Susan Sontag

The Pornographic Imagination

The pornographic imagination has its peculiar access to some truth. This truth—about sensibility, about sex, about individual personality, about despair, about limits—can be shared when it projects itself into art.


Everyone, at least in dreams, has inhabited the world of the pornographic imagination for some hours or days or even longer periods of his life; but only the full-time residents make the fetishes, the trophies, the art.


That discourse one might call the poetry of transgression is also knowledge. He who transgresses not only breaks a rule. He goes somewhere that the others are not; and he knows something the others don’t know.

Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1510

There is, demonstrably, something incorrectly designed and potentially disorienting in the human sexual capacity—at least in the capacities of man-in-civilization. Man, the sick animal, bears within him an appetite which can drive him mad.


Such is the understanding of sexuality—as something beyond good and evil, beyond love, beyond sanity; as a resource for ordeal and for breaking through the limits of consciousness—that informs the French literary canon [Histoire de l’oeil and Histoire d’O, among others] I’ve been discussing.

There’s a sense in which all knowledge is dangerous, the reason being that not everyone is in the same condition as knowers or potential knowers. Perhaps most people don’t need ‘a wider scale of experience’. It may be that, without subtle and extensive psychic preparation, any widening of experience and consciousness is destructive for most people.

Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1495

Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504

In the last analysis, the place we assign to pornography depends on the goals we set for our own consciousness, our own experience.


From Susan Sontag, Styles of Radical Will  (Penguin Classics, 2009; originally published in 1969)