If you fear, fear not. If you fear not, fear.
---J. Reuben Clark (molaq)
Last week we cut off Mr Jorgensen just as he was about to get going. Let's revisit what he left us with: "We are frequently, duly, and properly warned, over the pulpit in general conference, against the evil of pornography --- an attitude Levi and I share, though we both also value and wish to allow a place for the erotic."
So the question is, how do we do this? Part of my adult life is recognizing that not all of the hyperprudery I started with is helpful or particularly good for me. When we sacrifice trust in ourselves as readers, in our ability to discern between truth and falsity, light and darkness, we sacrifice our own agency, one of the greatest gifts of God. As Mr J says, ". . . reading is an act of consciousness, a work of the spirit, a free act of a free agent; its consequences are not deterministically predictable . . . . [to say] I may 'ingest,' by reading, [is] a false analogy . . . I may 'eat' error. Yet I do not necessarily become erroneous; I can analyze and judge and even use the error to get nearer to the truth."
Mr J despises the comparison of sexual writing to poison because, as he points out, poison follows a deterministic path, but the effect of reading upon us depends in great measure upon what effects we allow.
Who am I? What do I want when I decide to read Book XXX?
"I am obliged to try to know my motives and to choose my actions carefully. I cannot blame a book for what happens to me if I choose to read it for prurient reasons. What corrupts me comes out of my heart."
This is precisely why I write this essay from a state of Clarkian fear. What is my motivation for writing? Am I attempting to justify some future sin? If so, shame on me. If I'm honest with myself, I'll know if I'm reading a book for the benefit of my spirit or the pleasure of the moment.
Jorgensen: "I will say, too, that I think young Mormon students should evercise [sic] their right not to read, on the good and fairly clear moral ground that they may not be prepared to make the judgments that will help them avoid porn-reading habits."
Me: Right, right. I hope no one reads these essays and decides that I am excusing the reading of anything at anytime for anyreason, no matter how prurient or downright evil. Not so. What I'm saying is what I said here: Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man. This applies to books as well as food. Know thyself. And if knowing thyself means you can't read anything racier than Nancy Drew, then know thyself and read not. Hopefully someday you will develop more control over thyself, but till then, don't think I'm looking down at you. (And please don't look down on me.)
Jorgensen decides that in order for us to have a "pornographic event", we need "three elements: a porn author, a porn text, and a porn reader. In fact, it seems to me that the porn event seldom requires all three, though it always requires one: just a porn reader. Porn author and porn text make the event more likely but do not inevitably guarantee it." (This is true, as any teacher of teenagers can tell you: anything and everything can be turned pornographic by a certain type of reader. When I was in high school, I couldn't read Piers Anthony without becoming a porn reader, and finally had to swear him off. I still have a low opinion of the man. But that doesn't make Michael Collings, whom I respect, a porn reader. And I would be appalled if someone suggested as much.)
Let's let Mr J define his terms:
"A porn author is one who verbally represents sexual activity intending sexual arousal in readers, usually as an inducement to buy something (a whore's services, more porn, a deodorant)." (He's speaking in reference to pornography's etymology, viz. that porn is about selling something rather than an emotional or spiritual connection between beings. In other words, pornography reduces sex to a commodity without soul. Not good.)
"A porn text is any text which represents people engaged in sexual activity in such a way that they become mere outlines, collections of the names of body parts and secretions and function, become nothing more than words about sex, totally or largely abstracted from the full dimensions and mystery of human personality and connection." (We can all agree that this doesn't sound good either, right?)
"A porn reader is one who reads for sexual arousal or titillation."
"A porn text," writes Mr J, "necessarily implies an antecedent porn author. . . . And a porn text will tend to create a porn reader." And pretending these things do not have an inertia all their own is to be a fool. One cannot flirt with disaster and expect to escape unscathed. Remember last week's Parable of the Semi? I never said those who wanted to drive with half their wheels in the air were talking sense. Stay away from the edge.
But we still haven't gotten into why we ought to read and write about sex at all? And now we get into my favorite part of Mr J's article in which he explains a common Biblical phrase with a simplicity and beauty I've never heard before:
"Perhaps the richest [Biblical] example is the first: 'Adam knew Eve his wife" (Gen. 4:1). We seriously distort this if we take knew as a translation of some sort of Hebraic euphemism. Further, if we try to make it more explicit, we reduce or vaporize its meaning. Adam 'lay with' Eve? Adam 'had intercourse with' Eve? Yes, but more than that. . . . 'Adam knew Eve': each knew the other as that single self God had blessed with body and breath; perhaps knew the other as that single self God had blessed with body and breath; perhaps knew in a holy and holistic way . . . knew reciprocally and unboundedly in ways possible only to whole persons intimately joined."
"It is a stunning paradox to find a word that seems not to say so much, actually saying more than could any word that seems to say what this word does not. There may be instruction here for writers . . . ."
"My be"? There is! Who can deny the beauty of Adam and Eve's relationship? (Okay, plenty of people can, but they lack the Mormon understanding of Adam and Eve, now don't they?) Who can deny that there is value for us in reading that Adam knew Eve? Who can deny that this is an exquisite intention for sexual relationships within holy matrimony?
Yes, pornography "is a severe threat to our deepest humanity and selfhood, which literature normally seeks to nourish and enrich, and to that godlikeness that scripture and modern revelation call us to." No one's arguing that. But ". . . to make something unmentionable is not to overcome it at all but to give it the eruptive force of a water polo ball held three feet under."
I love that image. And the disastrous pull of pornography and immorality may be much attributed to what Levi Peterson only last week called the "obverse sin of prudery . . . [which] forces the sexual impulse underground, banishes it to the territory of the abnormal and forbidden." Which is not where sex belongs.
Adam knew Eve.
Jorgensen observes that in most Mormon fiction "a married couple of course love one another. But purely. Which is to say that . . . they do not think of or delight in one another's bodies, or in the one body that in love they may graciously make." Which isn't just a shame. It may well be a sin. (You heard me.)
Many writers and readers seem to feel that "That secret [of married sex, in whatever form] must not be let out lest it corrupt the young, or those whose deficient reading skills might put their moral inclinations at the risk of erotic imagination." Consider that for a minute.
Is that right?
A few more quotations:
Sexuality is "a mystery that our theology suggests lies near the core of our being. And suppression may let it rage in its dirtied and demonic versions."
"Eros has a place, many places, in Mormon writing. Which is not at all to say, or even to suppose, that erotic writing might cure our sickness."
"I don't know; I suppose and I fear. As is appropriate before the taboos that guard either the vile or the holy."
I don't know all the answers (or even all the questions) either, Mr J, and I'm glad to see you fear too.
Next week, we'll look at one LDS writer who delved right in to sex and came out the other side alive.
(note: if you missed last week's part in this series, click on the lds-eros tag under this post)