The Market for Abuse and Humiliation: A Conversation with Adrian Nathan West
by Matthew Jakubowski
Adrian Nathan West has translated several novels by Josef Winkler, the poem cycle Alma Venus by Catalan poet Pere Gimferrer, and is best known for his translation of Marianne Fritz’s novel, The Weight of Things. His translation of Jean Améry’s Charles Bovary, Country Doctor, Portrait of a Simple Man is forthcoming from New York Review Books.
In his first novel, The Aesthetics of Degradation, West uses the narrative techniques of fiction, essay, and memoir to look at the ways that violent pornography influences cultural attitudes toward violence against women. His narrator investigates with cold philosophical rigor the arguments used to defend this kind of pornography, using personal experiences and memories to sketch certain patterns of influence across his life.
The Aesthetics of Degradation is an at times necessarily graphic, yet deeply philosophical and thoughtful novel about the effects of violent pornography on society. What moved you to write this book?
The impetus was an account I read as a teenager in John Zerzan’s essay The Case Against Art that describes a couple having sex in a museum in front of a camera that projected them onto a television. Zerzan writes that the man in the exhibit showed more interest in the representation of himself having sex than in the physical fact of his doing so. I wrote a conference paper not long after I’d read that later asking how the experience of abstract sexuality was distinguishable from sex with another person and what sort of psychological contingencies might make the former preferable to the latter. This was in the late nineties, when the tenor of pornography changed as a result of the work of a small but influential group of directors who rejected the camp and playfulness you’d associate with Behind the Green Door in favor of explicit depictions of abuse and humiliation directed toward a mainstream market. I was curious not only about these directors’ motives, but also the market dynamics, legal conditions, and common sense justifications that allowed their work to burgeon.
I had a vague sense all this was important, that its cultural implications, its significance for male identity as currently constituted, even its relationship to basic problems of moral philosophy, merited exploration, but I also felt limited as a writer and reader, and so for years, I just jotted things down, marginal comments, fragments of stories, and so on, until I had enough of a skeleton to at least get a sense of the nature of the project’s challenges. The book didn’t take a long time to write, but it took a long time to hit on how it should be written: I needed an approach that would allow me to draw on the resources of fiction, essay, and memoir while avoiding their respective pitfalls, and it took a lot of reading and many aborted efforts to figure out what that approach would be.
Writing about the market dynamics, legal conditions, and the justifications for this sort of abuse and humiliation required research into dark territory. Once you had committed to investigating this topic, how did you conduct the research, and what was the experience like?
Long before I had a sense that I wanted to write this book, let alone what form it would take, I was interested in the themes it brings together. So there was a lot of necessary but not sufficient reading that it would be pretentious to call research. Since I was a teenager, I’d been reading about the psychology of deviance, various critiques of capitalism, the art market, and so on. I’d even tried to write a set of essays about porn––also in the late nineties––I threw them out because they were terrible, lugubrious and totally humorless, but they did prove useful, because it was then that I read psychiatrist and theorist Robert Stoller and a lot of the interviews with directors and actors that show up in Aesthetics of Degradation.
The book proper began with two images: the narrator writing recollections of his sexual development, and later taking a walk with the artist, Enric Prades, who appears in chapter seven. What followed that was a long process of writing and discarding, until eventually I had a set of thematic kernels sufficient to start researching in earnest. You don’t write a book like this by accident, and it would be disingenuous to act scandalized: I knew more or less what was out there as far as pornography before I started working on it. The most useful material for me came from message boards where people trade pirated copies of videos, because their members post in-depth summaries that helped me to write without having to watch what would have been a mind-numbing quantity of pornography. But in a few instances, I felt I needed to watch certain scenes myself, because I described them in detail in the book and didn’t want to get anything wrong. I don’t exaggerate their awfulness. The acts depicted are not what is most important, but rather––not just the hatred, but the joy taken in indulging in hatred, and the incapacity to recognize, let alone care about, another person’s suffering, that is so depressing in the films I discuss.
The interviews with porn directors that your narrator thinks about in the book show the directors discussing their films as if they were artists with a vision and legacy to consider. It made me wonder about other aspects of society where extreme degradation and exploitation have become accepted profitable institutions, including global banking practices, which you also touch on in the book. Your narrator also draws a connection between these violent-porn directors’ thinking and the attitudes toward women of serial murderer Edmund Kemper. How did that connection come about, and why was it, among your other examples, important to illustrate?
This is sensitive ground. The question is not one of proffering tendentious analogies or causalities, of saying all porn viewers hate women or watching porn will make you a serial killer, but of considering whether the extreme might shed light on the less-so. Edmund Kemper was significant because of the specific erotic goals his crimes embodied, which are consonant with the aesthetic governing a certain genre of pornographic films. For Kemper, there was something offensive or threatening about women as such, something that had to be cut away before they were suitable, and the same is true in the pornography I examine in the book. That excess cannot be thought of apart from women’s autonomy and self-possession, overcoming which is a condition for a particular kind of eroticism.
A preoccupation of the narrator’s in the book is to what degree this hostility to female sovereignty defines his own sensual urges, though I should say that the suppression of the female subject has implications beyond the sexual field: in his letters, Van Gogh writes of the prostitute Sien, whom he lived with for two years, that her sorrows and adversities have made her useful to him as a painter, and in his Book of Kings, Klaus Theweleit describes the history of Western art as a series of attempts to cordon off female physicality.
The complexity of the narrator’s experience evolves amid the novel’s more essayistic sections, which is fascinating in many ways. While charting his awareness, his story arc, for lack of a better term, doesn’t follow the easy course of, well, here’s a curious young man who studies and ponders and has a revelation. What went into your approach to this aspect of the book?
Conventional literary fiction, particularly in America, has come to achieve by the moment of insight the pleasures formerly yielded by the resolution of plot: whether by a mounting confluence of pressures or a sudden revelation, the protagonist arrives at some revelation that changes either his life, or his way of understanding his life, and then the story ends. But this is not how things happen. That we should ever have diverged from an understanding of character as an expression of impersonal forces owes to a not-at-all scientific preoccupation with individual freedom, one that is characteristic of twentieth century art and, particularly in America, to the rise of the novelist as a celebrity figure, which has permitted a degree of irresponsibility with regard to knowledge outside the purview of fiction that would have been as unthinkable for Boccaccio as for Swift. Over time, the knowledge base has become too thin, and what’s left is the perpetuation of a clumsy and insubstantial folk psychology. At worst, this gives you stories like John Updike’s Varieties of Religious Experience, about September 11, which begins: “There is no God: the revelation came to Dan Kellogg in the instant that he saw the World Trade Center South Tower fall.”
I have tried to show change in a more realistic way: by the slow opening up of novel sources of psychological tension in ways that are not entirely graspable, but that certainly extend beyond any discrete circumstance to involve whatever accompanies it as an instance in time. I do not dwell on the importance of a particular experience, but instead on how that experience might invoke something read that in its turn calls forth a recollection, etc. I don’t believe prose fiction will ever be capable of propounding a physics of the generation of insight and change, and when it has tried to do so, it has always been a failure. I limit myself to what I think is possible here, which is the sketching out of a field in which change or insight might occur.