99 Erotic Notions: Pleasure Manifesto
By Hapax Legomenon

99 Erotic Notions Index
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I. Manifesto

Pornography is the price we pay for 50 years of Hollywood's lies.

Over the past decade, my fictional pieces have suppressed the idea of pleasure. Though it is true I have read and loved many novels, something has made me confiscate pleasure from my own writing. Pleasure in literature (I thought) is prostitution; it is pandering; it is narcissism, the admiration of one's reflection in a pool of water (the obvious response is to ask whether the narcissism of despair is any better). I search the literary arts for new elevating heights. I have noted the following effects:

....a suspicion that pleasure "spoils" the sense of the sublime. As a storyteller myself, I distrust overt attempts to satisfy readers' expectations. Such attempts seem as shameful as masturbation. Perhaps I simply view the mechanics of creativity in a demystified sense. Because I am unable to respond to another artist's attempt to manipulate my emotions, I instinctively distrust literary pleasures as I would distrust the lie that porn stars perform only for the fun of it.

...the fear that pleasure will eventually overtake any other quality of an artwork. Pleasure, I once thought, was a terrorist threatening to blow up the Empire State Building. Its perpetrators could be accommodated perhaps, but never allowed to carry out their threats. Pleasure was thought to disrupt artistic balance.

...desire to be seen not as a prostitute of experience but as an innovator. The inspiration to create derives from the artist's (misguided) belief that it is possible to express human experiences uniquely, that there are stories, images and melodies waiting to be discovered. In fact, civilization overflows with enough artifacts to reveal the totality of human experience to those patient enough to look. Even Kakheperresenb's Complaint that the enormous amount of "complaint poems" in ancient Egyptian literature left nothing else to complain about turned out to be uttered by several poets before. Storytelling is not magic; it is ceremony, a celebration of archetypal conflicts and resolutions. A creator's job is to reintroduce alternate ways of viewing and enjoying the world. The audience applauds the artist as a revolutionary; the artist takes a bow, trying to remember why the old pleasures repulsed him in the first place. For the creator, art offers new ways of tolerating (and even extracting joy from) the madness of living.

...the sense that pleasure is ephemeral, ideas eternal. On the contrary; ideas are limited by the cultural context; pleasure knows no bounds. Martians prefer pleasure to Marxism (or any Ism that Earthlings could devise). Laughter and bliss and ecstasy – they are universals. I admire Bellini's Feast of the Gods oblivious to the painting's mythological allusions. I admire colors, forms, focal points. I am struck by the sense (or is it fear?) that 25th century scholars will find our pornography more fascinating than our novels or poetry, reveling not in Fitzgerald's poetic despair, but Radley Metzger's restaurant of copulation.

...the sense that tension and conflict comprise the true measure of artistic quality. Nonsense! Pleasure is the exhalation of art; it is a continuous act of breathing; one could set records for holding one's breath, and all one would have done is prolong the agony of living.

We live in an age of spiritual uncertainty. Our minds are dulled by the mediocrity of the television, the unrelenting promise of contentment when we buy the latest Ford. At one time we used to enjoy the sweetness of a peach, the lazy coolness of an afternoon. Back in those days, did desire even exist? Nowadays that peculiar creature is put in a cage and studied, measured, psychoanalyzed. Nothing is wrong with analysis. That is the affliction of our time, and we play the game like pros. But analysis creates distance, and pleasure is about connection, union, harmony. Pleasure is about grasping the cookie, not dividing each millimeter of movement into smaller sections and looking for answers at the subatomic level. The Buddha once said there was infinite pleasure in eating a peach. The statement itself is a classic Buddhist paradox. Naming a pleasure is to deny it exists. No, that's not exactly right. The naming process erases the memory of the sensation. We remember the pleasure of eating a peach until the time we realize we remember. Proust discovers the madeleine not through any conscious process but accident.

This argument produces a contradiction. Does Proust deface pleasure by writing about it? Does the pleasure of creating exist only for the creator (the audience be damned!)? Obviously this is not true. People read about Proust's madeleine not to enjoy the madeleine vicariously but to see Proust's relation to it and to contemplate what objects might trigger such epiphanies in their own lives. The most revolutionary impact on porn on viewers, Bernard Arcand notes, is to inform them about the variety of pleasures and sexual possibilities that can exist. Porn can be criticized on purely moral grounds, but the more interesting question to me is whether the knowledge of new sexual possibilities caused by porn can makes us better lovers or better people or even happier people. Does the public projection of sexuality (through webcams, online fiction, chat or other multimedia) enhance sexual fulfillment or simply mask private unease? In using porn, the viewer isn't actually a participant of pleasure-taking, nor does he really imagine himself in the picture (although with technological advances, that could easily change). For the viewer or virtual participant, the mere contemplation of the erotic possibility is sufficient to bring satisfaction. Reality, of course, is irrelevant.

What the world needs is not less pornography but more. We need better ways to dream, better ways to envision our reality as comforting and reassuring. Current society is already a utopia; we have all the books we need, all the music, movies and food. Why does nobody realize that this world now is already the best of all possible worlds? Crime and poverty is there – yes, I don't need to be reminded. They are maladies that have cures. Let us not lose the ability to envision a time when these ills no longer exist.

With most of middle class America, we have to figure out how to sit back and enjoy things. Pascal once wrote that the biggest challenge of life was learning how to sit still in a room. The self-contained world offers advantages, not the least of which is the ability to control incoming and outgoing signals to the brain. For the cocooned individual, the pornographic arts sharpen the focus upon the self. Religion on the surface appears to repudiate pleasure; Christianity, for example, is replete with lists of no-no's and pronouncements about why the self no longer matters or why it cannot be unleashed. But religion's main concern is devising alternate ways of enjoying life. It offers ceremony, songs, a momentary feeling of solidarity. It teaches us to find pleasure in morality, self-righteousness and spiritual transfiguration. The church's pornography is every bit as enticing (and every bit as man made) as those of other arts. The size of its congregation is proof of its allure.

We are oppressed not by organized religion, bloated government or disintegrating values but a culture that offers us shit instead of pornography. Look at TV – it's full of comedians who aren't funny and talk shows about breast implants and celebrity divorces. And movies – nothing but elaborately staged car crashes and arty mass murders. If sex is added, it's an afterthought, a fillip to more arty killings. Consider serious art: poetry, painting, film. What is serious art? Political buzzwords, laborious explanations, top-heavy social messages. It's not their ideologies I find so abhorrent. It's that I am forced to do so much thinking. And music. Everything produced in the last 10 years sounds the same, and everything produced before that time is out of print or too expensive or owned by media conglomerates. My only musical comfort is hearing Karen Carpenter on the supermarket loudspeakers and Beethoven on the cell phone ringer.

We must not reject American culture; we must embrace those parts of it which reintroduce pleasure to a nation of zombies. We must raise our voices to call for the pleasures we have been deprived, the pleasures for which we are rightfully entitled. We must request...no, we must DEMAND that society give us more of those things – those cultural products whose sole aim is to produce pleasure. Give me porn stars! Give me Far Side comics! Give me Charlie Chaplin! Give me PacMan! Give me Green Eggs and Ham! Give me mud wrestling! Give me psychedelic drugs without side effects! Give me Harlequin novels! Give me Chuck Berry! Give me Pink Panther movies! Give me I Love Lucy! Give me gigantic tubes of toothpaste! Give me bluegrass music! Give it to me, everything, give it to me now!

II. Sex vs. Violence: Two Hedonisms

Art has many functions, not just one. People read books to be entertained or educated or titillated or horrified or simply distracted. Beauty or aesthetic release is not indispensable. Even pleasure comes in different flavors. For a film, I can enjoy the humorous dialogue, the occasional bared bosom, the zany dance number or the magnificent special effects of flying through space at warp speed. An old man can reread a childhood tale not to experience great literature, but to revisit memories of a simpler time when the tale first engaged him. A geek can appropriate a Picasso painting as a screensaver, and a teenager can download a Beethoven ditty onto his cell phone to impress his girlfriend. Would Beethoven approve? Or even care?

Art must entice before it can satisfy. In an age of hectic schedules, 100 TV channels, several thousand singers, hundreds of thousands of books and billions of web pages (not to mention hobbies, sports, national parks, parties, household chores and grocery shopping), is it any wonder that humans have the attention or energy for any art at all? How does art entice? And how can text-only content hope to compete with multimedia works that offer (to the male at least) the sight of beautiful female breasts? By comparison, the pleasure from reading Baudelaire's Paris Spleen or Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov seems quaint and inadequate.

Written storytelling offers the pleasures of intimate knowledge and the freedom of imagining situations that are unspeakable,unfilmable or hypothetical. Written storytelling endows the author with enormous power on a shoestring budget. I can conjure with words the final living moments of a man being murdered, the brutality, the terror, the fading consciousness. Words impose constraints on expression, but fewer constraints than the material constraints involved for making a film or creating an image. Written storytelling offers the imagination a guilt-free ride in another's car. We ride along without knowing where we are headed or whether the driver is safe or honest or totally insane. Once the reader hops in the car, literature becomes a harrowing, unforgettable joyride.

The dramatic arts (film, video games, theatre) seem to resemble literature. These genres involve stories, characters, narrative. But the dramatic arts employ people: wailing, giggling people. They fill my apartment like chatty dinner guests oblivious to their host. A novel conjures fantasies; a video stages them. I used to believe that actors were pawns for the dramatist, but lately I've come to feel that actors overshadow screenplays with their beautiful taut presences. Actors and actresses affirm the writer's or director's reality by their participation. The tension in drama lies in how actors and actresses resist a writer's dictates and turn a literary construct into something plausible. The best actors do it by bringing their own personality (and unique emotional cadences) to the dramatic situation.

The scary (and exciting) thing about porn is that actresses involve themselves willingly in another's commercial fantasy. If a good porn performance simulates pleasure adeptly, the male viewer is aroused but bothered by questions of authenticity. If actors can fake emotions, why should we trust our everyday emotional responses? When we cry, are we merely watching ourselves cry? When we express anger, do we first think about the most effective way to convey the emotional effect? Dramas allow us to respond emotionally without the encumbrances of social convention. For once we can experience naked emotions directly (even if their instigator is nothing more than talking pixels on a screen).

In an age where extreme emotions are needed to entice an audience, the contemporary dramatist faces two choices: the cult of violence and the cult of sex. Realism and ideas don't exist natively within literature or film; they need to be interwoven with more visceral emotional experiences to survive. Tarrantino and Lynch make us experience and reexperience the nature of cruelty and conflicts. Ten years ago, the spectator might have been shocked and appalled at how the voyeur in Body Double sat helplessly while the woman was tortured and killed. Watching the movie was a way of understanding the terror of helplessness. Nowadays our sensibilities have evolved to the point where sadism is just another cinematic style. This could possibly be the result of watching a film at home instead of at a theatre (where the communal context stifles subconscious desires and provides cathartic relief). Viewing a film in your living room allows the private release of forbidden emotions. Unlike the onlookers of Cafe Flesh , who inebriate themselves in communal sublimation, spectators in the living room are alone with their emotions, both literally and metaphorically.

Sex in film provides the illusion of infinite reserves of untapped desire; violence in film provides a sense of power, revenge and justice. In the cinema of sex, a mere gaze is sufficient to unlock desire and passion; in the cinema of violence, mere determination is sufficient to ward off assaults and deliver decisive blows to wrongdoers. In real life, we are rarely able to express sexual desire or combat an antagonist so openly and directly. Expression of sexual passion and rage become the ultimate taboo; one can feel powerful emotions and even acknowledge their destructive power, but only if one forswears hope of exposing them to sunlight. That might not be a bad thing. After a savage video game or group sex video or sci fi thriller, a return into the actual world of traffic signals, tampon commercials and dirty dishes will no longer seem so awful. It may even come as a relief.

Why do I opt for the cult of sex over violence? Both are equally unreal in my life. The erotic world offers a fantasy I can reside in for as long as I want; the world of violence tries to drive me out of fantasy as quickly and often as possible. The hedonism of violence repudiates the storytelling process itself, and it is that contradiction that prevents me from finding artistic value in a director's effort to imagine gore or dismemberment or death. Let me repeat: the hedonisms of violence and sex are both artificial and distorted renditions of reality. But only the hedonism of sex validates the storytelling process itself.

Do I describe the artistic choices too starkly? Can't sex and violence coexist in artistic works? And don't violent works of art have positive feedback loops? Videogames, for example, provide a recurring sense of triumph and control from attackers (even if one has to die dozens of time first). And doesn't reality scoff at artists who depict a world without warts or potty breaks or long supermarket lines?

The sex/violence dichotomy is only one of several dichotomies that organize artistic creations. Shakespeare's plays (for example) are in one sense the apotheosis of the dramatic arts. In another sense, they are excessive: bawdiness, gore, fanciful language, philosophical overreaching, dramatic improbabilities and romantic indulgence. These plays are emotionally and intellectually overwhelming, but also a study in abrasive contrasts; clashing passions and discordant moods coexist partly as a way to reflect Shakespeare's vision of a world overrun by agitation, chaos and evil.

Other works pare away extraneous detail, aiming for a single limited effect. Porn is an obvious example of what I mean, but a lot of artistic works (literary, visual and musical) strive to evoke not a world but a narrow range of experiences. These works concern themselves not with naturalism but formalism. To produce this kind of singular effect means excluding. It means that the creator has to choose whether to punctuate narratives with sex or violence, hope or cynicism, profundity or triviality. That essentially is a process of excluding.

This question of commingling sex and violence boils down to the efficacy of Shakespeare's everything-with-the-kitchen-sink approach. Which approach brings pleasure most effectively to the viewer or reader? If a two line poem brings enjoyment, can we fault it for lacking memorable characters or a compelling world vision or profound insights into morality? Why should it be anything more? Does pleasure need to be so complex?

Pleasure should be simple, blunt and surprising.

Started 1993, finished Jan 2004.

See also: Important Questions about Erotica by Hapax Legomenon.

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We must not reject American culture; we must embrace those parts of it which reintroduce pleasure to a nation of zombies.
Bellini: Feast of the Gods
Bellini's "Feast of the Gods"
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