Howard Jacobson: Asking for pornography that's life-affirming is like asking for tragedy with a happy ending

Porn that’s good to us, enhancing rather than degrading, by definition ceases to be porn

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Pornography again. When we last discussed pornography, we noted how having nothing better to do explains, in part, the hours expended on it. "The devil finds work for idle hands" – never were wiser words spoken. If it's true that past the age of fervent procreation we rub the itch of sex as much out of tedium as desire, then how much more is pornography – in particular, internet pornography – the servant of ennui. One bored click of the mouse while we're waiting for our emails and we're in hell.

Once upon a time, when low-quality porn was to be found only in the Venus Bookshop, as like as not situated opposite the cathedral, and high-quality porn was kept under lock and key in the school library, procuring it required not only effort but courage. We had to brave our teachers who would subsequently ask us, in the hearing of the whole class, how we were finding The One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom. Or we had to sneak down to the Venus Bookshop in a capacious coat, no matter what the weather, and risk the manifest contempt of the proprietor who never failed to draw attention to our purchase, either by commenting loudly on its contents or by wrapping it slowly and ostentatiously in a brown paper bag – the bag being even more a badge of ignominy than the magazine.

Thus were we forced into physical exercise, compelled to negotiate a complex of social relations, and taught shame. And thus, even before settling down to weigh the chances of going blind, did we learn about the consequences of choice. But even leaving aside the ethical advantages of having to forage for our filth, these prolegomena to pornography were advantageous: they gave savour to what we were about; they ratcheted up the excitement; they threw a cloak of secrecy and daring on what has now become mere automatic drudgery.

The child of internet porn is therefore a loser on every count – introduced to ugliness before he has had time to dream of beauty, denied those preliminaries wherein we weigh our actions, and led to suppose there is no sorrow that cannot be soothed, no blankness that cannot be filled, by watching others perform soixante-neuf.

I am pleased to read that that indefatigably optimistic philosopher Alain de Botton is in agreement with me on this. In a press release last week, he noted that internet pornography reduces our capacity to tolerate anxiety and boredom, exerting its "maddening pull" in those very moments "when we feel an irresistible desire to escape from ourselves". I like the phrase "maddening pull". It humanises the impulse, removing blame and reminding us of the universal urgency of the before and the inevitable melancholy of the after. It's only when he promises a different kind of porn, porn that would be "harnessed to what is noblest in us... in which sexual desire would be invited to support, rather than permitted to undermine, our higher values", that I find myself not in agreement with him. Porn that's good to us, nice to us, nice about us, enhancing rather than degrading, life-affirming rather than life-threatening, by definition ceases to be porn. One might as soon ask for tragedy that has a happy ending or alcohol that doesn't make us drunk.

I don't say we shouldn't rethink the way sex is routinely depicted in our society – in Lady Chatterley's Lover, Lawrence tried nobly if unsuccessfully to clean up the very language of sexual relations – but you cannot clean up pornography because its province is defilement. However and whenever we go there, and no matter whether it's literary pornography or the perfunctory ins and outs of YouPorn we visit, we go on the understanding that we will witness abasement and – for this is the transaction we all make with pornography – enter into sensations of debased arousal ourselves. In the end, pornography is an act of collusion between the material and the user of it. It is the collusion that is debased, hence our being able to find the images themselves innocuous and even laughable when we aren't in a collusive mood. And it's this collusion that erodes the distinction between classy porn and trashy porn. Pornography is a state of mind: it is nothing less than the willing and necessitous suspension of the very higher values Alain de Botton thinks pornography can be persuaded to make peace with.

In a famous essay on the pornographic imagination, Susan Sontag made the case for some pornographic books counting as literature because they plumb "extreme forms of human consciousness". But wherein would lie that extremity if they merely confirmed and flattered our "higher values"? As a matter of deliberate intention in the pornography we call art, and as a by-product of our collusion in that pornography which does not aspire to art at all, the best and sweetest ideas we have of ourselves, as rational creatures capable of tenderness and love, are trashed.

But the case for pornography is not simply that it derides the decencies. It has, paradoxically, a more energising effect. There's an exhilaration in erotic extremity that arises from its danger. Ordinarily, we harness sex to marriage, family and employment; we accept that we can no more incorporate the fearfulness of sex into domestic life than we can wake every day to the knowledge we take, say, from a Sophoclean tragedy. But "the temerity of penetration" we find in tragedy – the look into the "horror of nature", to employ Nietzschean terms – is what we find in pornography, too. We are contrary beings or we are nothing; in the midst of our abundant life, indeed as one of the most powerful expressions of that abundance, pornography revels in wastefulness and destruction.

That being the case, how can it be harnessed to all that's good and noble? Answer: it can't.

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