An Article About a Book About Pornography That Isn't Actually Substantially About Pornography, So Far. (NSFW, Probably?)
Entry one of probably several
So there was once a blog that every pseudo-intellectual liked; if you were, say, a comedy writer who was desperate to be part of the mental elite and in your twenties at the time the blog was active, you very likely read it, and if you read it as a 20-something comedian who was desperate for signals they could throw to others that they were smart, you probably thought it was profound.
The blog was called The Last Psychiatrist. It did a bunch of deep-thought culture analysis stuff; it had a distinctive style. If you needed someone to explain the deeper tactics of Dove soap ad campaigns in a way that sounded right enough to possibly be correct and took long enough to read that you felt real smart about it, he was your guy.
At the time, I absolutely loved the blog. I’m still fond of it.
In 2013, the author announced that he hadn’t been updating the blog very much because he was writing a book about pornography; the internet held its breath. In 2014 he stopped posting entirely; the internet tried to decide whether or not he had died. In 2021, just now basically, he put the book up.
For a certain kind of nerd from a certain era this is a big deal, something like if Rick Moranis started making movies again.
A forum I participate in started talking about it, and several people asked for summaries of the book, which (apparently purposefully) does not have blurbs from which they could extrapolate a baseline on what to expect. They asked for a summary; nobody was willing to give one, with one person saying something that boiled down to “It’s the kind of book that, if you need a summary, you lack the strength to read. It does not lend itself to summaries, nor does it bend its neck before the weak.”
Me being a jerk, that sounded like a challenge; me being impulsive, I said I’d summarize it. So here we are; I’m writing a book review, kind of.
If you’ve been reading a while you know that I’m a relatively conservative Christian kind of guy, so the natural question that might arise is “how pornographic is this book about pornography?”. The answer is “not very”, at least so far. There’s one section in which the author has written a short story imitating the style of amateur erotic fiction; it’s about 30 pages and I can confirm it’s mostly skippable. If you were looking for an obscenity-based reason not to read the book, this is it; there are no pictures in the book, so to the extent you’d be morally stopped from reading the thing at all, this is what would stop you.
Besides that pretty rough patch, it’s mostly not about porn at all, and to the extent it is it’s mostly just descriptive of porn in the “it exists” way, with some scattered rough language. So it’s not for those who blush easily, but it’s also not 1100 pages of smut.
It is 1100 pages, though. As of this writing, I’m 250 pages in; that means this is part one of N entries where N is probably two. From this vantage, I can’t guarantee the book won’t change wildly by the time I finish it, but I can give you a general overview of the kind of scope the book tries to handle and the problems I have with it so far.
To anyone who just wants to know if it’s a good book they should buy and read: I don’t think so, particularly. It doesn’t contain (so far) any profound truths, and to the extent you might think it does it’s (I argue) because the author is doing a very specific trick that makes it seem so that I’ll detail later.
For anybody who is ready to plow into the whole review, I have to organize it in sort of a weird way: first, I’m going to briefly describe the points the author seems to have made so far, then I’ll describe the prose and the persuasive methods employed. I need you to know both of those in fairly dry terms first, because otherwise my criticisms of the book won’t make sense. It’s probably worth sticking around for the not-fairly-dry parts because I’m in full fighting mode, or at least as close to it as I can get on a Thursday.
TLP has a couple basic claims that he’s putting forth in the book. I use the word claims relatively flexibly here, because they are closer to “bare assertions of fact”, but as I understand them (which it’s arguable I do, or could; more on this later). I’ll do my best to explain them as simply as I can.
The first claim he makes is that pornography represents something like a failure or a refusal to fantasize. With a sexual fantasy, should you have one, you close your eyes to have it; when you open them, you have to take responsibility for the fantasy you had, because it came from you. Pornography is not your fantasy, though; it’s someone else’s. It might match up to yours well, but TLP says if it does it’s because you’ve been taught to like that kind of thing, that you’ve become acclimated to a particular kind of other people’s fantasy, trained to like it.
The second claim is that this is but a single incarnation of a bigger problem. The zoomed out view of the problem is that we in general are incapable of action; we don’t want to act but also can’t act, and we rely on a nebulous “them” to put us on a track towards having to do it. If we have fantasies, he says, they are about this; we want a situation where we don’t have to take an action, but where an action is demanded of us by circumstance. Think “you don’t want to talk to the pretty girl; you want her to trip so you have to catch her”.
These first two claims are applied very broadly to everything and everybody. You aren’t even capable of wanting things, says TLP; you need other people to tell you what to want. You aren’t attracted to your wife, he says; if you are, it’s because other people want her, which gives you permission to want her you wouldn’t have given yourself.
The third claim radiates out from that; since you can’t want anything, TLP says, the only pleasure you ever actually get is in depriving people of the things you want. So before where I said he said you find your wife attractive because other people do? He rolls that back. You don’t actually think she’s attractive; you just want to deprive other people of what they want.
This also applies to everything and everybody. That erotic story I mentioned earlier? It isn’t really necessary for the book, but to the extent it has a point all the participants in the story are depriving each other of something - the husband lets his wife get close to a predatory man because he wants that man to feel deprived by wanting his wife but not being able to get her. The predator wants to deprive the husband of his wife because she’s valuable to the husband, and (as with everyone, per TLP) he does not have wants of his own to satisfy besides deprivation of others. The wife has sex with the man, ostensibly to give him something so she can more intensely deprive him of it in the future, now that he knows what he’s missing.
Fourthly, he makes a nebulous claim about ledger-keeping in relationships; it’s unclear enough what exactly he’s trying to say that you should take my interpretation of it with a grain of salt. His claim seems to be that in a relationship, if someone gives you a lot of satisfaction you feel it creates an imbalance; ditto for you giving them a lot of satisfaction.
You respond to this by depriving, mainly; there’s an imbalance, so you fix it by stopping loving your wife, not taking care of your friends or other similar efforts to hurt people in pursuit of homeostasis. This leads to bad things, but seems in TLP’s view to be inevitable. So, for instance, he says that a man can be concerned with satisfying a woman sexually if it’s a one-night-stand situation; it’s a tit-for-tat exchange. But not so if he’s the provider for that woman; the imbalance created by him giving her a home to live in prevents him from caring about her sexual well-being, in her being satisfied with him as a lover.
If any of the claims I’ve described seem weird or ill-formed and as a result you suspect I’m just bad at reading, I want to defend myself. The confusion you feel is mostly a result of the sheer difficulty I had penetrating his prose style, which can be described as slightly wordy in the same way the Washington monument can be described as slightly phallic, or how the planet Jupiter might be described as a bit on the stout side.
The problem this presents is that if someone read this and had a wildly different interpretation of his claims, there’s not much I could do to refute them. It wouldn’t be a matter of quoting the relevant passage; it would instead be stringing together 50 fuzzily-phrased passages and then arguing about interpretation. If you think I’ve gotten it wrong, you are in good company; I’m not sure I have it right myself.
There are five claims above; at least three of those can be compacted into something a single claim: You have willingly sought out someone to make your decisions for you, even your wants, and finding yourself with a lack of wants and power your only pleasure comes from depriving others of what you perceive to be theirs. Note that this is a single sentence of actual content; it’s perhaps 40 words of actual claim. Now imagine what it’s like sifting through 250 pages looking for the damn thing.
When I say “sifting, looking” you might think I mean he sort of makes a point, then makes it again in a bunch of different ways. Some people do this; they say “here’s the point I’m making” and then they build on that point with examples and variations on the theme. That’s not what’s happening here. If you read this book, you will go 50 pages starving for a point, for even the barest indication of where he’s going with things.
I have a friend who reads a genre of novels called fair play mysteries; in fair play mysteries, it has been explained to me, the big deal is making sure the person has all the clues they need to actually figure out the crime themselves; they don’t need to know 50 kinds of cigar ash, they just need a normal human knowledgebase and the patience to be attentive. You might be thinking this book is like this, that you just have to pay attention and pick up the pieces as you go and they will all fit together in a way that would point to his eventual point. It’s not.
When TLP finally reveals what he’s talking about, it’s not “oh, it all makes sense, given what he was saying”; it’s “oh, he went that direction, out of the several directions he could have gone.” All the clues he leaves lying around are consistent with his finally-stated claim, but don’t demand it. But there is (if nothing else) a sense of relief that he finally got somewhere. Make note of that sense of relief; I’ll talk about it more later.
I am splitting up this review into parts; after writing all of “chapter 1”, it ended up being like 4000 words. I am not a short-winded man, but that’s a little long to expect anyone to actually read. I'll likely post Pt. 2 tomorrow or Saturday.
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