Just above, in what seems to be the second in a series of five lectures Susan Sontag delivered at the 92nd St. Y in 1964, hear the novelist, filmmaker, and literary critic discuss what she calls “classical pornography”—which is not, in her definition, porn from ancient Greece. Instead, she means the phrase as “kind of a joke,” referring primarily to literary porn of the Restoration and Eighteenth Century, such as Rochester’s lusty poetry, de Sade’s outrageous scenarios, or Voltaire’s Candide, as well as later works like The Story of O. As Sontag puts it, her use of “classical” means “those things which have our interest as a part of culture, as opposed to sociology or journalism… something to do with art, as opposed to strictly commercial or sleazy product” (a class she sums up with the now-very-dated reference to “42nd Street”).
Sontag was 31 at the time of this recording, and the collection of essays on which she made her name as a critic, Against Interpretation, would not be published for two more years, though the essay “Notes on Camp” had already made a stir. The thoughts she develops in the lecture above would come to form her essay “The Pornographic Imagination,” a spirited and erudite defense of “classical” pornography as a kind of liberating aesthetic that engages the same extreme impulses and desires as certain kinds of religious experience. It was, of course, a very provocative position to take in the mid-sixties, and Sontag, as usual throughout her career, found herself assailed by moralists and praised by radicals.
In the above lecture, Sontag defines pornography as “works of art which embody, reflect, react to or against the idea that lascivious or lustful thoughts or acts are inherently immoral.” She moves from this definition to her larger point that pornography fills an important role, that of “shock.” “Every important human experience in life and literature,” she tells us, “involves shock.” Sontag’s complicated defense of literary pornography concludes with the idea that “violence, sexuality, absurdity and extreme states of human experience can be a corrective for the pervasive psychological and moral narrowness of American life.”
Sontag remains ambivalent about whether and what kind of pornography can accomplish this effect, and even at this early stage, we see a side of Sontag Adam Kirsch calls “an enforcer of literary and cultural hierarchies.” For all of the fine distinctions she makes between high and low forms of pornography, her distrust of more demotic, less “classical” forms, as well as of the “quality or fitness of the human subject,” give her pause. While she aims for what she called, after William James “a wider scale of experience,” Sontag, at the end of the essay that developed after this lecture, pondered with anxious irony: “If so many are teetering on the verge of murder, dehumanization, sexual deformity and despair, and we were to act on that thought, then censorship much more radical than the indignant foes of pornography ever envisage seems in order.”