(5 of 6)
Apart from making sex hideous and inhuman, the new pornographers also make it hopelessly dull. They should have learned from Sade, who used sex to assert the impossiblethe totally unlimited freedom of manand pushed the concept into insanity. Along the way Sade desperately tried to force his imagination beyond human limits by inventing inhuman horrors, but he only managed to make his compilation shatteringly dreary. Toward the end of his 120 Days of Sodom he was no longer really writing, but simply setting down long lists of neatly numbered and tersely outlined enormitiesthe effect being ludicrous and totally unreal. Much of the current writing on sex approaches this quality of mechanical repetition and unreality.
For one thing, the constant use of the limited four-letter vocabulary tends to rob the words of what legitimate shock effect they used to have. "Powerful words should be reserved for powerful occasions," says Novelist Philip Toynbee. "Words like money can be devalued by inflation." Stuart B. Flexner, co-author of the authoritative Dictionary of American Slang, believes that this is already happening. "The next step is to find a new crop," he says, "but I don't know yet what these will be."
Secondly, it is becoming ever clearer that, as Novelist Saul Bellow said not long ago, "polymorphous sexuality and vehement declarations of alienation are not going to produce great works of art." The vast majority of writers, publishers and critics rejoice over the decline of censorship. While it permits the emergence of much trash, they feel that this is the necessary price for the occasional great work that might otherwise be taboofor example, Nabokov's Lolita, a brilliant tour de force. But they concede that the new permissiveness paradoxically imposes a more difficult task on the writer; in a way it is harder to work without than within limits. Says Critic-Author Leslie Fiedler: "We've got our freedom. Now the question is what do we do with it."
Joseph Heller, author of the far from prudish Catch-22, adds: "Now that we have established more dirty talk and more promiscuity in literature, we've established the obvious. What is accomplished by being specific? A reader's imagination is a more potent descriptive power than any author has. When everything is told, what you're left with is pretty crude and commonplace. The love scenes in Anna Karenina are infinitely more intimate than any explicit sex scene I can recall."
Besides, Tolstoy did not suffer from the pathetic phallacy according to which all existence revolves around sex. Many authors today treat sex the way Marxists treat economics; they see it at the root of everything, and daydream about sexual triumph the way revolutionary writers daydream about power. Thus in the tirelessly explicit writing of Norman Mailer, sex is a personal boast, a mystique and an ideologyand, in all three capacities, solemn and unconvincing.