The Invention of Pornography: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, 1500-1800 
edited by Lynn Hunt.
Zone, 411 pp., £24.25, August 1993, 9780942299687
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A recent ‘free uncensored’ supplement to Company magazine featured a display of 29 male bottoms. ‘How’s this for bare-faced cheek!’ it proclaimed above this set of ‘spanking pics of real-life bums’: slim bums and flabby bums, muscly bums and pimply bums, hairy bums and smooth bums. Pornography has always had an obsession with comparisons and quantifications. It has often seemed more fascinated by quantity than quality. How many inches? How many times? How many positions? How many partners? Aretino’s Postures (1524), the first widely-circulated work of Renaissance pornography, featured an engraved display of 16 sexual positions; within a decade pirate copies had expanded this modest range to 35 or even 44 bodily configurations for the ‘sacrifice to Saint Fuck’. Don Giovanni’s boast of 1003 Spanish conquests is a priapic tribute to Enlightenment notions of l’homme machine; just as Rowlandson’s fascination with erections of Brobdingnagian proportions represents a triumph of Enlightenment hubris over the age-old anxieties of the male inchwar. (Company deals briskly with such male fantasies: ‘Sorry guys, we know the truth. The ten-inch penis is, sadly, very, very rare. The average man’s pride and joy is 4", rising to 5" to 7" when fully erect.’ It’s not clear if we’re supposed to feel deflated or reassured by these statistics.)

Company is a women’s magazine, and its bum-show is part of a recent trend. Increasingly, pornography is becoming female territory; no longer woman as sex-object, but woman as critic, commentator and connoisseur. Almost all the contributors to The Invention of Pornography, a volume of essays edited by Lynn Hunt, are women. The result is curiously ambivalent. These are women looking at men looking at women, and although there is no explicit hint of scholarly retribution in thus exposing the male fascination with exposed female flesh, there is an implicit assertion of corrective control. In part this role-reversal represents a neat counterpoint to a favourite pornographic ploy, in which men manufactured the ‘confessions’ of women for the pleasure of other men. From Aretino’s Ragionamenti delle corti (1538) to L’Ecole des filles (1655) and Cleland’s Fanny Hill (1748-9), the device of allowing an older, experienced whore to instruct an eager young novice in all the intimate details of her sexual expertise, was a stock ingredient of male sexual fantasy. Lynn Hunt sees in such narrative devices not merely a kind of voyeuristic stereotyping, but the subversive potential of a forbidden genre in which female experience was granted an unaccustomed centrality. ‘Early modern pornographers,’ she writes, ‘were not intentionally feminists avant la lettre, but their portrayal of women, at least until the 1790s, often valorised female sexual activity and determination much more than did the prevailing medical texts.’ Paula Findlen argues that in Aretino’s Ragionamenti, the genitals of the whore Nanna represent an ‘ultimate source of power’ more all-embracing than the entire works of the humanist academy. Nanna boasts that ‘a pair of luscious buttocks can accomplish more than all that the philosophers, astrologists, alchemists and necromancers have ever wrought.’ Similarly, Joan DeJean suggests a powerful proto-feminist affinity between Early Modern pornography and the development of the 18th-century epistolary novel. ‘For, like pornography, the epistolary novel ... relied for its success on the (guilty) attraction to first-person displays of female eroticism.’

Yet there has always been a range of pornography from which women were excluded almost entirely. For several Renaissance pornographers the arts of sexual pleasure formed an essential element of the humanist curriculum, and, like all other elements of that curriculum, were an exclusively male preserve. Antonio Vignali’s La Cazzaria (1526) presents, not an old whore instructing a young virgin, but a dialogue between a philosopher, Arsiccio, and a young academician, Sodo. ‘Making yourself touch your prick with your hand is one of the first things one should learn in philosophy,’ Arsiccio declares, before offering his young acolyte a practical initiation into the pleasures of sodomy. Throughout Vignali’s text, sodomy is presented as the most perfect expression of humanist sophistication; an act which confers membership of a noble and learned élite. Even with women, a preference for anal rather than vaginal intercourse is a sign of true nobility. In his Sonnetti lussuriosi (1527) Aretino presents sodomy as something that ‘important people’ (i grandi) do. For Boccaccio it was axiomatic that pedagogus ergo sodomiticus, and as late as 1652, Antonio Rocco in his L’Alciabade fanciullo a scola was presenting the essential process of Italian humanist scholarship as (in Findlen’s translation) ‘thrusting knowledge up the ass’.

Pornographic works like these, which sought explicitly to restrict initiation into the higher sexual pleasures to a learned male élite, seem to contradict a central thesis of this book, which is to insist on the democratising function of pornography. Thus Lynn Hunt writes: ‘It was only when print culture opened the possibility of the masses gaining access to writing and pictures that pornography began to emerge as a separate genre of representation.’ Yet how many of ‘the masses’ had access to the expensively produced, limited-edition collector’s items that this book describes? In Britain it was not until the Lady Chatterley trial that ‘the masses’ were permitted to read a work formerly deemed pornographic. The celebrated question posed by the prosecution counsel – ‘would you be willing for your wives or servants to read this book?’ – reminds us of the frisson of Establishment horror, as late as 1960, at the notion that the lower orders might have access to cheap paperback editions of such sexy stuff.

Part of the fascination of pornography has always been its forbidden nature, and the idea that it offers a kind of secret pleasure for the delectation of connoisseurs. Even the Papal Index made a special concession in favour of a select number of élite Classical texts which might ‘by reason of their elegance and quality of style be permitted, but by no means read to children’. Early Modern pornographers were quick to exploit the implications of this clause, passing off their works as imitations of classic sources. ‘I simply follow in the footsteps of the Ovids and Virgils of this world,’ declared Antonio Beccadelli in his priapic fantasy Hermaphroditus. Aretino professed to address a wider audience through the frankness of his plain-speaking whores, though his emphasis on demotic idioms was, in reality, a version of another favourite pornographic motif. At one point Antonia says to Nanna: ‘Speak plainly and say “fuck”, “prick”, “cunt” and “ass” if you want anyone except the scholars at the university of Rome to understand you.’ But, as Lynn Hunt argues, pornography’s fascination with a candidly ‘realistic’ naming of parts is chiefly a kind of rhetorical fetishisation through a delight in verbal transgression. In the Histoire de Dom Bougre (1741) a libertine nun explains the true meaning of the expression ‘to be in love’: ‘When one says the gentleman is in love with the lady ... it is the same thing as saying ... he is dying to put his prick into her cunt. That’s truly what it means.’

Nearly all the contributors here have a stab at establishing some kind of link between pornography and political discourse, though no consensus emerges as to its nature or effect. At one level, pornographic images can provide a gloriously farcical reductio ad absurdum. Antonio Vignali’s La Cazzaria (1525) allegorises civic unrest in Siena as a struggle between the patrician Pricks and Cunts, the aristocratic Balls and the plebeian Asses. (There is a striking parallel with Swift’s more modest contentions between the High Heels and Low Heels in Gulliver’s Travels.) The political status of L’Ecole des filles, first published in 1655, shortly after the civil disturbances of the Fronde, is more problematic. Why was it that printers of this scandalously salacious work escaped with a brief (and apparently accidental) few months in prison, when Claude Le Petit was burned to death for the relatively innocuous Le Bordel des muses? Joan DeJean’s makes the intriguingly subversive suggestion that the formidable Catholic dévote, Madame de Maintenon, may have had a hand in composing L’Ecole des filles. Pornography knows no party-line, and is as much the preserve of aristocratic libertines as of zealous anti-court satirists. What are we to make of all those Restoration tributes to Charles II’s saucy prick, Rachel Weil asks in an essay called ‘Sometimes a Sceptre is only a Sceptre’? Do they represent an attack on a monarch who has bankrupted the nation in his relentless pursuit of cunt?

Why art thou poor, O king? Embezzling cunt
That wide-mouthed, greedy monster, that has done it.

Or are they a sly celebration of the priapic feats of a man who, in a somewhat over-enthusiastic endorsement of Filmer’s royalist theories in Patriarcha, seemed intent on making himself almost literally the father of the nation? Reading this essay I was reminded of Joe Orton’s comments when the Lord Chamberlain blue-pencilled the use of Sir Winston Churchill’s penis in What the Butler Saw, substituting a metonymous cigar. ‘What am I saying?’ Orton protested. ‘That he had a big prick. Why should anyone object to that? I wouldn’t object if someone said it about me. No man would. In fact, I might pay them to say it.’

French pornography reached its zenith at the time of the Revolution and Lynn Hunt has no doubt that explicit pornographic lampoons of the French court, and in particular of Marie Antoinette, played an important part in dismantling the hierarchies of respect and deference in the Ancien Régime. She echoes Peter Wagner’s comment in Eros Revived: Erotica of the Enlightenment (1988) that Enlightenment pornography was ‘a vehicle of protest against the authority of Church-State’. Yet she is notably more reticent than Wagner in offering descriptions of this subversive material. He details scenes from Bordel national sous les auspices de la reine (1790) in which Lafayette has intercourse with Marie Antoinette while being buggered by Bailly. The Queen remarks that her only pleasure is to be ‘foutue en con’ and wishes to engage an entire regiment, as well as several monastic orders, to satisfy her lust. Hunt is more intent on reiterating her central thesis that ‘pornography about the queen ... had a democratic or levelling effect.’ However, she does note one disquieting feature of this notion of ‘democracy’: its defiantly masculinist tone. ‘Democracy,’ she comments, ‘was established against monarchy through pornographic attacks on the feminisation of both the aristocracy and monarchy ... Women were thus essential to the development of democracy, and, in the end, excluded from it.’ The French Revolution proclaimed the Rights of Man, and one of the rights of man, according to the pornographers, was a cheap fuck. In one lampoon a patriotic prostitute offers to lower her prices for sturdy citizens: ‘Dix-huit sous, au lieu de vingt-quatre; c’est à quoi se réduit mon con national.’

The Invention of Pornography is a worthy and a scholarly book, though its sober feminist tone does rather have the effect of disinfecting the material it deals with. Rousseau, in his Confessions, gives the current definition of pornography as books one can only read with one hand (‘livres qu’on ne lit que d’une main’). Pepys, furtively reading L’Ecole des filles, was a master of the one-handed technique: ‘it did hazer my prick stand all the while, and una vez to decharger.’ The contributors to this volume are rather more ambidextrous. Their hands are out in the open, and their preference is for dirty books that provoke a political reaction, rather than a private emission.

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Vol. 17 No. 6 · 23 March 1995

J.F. Fuggles thinks I can’t tell my âne from my anus (Letters, 9 March). But I’d hoped my pedantic parenthesis ‘(in Findlen’s translation)’ would have sufficiently indicated the American source of such phrases as ‘thrusting knowledge up the ass’. Contributors to Lynn Hunt’s The Invention of Pornography all prefer ‘ass’ to ‘arse’: their preference, not mine.

David Nokes
King’s College

Vol. 17 No. 5 · 9 March 1995

I read with interest David Nokes’s review of The Invention of Pornography (LRB, 26 January). But did he think he was writing for the New York Review of Books? There are constant references to that relation of the donkey, the ass. Did he, by chance, mean ‘arse’?

J.F. Fuggles
Rothley, Leicestershire

send letters to

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