Memoirs of a Not Altogether Shy Pornographer

Introduction by Jonathan Lethem

Bernard Wolfe’s Memoirs of a Not Altogether Shy Pornographer comes into your hands as a book-out-of-time. Such republication efforts as these always collapse the shallow literary present into a more complicated shape, making a portal through history—who is this lost writer, we ask ourselves, and what is this lost book? But also: what views of a lost cultural landscape might be available through the portal this particular lost writer and lost book represents?

Make no mistake, the case of Bernard Wolfe is an especially interesting one, not least because, even in 1972, in the pages of his memoir when it rolled fresh off the presses into the hands of god-knows-how-few readers, Wolfe already presents himself as a man-out-of-time, in ways both helpless and defiant. Wolfe’s career was bizarrely rich: from time as Leon Trotsky’s personal secretary to stints in the Merchant Marine, as ghostwriter for Broadway columnist Billy Rose and author of early-TV-era teleplays, as editor of Mechanix Illustrated, and as exponent of the theories of dissident psychoanalytic guru Edmund Bergler (whose homophobia was obnoxious, but whose discarded theories strongly anticipate later thinking, and who could be seen as a kind of “lost American Lacan,” if anyone was digging for one), to his glancing participation in the realm of American science fiction, and his role as amanuensis, to jazzman Mezz Mezzrow, in writing a memoir depicting a prescient version of “hipsterdom” and which became a kind of bible of inner-urban American slang—Wolfe was practically everywhere in twentieth-century culture.

Yet Wolfe was also nowhere, in the sense that the present interest attaching to him doesn’t stem from the notion of “reviving” a writer with an earlier purchase on either popularity or the embrace of literary critics of his time. Wolfe had neither. A few of his books sold a bit; Limbo has kept an obscure reputation within science fiction and bobbed back into print a few times. Yet for his hyperactivity, Wolfe had little traction, and in 1972 was hardly a writer whose memoirs any publishers were likely to be clamoring for. Wolfe, restless, fast-producing, and seemingly impervious to indifference, wrote one anyway. When he did it was surely the “pornographer” of the title that drew Doubleday’s interest in publishing the result.

What the reader meets here is both fascinating and truly eccentric. The book is a writer’s-coming-of-age narrative, but a highly unsentimental one, describing Wolfe’s location of a habit and a craft and a discipline and a capacity, much more than it details his discovery of any definite sense of purpose as a writer. Wolfe’s vibrant intelligence, which picks up and turns over any number of vital subjects as if they were rocks concealing scuttling insect life, rarely settles on introspection, let alone seeks a tone of confession or remorse or self-doubt, such as we’d expect from nearly any memoir lately. Despite this, there’s a terrible poignancy to the material concerning his father’s spiraling mental illness, and the bizarre ironies attaching to Wolfe’s own role as a New Haven-townie-gone-to-Yale who gets a psychiatric fellowship at the same institution in nearby Middletown where his father is a semi-comatose inmate. Of course, a commissioning editor, nowadays, would have insisted that Wolfe punch this material up, goose it emotionally, and put it in the foreground (a contemporary point of comparison might be Nick Flynn’s fine Another Bullshit Night in Suck City). The same imaginary editor would surely, I think, have asked Wolfe to excise so much of the fading political context from the book, but for various reasons one can guess this book wasn’t so much edited as it was simply written and published. It’s in the politics that one can feel how deeply, and restlessly, Wolfe was, by 1972, testifying from an already-lost world. His passionate and still unresolved commitment to Marxism, a commitment betrayed (of course, and in so many different ways) by twentieth-century historical reality, remains the lens through which he views the “labor” of writing, and the social relations into which he projected himself as a hungry young writer in the wartime years.

Despite his engagement with history, there’s no attempt to make a wide-screen historical panorama of his book—what enters of political and cultural context does so through individual experience. Wolfe also doesn’t trouble much over the question of censorship, despite the great battles over Ulysses, Lolita, “Howl”, and others that he’d certainly be capable of drawing into the mix. Apart from Henry Miller, and one other generationally important writer who comes in as a bizarre punch line, late in the book, Wolfe doesn’t drop names. He doesn’t situate his writer’s life in terms of movements or generations, apart from dividing his future efforts from the drab proletarianism he sees as the Marxist writer’s obligated legacy.

That the “labor” young Wolfe found for himself was to create exotic, gussied-up porn novels for the private delectation of gentlemen-collectors, or maybe just one gentleman-collector—talk about your lost worlds!—is a perverse irony of which the book makes its primary meat. Not that the memoir is salacious in any way (in fact, Wolfe can seem prim), but the situation forms a puzzle for the young writer, one the older Wolfe’s still captivated by: how did I get here and what could it possibly mean? The book is a portrait too, a poison-pen portrait, of the disappointed, pretentious, and disingenuous publisher/go-between for the porn novels, who Wolfe calls “Barneybill Roster.” In his luxuriant and fascinated distaste for this man, Wolfe himself resembles Henry Miller in the grip of one of his long denunciatory ranting episodes, like his great novella A Devil In Paradise. This brings us to the matter of the book’s style—the weird, cavorting, punning, ruminative, aggrieved and deeply humane style that was Wolfe’s own. Like many things in the book, Wolfe’s astonishing and peculiar voice is deeply individual, but also historically characteristic. It shows, to me, the way Joyce’s influence, but also Henry Miller’s, was essential in the development of so much colorful “voice” in mid-century writers as seemingly otherwise unallied, or even divergent, as Mailer, Kerouac, Brautigan, Pynchon, Philip Roth, and so forth. Wolfe, in his novels, never quite rose into that company—his restless and motley enthusiasms may have catapulted him in too many directions, and he may simply not have had the luck or even the desire to apply such fixity to the novelist’s art—he’s almost a monologuist, a stand-up man, like Lenny Bruce or Lord Buckley. But the fellow who writes, here, “Words are problem-prongs” was a great man of language, and it’s a gift to be able to read him again. Wolfe lives.

Jonathan Lethem is the author of seven novels including Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn, which was named Novel of the Year by Esquire and won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Salon Book Award, as well as the Macallan Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger. He has also written two short story collections, a novella and a collection of essays, edited The Vintage Book of Amnesia, guest-edited The Year’s Best Music Writing 2002, and was the founding fiction editor of Fence magazine. His writings have appeared in the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, McSweeney’s and many other periodicals. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

From Memoirs of a Not Altogether Shy Pornographer

Bernard Wolfe
Bernard Wolfe

In a blaze of revelation I saw everything. This man, his clients, the inner logic of Pornography, the essence of all Literature, High and Low. A moment of, yes, epiphany, which I can set forth in a series of propositions:

(1) What is Fiction? I don’t mean to knock my own profession but facts are facts. Fiction is Peeping. The writer peeps at a bunch of carefully selected people then invites others to join him. His work provides a window, if not a proscenium arch, through which readers can ogle the cast which the writer has screened, placed in position, and set in motion for just such ogling purposes. Literature is a form of Spying and Eavesdropping which violates none of the constitutional rights (those that are left) protecting privacy and the sanctity of the home.

(2) But nobody likes to own up to being a Peeper. So the consumers of printed-page voyeurism need a face-saving formula for their Peeping.

They have one, artfully worked up for them by critics and other literateurs. To wit: “Who’s peeping? Sneaking furtive looks into the private lives of others is furthest from our minds. What we’re doing is indulging our curiosity about human beings in all their wondrous guises—a humanistic immersion.”

(3) That’s a white wash, and the fictive element that gives Fiction its name—remember, our synonym for lie is fiction.

You get your first training as a Peeper the moment the grownups’ bedroom door is slammed in your face. (If not, to get more elemental still, the sad day Ma’s amples, that snuggly no-charge yummiest soda fountain of all, shut their doors in your startled face for good.) Your body is confined to the hallway but your eyes bore holes in that killjoy door and pass right through. The first peeping impulses are directed in wrecking activities against that crucial door. (If not, indeed, against the killjoy textiles that willed you from Ma’s fabulous founts.) Later they get sugarcoated as “curiosity about all the wonderful doings of all the wonderful people in all the wonderful areas of this endlessly engrossing human existence.”

It’s this sugarcoating that made Storytelling, and then Literature, possible. Peeping may get disguised as Insatiable Intellectual Curiosity about Everything, but that barricading bedroom door’s never entirely out of sight.

(4) In that Infra-Lit called Pornography, as in the parent body of Above-Board Lit, the first lure is the chance to peep. But there are significant differences.

Pornography provides the peeper, not a window or proscenium arch, but a keyhole. It directs the peeping impulses away from Humanistic Considerations back to that accursed bedroom door where the eyes first got mobilized. The panting, slobbering quality of the peeping is naked and much more narrowly focused, as it was in the beginning. All the new-brain rationalizations are stripped away.

(5) The Pornography Peeper has no facesaving formula about “curiosity regarding people in all their wondrous forms and activities.” The Pornography Peeper acknowledges a salivating curiosity about people in one form, naked, in one place, the bedroom, in one activity, the coupling of bodies which the child’s hungry eyes were not allowed to see.

Pornography cracks off the sugarcoating, brings the sophisticated and subdued and rechanneled “wonder about the endless variety of life” back to the primordial “gawking at what naked bodies do together.”

(6) But a lot of Pornography Peepers feel uncomfortable. Their hobby smacks too much of the infantile. Why bother? Since those once taboo doors have swung wide open for you in adulthood, why paste your eye to the old Keyhole—unless you’ve reverted to kid games?

A disturbing question, never far from the mind of the Porn Peeper. So the true nature of his hallway gawking must be fancied up. Pornography can never be fully and convincingly decked out as Serious Literature but it can be given some of the guilt-easing whitewash of Literature. Hence the strictures that Serious New-Sexualist Writing must “take up where Lawrence left off ” and “fulfill the revolutionary promise in Freud.”

Some Porn Peepers will indeed lap up undisguised Filth and Trash and exult in the stuff, in a kind of polymorph-perverse “slave revolt” against all taboos. But many need the window-dressing of Seriousness, the slogan of “a salutary frankness that will help to usher in the new and long-overdue Sexualist Enlightenment.”

(7) Therefore, the Pornographer with a true calling, a genuine appreciation for his craft, knows that he must at all costs avoid one subject in his work—unhumanistic, pansexual Peeping in its original, undiluted Keyhole form. Reduce the sex dramas in your pages to nothing but Peeping and all the high-flown pretensions about carrying on the good Freud-Lawrence work fall away. Then you’re not letting your uneasy Peeper-Readers off the hook, you’re heaving their quintessential Peeping back at them, smack into their flushed faces, like a custard pie.

Instead of allowing them to Peep without calling it that, you’re rubbing their faces in the muck of their own Peeping-Tomfoolery. You give them no outs. You pillory and parody them by presenting Eros under the rubric of the ocular. When you feed undisguised voyeurism to voyeurs—the game’s up. A deadly dull game. A deadly game, maybe. If it is a game.

(8) Barneybill Roster was a Peeper Deluxe, urgently and sweatily needing to hide his Low Porn under the fancy robes of High Lit.

In cooking up a sex drama in which people did absolutely nothing but ogle each other, Yar Hatchek had stripped away all of Barneybill’s facesavers and sent his ugly over-heated head slamming against the one door of all doors he couldn’t bear to acknowledge, the door to Mummy’s and Daddy’s bedroom, wherein the sound effects are not of Lofty Literature but only the groaning springs of a bed forever beyond the reach of the impotent snotnose prowling the hallway.

(9) No wonder Barneybill accused me of having a dirty, dirty mind. . . .

Bernard Wolfe (1915-1985), dramatist, television writer, and novelist graduated from Yale in 1935 and after service in WWII worked briefly as secretary and bodyguard to Leon Trotsky during the revolutionary’s exile in Mexico (he was off-duty at the time Trotsky got plugged) before settling in New York to become a writer. Among his many books are the novels Limbo, The Late Risers, In Deep, The Great Prince Died, The Magic of Singing, Logan’s Gone and Lies; the short story collection Move Up, Dress Up, Drink Up, Burn Up and the influential jazz memoir Really the Blues with Mezz Mezzrow.

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