Sunday, June 28, 2015

THE OTHER VICTORIANS: A STUDY OF SEXUALITY AND PORNOGRAPHY IN MID-NINETEENTH-CENTURY ENGLAND by Steven Marcus

Steven Marcus's The Other Victorians was a groundbreaking work upon publication almost 50 years ago. In an America that was still in the process of busting the 'mind-forged manacles' of literary censorship, this serious, sober, scholarly study of a few volumes from the vast library of Victorian smut effectively demonstrated the 'redeeming social value' (as sociological and/or psychological records) of works considerably less aesthetically accomplished than the judicially impounded literary artworks of Lawrence, Miller, Burroughs and Selby. If a scholar can demonstrate the value of The Lustful Turk or Rosa Fielding, it becomes very difficult for anyone to argue that Naked Lunch has none; and apr├Ęs Burroughs, le deluge. The literary critical passages in The Other Victorians, especially the extended discussion of My Secret Life, remain valuable and interesting half a century later. Indeed, Marcus's two chapters on My Secret Life are probably still the best pages ever written about that unreadably long and talentlessly-written Victorian monument. And his concluding discussion of 'pornotopia,' a word Marcus coined here to denote the fantasy world where all pornographic fiction is set, has deservedly become a locus classicus in all serious discussions of pornography. Marcus's other attempts to generalize or theorize, however, run up against a serious, perhaps fatal, methodological problem. He tries to make general statements about pornography, everywhere and at all times (he seems to imply), on the basis of a relatively tiny sample of works from the same country and century. Furthermore, he stacks the deck against porn by drawing a solid line between the categories 'pornography' and 'literature' and giving works of high aesthetic value to the latter category, thus ensuring that the former category will be a sump of easily dismissible filth. And this points to a further problem with The Other Victorians: Marcus doesn't much like his subject matter, and it shows. Repeatedly while reading the book I found myself wondering how Leslie Fiedler might have written it, or even how that porn fangirl Camille Paglia might have handled this material. Marcus too often comes across as a dogmatic Freudian moralist who repeatedly uses Freud's highly questionable schema of sexual development to indict pornography as a symptom of arrested development. In the world of 2015 this idea seems as archaic as the walls of Troy and Marcus seems an oddly mild-mannered Puritanical scold. (Marcus's few glancing remarks about homosexuality are equally outdated and off-base, artifacts of the Don Draper-era world in which he lived and wrote.) The Other Victorians was a necessary book and needed to be written. If it hadn't been written by a midcentury American Freudian moralist--if it had been written, say, by an author of libertarian or anarchist tendencies--it might have been an even better book. Sex, after all, and thus pornography, is naturally anarchic; even at its grimmest (in Sade, for example) it's a topsy-turvy twisting turning thing, blurrer of lines and dissolver of hierarchies. These are probably the only tenable generalizations one can make about sex and porn. To say anything else in general, as opposed to speaking of individual sexual works and acts, is like trying to nail semen to a wall.

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