"Where everything is available, nothing is sacred."
I was thinking about this sentence today, which popped up in a dream I had, when it occurred to me how boring most pornography has become, even though I rarely seek it out. When I was a kid in the late 1970s and early 1980s, pornography was a rare oasis of titillation found in an old, smutty paperback at the bottom of a friend's father's closet, mouldering alongside forgotten shoes and boxes of photographs. It sneaked in as soft core French films in the middle of the night with the sound on the television turned down low. If I was lucky, it would turn up in a magazine, normally kept on the highest rack, already looked through and discarded among the others on the lower shelves. Pornography, so elusive to those of us too young and too sheltered to score some for our very own, had to be mentally hoarded away in what few stolen moments we could find with it when it found us.
It was not the quality, but the promise of verboten knowledge, that sickly sweet twist in the gut, that made these rare brushes with pornography seem divine. I remember a book I once found, a well-read 1970s paperback with a comedically staged photograph of woman in a french maid outfit on the cover. For days, I made a ritual out of taking my secret find out of its hiding place, crawling into the back of the basement storage room, and reading a few pages of its lurid story. If I read it now, I would probably find it laughable, but then, when I feared that even the sound of my own breathing might block out the sound of incoming parental wrath, it was the filthiest piece of pornography I had ever encountered. It was remarkable.
Pornography now clogs up magazines, television, e-mail, and college-kid-heavy bars every weekend. It's in thousands of teenage cell phones in thousands of high schools. I've seen so many varieties of porn on the internet, both in images and text, that I am more surprised when I come across a practice or extremity of practice that is new to me than by what kind of hooved creature is being abused. Pornography is more plentiful and easier for me to find than almost anything else I can think of, or at least it was the last time I bothered to check. I don't bother to check anymore. Pornography, the merest possibility of which used to inspire the hushed silence of a religious service, has become boring. In fact, it no longer bores, because you have to notice something in order for it to be able to bore you. Porn has now gone so far as to fall off my radar when it's not flashing its tits at me from some unwanted pop-up window on my computer screen or the side of a city bus.
This isn't about the sacredness of pornography, though. This is about the sense of sacredness it once inspired in generations of children; this is about the sense of sacredness a lot of things once inspired; this is about availability, over-saturation, ease-of-use, and profanity.
I was out with some old friends the other night, and one of them brought up this story about a unicorn. (It might be from a recent book that he has been reading, in which case this idea might have originated from someone else. If it belongs to someone else and you know its source, let us know in the comments where it can be found.) The idea is that there is this unicorn in the forest. Everyone knows about the idea of unicorns, but no one has ever seen one in real life until the first time someone stumbles across it. The stumbler is awed by the experience and tells the tale of this magical creature. After he shares this awing experience with a few of his friends, word begins to spread about the unicorn. The next few people are pretty excited about this unicorn, and they tend to wax rhapsodic about how enchanting it is over pints at the pub, but actual awe is now reserved for things like gryphons and gorgons. It doesn't take long before people organize school field trips, permission forms are signed, and children feed the unicorn apples and carrots over the fence. The unicorn is still an event, but it is a staged one now; the bloom is off the rose, so to speak. Eventually, the guy who used to mend the fence and keep things neat doesn't anymore, and some corporation discovers a vein of a minable resource on the land under the unicorn, and since no one's bothered to come look at the unicorn in a long while, they airlift him to a shabby zoo somewhere in Europe looking to increase its ailing reputation. No one cares about the unicorn anymore. The unicorn is just another depressed creature eating hay behind a fence next to other depressed creatures eating hay behind fences.
I used to sit in far back corners of libraries wherever I was — elementary schools, high schools, small towns, cities — and pour over books about art or philosophy or whathaveyou. The aura of distress around these volumes, the creak of their spines and snap of their laminated covers and sweet smell of slow decay, instilled in me a sense of reverence that emanated viscerally upward from my belly. I thought about how these books were written by people who might no longer be alive. The words in them had been created by authors' hands on paper with pens and typewriters. I could feel the heart and dedication sitting weightily along every chipped, wooden shelf where the librarians had long forgotten me, and I hunkered down into knowledge that was meted out at a rate determined by the speed at which I could read and find new volumes on the shelf. There was no more than what could be found, and I was awed at the finding.
Just recently, a younger cousin of mine who is still in high school moaned about an essay she was asked to write using only physical books for reference. "Why would they do that to us?" she asked. "Anything we want is already on the internet." It occurred to me that she was used to finding what she wanted, not finding what she found. I felt uneasy at my Job-like resignation when I thought I guess you find what you want now, which is akin to his "There is no new thing under the sun". There is an element of mystery in slow information for which search engines make me nostalgic, and I kind of miss the days when porn was tucked behind muscle magazines on the top shelf.