It’s very hard to think about pornography, not least because no two communities define it the same way. We remember, not too long ago, when it was ankles that were shocking. But arts for grownups in dignified places show people having sex and that’s not supposed to be pornography. The definition depends very much on time and place and other circumstances. Where is the moral center? It must be in the human being. Pets walk around with their apertures in plain sight and no one is aroused -- not even them, unless they’re in season or are poodles.
I propose this little conceit, this little idea that I have. It’s about membranes, but membranes of consciousness, of identity. Membranes are thin pliable wraparound tissues that surround and protect but also join one organ to another. There’s one around the brain, one around the heart, one around the liver, one around the growing baby before it is born. When you cut open an animal -- yes, I have, because of hunting and being married to a taxidermist -- the space inside is orderly and silvery with these membranes. The key pattern here is the membrane around the growing baby, the one that is full of “water” -- the amniotic fluid because that membrane is called the amnion -- which must be torn open either in the process of birth or immediately afterwards or the baby will not be able to breathe. The protection will become a suffocation.
The membrane of innocence is what protects the baby from the knowledge that it could be neglected at birth, left cold and unwrapped, maybe dropped or starved. The baby doesn’t know this. WE know this. Tearing open this membrane of trusting care means death and we know it. This is when a baby can be touched all over, MUST be cleaned, fed, dressed, wrapped, and -- hopefully -- soothed, stimulated, stroked, massaged without fear of sexuality. The pornography of the infant is neglect unto death. The infant is powerless.
Next is the membrane of emotion, when the child begins to be an interactor, wants to attract attention, smile into a face, and take care of others, And yet the child is also playing with separation, feeling for the limits of bad behavior, throwing things on the floor, going too far, ripping clothes off. So the parent preserves safety by interceding tactfully, making a buffer here, removing a sharp object there, and when the child has had enough exploration, becoming a soft warm harbor for sleep and song. Now the membrane can be ripped open by the pornographies of rage, stony indifference, capricious limits, excesses of excitement or devouring. Need one say that adult rape of either boy or girl is a rending, a destroying? And yet if the membrane is too thick, too opaque for the child to break through, he may never have access to the feelings of others, may never energize his own creativity and freedom.
The membrane of eroticism is where things begin to be tricky. Now the excitement and sensation escape from the flesh and move to the page, the silver screen, the flirtations of others, and all the other poetries that are not about muscles or blood flow, but rather about the interior of the brain. When the metaphors take hold, the displacements and replacements and the place itself become significant and potent, maybe too much so. The mind makes connections that are hard or even impossible to break, that come to visit, whirling through dreams and seizing the mouth, sucking at the eyes, boring into the ears. Obsession. Even this might not be a pornography unless there is formlessness, no way to make sense, no way to make a clearing in which to rest without killing the eroticism that is so much of the joy in life, the beauty and the dearness. So again it is a question of tearing away the membrane and accepting the risk that is part of exploration always.
The membrane of generosity can be torn away early in our society. Pay to play, bub. One way or another. But relationship is based on generosity and sexual generosity more than most other gives and takes. The question is not so much equality -- not keeping score -- but a kind of dance of coming.
Four membranes: Innocence, then emotion, then eroticism, and finally generosity.
Now I’ve got a kind of hierarchy or levels going. So I could say that a definition of pornography that is based on damage to the individual -- rather than the enforcement of community norms -- means anything that does damage at any of those levels.
If it destroys innocence wrongly, then it is porn. If it overwhelms emotional readiness, then it’s porn. If it is carelessly erotic, creating obsessions and displacements, then it’s porn. If it is either stinginess or just wild dumping with no shape, then it’s porn. What is porn has nothing to do with age or gender and not really much to do with the community, the culture. This version is an attempt (a beginning) to define it in terms of the individual. One person’s porn isn’t for someone else. Might not even be erotic or edgy. Might be laughable.
The fourth membrane is the strongest: the membrane of our finitude, normally only pushed away or torn away by advanced age, mortal illness or battlefields. The porn of loss is always punishing, a denial, an attempt to profit from fear. Whether death is final, we just don’t know, but it is in two parts: the ends of things we know, one way or another, including other people, and our own end which we might see in spite of that protective membrane which we might in fact tear down or make into a rope. All things end. But there is this other conviction: all ends are simply transformations. We picture them as grisly, terrifying, but that’s only the rending of the membrane. We’re back to the first membrane that protects the infant from knowing about the possibility of death, but now we know it in a different way. We’ve already been transformed a million times. What’s one time more?
In the end the pornography is sentimentality, denial, the diminishing of the life, the interruption of the necessary grieving. Finitude teaches us that things should run their course, that we should live with joy in the moment. That’s all I know so far.