Blog Post

Sensual Poetics

Pornographic literature is dismissed as an oxymoron by many scholars because we expect ‘literature’ to imply form, while the endless repetition of unproblematic sex acts denies us the comforting format of beginning, middle, and end.

If there is action in pornography (and the more the better), there is no sense of a narrative, but artificial and superfluous. Pornography might read as the constant repetition of sexual satisfaction at the level of the story, but it’s also a story of repeated disappointments for the reader in search of a sense of evolution and completion.

But sex is. It does not have to mean anything, nor does it follow any specific arc of improvement or disillusionment. If anything, pornography at its core–when it avoids the traps of romantic fallacy and remains true to its simplistic but powerful primal essence–performs a rare act of fidelity to the naked truth of our bare instincts (admittedly, overtired new parents and anyone with a full-time job might rightfully suspect that endless, unquenchable desire is yet another fantasy.)

As Susan Sontag explained, pornography speaks about the human condition: about our (animal) instinct to seek pleasure and avoid pain, our (cultural) refinement in inventing new forms of both, our (for some sadistic) capacity to intellectualize pain as pleasure . Even the fact that it is most often literarily inept speaks of an important philosophical and poetic truth: it points out the inadequacy of language in its ordinary form (and maybe, if we are honest about literature, in any form) to summon the infinite texture of our bodily experiences.

Maybe then, pornography is philosophical in essence, romanesque by accident, and only to a postmodern mind used to disjointed forms. Inconclusiveness, formal variations and the endless reiteration of a single primal scene told in the present moment: what if, more than any other genre, pornography was akin to poetry? Aretino would not have disagreed.

In fact, one dreams of a text which would bring pornography to the level of poetry such a transcendental experience deserves. If rapture is often described in religious terms (how many more times is God invoked in such moments than in prayers), and, conversely, religious ecstasy is notably voiced in the language of the body among the great mystics, poetry seems to be the most likely to be able to capture in subliminal utterances an experience verging (admittedly, at its best) on the sublime. Instead of defilement and desecration, it seems to me that it should be an occasion for beauty. But the complex history of the body in the West and, as a consequence, of pornography as a political act of defiance and satire has robbed us of this possibility. For nectar, we have to turn to the East.

Cecile Alduy's picture
« Je ne puis tenir registre de ma vie par mes actions: fortune les met trop bas; je le tiens par mes fantasies. » Montaigne, Essais, III, 9, 945 A prescient definition of blogging, no? Cécile Alduy, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of French Studies at Stanford University. A former student from the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, she teaches French literature and film, with an emphasis on gender and ethnic studies.  Her research interests include Renaissance literature and culture, the history of the body, poetry, cognitive theory, and more generally how we make sense of the world.