John Hollander (essay date 1963)
SOURCE: "The Old Last Act: Some Observations on Fanny Hill," in Encounter, Vol. XXI, No. 4, October 1963, pp. 69-77.
[In the following essay, Hollander asserts that Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure or Fanny Hill observes the conventions necessary to a successful pornographic work and presents an appealing, literary evocation of its central character.]
Literary realism ends with pornography. Far from being the limiting border towards which the realistic novel has always moved, pornography, the true pornography which seeks to excite and succeeds in so doing, is closer to poetry than it is to prose fiction. It is, willy-nilly, hopelessly caught up in conventions, for example. Rather than being pragmatic and original, it depends upon an iconography of detail, conventionalisations of erotic elements, and a limited world of concern—pornography can never stray too far from its moorings, nor can it seek in a philosophical way for ultimate constituents of reality. In short, it can never actually be, in the euphemism of the semi-prudish, "clinical." Stylistically, too, it is hopelessly traditionalistic in spirit; in every age it tends to rely upon diction familiar enough not to alarm, and hence to distract, the sensibilities of its audience. While the various narrative devices that the novel has developed in the past two hundred years aim at description, at building a model of the world, the descriptions in pornography are always a means to the completion of the sorts of verbal act—arousing, inspiring, suggesting—to which poetry has traditionally directed itself. Probably the only Orphean music we ever hear, the only literature we ever read which realises the classical myth of the poetry that could make trees dance, is the first piece of pornography we are ever taken by. And finally, pornography is composed of encounters that are heroic, hyperbolic, hieratic and thoroughly unlikely. Such scenes need not convince, they need only work.
Nevertheless, confusions between the two genres of the novel and the pornographic work have multiplied during the past half century. In the first place, fiction grew more explicit about sex and in addition began to observe the convention that the editing-out of taboo words, from even Dickensian fidelities to popular speech, was a kind of betrayal of artistic purpose. Just as the twentieth-century novel has seen the inroads of lyric, drama, homiletic and encyclopedia, so, too, encapsulated sequences of pornography have found their way into recent fiction since (but not including) Ulysses.1 The bed-scene has had its own literary history, too, and the fact that in the post-war American novel, for example, a detailed narration of a sexual initiation has become a kind of literary ritual, more a warrant of the author's novelistic bona fides than anything else, has increased the confusion. Such scenes often work pornographically, when they are well written, and though it is often the publisher's intention that they do so, the novelist has usually put them there for another reason. Finally, it has recently been necessary for responsible writers and readers to pretend in court (and to themselves as well—there has been no perjury, really) that sexual stimulation of the reader is a base effect and a baser motive, far below the transcendent moral plane of something called Literature. Mindless and evil-breeding laws have produced the civilised desperation-measure of the doctrine that the whole work, rather than a part of it, should be considered in prosecutions of books. This has led to critical denials, admittedly for humane purposes, that, in this case at least, one literary genre can be influenced by or contained in another; and literary critics who might want to discuss the influence of drama on Henry James' late novels, or the role of lyric in Hemingway's short stories, might rightly rage if legal expediency prevented them from doing so, at least in public.
It remains clear, however, that good novels can have pornographic interludes, just as it must always be remembered that for the right constellation of reader, background, book and scene, much writing in various genres can be read pornographically. Or, rather, misread, much in the way that texts can be misread as being allegorical or subversive or forgery (when they are not). The limits of the pornographic genre are the intentions of the work to arouse, and while the author's motive in so intending may be financial, satirical, comical, narcissistic or any combination of these, the test of its success, in a given literary milieu, is invariably in a physiological reaction.
The new burst of critical, moral and jurisprudential talk that may be produced by the publication of John Cleland's classic2 in America may, I am afraid, compound the confusions even more. Originally published in 1748-9 with the clear purpose of being a "dirty book," Fanny Hill was unfortunately present at the birth of both conventions. While it is certainly the model for much of the pornography in English for the two hundred years following, the paucity of memorable English fiction in the mid-eighteenth century cannot help but focus our attention on its novelistic virtues. Its heroine shares an England with Pamela, Clarissa and Sophia Western (indeed, to a degree with Fielding's Shamela too) and she may certainly be said to inhabit a major novel in that her undeniable greatness lies not in what she does but in who she is. What sets out to be a success in one literary genre often becomes most interesting to later epochs because of its affinities with another, and certainly if the book had been written, mutatis mutandis, a century later, its claim to a significant place in the history of the English novel would have been negligible. But there it is to perplex us, a good book, important fictionally because of the way in which its protagonist talks about sexual bouts and other things as well, a success and an originator pornographically precisely because Cleland had the resources of a real talent and the background of Defoe and Richardson.
The particular talent was for euphemism. Many people who have never read Fanny Hill know that it triumphs in avoiding all the taboo words. While this was probably done to avoid prosecution, the barrier of the unprintable presented no more of a problem to Cleland than the very structure of English vocabulary itself. It is a truism by now that our language lacks those words, like the French "sexe," developed by societies that have come to terms less obliquely with Eros, which name sexual equipment and functioning without giggles, medical escapes into Latinity, or descents into the good old forbidden terminology. But Cleland's success was in evolving, like a poet "a style from a despair." Fanny is a great creature because of the language in which Cleland has her talk, and the book's language and its protagonist's character are its greatest virtues. A diction full of turns and conceits was, by the middle of the eighteenth century, no longer acceptable in serious poetry. Augustan balance and antithesis, the devices of a style rivalling prose in its precision and controlled ornateness, had become the dominant convention, and since the time of Dryden, conceits in verse had been emblematic of frivolity, rather than of the tension and dialectic of Metaphysical wit. But it is just such a conceited and almost euphuistic diction to which Cleland turned in his descriptions of members and acts, in all the more highly operatic scenes for which the book's plot is the excuse.
Even in the "recitative" parts, however, his prose is tense and controlled. At the opening of the book, which consists of two long letters written to a lady of presumed quality by one of her acquaintance, Fanny announces her intention to recount truthfully her life as a prostitute:
… I will not so much as take the pains to bestow the strip of a gauze wrapper on it, but paint situations such as they actually rose to me in nature, careless of violating those laws of decency that were never made for such unreserved intimacies as ours; and you have too much sense, too much knowledge of the ORIGINALS themselves, to sniff prudishly and out of character at the PICTURES of them.
"Such unreserved intimacies as ours"—they are those that govern the relation of book and reader as well. The growing notion of private experience and its value surrounds, as Ian Watt has pointed out, the early development of the English novel and its readership, and the overall rhetorical strategy of the book traps the reader in the woman-to-woman confidential relationship. After this opening remark, Fanny's apologies for the detail and elaborate sentiment of her descriptions are never aimed at rearranging ruffled modesty, but at the sympathetic objections of common sense. "I know you know all about this, dear, but just thinking about it now makes me want to tell you how super it was when he …" This, transcribed into modern shorthand, is the tactical move of her apology. Her only other disclaimers are about her motives. From the very beginning of her narration, economic necessity, even desperation, gives way only to nature, to sexual impulse itself, in determining her choice of action and response. She grows up in a village near Liverpool and, on the death of her artisan-class parents, comes innocently up to London to seek her fortune, arrives penniless and is discovered at an employment agency by a bawd who undertakes, with the help of her girls, the sale of Fanny's maiden-head to an ageing rake. This is all formulaic: we think of Polly Peachum's first song in The Beggar's Opera (to the tune of an inconsequentially gallant Purcell song) which likens virgins to flowers raised in the country and brought, like girls (indeed, like the very actress singing the song) to Covent Garden to "rot, stink and die." But Fanny's articulateness is so unusual that she herself must take note of it: she mentions her understanding, "naturally not a despicable one … which had, even amidst the whirl of loose pleasures I had been tost in, exerted more observation on the characters and manners of the world than what is common to those of my unhappy profession, who looking on all thought or reflection as their capital enemy, keep it at as great a distance as they can, or destroy it without mercy." These are, after all, the concerns of the novelist, rather than of the pornographer, and Fanny's moral and social insights throughout the book, her shrewd assessments of character and, as Peter Quennell reminds us in his introduction to the New York edition, of the relation between physical appearance and sexual preference, are, in a sense, boot-legged into the pornography. Thus, at an early stage of her sexual initiation, she observes Mrs. Brown, the old bawd, with a young Horse-grenadier; from behind yellow damask curtains in a closet, she watches their doings, at first rather repulsed by the exposed ugliness of the old woman, then herself excited by splendours of the young man. But she makes it clear that her reactions have been conditioned to a degree by the instructive caresses of one of the whores with whom she has, from the beginning, been bedded down. At the end of her description of the scene, conflicting feelings and her own physical release give her a sense of the great inevitability of nature in a magnificent sentence that ends with an almost Jamesian period:
But, as the main affair was now at the point the industrious dame had brought it to, she was not in the humour to put off the payment of her pains, but laying herself down, drew him gently upon her, and thus they finish'd, in the same manner as before, the old last act.
But her philosophy, it must be remembered, is determined by the pornographic genre itself, for each substantive episode in the book must culminate in a mechanical or social variant of "the old last act." Her innocence is gradually lost through encounters with another girl, two scenes of observed activity, a failure of the horrid brute for whom she was being groomed to penetrate her and, finally, the loss of her virginity to Charles, a young...
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