On Pornography

As early as the seventh grade, the lads I ran with naturally enough developed a healthy interest in pornography. In today's age of the Internet, it's easy to forget what this implied back then. Nowadays, pornography has lost all of its charm and appeals to the eyes only, merely in a surface manner, no intellect or imagination required. But in the 1960s of which I write, it meant reading. (Maybe salivating, too, and certainly dreaming).

This is so important, it bears repeating: dirty books consisted of words and ideas, often times quite literary in nature. If you wanted to satisfy prurient interest in those days, you had to know how to read, and usually quite well. I found my vocabulary growing by leaps and bounds then.

In any event, filthy photography and movies were products of the underground back then, the really libidinous stuff entering circulation by way of Denmark, rare as hen's teeth in my hometown--so far away from Hennepin Avenue. And the law was unpredictable, apt to land you in jail for far tamer stuff than is found on the World Wide Web today. Younger folks may find it hard to fathom, but people really were being incarcerated rather too frequently in the 1960s for publishing books, exhibiting movies and even reading things in the privacy of their own homes. Besides the rising hormones inherent in teenage hoodlums like my crew, there's no doubt that the illicit nature of the material only added zest.

When one of us would find a particularly salacious novel, it would make the rounds clandestinely. One of the very first dirty books I remember circulating in the seventh grade was Candy by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg. Oh man, this was the real deal, leading to palpitations all over the place. The descriptions were particularly graphic, and I'm certain we all felt like we would burst while reading it. Apparently Billy (a classmate in junior high) did literally, since his mother discovered the Mason jars under his bed. I guess he was saving it for marriage, as the old joke goes.

My buddy Whitey and I were convinced we would be locked away forever if caught with this tome, so we were meticulous in our methods of sneaking it between home and school, passing it around sandwiched within a 3-ring notebook during homeroom. By the way, while it's not particularly well written, it was amusing in many ways. If nothing else, that drove home the important point that sex could be fun and funny. This contrasted nicely with our feeble and unrealistic sex education classes which emphasized that nakedness with another only meant sexual congress for the purpose of procreation--and whatever you do: Don't keep your eyes open! So, Candy revealed a new and exciting aspect to something no one talked about but everyone thought about.

Telling a kid that carnal knowledge isn't fun just doesn't work.

I think the next book with a reputation to come along was D. H. Lawrence's
Lady Chatterley's Lover. It seems like another age altogether, but unbelievably just a year or two earlier, publishers were being prosecuted on obscenity charges for this exquisite novel. I'm pretty sure the copy I read back in junior high was a well worn and dog-earred illegal printing from that era, no doubt published by Grove Press. By the way, even then I was becoming a bit of a bibliographic junkie and took careful note of the publisher's name for future reference. Over the ensuing dozen years, quite a bit of my philosophical training was due to Grove Press. Publishers shouldn't have to be brave.

Lady Chatterley's Lover contained all manner of description making it abundantly clear that there wasn't anything particularly harmful or unnatural about unbridled lust. I was pretty sure that I wanted to be a libertine when I grew up.

But the floodgates really opened in high school. With this coming together of two widely separated junior highs, from West (my alma mater) on the west end of town of course, and Central on the eastern end, it meant new friends. Sheel-Teat and I quickly became amigos; in fact we were inseparable. What a character! Sheel-Teat was the sneakiest guy I've ever met, a master of deception, the perfect prevaricator with an angelic face, wonderful prankster and a hellacious boxer. Moreover, he's the only guy I've known to own a set of brass knuckles. Given that I was so skinny, he was a good pal to have--a fine escort when things got a bit boisterous.

You can learn more about him in Sheel-Teat.

So, that fall semester of sophomore year, I was allowed to spend a Friday overnight at Sheel-Teat's home. My folks were unaware that his parents were absent for the weekend. We had the night and the place to ourselves and really whooped it up. First on the agenda was egging Beetface's house. Beetface, of course, was the high school vice-principal (my primary adversary, just as I was his Napoleon of Crime) and lived a block or two away on Roosevelt Avenue.

But returning to Sheel-Teat's home, the fun really began when he pulled out a hidden copy of the Marquis De Sade's Philosophy in the Bedroom from between the mattress and boxsprings of his bed. An appropriate hiding place, don't you think?

Quite conveniently, the book is written as a series of dialogues, meaning that Sheel-Teat and I could each take a part, he assuming the role of Eugénie, and a moving interpretation he gave! We enacted the book aloud to each other all night, punctuated by gales of laughter. It was indeed a raucous and educational evening; this was pornography at its finest, the acme of lubricity. For a fourteen year-old to be exposed to such finely crafted literature delineating the joys of pleasure, evils of religion, futility of governmental intervention in the bedroom and more, was no small thing. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, indeed!

This introduction to Sade was so important to my crafting of a personal philosophy. Why? For several reasons, really. First and foremost was seeing that the world is far more diverse than spoken of in the classroom or polite society. I learned not to question what might evoke thoughts of passion in others, or myself for that matter. Next, was being seduced by language; when you have a word for something, no matter how delicate or ephemeral, you're thinking a new thought, purely virgin. Words and language became the primary motivating forces in my life, mostly due to this early exposure to the Marquis De Sade. And then there's that business of liberty. I was being warned to avoid death by a creeping common sense as Oscar Wilde so perfectly phrased it. Moreover, I grasped from De Sade that religion was based upon hate. I decided then and there to have nothing to do with that foul concept since I was born into this world to love. By college years, this would be phrased elegantly for me:
Love is the law, love under will.
I was hooked. More of De Sade's books followed in short order: The Mystified Magistrate, Justine, 120 Days of Sodom. Not a bad way to start a life impelled by literature. In any event, there's a lot more to the guy than just a cat-o-nine tails...

Pornography! So what is it? Maybe Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart gave the most unintentionally amusing assessment in his judicial opinion
of Jacobellis v. Ohio(1964):
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.
What's so beautiful about his pronouncement is: you have to see it first! I'm all for that. Society would run a lot more smoothly, in my estimation, if conclusions followed premises rather than the other way around.

Even better is Oscar Wilde's pithy:
There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are either well written or badly written. That is all.
Perhaps most important is the manner in which this reading lead me early on simply to watch and not make judgements. As the great astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington put it:
Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.
I don't know about you, but I like the world to be strange.

Next vignette: Mrs. Austin and Babbitt

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