Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Little Death in Venice

Now it’s time to return to a painful subject: the decline of furtive browsing. Back in l992, John Gross wrote The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters: English Literary Life Since 1800. But no one has yet produced a history of the decline of the X-rated section at newspaper kiosks, nor has anyone attempted to document the stinging feeling of shame inflicted by the withering glances of prudish news agents, whose forbidden merchandise served as an incubator of male desire. Playboy, Penthouse and even Hustler are still sold in independent drugstores and in most newsstands, but they have become lifestyle magazines that are an accepted feature of mass culture. Back in the heyday of newsstand sex, magazines like Gent and Sir were printed on cheap paper stock, which actually blurred the images of the models, whose lurid poses were rendered with shabby photography. The layout of the shots in the old editions of Gent and Sir had an extemporaneous quality, as if they were taken on the run, in the kind of scruffy motel rooms to which the reader might retreat after being chased away from the newsstand for stealing free looks. The Internet, with its free and easily accessible pornography, has killed one of the great coming-of-age experiences that defined adolescence for the American male. Fallen women in lacey lingerie have been replaced by emboldened vixens whose high-definition sexuality has denuded fantasy of both its privacy and its mystique. Where will the male libido find the guilt and transgression that had previously been the hallmark of tortured adolescence, and incidentally of great works like Lolita and Death in Venice? There was a brief period before the death of porn magazines when a whole new bevy of publications, Cheri, Club and Club International, emerged to carry on the tradition of fetishistic objectification. The Notorious Bettie Page, Mary Harron’s 2005 film about the famed bondage model who later became a devout Christian (and her Henry Higgins, Irving Klaw), was a swansong for the great age when the fumes of the tobacconist were the madeleine of illicit desire. When Ronald Reagan was a television announcer, he  declared, “At General Electric, progress is our most important product.”  In the case of pornography, progress hasn’t improved anything.

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