Adventures in Pornography

Today, for perhaps the first time really, for the first time in this way, it struck what a waste of resources tertiary education may be. I mean, a total waste of money and manhours on minds too young, and too inexperienced, to genuinely benefit. This even before we factor in the tremendously homogeneous education they receive, and the limited range of experiences they have had, in this country.

I was doing a presentation on Pauline Reage’s The Story of O for a literature class mainly concerned with censorship. The Story of O is one of the major pornographic novels, together with Georges Bataille’s The Story of the Eye and the opus of Marquis de Sade. It’s a work of high modernism, published in France in 1954, and follows, in third person, a woman referred to only as ‘O’, through a series of sadomasochistic escapades. It is unmistakably porn. It is not an erotic novel, but one that graphically depicts a stockstandard range of situations unmistakably drawn from smut. It is not concerned with feelings, with consent, with empowerment, with mutual adoration. It is, also, unmistakably, art.

What makes The Story of O so fascinating is its idiosyncracy. It is both obscene and morbid; superficial and profound; arousing and repulsive. It reads like a nightmare, and has all the allure. O is the typical pornographic heroine, abused by a number of men in a variety of ways; but the book adds psychology to the stereotypical narrative, in a most disconcerting way. O is submitted to torture by her lover, Rene, and yet she both suffers and enjoys her suffering. She submits herself gladly, as a proof of love for Rene. The intensity of her debasement escalates from the cliched, through mildly offensive, to completely morbid: in the last pages of the novel, naked, tattooed, chained and masked, O has lost any trace of individuality and isn’t even spoken to anymore. Yet the narrator points clearly to the deep satisfaction she feels in this renunciation of self, despite the pain she feels. Around the middle of the book, when her psychology is first brought into the light, the narrator even notices that Rene himself doesn’t seem to enjoy O’s ordeal very much, making it conceivable that O is orchestrating the entire show for her own purposes.

It is a very complex book, and shouldn’t at all be read as realist fiction. Susan Sontag has compared it to other modernist works interested in exploring the deepest recesses of the mind (notable surrealist fiction, for example, and Bataille), and to many works of mystic literature. O’s shedding of the layers of the self is comparable to the path of a Zen pupil or Jesuit novice. For other commentators, it is an expression of the deeply rooted human desire “to be free from oneself, to have the gratifications one associates with the self without the obligation of making the choices by which moral character and personality are defined.” From Peter Michelson’s perspective, it’s possible to read The Story of O as an allegory of falling in love. Or as a prolonged rape fantasy akin to those appearing at the beginnings of romance novels. O’s path towards self-obliteration is as extreme as it is familiar; it evokes not only the usual porn plots, but maps mental territory we genuinely cross. It doesn’t normalise sadomasochism; but it delves straight into it.

I was very interested in how other students have reacted to the book, and was not so much surprised, as deeply disappointed, with the narrowness of their reactions. Unlike a one-joke book like American Psycho or Lady Chatterley’s Lover, time hasn’t softened the transgression of The Story of O; students who would quickly defend the right of Wilde, Lawrence or Rushdie to chart difficult territories were more than ready to be shocked by Reage. What surprised me was how few of them understood any of it. They found O sad, pathetic, impossible to understand. They clearly had no direct experience of the death drive, of the self-destructive potential, which made me think that most of them have probably never even been properly in love.

Over and over again, it was called religious, and all these kids distanced themselves from the religious vocabulary they considered removed from their own lives. They couldn’t find a way into self-renunciation. This disturbed me greatly: I brought in the self-negation of a collective experience, but struggled to find anything Australian apart from the sporting event. Finally, I brought up the housewife: living through your husband and children, what a healthy human being would need to do in order to accept such fate, and how the mental mechanism employed wouldn’t differ greatly from O’s self-obliteration for love. “It’s a not a distant, exotic thing you have no contact with,” I was exclaiming at this point, “do you know a woman who has never worked? A stay-at-home mum? Is that a religious experience too?”

There was a genuine break-through at this point. One of the girls said, after a pause, “I think it’s just that it goes against everything we’ve been taught at school about how we should live, and about what love is.” Telling, the notion of being told at school what love is. This is where I realised we cannot discuss something like The Story of O in that class. It was, quite simply, too early for them.

So much knowledge is experiential, and so obvious this becomes when art criticism tries to happen. Brett Easton Ellis was one of the first artists I’ve read who drew the line between youth and formalism. In your twenties, he said, you don’t understand consequentiality: you’ve had only limited life experience, and you don’t have a proper understanding of the consequences of the things you’re doing. As a result, he said, your capacity to tell stories is limited: you cannot match causes and effects. Instead, the young artist is a formalist; and so is the young critic.

I cannot count how many theatre shows I’ve seen recently that had no understanding of the stories they were telling; and how much criticism I have read that showed no understanding of the meaning of the shows it was criticising. The semi-literary discussion surrounding The Story of O was only the last and the most exasperating case. I’ve been very reluctant to write because I’m getting not so much tired of form (form is always there), but tired of this overwhelming lack of understanding of the stories shaped by the form. A little while ago I read a newspaper article on Beautiful Kate, in which Rachel Ward, the scriptwriter and director, was asked about why she portrayed incest with a bit of sympathy. As if the inner side of all art can be reduced to plot plus artist’s message and goddamn sympathy or condemnation.

Someone, somewhere, once defined good literature as that thing you read and go, Yes, that’s exactly how life is! I never thought of it that way, but that’s how things are! In order to recognise that that’s how things are, though, you have to have known the things themselves. No amount of reading can do it instead.


11 thoughts on “Adventures in Pornography

  1. C says:

    long live the year of truth and substance!

  2. epistemysics says:

    I have to disagree (and at the same time possibly agree) with your assessment of tertiary education – I don’t think it’s a waste of time or resources on young minds, for the most part. I assume (dangerously) that you’re making this observation from the perspective of someone involved in the Arts side of a university?

    My point is that your observation doesn’t apply to just about every other subject at university: engineering, science, medicine, commerce, languages, mathematics – the list goes on (I say that because I can’t think of any more). None of these areas seem to be to be a waste of resources (or at least a waste in the way you are suggesting). After all, what kind of experience does a young student need to learn Japanese? To study commerce? I know, personally, that I don’t think another ten years of life would add any more value to my computer science degree.

    I suppose the difference between those subjects and the arts may be the difference between a skill based outcome of learning and a “something” based outcome (whatever that “something” that arts students are supposed to learn is). That sounds like the general “arts students are lazy” elitism that comes from other faculties of a university, but I don’t mean it that way – there just seems, from the outside anyway, a difference in what type of learning is going on. That’s not to say analysing art, etc, isn’t a skill, though…

    So I’ve probably just destroyed my argument there, but I hope it makes sense. I have more to say on other things, but that’s enough for the moment. I suppose I’m interested to know what you think that “something” is, or should be?

  3. J. says:

    Epistemysics is exactly right here, it’s a question of what the outcome of an arts degree should ideally be, and this is a question that universities seem to be generally incapable of answering now (and Epistemysics, don’t feel shy about calling arts students lazy, I’ve been one for years, I’ve taught them, and, by and large, that’s exactly we are, lazy, lazy, lazy, but it’s okay, interesting things can sometimes come out of laziness…).

    I’m sure there’s a different attitude towards learning in the sciences, law, commerce, etc, where education does have a clear(er) outcome , where the students can see that the qualification they are working for will provide them with necessary knowledge for their chosen professions that they currently lack.

    Arts degrees have always been more nebulous in their outcomes – though it’s become worse now that, with the soaring costs of education, Arts programs have generally had to compete for students by making the curriculum easier and more palatable for students, rebranding the Arts as the edutainment wing of tertiary education. Neither students nor teachers now know exactly what the students are supposed to be getting out of this watered-down course of study (esp. in areas like creative writing), and, in my experience, even the best students who enter these courses seem increasingly unwilling to admit that there is any vital knowledge that they have yet to attain (be it of literature, history, basic grammar, etc…). They’ve been taught, somewhere along the line, to look to their teachers not for education but for reassurance, and I think that what they hope to take away from an arts degree is a sense that the world will always conform to their expectations.

    To contradict Jana, though, I think that the students in her class are ready for the Story of O and anything else that the course has to throw at them, it’s probably coming at just the right time. For the above-average to best students, the only good thing that an arts degree can offer is the occasional destabilising moment, an upsetting, or confrontational idea. For the rest, it’s just an undemanding 3-4 years.

    I certainly don’t think experience is always needed to appreciate good literature though. The best novels that I read at that age didn’t evoke ‘yes! That’s exactly how life is!’ so much as ‘holy crap! How can life possibly be that way?’ The best literature doesn’t just confirm experience, it also shapes and directs it. The problem comes with tertiary students being increasingly unreceptive to the experience that literature can offer them, tending to insist that their inability to understand or relate to a text is due to a flaw in the text itself and not any lack or insufficiency in their own character or world view. Once upon a time, the aim of tertiary arts education was arguably to alert students to the possibility of this lack and go a little way towards helping them correct it. Now, who knows?

  4. Jana says:

    I have to disagree with both of you, and perhaps clarify.

    Julian, I think you’re talking from the experience of someone who finds himself teaching not much, to people who don’t want to learn much. From observation, literature classes (like Porn) have a much higher energy quotient: students are reading, are debating, are involved and interested. It seems to me that these characteristics are enough for you to judge the act of teaching a success. Instead, I think they’re not getting much out of the books (the same way I didn’t get much out of Nabokov the first time around), and subsequently we’re not having the conversations we’re supposed to be having, but some more primitive, sub-conversations.

    Compare with arts and criticism, where the argument always gets bogged down with gossip, basic questions of craft, and funding, before it ever gets to art.

    Epistemysics, I actually spend most of my time in environmental studies of one sort or another, and I think the problem is particularly acute in the humanities, but also exists in social sciences, and may be there across the board. Questions of complex design, such as urban planning and urban design (and architecture), rely on their solution on the student’s ability to understand the interrelation between elements, and I haven’t seen much evidence that this can be successfully divorced from experience. In particular, supposedly elite (read, homogeneous) universities like mine have the additional problem of being, for most of its students, just an extension of high school: their social networks, their hobbies, their everyday routine get transferred completely, and they are never challenged enough to question their own assumptions.

    When it comes to professional education, I think the biggest thing missing for most students right now is the ability to understand how what they’re learning relates to the world they’ll later be working in, both in ethical terms and in terms of their market placement. Here is where I think 10 extra years spent outside the university would benefit all.

    Since people are emotionally maturing at a much later age these days, and marriage, child-bearing and retirement have moved many years into the future for most, certainly it would be only logical to hypothesise that a longer-than-a-year gap between high school and university would possibly be the natural development?

    I think it would benefit many.

  5. J. says:

    Hi Jana – yes, involved, debating, engaged students does sound like a successful class to me (God, let me loose on a pure lit class, just one…). But I think you judge it as unsuccessful because most of the other students are probably younger than you are and haven’t been reading widely and consistently, like you have, for years. Like I’ve said to others in your position – the dialogue just isn’t going to be pitched at your level.

    I’m not sure if the benefits of delaying tertiary education would be as great as you imagine (and I’m talking about the humanities end of the argument here, I know little about teaching or students in the social sciences). Will students necessarily arrive at university as better readers if they’ve spent five years working as retail clerks or in their Dads’ offices, or backpacking around Europe with a bunch of other Australians before they pick up a book? Yes, different understandings of literary works are reached at different points in life, and of course understandings depend on experience, but I don’t think ‘understanding’ should be the chief aim of a formal education in lit at an undergrad level, I think it’s more about introducing students to a range of work that may or may not help to shape their development – the old and unfashionable idea of becoming familiar with the canon, whatever it may be at any given moment. I’ll accept that your peers can’t understand the Story of O without having been properly in love, as you put it. But maybe they won’t be able to properly understand the experience of being in love without having been exposed to that book and a whole range of other works that explore the theme of love in similar and different ways?

    I guess I just don’t like the one-way street that you pave between experience and literature in this argument. Reading literature shapes our experiences as much as experience shapes our reading; it’s an experience of its own and one that many students are only exposed to at a tertiary level, it seems. Why delay it?

    Education at any level, formal or informal, is part of a lifelong process of development and you’re further along than your peers not just because you are more experienced than they are, but because you’ve been pursuing your own course of education for years. This isn’t your first reading of the Story of O, this isn’t the first time you’ve thought about the relationship between art and pornography. But it may well be for them, and they probably wouldn’t have come to these ideas without the impetus of the course. Delaying tertiary education for four or five years won’t necessarily result in students who show up in the tutorial room ready to debate at the level you want. It may just be lost time that strips them of the experience they really need in order to get started.

  6. epistemysics says:

    I had some points to make when I left for university this morning – now let’s see if I can actually remember them!

    Firstly, Jana, I don’t think, no matter what you say (although I do believe in the power of possibility), that you’re going to convince me that a mathematics student needs life experience to get the most out of their education. The arts, maybe. Architecture, between a “maybe” and a “never”. After all, exactly what kind of experience does an architect need to design a building? Unless they’ve been living in a tent in the desert all their life before they come to university, they’ll have had a generous helping of experience, surely? So any delay, as you were suggesting, would need to be course specific. And I say “experience” to mean “interaction with architecture” there, rather than “life experience” (such as love, loss, etc), which I think is what you meant. If not, then I don’t see what falling in love has to do with designing a building? I think the same type of argument applies to urban design, but then again, I’m not an architect or urban designer… Unless I’ve got it all wrong – in which case, what are some examples of experience that help in urban design?

    Your reference to “ethical terms” is an interesting one, though. Ethics is surely a prime example of a subject that should be taught when a person is young, isn’t it? One of my lecturers remarked that the reason to do ethics now, rather than later, is that when you’re put in a moral quandary (where you’ll perhaps have to make a split-second decision), you’ll have already thought the ethics of your action through. Being suddenly asked to lie to a client in a business meeting is not the best time to be invoking Kant! I think the same type of thing can be applied to literature, like Julian was saying. A great example of this would be literature that deals with mortality – surely reading a novel such as that can trigger an existential crisis (or something similar)?

    I have to disagree with you both, though. While falling in love may help a student understand the Story of O, I don’t think a lack of love necessarily prevents them – I’ve never been in love (queue sad music) and, just from your description, I can understand where the character is coming from. As for your class, I wasn’t there (obviously), but maybe some of the students were loathe to standing up and telling their peers that they understood sadomasochistic desires?

    I think imagination (and putting yourself in another’s shoes) is an important part of connecting with literature too, and can be just as potent as experience. I can imagine what a serial killer would be feeling, but I doubt I’ll ever experience such a thing. Empathy and imagination can make up for lack of experience, surely?

  7. Julian says:

    Yep, sorry Epistemysics, it’s probably wrong for me to talk about ‘understanding’ or ‘not understanding’ a literary work in such absolute terms. My point is more that experience will alter and shape one’s the reading of a work, just as reading can alter and shape our understandings of our own experience. How a person understands a particular work (and the significance that it has for their life) can and should change over time.

  8. Jana says:

    Epi & J, question for you both:

    merits of university education starting at the age of 15 (which is when the brain is most active, or efficiently functioning, according to research). Discuss.

    (Sorry, I’ll be back. I’m just swamped in Jacqueline Rose & Sarah Kane until Wednesday.)

  9. epistemysics says:

    Julian, couldn’t agree with you more (and by “agree” I mean “concur with your opinions such that I am not contradicting my own”!) It’s a shame that there aren’t more absolutes in life, though – things would be a lot less messy and middle ground and hard to define if there were!

    As for your question, Jana – what an utterly ridiculous proposition! How would the 15 year olds buy alcohol?! Obviously you haven’t thought this through…

    It’s interesting, though, because 15-16 is the age when compulsory school education ends in Australia (Year 10), with years 11 and 12 there to prepare students for university – so in a way, the university education sort-of-kind-of-a-little-bit starts at 15. The main difference between the early-uni and 11-12 systems is the environment in which the learning takes place. I suppose the question is, are 15 year olds mature enough to survive in a university environment? And also, do 15 year olds, on average, have a good idea of what they want to be when they grow up? (I know I didn’t – still don’t, really.)

    More thought required, though.

  10. Ian says:

    Glad to see this topic is being treated more intelligently here than the first place I came across it. Since some questions about architecture have been asked, here are some observations from an architect who has practiced in diverse contexts as well as taught in universities in the UK and Australia for 20 years.

    Mature-age students sometimes have less flexible minds than those straight from school. On the other hand, they’re very good at livening up tutorials with their strong opinions and social confidence.

    Mature age students often play the experience card to justify their resistance to new ideas presented in class (and to discount the ‘naive’ speculations of their younger classmates). On the other hand, when they have breakthroughs, they’re often major epiphanies – a joy for any teacher.

    Most architects (and other built environment professionals) do the main part of their learning to do the job in practice. The better practices see it as their role to be places of learning and research.

    Historically, some of the best architecture has been produced by people educated under apprenticeship systems (who would have started as young as 13-14 in some cases), where the focus was on making buildings rather than abstractions about form or meaning. The contemporary version in many schools seems designed to satisfy the intellectual needs of those who would become critics and historians rather than practitioners. But the distinction probably won’t stand up to scrutiny more broadly.

    The pertinent question to ask is: Would real (as in actual, not imaginary) architecture, planning and urban design be better if there was a delay before starting study? Its very possible – but the entire structure of the professions would likely have to change, founded as they are on employees having learnt the basics of designing and planning at publicly-funded unis.

    And would this shift to a more mature age student body mean more vibrant and engaged tutorial discussions? See above. The passions people have, the questions people ask, change with experience, and their expectations about course content with it. More mature students may mean calls for more vocationally-oriented courses, which for some may seem a good return on investment. For others who enjoy the intellectual and creative freedom that uni offers, rather tedious.

    Some of the most interesting design studios I’ve ever done / taught have been ‘vertically integrated’ ones, with students working together across the different year levels. Experience and innocence can make for highly creative collaborations and wonderful learning experiences. But designing is a very long way from discussing literature. And the love that comes into it has to be a love of the process of designing and the objects of design. Experience is valuable, but without imagination, it is of little use in this context.

  11. Paul says:

    “As if the inner side of all art can be reduced to plot plus artist’s message and goddamn sympathy or condemnation.”

    Of course it can’t, but so often the artist’s intended message and overt sympathy or condemnation shapes and overwhelms the presentation of the art. The reviewer would be remiss not to discuss the director’s intentions.

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