Shock Tactics and Pornography

IN THE EARLY SEVENTEENTH CENTURY, an aesthetic shock was accepted as a right and proper element in poetry. The "fancy" was a skilfully organized extended metaphor: preferably an astounding one. It should be revealing to consider what is probably the most astounding of Donne's fancies, the compasses simile in "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning". At a first reading, this simile may seem merely outrageous. One might guess, perhaps, that once one had grown accustomed to this shock, these three verses would appear devoid of point. This sort of thing does happen sometimes. The most obvious example of it, is, I think, a twentieth century musical work: Ravel's Bolero. I recall reading somewhere an eye-witness account of the first performance. It will be remembered that the piece is a long series of repetitions of a theme upon a hypnotic rhythm, and that each repetition introduces more instruments, but that there is no key-change until the whole orchestra is engaged. At this point, the climax of the piece, there is a sudden change of key. The build-up of tension at the first performance was so great that at this point the whole audience gasped. But, observed the critic, this effect can only work once. There is a trick in the Bolero: the hypnotic insistence on one theme and one key builds up a tension which is only released at the final key-change. There is not enough content in the work, however, to support this final shock at repeated hearings. Or rather, this is imprecise: the nature of the shock given at first hearing or on a first reading must be different from that given when it is familiar; and there is insufficient content in the Bolero to support the second type of shock. Donne's compasses simile, however, remains astounding at the thirtieth reading. One might say that this capacity to continue to give the pleasure of astonishment validates the original shock, if it were not for the fact that even a shock given once and never again afterwards has at least that to commend it. Only one would not make a great critical fuss over this type of work. For one thing, it is not usually puzzling.

In drama, of course, shocks are a commonplace of technique. Comic relief in Shakespearian tragedy communicates a shock in that it clashes openly with the mood of the surrounding scenes. Shocks similar in type to the Bolero denouement are just as frequent. An example which comes instantly to mind is the knocking in Macbeth just after the murder of Duncan, when the tension builds up so that at the first bang on the castle gates the audience start. This particular example of a shock is a particularly complete one: not only in that it astounds but at the same time seems perfectly in place; not only in that it does not wear off, but can be re-experienced again and again; but also in that if one takes the scene as a whole, there is combined (in the person of the drunken porter) the technique of comic relief; so that the disturbing, the clashing and the appropriate all find their place in one brief scene.

It may be thought that it is hopelessly contradictory to justify a technique by stating that its questionability is its own justification! But just as it is ironic that "members of the public" who "cannot understand modern art" should bitterly complain that this and that in it is arbitrary or pointless, when at least a part of the artist's intention was simply to bewilder and offend "members of the public" by raising this very question1; so it is ironic that critics of Apollinaire, in discussing whether or not his procedures are honest or valid, do not generally perceive that a part of the raison d'être of those procedures is to raise this doubt in their minds. The modern artist is not merely ironic about other people, he is also ironic about himself. Yet it is fatal to take his irony about himself as the final word; for one has then fallen into the trap, his irony being at the same time an attack on those who do not understand him. These contradictory attitudes can be perhaps best comprehended by a careful consideration of such work as Picasso's "Guitar, 1926", consisting as it does of a mouldering dishrag, a piece of yellowed newspaper, some string, and a number of nails hammered through the back of the canvas. Apparently Picasso had also considered fitting the frame of the picture with broken glass to discourage people from touching it. This is amusing. But it is not only amusing. But that it is amusing is just as important as anything else about it. Clearly, it may be necessary to discuss the validity of modern procedures in art, but only a critic who is aware of the modern artist's attitude to validity can usefully do so.

But besides the aesthetic shock, there is the content shock. In discussing the first type of shock I have found it impossible to avoid the second; but this is a commonplace: the division between technique and content is always recognized to be an academic convenience. Now in so far as a content shock can be distinguished from an aesthetic shock, it is usually administered by the use of irony (which may range from Oscar Wilde's verbal wit to the disturbing and indeed shattering effects of Swift's irony in "A Modest Proposal", and which places contradictory ideas of attitudes side by side) or by quite unironic attacks on social or other conventions. Sometimes this kind of shock too can grow less effective with time. Presumably this usually happens where

1 There are of course times when modern art is arbitrary — and this is often why. And there are times when it is not only arbitrary — and then there are additional reasons, but this is still one. the contrast (between say, conventional ideas of respectability and Shavian frankness) is not built into the work by the use of irony. Thus, the mere choice of a subject such as Mrs. Warren's Profession was, in Shaw's early career, enough to administer a profound shock; it would no longer do so now. However, where amazing ideas (even if these are only contemporarily amazing) are combined with amazing verbal technique, as in the incidental conversation, passim, of Shaw's plays, or where the writer's irony focusses upon both contrasting attitudes, as when Swift describes the mutual incomprehension of Gulliver and the King of Brobdingnag, the pleasure of amazement can persist and even deepen. In an example like this, the irony might be thought not violent enough to amount to true shock tactics. It is a question of degree and definition. A further question of definition concerns where the contrasts involved occur: if for example, the shock effect is due to a contrast between two attitudes both of which are delineated by the author, this technique of delineating both must be a factor in the shock effect. No doubt it tends to make the shock persist, since the two opposing attitudes are unalterably built in to the work. But no doubt, even where the author has avoided delineating the attitude with which his own attitude (real or assumed) clashes, there are circumstances where the shock effect can be persistent, The first of these two types of content shock is more akin to the aesthetic shock, in that the author has brought an additional technique (that of built-in contrast, or irony) to bear upon it; the second might be termed "purer", since it more or less lacks this particular technique. In principle, in fact, one could imagine an entirely "pure" content shock, whose effect was due entirely to the contrast of the author's attitude (expressed) and the audience's attitude (entirely unexpressed by the author). Clearly, however, since the author was well aware of his audience's attitude from the start, this attitude has to be taken into account in judging such a work.

Now pornography is in a curious position relative to these considerations. For political attitudes can, at certain points in history, be powerful shockers. So can unconventional attitudes to religion. But these days, it is almost inconceivable that any political view expressed in print could outrage public decency as much as, say, the expression of militant atheism would; nor would the latter produce as violent a reaction as a pornographic work. The use, in fact, of unconventional political or religious material is nowadays much less effective than it used to be, and effective in a much more limited way. Pornography, too, it can be justly claimed, shocks us less than it did our grandparents. But will its effect ever fade to quite the extent the effect of left-wing propaganda has faded?

The primacy of pornography as a shocker is due to the attitude, widespread still today, that sex is private, indecent, disgusting and holy. Feelings about religion are similar, where they are held; but they are not so widely held, and where they are held, they are rarely so strong. But things which are holy are often also disgusting — as witness the sacred horse-meat of our Saxon ancestors, edible once a year at the feast of
the God, regarded with religious horror the other 364 days. Perhaps therefore even literature which is frank about normal sex will always retain its capacity to shock or at least disturb, since sex will certainly always be rather holy and presumably therefore always rather disgusting. Even the people of Samoa, says Margaret Mead, have dirty jokes, and sex is more socially acceptable there than perhaps anywhere else.2

But if frankness about normal sex (for example the frankness of Lady Chatterley's Lover3 retains its effectiveness, what of abnormal sex? This should be an even more potent shocker; as such, should its employment as literary content be even more commendable? One of the difficulties about this question is of course the definition of normality. The traditional attitude amounts to the labelling of all sex as abnormal. Take, for example, a conventional middle-class man4 of my own acquaintance, married, with two children, whose comment on an X film in which relatively normal sex behaviour was treated with more than ordinary frankness, was: "But Life isn't like that." However, it is not necessary to engage in a discussion about what is or is not "abnormal". Wide enough agreement would be obtained for the statement that "normal" sex behaviour is usually too narrowly defined. This would be agreed at least by those who have taken the trouble to study Kinsey (whose books, whatever else they lack, are at least the most authoritative yet in existence as regards the actual incidence of varying sexual practices). It would also be widely agreed that the arts should be allowed to deal with any sexual behaviour except that where violence occurs with the apparent emotional approval of the author; here there would no doubt be wide disagreement.

Now this is not, though it may appear to be so, just a terminological, legal or psychological question. For we are now touching upon the central function of the "shock" in literature. I take it that in a satisfactory reading of any work, one so to speak enters into its world, accepts for the time being its premises, lives (in a very limited sense) the experience it offers. This process is imperfect at the best of times, and one of the factors controlling it is the effectiveness with which the artist communicates. On closing the book one comes out of the artist's world, however much one has or has not accepted it during one's reading; and one inevitably compares it with one's own conception of the world.5 Now literature can alter a person's outlook; even totalitarian governments agree on that. One could, I suppose, accept the artist's world, swallow it whole — sometimes, indeed, an artistic experience does seem to have the quality of revelation. Usually the revelation rapidly

2 I regret I have been unable to verify this reference.
3 That the attitudes of Lady Chatterley's Lover are "normal" has been questioned (for example by John Sparrow in Encounter, Feb., 1962). But, however one defines "normality", nine-tenths of it is; and since the prosecution at the trial hardly noticed the other tenth, it may be reasonably assumed that even the "normality" of the book can shock profoundly.
4 This would be his own description.
5 To speak of being in and coming out of the artist's world is an oversimplification, since one is usually in the two states of mind at once; but it conveniently clarifies the situation.

rapidly fades, but sometimes it remains, to be gently amended over a long period by later experiences. More often, one does not accept it whole, but finds one's outlook modified slightly, This modification does not need to be an increased leaning towards the outlook of the artist — it may be a revulsion. In all this, the function of the shock is to suddenly or surprisingly (or both) accentuate an effect, thus increasing the pressure of the artist's vision upon his reader, or to suddenly negate it, thus increasing the pressure on the reader of his own experience.6

These two things can be done at once, as in the scene in Macbeth already mentioned, where knocks powerfully accentuate the tension, and the comedy powerfully reduces it. Another striking case is that of the four-letter words in Lady Chatterley's Lover. D. H. Lawrence's intention was to "purify" them. But in fact they function as "shockers". It cannot but produce an outrageous effect to use, in a context of reverence, words whose connotation is elsewhere always contemptuous. Violent pressure is thus exercised on the reader's outlook at two crucial points: the very significance of words; and the reader's attitude, in this case to sex. Does he realize, these words ask, that attitude and actuality are different things, and that the difference is often concealed by the language we use, full as it is of emotional concepts masquerading as facts? In normal parlance, for instance, the word "cunt" means something like this: "the vagina — which is of course disgusting". To prise the emotion from the fact is a possible way in which "purification" of these words could occur. Probably Lawrence thought that Lady Chatterley's Lover was a first stage in the actual purification of these words for normal use; but in fact the effect cannot really outlast the closing of the book. Perhaps something that can, however, is the distinction between attitude and actuality; the way in which this has been pointed out to the reader is so "shocking" that one would think it impossible to overlook ever again. This is to be too optimistic, however; the resilience of ingrained attitudes is frequently enormous.

Perhaps one of the most important questions is how one could determine whether the effect of an artistic experience on the reader is likely to be direct or by reaction. If one supposes the balanced person to have an inbuilt tendency towards an entirely satisfactory equilibrium (which in the nature of things is unattainable) and that between experiences (whether artistic or otherwise) he is in a state of stability only approximate to that theoretical equilibrium?; and if one then supposes that an artistic experience (like real-life experiences) has the effect of disturbing this stability; then if that experience is revelatory

6 Since our outlooks never correspond perfectly with actuality, to be immersed in the artist's outlook and then suddenly given (like a dose of cold water) a suggestion of actuality can make that actuality more uncomfortably alive than it seems in day-to-day life, when one is safely entrenched in one's own customary outlook.
7 i.e. the most efficient possible reactions towards experience. As far as I am competent to tell, these suggestions, though hardly couched in psychological language, are not inconsistent with the usual views of human psychology — except perhaps for the dogma of original sin!

of a better organized series of reactions than his previous equilibrium provided, his tendency will be (by acceptance) to establish a new and mote satisfactory stability on coming out of the experience; if it is revelatory of a better organized series of reactions, but one less healthy owing to some falsifying inconsistency, his tendency may be (by reaction) still to establish a new and more satisfactory stability. What lawgivers in effect fear is that he may establish what is (from their point of view) a less satisfactory stability. I have seen it suggested that descriptions in good literature of what the writer regarded as perversions were more dangerous, because more convincingly done, than those in bad literature. Certainly good literature is more powerful: to say this is both a platitude and a truism. And it is reasonable to agree with I. A. Richards' Principles of Literary Criticism that this is because the sensibility of the author is better organized. Luckily, better organization tends towards better health. It must do so, because better organization simply means more complex, delicate and hence more resourceful and efficient reactions to experience. And where it does not tend to health, the propensity of readers being, as I have suggested, towards a better equilibrium, they will be more likely to react against it than accept it.

For, if a book is to communicate, the outlooks of the writer and of the reader must not be too far distant. A subjective novel by a Martian, for instance, would be very difficult for a human being to comprehend. So it is likely that the attitudes of a pervert would (except to another pervert) communicate themselves as foreign and repellent. This does in fact happen; it is the reaction to most of de Sade.

Prudes and philistines tacitly admit the necessity of this sympathy between writer and reader in the arguments some of them use for banning all so-called "pornography"; for they go on to draw a horrific picture of what will happen if you don't. They seem to think that people only need to read of some ''perversion'' to be inspired to go out and act it. As if people's antisocial impulses were always uncontrollable and always there. This opinion doesn't say much for the state of mind of the people who hold it. Nonetheless, even those who consider the human mind (and particularly the female human mind) to be so tender a flower, are never themselves injured by the reading of pornography. Or at least, I have never come across anyone who claimed to have been.

I do not, however, accept the view held, or perhaps affected to be held, by so many supporters of the liberty of the printed word, and best exemplified by the famous, but anonymous, remark: "No girl was ever raped by a book." True, of course; but in its extreme form this view amounts to saying that literature has no influence and is of no importance, is, in fact, no more than a marginal frivolity. I do not accept this contemptuous view of the arts; and if one agrees with me in this, one must also agree that of course there is some danger involved in absolute licence, and of course it is possible for some people to be, if not corrupted and depraved, at least worsened slightly, by some books. This risk is, however, of a familiar sort, similar to the risk run by all democratic societies in allowing freedom of political speech, and I have already given reasons for supposing it to be a very small one.

One of the difficulties in the way of discussing the subject sensibly is that the word '''pornography'' is itself an invitation for people to evade thought — which is probably a major intention behind its use. Since its meaning is so vague that it can be, and often is, applied even to frankness about normal sex behaviour, its implications are intensely prudish; so that another major intention in using it is to irritate one into accepting an argument on one's opponents' premises. I should prefer not to employ the word at all, it is so imprecise and misleading; and I have had to use great care in avoiding pointing this out until now. But one having done so, I cannot stop there. It is necessary to carry the war onto the opponents' ground, and assert that, even if one is, not a Freudian believing in the identity of sex plus emotions and the libido, one must admit sex to be mysteriously close to the springs of life. Indeed, even to say this is to lay oneself open to the charge of talking metaphysics — and platitudinous metaphysics at that. The censors are aware of this too; or they would not be so eager to ban their "pornography". This being so, however, the treatment of sex in either a Lawrentian or a Rabelaisian way (contradictory thought the two attitudes are) can act with releasing and invigorating force. I am sure most people's experience of literature bears this out. Thus, to ban for instance the Rabelaisian approach, is to come dangerously close to banning the springs of life. The new Act under which Lady Chatterley was tried contrasts obscenity with literary qualities, the latter constituting an excuse for the former. But obscenity can itself be a literary quality.

And if Rabelaisian humour or Lawrentian earnestness are releasing and invigorating, this is true more or less of all shock tactics. Leaving out of account for the moment the healthiness or otherwise of the content of the shock, the administration of one is in itself healthy. After all, it is prejudice8 that is the great enemy. Anything that upsets people's feelings, attitudes or opinions — or all three at once — even if it only upsets them to the extent of prompting them to rethink or refeel their adherence to them, is necessarily good. At least it has blown a layer of dust off their ideas. And there is no perfect outlook; the best we can hope for is that the approximations we achieve to it should become closer. The inertia of prejudice resists change, and every time a prejudice is questioned, the chance at least of some closer approximation supervenes. Hence this disturbing element in art is in itself valuable, in itself valid. "Science comforts," says Braque, "Art disturbs." Shock tactics are one of the artist's most powerful weapons in his constant struggle to excite, provoke and perturb.

8 I mean of course prejudice in its proper sense: opinions held for unreasonable reasons. For the purposes of this argument I would wish to stretch this to cover: attitudes and feelings felt for irrational motives.

Posted By

Reddebrek
Oct 30 2017 02:15

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