Augostino Carracci, Achilles and Briseis, (1557-1602)
Pornography is dead.
I know — anyone with a camera, a computer, a few willing naked bodies, mingled with the wonders of the internet, bring what we now call pornography to more peepers than ever. Men. Women. Teenagers. Grandpas. Middle-aged soccer moms. Christians, Moslems, Buddhists. Liberals. Conservatives. Probably your minister, cleaning woman, and psychotherapist. Everyone is doing it. And a lot of it, a lot of the time.
We are exposed to more naked bodies engaged in more kinds of sex than any time in the history of humankind. If you’ve fantasized it, it’s a click away. And if you haven’t, it may very well find you. We don’t even have to go out in sunglasses and a raincoat. Hallelujah! Throw open the blinds and curtains. Give us all a peek!
Still, pornography is dead. Not the arguments, but the thing itself.
Titian, Venus of Urbino (1538)
In the beginning, (somewhere around 16th century Italy), the most highly literate thinkers used the shock of sex as a challenge to political, religious, and moral absolutists. Genitals were bared in the boldest of language. Sexual acts and perversions of all kinds were shown or described in shocking detail. Taboos were violated. Battle lines were drawn. Writers, philosophers, artists and engravers on one side; clergymen, policemen, and state officials on the other.
Not only creating it, but buying it was a subversive act. (Some of us may still remember the days when we had to work hard to see a picture of even just a scantily clad body! Sears catalogues were often a good source for the desperate.)
Early pornography found rich soil in the art, science and natural philosophy of the Renaissance. It was born of a newer understanding of nature, which challenged the very foundation of the old moral and political order. The earth was no longer the center of the universe. God was not so absolute or involved. Our place in the universe was marginal. Sexual appetite is natural. Repression is unnatural. And damn the hypocracies and vices of priests, politicians, and aristocrats.
Caravaggio, Amor Vincit Omnia, (1602)
Early pornographers were scientists, philosophers, and political thinkers. (Far from today’s “two guys and a camera.”) They wrote about “things lascivious and obscene” to vent their outrage at society’s ills. Early pornography not only forced us to think of sex, but to think of things other than sex. To steal a phrase from the celebrated 18th century philosopher, Denis Diderot (a writer of porn himself), pornographers saw “a little bit of testicle” at the bottom of everything – from hypocritical political and moral pronouncements, to our most sublime and tenderest feelings.
Arsiccio, in Vignali’s La Cazzaria, asserts, “Making yourself touch your prick with your hand is one of the first things one should learn in philosophy.”
They looked into our souls and told us what we least wanted to hear. Our noble impulses are a hoax. And the hoax is at it’s cruelest in our halls of religion and power. Nanna, the prostitute narrator, in Pietro Aretino‘s 16th century work Ragionamenti, proclaimed, “A pair of luscious buttocks can accomplish more than all that the philosophers, astrologists, alchemists, and necromancers have ever wrought.”
Pietro Aretino, 1480-1534
You want to bring down a man in power? Don’t challenge his ideas. Simply find him in the arms of an illicit lover. Make him a figure for our own pornographic imaginations.
Early pornography often took the form of narrative dialogue between women — one of them older, experienced, financially independent, beholden to no one, and often a prostitute. The word pornography springs from the Greek pornographos — writing about prostitutes. From their privileged vantage point, prostitutes knew first hand the most intimate secrets and desires driving the keepers of power. They saw behind the walls of the established order and into the secrets of their bedchambers.
If you don’t think that’s the case, ask any of the sex workers who work the floors of Republican and Democratic National conventions!
Pornography culminated, and some may say ended, in the writings of the Marquis De Sade. When entering De Sade’s bizarre sexual world, there is no intellectual or political indifference. While you are shaking your fists at his evil genius, you find your own boundaries becoming unwittingly stretched. Not just sexual boundaries, mind you, but moral, intellectual, political and even spiritual. Reading De Sade is like strapping your imagination to an explosive devise and detonating it inside your head.
Marquis De Sade
What we regard as pornography today can be arousing, titillating, and sometimes disturbing. Yet, where our bodies may be jostled into gusts of arousal, the endless stream of visual imagery hypnotizes us into a kind of mental numbing. Not so with the pornography of old. You’ll be aroused, disgusted, fascinated while at the same time your ponderings about the nature of humankind will be shocked to life. Far from mental numbing, you will be dared to think, and then to take sides.
Old School Pornography
Aretino, Pietro — the Secret Lives of Wives
Beccadelli, Antonio — Hermaphroditus
Cleland, John –Memoires of a Woman of Pleasure
De Sade — Juliette
Vignali, Antonio — La Cazzaria: The Book of the Prick