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The Pornographic Imagination (1967) - Susan Sontag

Related: 1967 - French erotica - French literature - literary fiction - erotic fiction - Susan Sontag - pornography - imagination - Styles of Radical Will

The Pornographic Imagination is a 1967 essay by Susan Sontag which is featured in the collection Styles of Radical Will and was originally published in Partisan review, spring 1967. [Aug 2006]


Susan Sontag's essay on pornography and literature in which she contends that five French literary works are not 'just' pornography but literary pornography and as such can be categorized as genuine literature. Although the term paraliterature (we have to wait 17 years for Fredric Jameson to do that) had not been coined at the time of its writing, the connection between science fiction and erotic fiction makes this essay one of the first defenses of the nobrow or paraliterary category. [Aug 2006]

Her case is based on these five novels:


Related: erotica - pornography - merit - intention

Referring to the title of this essay, it may have been better to use the term erotic instead of the term pornographic. One can make a distinction between erotica and pornography using the criteria of merit and intention. Using the intention criterion, Bataille, Réage, Louÿs and Robbe-Grillet sought to create art, not smut. [Aug 2006]


“No one should undertake a discussion of pornography before acknowledging the pornographies—there are at least three—and before pledging to take them on one at a time” (Styles of Radical Will, p.35). Sontag first defines her topic and states her focus is proving that these pornographies are a literary genre of their own. To show her idea that pornography is literature, she refers to several literary texts: Story of O, The Image, and Pierre Louys’ Trois Filles de leur Mère. These, being only a few, rank higher than even other pornographic literatures further proving her point. Sontag concedes that there are literatures that fail to serve as insightful over sexual excitement, to pleasure the opposing critics, but she shows evidence that others however serve a purpose. Story of O has definite beginning, middle, and end points, as well as characters that “possess emotions of a very intense kind . . . characters do have motives . . . the characters are endowed with a ‘psychology’ of a sort, one derived from the psychology of lust. And while what can be learned of the characters within the situations in which they are placed is severely restricted . . . O and her partners are not more reduced or foreshortened than the characters in many non-pornographic works of contemporary fiction,” proves Sontag (Styles of Radical Will, p.40). This extensive comparison connects Sontag’s idea to literature. Traditional pornography holds no purpose beyond mere sexual attraction, whereas literary pornography shows realistic connection. To Sontag, art is too commonly viewed externally and is not given the time of day for true examination. --Google cached page of sauguscenturions.com [Aug 2005]

Susan Sontag on Georges Bataille

One reason that Histoire de l'Oeil and Madame Edwarda make such a strong and unsettling impression is that Bataille understood more clearly than any other writer I know of that what pornography is really about, ultimately, isn't sex but death. I am not suggesting that every pornographic work speaks, either overtly or covertly, of death. Only works dealing with that specific and sharpest inflection of the themes of lust, "the obscene," do. It's toward the gratifications of death, succeeding and surpassing those of eros, that every truly obscene quest tends. --Susan Sontag in the Pornographic Imagination via Styles of Radical Will p. 60, Picador USA

Pornography and science fiction

In this excerpt, in which Steven Marcus's concept of pornotopia is mentioned, Nicholas Urfé argues that:

Susan Sontag, in her seminal essay on assessing pornography critically, “The Pornographic Imagination” (1967, collected in Styles of Radical Will), likens pornography to science fiction—not because both are paraliterary genres (genres that have proven themselves more than capable of creating lasting works of breathtaking art which, nonetheless, have yet to be taken seriously by academia, keepers of the literary canon) (though yes, her argument does make that point about both—ancillarily), but because both take place in a heightened or hyper-reality. --Nicholas Urfé (pseudonym), 2001 via http://www.asstr.org/~nickurfe/ift/01/09/00.html

Human sexuality is ... a highly questionable phenomenon

"Human sexuality is, quite apart from Christian repressions, a highly questionable phenomenon, and belongs, at least potentially, among the extreme rather than the ordinary experiences of humanity. Tamed as it may be, sexuality remains one of the demonic forces in human consciousness - pushing us at intervals close to taboo and dangerous desires, which range from the impulse to commit sudden arbitrary violence upon another person to the voluptuous yearning for the extinction of one's consciousness, for death itself." --Susan Sontag in the Pornographic Imagination via Styles of Radical Will p. 57, Picador USA

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