The other week I was reading a very interesting book called Diario minimo by Umberto Eco. I was on a plane, so I was half-asleep, and the book was in Italian, and a rather erudite Italian at that. For those reasons I found myself tuning out of Eco’s prose, until the following sentences (duly translated) jumped out at me:
“Things that once everyone would have jealously hidden from the eyes of the populace now become material for common amusement […] the public will have to be entertained according to the dictates of mass culture, which forces you not to portray an intuited emotion, but to present it pre-packaged to the user.”
I immediately assumed that he was talking about pornography or some other form of titillating imagery. This is exactly what our sad modern age does: commoditizes pre-packaged slices of humanity, including what is normally private, as an adult video (or advert or self-published Kindling) and serves it up for our gratification.
Turns out he wasn’t actually talking about porn. I reread the page; he was talking about Greek tragedy. Just goes to show that (for the reader) the meaning of the text is in its interpretation. In other words, we read our own hobby horses into the most unrelated of original texts.
I say ‘unrelated’, but as I reflected on my misunderstanding, it came to my attention that there are in fact some commonalities between porn and Greek tragedy. Aristotle theorised about the subject matter and form of tragedy in his Poetics: various ingredients are thrown into the mix and played out towards their inexorable end (pity, fear, pathos, recognition, catharsis, suffering, reversal, in no particular order). One ingredient he frowns upon is the surprise intervention of the ‘deux ex machina’ plot device, because it interrupts this mechanical, because inevitable, because partly fate-driven, unfolding of the drama. All this can result in only one thing: tragedy’s effect on the watcher is that it evokes (the best word for this is Italian ‘suscitare’, which doesn’t really have a good translation) the emotions of pity and fear, possibly consequent upon the suffering (‘pathos’) witnessed onstage.
Now the Poetics appears to be less a manifesto than a codification of what has already been practiced by previous tragedians, so there is frustratingly no discussion of why these emotions are important, or of the desired consequences of said emotion, other than that they should be ‘purged’ (through ‘catharsis’). However, the analysis that ‘tragedy arouses the emotions of pity and fear in order to purge away their excess, to reduce these passions to a healthy, balanced proportion’ (source) makes sense, even if it is a (perhaps contextually informed) extrapolation.
Similar to tragedy, pornography creates an imitation of real life that is designed to evoke certain feelings in the watcher. And the logic of purging these feelings to level out our emotional balance is the sort of logic often employed in defence of pornography. ‘Well, people need an outlet’. ‘Well, people have needs’. Should we allow people to produce cartoon child pornography? ‘Well, it’s better that a paedophile watches that than abuses a real child’ – that’s the logic of purging for good effect. See the similarities?
Later literary theorists introduced new aims for theatre, and for the new novelistic form, that moved away from emotional purging. For example, the concept of literature as a didactic tool is present in Dante’s poetic and prophetic aims, its antithesis the courtly romance that inspired the adulterous goings-on of Francesca & Paolo, for which they are punished in Hell’s Circle of the Lustful. Later, Jean Racine’s Neo-Classical tragedy Esther riffs on a Biblical theme and was commissioned as an instructional poem for a school of young ladies. Later still, Jane Austen satirises gothic sensation fiction (the olden-day horror movie) in Northanger Abbey, and punishes Marianne Dashwood’s excessive emotional ‘sensibility’, which is largely fed by pre-Romantic poets.
So literature, like porn, has its censors (including authors themselves). Yet besides didacticism, I can think of a million other uses for literature that don’t have a counterpart in porn, so while I wouldn’t be sad if porn had never been invented, I’m confident I wouldn’t have been one of those 19th-century worriers for whom ‘Novel reading for women was associated with inflaming of sexual passions; with liberal, radical ideas; with uppityness; with the attempt to overturn the status quo’ (source).
Despite our (or I should say, other people’s) widespread acceptance of porn, however, the word acquires a disparaging flavour when it is jokingly applied to other domains: we talk about ‘food porn’ for those Instagram accounts that fetishize succulent puddings, ‘house porn’ for Country Life magazine, or, in a stronger analogy, ‘mummy porn’ for 50 Shades of Grey and its Mills and Boon predecessors.
(Doesn’t this just stir some emotions?!)
What’s common to all of these forms of imagery and art, and what is Eco’s essential objection, is that they use an external stimulus to gratuitously stir up an emotional or physical response that would not otherwise be felt and that appears to have no purpose outside itself. The real play Lovers’ Vows, which is put on by the denizens of Mansfield Park, is neither tragic nor pornographic, but sheds some interesting light on this issue: like tragedy and like pornography, it involves real humans falsifying experiences and pretending to be what they are not. This adds another dimension to the problem. The reason the play is objected to by the ‘moral’ characters is because it forces the actors of the love story to enter into an untruthful ‘familiarity’ and ‘licence’ with each other, through their assumed words and physical interactions, which is ‘improper’ because it is not warranted by their level of acquaintance. This, precisely, is the objection that says that 21st-century pornography is historically anomalous for figuring actors simulating – for money, and for our mass entertainment – actions that most of us will probably eventually want to use as symbols for our deepest relationships.
What is it about this manufactured imitation of the human experience for the sole motive of stirring feelings that, in general, we don’t quite like? Is it that we don’t like lying or falsity, and that we will only tolerate its manifestation as literary mimesis when it is for some end other than, essentially, feeding us artificial hormones? Is it that real emotions are too raw, personal and important for us to feel happy at seeing them packaged up, ‘confectioned’ (as Eco has it) the way that porn and cheap literature have them? Is it that we know that we are what we eat, that our actions do reflect ourselves, and that therefore Edmond’s fears about the effects of simulating intimacy are not unjustified? (Like, look at how many celeb couples get together on set?!)
Porn is today’s opiate of the masses the way, perhaps, tragedy was for the Greeks, and various forms of crap have been to the centuries in between. But as well as being judicious about what we consume, perhaps we should also consider how and where to expend our emotional energies, which these forms of entertainment attempt to monopolise. Perhaps this will allow us to approach the world from a place of inner peace, rather than from the emotionally perturbed aftermath of an unnecessarily gossip-y phone call, a dramatic episode of Eastenders, or an x-rated movie.