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An open mind toward the new, the shocking, even the intolerable in art is an intellectual duty, if only because so many great and shocking artists from Swift to Joyce were so vehemently condemned at first. It hardly follows that any writer who manages to shock is therefore automatically entitled to respect as a worthy rebel. Yet this is how their followers regard the heroes of today's avantgarde, notably Jean Genet (Our Lady of the Flowers) and William Burroughs (Naked Lunch). "The new immoralists" is what they are labeled by Partisan Review Editor William Phillips, who is anything but a literary reactionary. He adds: "To embrace what is assumed to be beyond the pale is taken as a sign of true sophistication. And this is not simply a change in sensibility; it amounts to a sensibility of chaos."

Against Moralists & Hedonists

Genet, Burroughs and other chroniclers of fagotry and fellatio are different from the realists of sex like Zola, the sentimentalists of sex like D. H. Lawrence, the poetic demons of sex like Baudelaire. They are different from the good old-fashioned pornographers like Fanny Hill's Cleland or the masters of bawdry from Ovid to Aretino, Rabelais, Boccaccio and (in an off moment) Mark Twain. However unconventional, these writers found delight in sex; however critical of human folly, they were partisans of mankind. The new immoralists attack not only society but man and sex itself. Their writings add up to homosexual nihilism, and what Fanny Hill would have thought of them is made clear by her "rage and indignation" when she observed a pair of "male-misses, scarce less execrable than ridiculous."

Writing in Commentary, William Phillips nai's the whole genre by devastatingly describing Burroughs' Nova Express as "the feeding almost literally of human flesh and organs on each other in an orgy of annihilation. The whole world is reduced to the fluidity of excrement as everything dissolves into everything else." And Critic John Wain adds: "A pornographic novel is, in however backhanded a way, on the side of something describable as life. Naked Lunch, by contrast, is unreservedly on the side of death."

In their defense it is often said that the new immoralists merely seek to show the world as they see it, in all its horror and lovelessness; but that is simply the old error of confusing art with event, a propagation of the notion that a novel trying to convey dullness must be dull. Sheer nightmare does not redeem a book any more than sheer polly-annaism. The Genet-Burroughs crowd, including such lesser sensationalists as John Rechy (City of Night) and Hubert Selby (Last Exit to Brooklyn), are not pornographers, if pornography is defined as arousing sexual excitement. These writers have created a pornography of nausea, which if anything has the opposite effect. They are thus the enemies of the hedonist almost more than the enemies of the moralist.

Sex as Ideology

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