at the reader, but nowhere does he dissemble. He may exhort his reader to murder, rape, and pillage, but he does not attempt to trick the reader into such behavior. The range of moral and political responses to Sade’s work includes, besides yours (horror and alarm): the elitist (that of Bataille, for example, a fervent admirer who wanted access to be restricted), the formalist (Rosen, e.g.), the selective (certain feminists like Angela Carter, as well as various anarchists who applauded pillage but drew the line at rape), the cautionary (for example Pasolini, for whom it signified not just as political parable, but as a reminder of a force he knew lurked within himself as well), and the nihilist (anything goes). I don’t think even most of the nihilists, however, actually expected that readers would take 120 Days of Sodom as an instruction manual.

While it is true that idiots have gotten themselves gored at Pamplona as a partial result of reading Hemingway, the cause-and-effect mechanism as pertains to imaginative literature has been wildly overstated. And that goes double for pornography, because everybody is his or her own most effective pornographer. The readers who have the most uncomplicated priapic response to Sade’s scenarios will probably have anticipated them in outline if not in detail. I don’t, for example, believe Ted Bundy for ten seconds when he attempts to pin his massacres on porn. The interview with him you cite in your book merely follows a pattern of compulsive and gratuitous fabrication noted by every professional who examined him. And speaking of professionals, you may already have read Ned Polsky’s recent update to his classic “On the Sociology of Pornography” (in the 1998 expanded edition of Hustlers, Beats, and Others):

“Absurdity about pornography’s crime-causing effect on “the susceptible” … is sometimes expressed even by people with no obvious axe to grind, such as Roger Shattuck in his Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography (1996). The root of the trouble there is that linguistic and social scientists have a special problem in common (one that is not shared with, say, molecular geneticists): Just as people often believe that they are experts on the nature of language simply because they speak it, they often believe they are experts on the nature of society simply because they live in it. In consequence, like Mr. Shattuck, they can’t be bothered to consult serious empirical research. It would be very hard, in such consulting, to find a scientific investigator of pornography’s effects (one observing such usual canons as adequate sampling technique, control groups etc.) who concludes that pornography causes sex crimes.” (p. 245)

So if you allow that scientific method might have a greater claim to truth than received ideas, emotional reactions, and folk criminology, you are then left with a Sade who was a fabulist, a satirist, and a provocateur; who generated a vigorous stream of images that many people would rather not confront; who brought a tendency of his historical period (political satire manifested through pornography) to its outlandish but logical conclusion; who simultaneously embodied and attacked the power of one class over another, sometimes in the same sentence; and who anticipated a whole raft of moral and philosophical dilemmas involving language, violence, and sexuality that would only increase in importance over the ensuing centuries. You can that his motives were corrupt, that he was an unsavory character, that he is an unacceptable role model, and that he makes you want to take a shower, that he will make certain readers nauseous, that he fails to be George Eliot, etc.–none of this is relevant. Good ideas and bad ideas frequently cohabit in literature; many noted writers have been pond scum in their lives; awful things have been depicted with relish by classic authors from Sophocles to Faulkner; works of all sizes have been employed to justify and excuse crimes; the moral payoff of a work is very often–in the twentieth century, almost always–determined by the reader.

Bereft of the exceedingly tenuous proposition that Sade’s works have incited and will continue to incite sex crimes, your argument looks rather threadbare. You are left with little more than the threat he allegedly poses civilization. I will refrain from saying “Let it come down,” and instead invite you to consider the variegated array of forces at large that do not especially favor justice, honest, respect for others, and the like. Compared with the servants of, for example, greed, ambition, apathy, expediency, xenophobia, righteousness–all of them attributes of what currently passes for civilization, and all of them currently active in racking up corpses–doesn’t Sade smell rather less of brimstone and rather more of the library?

You get the last serve. This game has been a pleasure.

With all best wishes,
Luc Sante