Issue 2, Spring 2007


Himself Deposed
by Arthur Saltzman

In “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” Bret Harte described the decision of the citizens of a mining town in the nineteenth-century American West to banish undesirables as owing to “a spasm of virtuous reaction.” His implication was twofold: first, that their running off the sinners was inconsistent with Christian charity; second, that it was hypocritical, given that until this time they had exhibited Christian conscience only sporadically at best. A similar reflex motivates the Ladies’ Law and Order League in John Ford’s classic film Stagecoach to oust a whiskey drummer, a professional gambler, a woman of ill repute, and other unsavory stereotypes from their midst. In light of the patronage that the townspeople, including members of the vigilance committee, had until recently regularly supplied them--those characters could never have prospered in the first place had they not enjoyed a reliable customer base--it was contradictory, even hypocritical, for purportedly upstanding citizens to expel them. Regardless, as Harte’s phrase implies, because the impulse conflicted with the townspeople’s ordinary nature and practices, in each instance the inspiration would prove temporary and unredeeming anyway.

I recalled these tales when, more than a century after their events were set, the city of Joplin, Missouri, determined to sanitize itself. Situated in the middle of our deteriorating downtown, ironically prominent as one of the few persevering businesses amid the alluvia of ruin, the Main Street Bookstore had long been the principal provider of pornography for the Joplin area, but it was only now that city movers and shakers managed to discover the scandal. This new awareness was especially spurred on by the self-styled Citizens for Decency, inheritors of the impromptu brigades featured in Harte and Ford, who constituted a kind of hygienic jihad and juggernaut of good intentions. Primarily composed of churchgoing housewives with an absolute sense of propriety and extra time on their hands, they were united in the belief that they could cleanse souls the way they scoured grout. In righteous outrage they descended upon the school board, mewling rectitude; in high dudgeon and conservative tailoring, they infiltrated strip mall parking lots, polling places, and the PTA, hoping that their religion might wick through the damned and damaged population. Out of “astringent rituals of purification,” as Philip Roth referred to them in The Human Stain, they envisioned a Joplin resurrection exemplified by Main Street, the evidence of which would range from the refurbishment of ravaged facades to the elimination of cruising by desultory teenagers on Friday nights to the removal of curbside drunks to regular church service. For Main Street exhibited the human stain more flagrantly than anywhere else in town, and of the dozens upon dozens of the blown lives it comprised, not one would ever be an emblem or an anecdote or an oil painting; not one was picturesque or arresting or holy. In other words, Main Street cried our for decency with a vengeance.

Academics still refer to the “doughnut phenomenon” that so many downtown areas have been succumbing to for decades: the steady departure of families and businesses for the outlying areas, emptying out what had once been the socioeconomic core of the city. Joplin’s plight was representative. You could see driving by how block after block of central Joplin had buckled and burst, leaving the economy to bleed out. That was where the hung over and the hopeless washed up and the desperate ran down; you could see them any afternoon, too tired to supplicate or curse, and apart from the little tottering and shifting they did like logs in a fireplace, they remained essentially, unavoidably, in the same place. That was where the perpetual indigents’ convention was held, beneath the bashed windows, the scaling architraves, the cracked, stained, and desecrated stone. That was where failure was unfailingly on display. Main Street, where the city’s spiritual drainage backed up; where the buildings, stricken with dry rot and neglect, had a perpetually dazed and depleted look about them, each stuck in the slump of the OD’d or of someone about thirty hours into the flu; where everyone and everything was scaling and defiled, worn down and out. And from the perspective of the Citizens for Decency, the bookstore was the instigation, the prime culprit, the dark heart of its demise.

In fact, when it came to the predicament of downtown, depravity was not the half of it. Drug abuse, pollution, and a dearth of recreational activities all warranted attention, certainly; what Cormac McCarthy, that bard of American decrepitude, called “barrenness of heart and gothic loneliness” were manifest up and down Main in ways more various and more profound than anything the Citizens for Decency meant to censor. But after the task forces and the projection studies, trying to revitalize downtown seemed like trying to raise a ship from the sea floor or a corpse from a morgue. The whole area was depressed, and that was . . . well, pretty damned depressing, and it made for poor copy. Councilmen mumbled. Pundits shrugged. Newscasters pinned their hopes for ratings on local color, ignoring the gray.

Pornography, however, was a sexier subject, as it were, and far likelier to seduce local media away from the annual Golden Apple Awards dinner, the 4A high school football playoffs, and the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the addition to the industrial park on North Range Line Road. Downtown was defunct, but it wasn’t spectacular, and it wasn’t news. The depths of perversity, on the other hand, enjoyed a higher profile, superior PR. Sex aroused people who could drive past the homeless without slowing down to sign petitions or to write to their councilmen. You could step around or drive by the human loosestrife without flinching; even decent citizens did so regularly. It took pornography to trip the equivalent of conscience’s gag reflex. Accordingly, the Citizens for Decency, “grim and tireless in their orthopedic moralizing,” as McCarthy described some of their sisters when they intruded upon Suttree, soon honed their agenda to a single item: to cure Main Street’s disease, the inoculating needle needed to be plunged directly into the corner of Ninth and Main. They reasoned that the deserted, desecrated storefronts and the derelicts wrapped in their tattered shadows and unwaveringly stuffed into the corners, awkwardly sprawled as if they had fallen a long way, were but the outward illustrations of the ugliness engendered at the bookstore. Here was a target more tangible than predictions about the length and depth of recession and more specific than malaise. Here was a target that could be hit. To return to the medical metaphors, excise the Main Street Bookstore like a cancerous lump, so the logic ran, and the principled, scenic, and financial healing of downtown could proceed.

The Joplin Globe misled its readers by referring to the culmination of the plan to close the Main Street Bookstore as a “sting operation,” for the phrase suggested far greater intricacy on the part of the police, as well as greater secrecy on the part of the proprietors whose materials were seized, than the circumstances actually warranted. In truth, the “discovery” of such improper activities on the premises was about as startling to Joplin as his learning in Casablanca that roulette was being played at Rick’s Place was to Captain Renault: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” he cried, even as his winnings were handed to him. Furthermore, a representative from the Joplin Police Department had announced at a city council meeting the date and time when a member of the force, wearing plain clothes but shadowed by both television and newspaper reporters, would enter the store to purchase samples, thereby giving him grounds to arrest the clerk for transgressing against the newly notorious decency statute.

So if the bookstore was the cancer, the seized magazines were the biopsy. And if literary material, however ecumenically defined, was the subject, as an English professor, I was summoned to be its grader.

“Expect to be deposed,” Deryl Edwards told me when I accepted his invitation to join him at Red Onion. And I thought, Free lunch, as in what there is no such thing as a. The city prosecutor, Edwards knew me because his son had been a favorite student of my wife’s in junior high school, which led to Marla’s coming to work for him part time and to her occasionally socializing with his wife, Cissy. By a commutative property of affections, then, I was not so much befriended as admitted by fiat into their alliance. In other words, I was called upon by Joplin’s city prosecutor in this case not so much because my expertise raised me above any of my colleagues but because I was as close to a known quantity as Edwards, a man who was given to snigger at literature, not to mention a grown man’s basing a career upon it, could have named.

“What did I do?”

“It’s what you can say, Art. You can testify on behalf of the city that the sex magazines are not protected, that they have no redeeming literary, artistic, or social value.”

“Yeah, but what makes you so sure they don’t?”

“Again, the point is that you’re sure they don’t. That you can say that in court. Right?”

“Will I get to see them first?”

“Get to? You’ve got to. It’s how it’s done. What’s a good time for you?”

“You mean, when do I usually look at porn?”

“Okay, okay. You get one of those, then you have to get serious about this. And don’t refer to the magazines as ‘porn.’ That will be my job. Don’t characterize them as anything but magazines. You’ll simply answer the questions I give you as straightforwardly as possible and without elaboration.”

“You realize, don’t you, that in my job I don’t usually restrict myself that way. For straightforward and no elaboration, you might be better off putting a carpenter on the stand.”

“Find me one with a Ph.D. that’s relevant to the case, and you’re off the hook. Otherwise, you’re the guy.”

As word regarding my having been designated “the guy” got around, the title was upgraded and formalized by my friends as “Resident Sex Expert.” This won out against such alternatives as “Professor of Porn,” “Smiter of Smut,” “Mr. Clean,” and “Hypocrite Lecteur.” All gentle jokes, obviously—any one of my colleagues in the English Department might as easily have fallen afoul of such a phone call. And I was glad to join in the fun at my expense—for instance, by wondering aloud if I’d won the promotion to sex expert because I was more alert to perversion and its injurious potential or because I was comparatively experienced and proficient at performing it.

Still, I wondered if Edwards knew just how deep my ambivalence about testifying went. Not that I intended to go all ACLU on him when I took the stand, but I realized that this displaced Chicagoan had never felt more anomalous about being in Joplin, more egregiously liberal, or, for that matter, in terms of feeling alienated from the community on whose behalf I was to testify, more excruciatingly Jewish than I did in the days leading up to the trial. My supposed literary or sexual expertise notwithstanding, it wasn’t the prospect of spending an afternoon examining hard porn that distressed me; rather, it was the notion that I was being asked to represent the People—specifically, the People of Joplin—when in fact the years I’d spent here, teaching, talking, shopping among native Joplinites, had made it abundantly clear that I was anything but representative. My personality, my politics, my sense of humor, my dialect, my taste in everything from entertainment to clothing, all marked me as an outsider, an inveterately polygonal peg awkwardly forced into the round hole where destiny (in the form of an unforgiving job market) had uncomfortably plugged me. In short, I was about to stand for people who only barely tolerated me.

When I arrived at the courthouse to see the materials, I felt as though I were about to be ushered into the core of a nuclear power plant. For one thing, during the entire time I spent on the premises, I was never unaccompanied. There were several documents to sign--identifications, disclaimers, waivers, oaths—with every signature officially witnessed. The magazines themselves were kept in a locked and windowless room, a sort of moral quarantine, which I entered with two monitoring cops who, although they kept their distance from the materials themselves (the infectious propensity of pornography encouraging discretion among non-experts, I guess), never left me alone. Whether it was judgment or anxiety over my possibly contracting something incurable that I read in their faces, I cannot say for certain, but I do remember that it was their presence, not the contents of the magazines, that made me more uncomfortable.

Not that the contents weren’t designed to provoke. To paraphrase an eminent justice, I may not be able to define pornography, but I know it when I wince at it. What a panoply of fetishes, accoutrements, and cravings! What a library of fetishes, eccentricities, and peccadilloes! Amazing, the shapes that yearning takes. I wasn’t repelled so much as I was intrigued: who knew that that was a turn-on? I felt less like a bluestocking summoned to balk and upbraid than like an anthropologist who had broken through jungle to stumble upon a strange culture. There was plenty of ordinary, wholesome—that is to say, recognizable—intercourse, of course; what Alex in A Clockwork Orange called “a bit of the old in and out” had clearly not yet been supplanted by all of the research and development to which several performers in these pages were so strenuously devoted. What those scenes lacked in originality they made up for in sheer dedication, with more thrusting going on in a given issue of Hot Bodz than in an entire NCAA fencing season. But it was the especially idiosyncratic passions that most gave me pause. Anyone who has passed through puberty recognizes breasts, legs, necks, bellies, and (arguably) inner wrists as erogenous zones; the Rivieras, Palm Beaches, and Bahamas of the body, they are the places where people typically long to take their lust. But until my private study session, I never suspected that some of us dreamed erotically of excretions. And I thought, Another man’s treasure, as in what one man’s trash is. I learned that there was an underground market for glimpses of used sanitary napkins and surgical procedures, folded laundry and muddy feet. Someone found breast-feeding sexier than it was either sweet or serene; otherwise, how did the publishers of Milk Buddies stay in business? Even magazines specializing in sweat stains had subscribers; even those covering nothing other than knees offered reduced annual rates. “Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls,” wrote James Joyce, but the man reserved for his masturbatory fantasies rather more conventional fare. I came to realize that it was a safe bet that in any city in America at any given instant, there must be one or two people who relished inner organs for something more sordid than breakfast.

For me, what began in repugnance turned into a fascination too clinical—too pure, I might say—to be lascivious. As for spastic intensity, the virtuous reaction described by Bret Harte had nothing on the venereal ones so explicitly delivered here. Page after ruthless page of plowing and injection was, in the end, less off-putting than just plain odd. It was intriguing to try to identify appendages out of the naked scrum of a gangbang session; tracing this leg or that arm back to its appropriate torso made for a sort of game comparable to the ones they used to run in the Sunday comics. (Find the ten zoo animals whose outlines are hidden in this drawing. Or, circle the famous faces camouflaged in this landscape.) Many of the more innovative positions adopted for intercourse recalled the splay of bodies after a traffic accident or the contortions of a modern dance troupe, or maybe just laundry in a twist. None of these analogies implied desire, or viable methods of exercising it. It was as if, for all of their athleticism, the players couldn’t quite figure intercourse out and were stuck with endless trial and error. Resolutely at it, they somehow seemed, to this putative expert’s eye, inept. The mischief in me made me want to show pages to the stolid guard and say, “I wonder if they know that there’s an easier way to do that.” But his strict bearing in the doorway and the memory of Edwards’s admonition about my living up to the seriousness of the task kept me quiet. I returned dutifully to the pile, pretending that it was nothing more than the latest stack of papers to I had to mark.

Pressed into serving justice, I wondered, who was I to judge? I think it was Tolstoy who, speaking for the scope of the human, said that he had never written or read anything he couldn’t picture himself doing, but it would take an unusually open-minded and unusually limber author to uphold that precept against some of the activities I saw in Sultry, Wet ‘n’ Wild, Loving Adults, or Cuntry Club. Some, if they could be duplicated by amateur lovers at all, could conceivably prove a point, but I doubted that they could incite pleasure. All of the difficult, ingenious, agile, incongruous, and seemingly inconvenient distributions of cocks and pits, the genital deployments and flails, the serendipitous and, frankly, sad amalgamations were, in my subpoenaed opinion, anyway, just more examples of the human and architectural eyesores abutting Main Street every day. Or was that the problem any evaluator had to face: whether the subject was poverty or sexual preference, one man’s indignation is another man’s inurement. Ultimately, nothing nude under the sun is unnatural or unanswerable to need.

Once I was outside again, unattended and relieved of every piece of the literature I’d been mandated to page through, I began to imagine how my deposition would play out. Maybe it was the ineradicable professor in me, but I had illusions of turning the court proceedings into a seminar on aesthetics.

City Prosecutor Edwards: Professor Saltzman, please verify for the court that you have completed a thorough examination of the documents in question.

Expert Witness: I have.

City Prosecutor Edwards: All of them? Is that correct?

Expert Witness: Yes, sir, without exception. I looked through every magazine, from exposed top to callipygian bottom.

City Prosecutor Edwards: I see. Then, in your expert opinion, Professor Saltzman, do these materials have any redeeming literary, artistic, or social value?

Expert Witness: That depends.

City Prosecutor Edwards: Excuse me? Depends?

Expert Witness: Yes. It depends on what you mean by “redeeming” and “value.” Also on what you mean by “literary, artistic, or social.” Actually, I’m not too comfortable with “expert opinion,” either, but I’ve learned to live with it.

City Prosecutor Edwards: Professor Saltzman, if you would stop making those scare-quote gestures for a moment, it might be more productive if we undertook these criteria one at a time. Can we begin by agreeing that there is no literary value in these magazines?

Expert Witness: Well, there is literary content in some of them. Some have narratives, which are admittedly skeletal and on the order of “boy meets girl, boy meets girl’s four roommates, boy foregoes his other pizza deliveries in favor of several sexual permutations, girl gets free pizza,” but narratives nonetheless. And once there’s content, value becomes a matter of taste, whether the subject is stories or sexual escapades. Or pizza. As for artistic or social values, there is definitely direction, lighting, composition, and other traditional components of photography, portraiture, and film involved, and the benefit to society of subsuming or rerouting certain, let us say, debatable activities into virtual instead of actual practice may be healthier for the consumer and for the community at large than the alternatives. What pro wrestling does for potentially violent citizens, pornography may accomplish for potential molesters, sodomites, and barnyard rapists.

City Prosecutor Edwards: I notice that despite your equivocations, you use the term “pornography” to refer to the materials in question.

Expert Witness: For want of a better term. But since, say, children’s coloring books fail to meet the standard of “redeeming literary, artistic, and social value” any better than these magazines do, I use it simply for the sake of convenience, not to stigmatize.

And on we’d progress in that contrapuntal fashion all that afternoon, adducing legal, ethical, biological and other disciplines, serving justice, general edification, and, dare I say, a profounder definition of decency. Our actual interchange, however, was less expansive and less venturesome than this:

City Prosecutor Edwards: In your expert opinion, Professor Saltzman, do these materials have any redeeming literary, artistic, or social value?

Expert Witness: No, they do not.

A disappointment, certainly, to consumers of theory and Thick ‘n’ Juicy alike, but maybe it should not be surprising that expertise shares the fate of other sexual performances: easy to come by, hard to sustain.

Ultimately, the result of the trial and, by extension, the fate of the Main Street Bookstore, were foregone conclusions. The statute was clear, and it had been clearly broken. The clerk, who, like the befuddled kid who ends up with the Hot Potato in his lap when the music stops, happened to have been on duty when the illegal transaction took place, was issued a fine, for which amount the absent owners of the bookstore had cut a check prior to the proceedings. And within two or three weeks, the store was shut down, its windows soaped over, and its contagious materials presumably removed to another outlet in a less discerning town.

Since then, I have permanently returned to more or less canonical texts, about which my exegeses, if they occasionally trouble a student or two, are unlikely to alert the media. Meanwhile, as if proving that it retains the taint of its former incarnation, the building at Ninth and Main has changed hands several times. Apparently, it is one of those mysteriously cursed sites—one of about twenty on Main Street alone, it seems—on which no business can thrive for very long. (Perhaps only porn, the kudzu of the economy, can dependably take hold in current conditions.) It has reopened as a tattoo parlor, a toddlers’ boutique, a furniture repair shop, and an art gallery, with none of those making any appreciable mark in the local consumer psychology or in the editorial pages the way that the bookstore did by concentrating on and catering to the ways of all transgressive flesh. And I think, Taste, as in what there is no accounting for.