Audio: Susan Sontag’s lecture “On Classical Pornography”
A special project for 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to a recording from our archive and write a personal response. Here, Siri Hustvedt writes about Susan Sontag’s lecture “On Classical Pornography.” It was recorded live at 92Y on November 2, 1964. Hustvedt appears at 92Y on Monday night for a reading with Paul Auster, whom she first met at a Poetry Center reading and later married.
In 1964, Sontag was thirty-one years old, a young woman who had made a big stir with Notes on Camp. When she began to speak on the 92Y recording, I remembered her voice. She was much older when I knew her, but her voice sounded the same to me. Her delivery of the lecture surprised me a little, however. Her tone is low, calm, academic, qualifying. There is little humor and no rhetorical flights. She is not reading her text, but my guess is she is sticking close to it, and she wants to make sure that each of her points is clearly understood by her audience. She emphasizes that her adjective “classical” for pornography is something of a joke and that her definition of porn is unconventional: as a literary form it must embody the idea that lustful acts are inherently immoral.
Unlike the erotic texts of China and India that celebrate sexual joy, pornography pits virtue against vice in an ethical struggle. In 1964, pornography occupied a different place in the culture than it does today. What was then called “smut” is now widely available to anyone who can type out a few words on a computer keyboard. The pornography trials of literary works—Howl (1957), Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1959) and Tropic of Cancer (1962)—were not remote, and Sontag is on a mission to defend literature from censorship. Although she does not dwell on this, it is the subtext of her lecture.