“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it….”
-Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in Jacobellis v. Ohio
Justice Stewart was right to regard formalizing a definition as to what constitutes pornography as a Sisyphean and futile effort. Works which depict full-nudity and penetrative acts run the wide gamut from fine erotica deserving of a place of prominence in the Louvre all the way to filthy smut puddled only in the deepest corners of the dark web, and where any one work falls within that quite colorful spectrum is surprisingly subjective. Particularly prudish conservative Christians have complained that Star Wars was too titillating for exposing Leia’s midriff in her iconic gold bikini, whereas much more libertine critics praised Pretty Baby upon its debut, despite depicting a prepubescent Brooke Shields fully nude and gallivanting about a brothel.
Alan Moore’s graphic novel Lost Girls is a particularly puzzling Rorschach test in terms of parsing out whether it’s pornographic trash or an erotic masterpiece, as my fellow writers at Wisecrack and I have debated amongst ourselves. Taking its title from the Lost Boys of Neverland fame, the series sees an adult Wendy from Peter Pan, joined by an aged Alice from the Wonderland books and Dorothy from the Oz series, as they engage in increasingly salacious acts with suitors, strangers, and one another at the Hotel Himmelgarten in Austria on the eve of the First World War. They recount adolescent awakenings to their own sexuality, dressing up their memories and fantasies with imagery from the literature with which we’re familiar, and usually engaging in sapphic acts while telling their tales.
There’s undoubtedly a case to be made that the book is a work of base debauchery, purely pornographic and little more. Barely a page goes by without graphic depictions of exposed breasts and genitalia. Nor are these the dignified nudes of Medieval and Renaissance paintings. Almost every lewd act imaginable is illustrated unabashedly, including incest, bestiality, bukkake, cunninlingus, felatio, foot fetishes, orgies, rape, sodomy, and statutory sex with and among children – everything short of hot karls and hard crush (don’t look those up). The prose is equally profane, with wonderful British slang such as “spunk” and “quim” joining everyday vulgarities like “bitch,” “cunt,” and “fuck.” At one point Moore even drops an N-bomb, sans any asterisks even. In seeing all this, it’s understandable that some readers should feel they *know* Lost Girls to be a work of obscenity at the same gut level to which Stewarts alluded.
It’s a much more difficult case to make that Lost Girls is a work of genuine erotica. It’s certainly impossible to quantify. One cannot simply count the number and variety of sesquipedalian words to see if the polysyllables outnumber the profanities. Nevertheless, it’s worth enumerating a short selection of the long list of literary and artistic devices which Moore employed when writing Lost Girls as evidence of the creative genius on display in the text.
Most obvious in this respect is the profuse use of literary and historical allusions, typically to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy. For example, Dorothy first fornicates with farmhands she describes as brainless, cowardly, and cold-hearted, respectively, but after whose trysts with her began to display intelligence, courage, and emotion. Alice’s adventures with opium and laudanum leave the licentious lesbianism of her youth tinged with surreality reminiscent of Wonderland. In the third chapter, the shadows which Wendy and her husband Harold Potter (no relation to the Boy Who Lived) cast upon the wall appear to engage in mutual masturbation, even as their solid selves in the foreground act innocuously, suggesting a divide between the self and shadow seen in the opening moments of Peter Pan.
That same scene demonstrates another device frequently employed by Moore, ironic juxtaposition. Harold drones on about doing things he’d only dreamed of, realizing the opportunity and seizing the moment, all in the context of his boring business affairs, and all the while his shade is enacting the sexual fantasies we later see preoccupy his private thoughts. In book two the contents of a letter to his business partner describing the tedium of the Hotel Himmelgarten are set against scenes from the same showing the bacchanalia raging on around every corner. Moore makes frequent use of double entendres here, as when Harold describes Dorothy as “wet behind the ears,” while we see her quite literally so as she’s fingered by Alice in a bathtub.
Contrariwise to such juxtaposition is the parallelism also at play. The first and final chapters of Lost Girls both are shown solely from the perspective of Alice’s mirror, the titular looking-glass through which her literary counterpart travelled. By bookending books one and three the mirror frames the narrative; now it’s we the readers who have travelled through it to witness the wonders of yet another of Alice’s adventures.
Other examples of parallelism occur when the hotel owner Monsieur Rougeur reads from his pseudonymously published White Book, a veritable Tijuana Bible in lieu of a Gideon which he places in every room. As he orates the shockingly scandalous stories of innocents indoctrinated into secret worlds of sexual liberality, his listeners enter further into his bower of venereal vice.
These stories within a story – Rougeur’s, as well as Alice, Dotty, and Wendy’s – further demonstrate one of Moore’s main motifs for Lost Girls: metafictionality. With the three protagonists Moore uses his own fiction to dialogue with the original texts. When Alice flees from being forcefully ravaged by a hook-handed pederast at Kensington Garden, only to be caught and cornered, she confronts her would-be plunderer:
Children won’t realize that you’re inadequate. You can pretend you’re still young, like them, that the clock isn’t ticking. That’s why you fuck children, why you dye your hair… You’re afraid of getting old.”
Moore is making clear a parallel within the original text of Peter’s reluctance to leave Neverland and grow up and Captain Hook constantly stalked by a crocodile with a clock in its belly; both the hero and his dark doppelgänger fear the relentless march of time and the aging associated with it.
Rougeur’s White Book, while presented as pastiches of prominent pornographic authors of the period, is more used by Moore as a metafictional meditation on the genre as a whole than any one particular piece of pornography. While reading a sordid story about a bout of incestual intercourse between parents and their prepubescent son and daughter, Rouger opines on the topic of the concupiscent children:
[T]hey are fictions, as old as the page they appear on, no less, no more. Fiction and Fact: only madmen and magistrates cannot discriminate between them.”
Like South Park utilizing the show-within-a-show Terrance & Phillip to comment about the calls for censorship that South Park itself receives, here Moore is lampshading the deaf reception he anticipated by lawmakers to Lost Girls, upon whom the irony of Rougeur’s statement would surely be lost.
But they are fictions. They are uncontaminated by effect and consequence. Why, they are almost innocent. I, of course, am real, and since Helena, who I just fucked, is only thirteen, I am very guilty.”
The irony of Rougeur’s claim is the point. Immediately upon reading it the reader is expected to protest that he is just a fiction, just a character on a page, upon which they’re expected to reach the same conclusion: that being fictional, Rouger (and the plethora of prurient characters in Lost Girls, and the work itself as a whole) has no moral culpability. Gloria Steinman characterize pornography as quintessentially exploitative, to which Moore here counters that no real person had been exploited in the making of his art.
The final distinguishment between pornography and erotica is to be found in the conclusion to Monsieur Rougeur’s ruminations: a thesis. Pornography has no purpose but to stimulate. Per Dr. Leon F. Seltzer in What Distinguishes Erotica from Pornography?:
The objective (typically leaving little or nothing to the imagination) is to ‘turn on’ the viewer. It’s less evocative or suggestive than exhibitionist. The unabashed goal is simple and straightforward: titillation and immediate, intense arousal (skip the foreplay, please!). Or, to put it even more bluntly, an instantaneous stirring of the genitals.”
Contra erotica, whose aesthetic aims employ the depiction of the nude form primarily to convey some grander truth, i.e. forward its thesis. Moore’s is found through his mouthpiece Rougeur, though the whole of the work argues as much on every page:
Pornographies are the enchanted parklands where the most secret and vulnerable of all our many selves can safely play… They are the palaces of luxury that all the policies and armies of the outer world can never spoil, never bring to rubble… They are our secret gardens, where seductive paths of words and imagery lead us to the wet, blinding gateway of our pleasure, beyond which things may only be expressed in a language that is beyond literature, beyond all words.”
Ultimately, however, the best case for Lost Girls’ status as erotica instead of smut is simply to read it through in its entirety. No one familiar with the literary and historical contexts for the work and unblinded by puritanical prejudices could come to any other conclusion. Lost Girls as high art is only a hard case to make to those who’ve not read Lost Girls. It’s self-evidently a work of genius.
Too much emphasis is placed on the notion that all art is subjective. To proclaim that the merits of a child’s doodling’s and Albert Bierstadt landscapes are a matter of pure preference is to deny the plain facts of skill, intentionality, inspiration, and most of all, the transcendental nature of Beauty. In the debate as to whether Lost Girls is deep or dumb, there is not debate; it is one of the quintessential examples of erotica’s artistic grandeur, compared to which even Solomon’s Song of Songs is but a cheap 50 Shades of Grey knockoff.