Porn, Dracula, Lynch, Lebowski

(x-posted to The Valve)

In a marvelous post at Is There No Sin In It?, A White Bear (AWB) gives us her definition of pornography:

I’d like for [my students] to see pornography as a rhetorical mode. Porn, according to the definition I use in class, is a text whose protagonist is relatively empty of defining personality traits, and whose sensory experiences are described or represented in great detail. The point of this definition of porn is that it has nothing to do with the relative effects on various vasodilating organs, but instead has qualities intrinsic to the text itself.

She then proceeds to give an example of pornographic writing, which, surprisingly, is from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I disagree with her about Stoker, but I agree that pornography can be defined, and it’s worth investigating why Dracula evades the category and challenges the above definition. From there, I’ll look at two films, The Big Lebowski and Mulholland Drive, both of which comment on pornography. The goal is not to discover the limits of acceptable art, but rather to understand what porn discloses about eroticism, why it is so consistently associated with violence, and how it redounds on the very theoretical devices we might use to understand it.

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AWB writes that the protagonist of pornography is someone “relatively empty of defining personality traits” whose “sensory experiences are described or represented in great detail.” We cannot take this statement at face value. Modernism and postmodernism are filled with protagonists who are relatively empty of defining personality traits. In Albert Camus’s The Stranger, Meursault has no personality because of his refusal of existential responsibility. In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the protagonist has no personality because he grows up in a society at once too rigidly codified, and too riven; he would, perhaps, like to assume responsibility for himself, but has no idea how to do so authentically. In Maurice Blanchot’s Thomas the Obscure, Thomas has no personality. He is fundamentally inchoate, and besieged by phantasmagoria. In Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Tyrone Slothrop is the victim of bureaucracies, scientific experiments, and disciplinary institutions that finally reduce him to an utterly dissociated state.

AWB’s criterion of “sensory experiences […] described or represented in great detail” is, on one level, a feature of most works of art; more saliently, the idea of sensory experiences passing directly to the reader, through the window of a consciousness without content, is a precise description of Imagism and the “objective correlative.” Ecstatic absorption in the world of the senses had long been part of the poetic tradition, but Imagism was the first to proclaim that a poem really was an experience, because it could create the specific inwardness of that experience. When AWB writes, “There is a fine line, in fact, that ‘pop’ tends to walk now, between providing the pretense of an unmediated experience of something sensory and representing actual sex,” she is describing the ideology of Imagism somehow being suborned by sexual content.

Our clue, then, is this intermixture of modernist prose theory, which gives us the anti-hero or the “man without qualities,” and modernist poetics, in which art is figured as experience. In pornography, and in art which reflects upon pornography, what you get is prose interrupted by poetry. The mainstays of narrative — character, plot, and setting — are still there, but under erasure, and the peculiar eroticism of pornography is produced by this erasure.

With that in mind, let’s turn to the long quotation from Dracula, from AWB’s post:

I was not alone. The room was the same, unchanged in any way since I came into it. I could see along the floor, in the brilliant moonlight, my own footsteps marked where I had disturbed the long accumulation of dust. In the moonlight opposite me were three young women, ladies by their dress and manner. I thought at the time that I must be dreaming when I saw them, they threw no shadow on the floor. They came close to me, and looked at me for some time, and then whispered together. Two were dark, and had high aquiline noses, like the Count, and great dark, piercing eyes, that seemed to be almost red when contrasted with the pale yellow moon. The other was fair,as fair as can be, with great masses of golden hair and eyes like pale sapphires. I seemed somehow to know her face, and to know it in connection with some dreamy fear, but I could not recollect at the moment how or where. All three had brilliant white teeth that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips. There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips. It is not good to note this down, lest some day it should meet Mina’s eyes and cause her pain, but it is the truth. They whispered together, and then they all three laughed, such a silvery, musical laugh, but as hard as though the sound never could have come through the softness of human lips. It was like the intolerable, tingling sweetness of waterglasses when played on by a cunning hand. The fair girl shook her head coquettishly, and the other two urged her on.

One said, “Go on! You are first, and we shall follow. Yours is the right to begin.”

The other added, “He is young and strong. There are kisses for us all.”

I lay quiet, looking out from under my eyelashes in an agony of delightful anticipation. The fair girl advanced and bent over me till I could feel the movement of her breath upon me. Sweet it was in one sense, honey-sweet, and sent the same tingling through the nerves as her voice, but with a bitter underlying the sweet, a bitter offensiveness, as one smells in blood.

I was afraid to raise my eyelids, but looked out and saw perfectly under the lashes. The girl went on her knees, and bent over me, simply gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth. Lower and lower went her head as the lips went below the range of my mouth and chin and seemed to fasten on my throat. Then she paused, and I could hear the churning sound of her tongue as it licked her teeth and lips, and I could feel the hot breath on my neck. Then the skin of my throat began to tingle as one’s flesh does when the hand that is to tickle it approaches nearer, nearer. I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the super sensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in languorous ecstasy and waited, waited with beating heart.

AWB comments:

I have argued with my class that it is not what is depicted that makes a textual situation pornographic; it’s the density with which the attendant sensations are described. Suddenly, we are not thinking of Jonathan Harker, the young lawyer’s clerk, having far-off curious adventures. We are Jonathan, climbing up inside his empty shell to feel those two hard dents tease at the super sensitive skin of our throats. The test for pornography is not, “Is it representing nudity or penetration?” nor is it, “Does it give me an erection?” but, “Is it possible for me to have a vicarious, rather than merely imaginative, physical experience?” It does so by first emptying the protagonist of consciousness, and then offering dense sensory details in simple, even repetitive language.

This is right on the money, except for the sequencing: “first emptying the protagonist of consciousness, and then offering dense sensory details.” These are not sequential; they are the same. Sensory experience, and the sensuality of the seduction, becomes a game Harker is playing with bitter death: “Sweet it was in one sense, honey-sweet, and sent the same tingling through the nerves as her voice, but with a bitter underlying the sweet, a bitter offensiveness, as one smells in blood.” The narrative is suspended as Harker waits, and waits. The setting is suspended. Harker says that the room is “the same, unchanged in any way since I came into it,” even though that is patently false, since he can “see along the floor, in the brilliant moonlight, my own footsteps marked where I had disturbed the long accumulation of dust.” The room is unchanged because of what happens; Harker is already fantasizing about dying and becoming one with the “dust” that his living footsteps have disturbed. Finally, Harker’s real personality, symbolized by his relationship to his wife Mina, is erased by the encounter, and erased again by writing the encounter: “It is not good to note this down, lest some day it should meet Mina’s eyes and cause her pain, but it is the truth.”

Compare this with Jacques Derrida, in Of Grammatology: “For example, the value of the transcendental arche must make its necessity felt before letting itself be erased. The concept of the arche-trace must comply with both that necessity and that erasure” (61), and this follows his discussion of experience under erasure (sous rature). Later, in his analysis of Rousseau, Derrida writes, “If one moves along the course of the supplementary series, he sees that imagination belongs to the same chain of significations as the anticipation of death. Imagination is at bottom the relationship with death. The image is death” (184). Particularly given the way that Derrida personifies the arche as that which must “let itself” be erased, one can easily imagine reading the transcendental subject, the subject of consciousness, into the arche. The image, the fantasy, consumes the subject — feeds upon him.

AWB writes, “It’s not great literature–there is no sentiment here that is particularly interesting, no phrasing that is just so.” On the contrary, the whole scene is just so. If nothing else, Harker’s “It is not good to note this down […] but it is the truth” is brilliant satire: he is as helpless in the presence of the truth, as he was in the presence of those vampires, and is so unconvincing about it that the whole episode topples over into deliberate camp.

In this, Dracula is the important predecessor for Mulholland Drive, which is similarly self-conscious about its use of pornography. At the beginning of the film, we watch a young, beautiful woman nearly killed on Mulholland Drive; she is left for dead, and wakes up without her memories. Traumatized and helpless, she finally wanders into a stranger’s apartment. When she is discovered, she’s discovered in the shower by Betty Elms, a chipper aspiring actress who is (of course) a lesbian. The discovery scene thus refers to pornography, but is complicated by the fact that Betty’s decision to adopt “Rita” eerily reinforces Rita’s amnesia. Both of them seem too willing to accomodate Rita’s loss of identity, and they rather improbably become lovers. Finally, Betty’s inability to find Rita uncanny starts to implicate Betty via the dream logic of the film, until the violence on Mulholland Drive starts to look like an alibi for an act of violence committed by Betty’s alter ego, Diane Selwyn.

That brings us to The Big Lebowski, which goes further still into satirical territory. The Big Lebowski has one of the most complicated plots in the history of films about bowling. It is, patently, a celebration of artifice. Like Gravity’s Rainbow, The Big Lebowski is tormented by the possibility that there may be no plot, no ultimate meanings, no great mystery other than a single act of “coitus” that eventually leads to a pregnancy. Pornography is the film’s metaphor for this erasure, The Dude and his friends its victims. At one point, while The Dude (Lebowski) is at the house of pornographer Jackie Treehorn, Treehorn briefly excuses himself. The Dude rushes over to hurriedly obtain a tracing of what Treehorn has been jotting, thinking it may be a clue to the mystery plot he’s wrapped up in. The Dude ends up with an absurdly fractal negative of genitals with genitals.

One of the film’s funniest moments comes when Maude Lebowski, who is not related to The Dude, shows him the beginning of a porn movie called Logjammin’. As we should expect by now, the movie assigns false names to the actors, obscuring their real identities, such that only Maude knows its relevance. Maude introduces Logjammin’ by telling The Dude that “the story is ludicrous.” Logjammin’ begins with the device of a repairman showing up at a woman’s house. The actor playing the woman is Maude’s father’s trophy wife, who has (of course) “kidnapped herself” in order to pay off Jackie Treehorn with ransom money. When the cable repairman says the perfunctory “It is hard to work in these clothes,” Maude shuts the movie off, and says “You can imagine where it goes from here.” The Dude replies, “He fixes the cable?” The Dude is still thinking about the story, ironically or not. He has no idea that his own movie will reduce down to making Maude pregnant. When his friend Donny dies in a horribly botched encounter with “nihilists,” the eulogy he receives is about the Vietnam War, and has nothing whatsoever to do with Donny, or the real story of his unaccomplished life.

***

There is an element of truth to accusations about the violent nature of pornography; it is always violent, insofar as the narrative turns against itself in order to produce an abstract and ultimate scene of pleasure. At that moment, the audience encounters not objects, but rather subjects being reduced to objects. The objectified, pornographic encounter continues to bear the scar of that devaluing; the Dude exclaims confusedly, with reference to Jackie Treehorn, “that guy treats objects like women, man.”

But pornographic eroticism is also a way of surviving violence and opprobity; it is, in certain fictions, the only content of experience that can. The backdrop for Gravity’s Rainbow is the Second World War, and specifically the casualties inflicted at random by rocket fire. (Wherever the rockets land, Slothrop has sex. Seriously.) The backdrop for The Stranger is the colony of Algeria, a divided country into which Mersault is thrown, and because of which he commits murder. The Dude was being pushed to the margins long before he met the other Lebowskis. The Big Lebowski raises the disturbing possibility that pornography is merely the sign, not the cause, of all the scandals and erasures that separate him from the people who beat him, and interrogate him, and use him for sympathy, and use him for sperm. AWB writes, “[The fiction] pays the (represented) price for sins and other risky experiences, while the reader gets to experience (vicariously) the pleasure of experience without any chaser of consequence.” If so, the fiction is an allegory. In The Big Lebowski, the people who star in Jackie Treehorn’s movies end up owing him money. The Dude has an excess of employers. Not one of them ever pays.

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