1857 was an important year for literature, and for sex. It was either an annus mirabilis or annus horribilis, depending on your point of view. Horribilis, says Elisabeth Ladenson in Dirt for Art’s Sake: Books on Trial from Madame Bovary to Lolita (Cornell University Press). It was the year in which Madame Bovary was published and then prosecuted, as well as Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal. The year also saw the Obscene Publications Act in England. That prosecutors were able to harass the authors and publishers of these books, as well as the other later ones that Ladenson considers, seems now quaint but also sad. Some of these books are among the highest of the classics, and the others gained far more infamy because of their prosecutions than their literary worth would have earned them. The unmemorable smut that is the huge bulk of pornography isn’t much considered here (this is Dirt for Art’s Sake, after all), but Ladenson’s witty and thorough book can only remind the reader that this sort of societal fussing over what people can read, especially screening for the benefit of a supposed impressionable “young person”, is wasted effort. It annoys readers, authors, and publishers, and has from time to time kept important books out of the hands of those who could appreciate them.
Vladimir Nabokov (covered here on a chapter about Lolita) lectured about Flaubert’s Madam Bovary in 1957, and said, “The book is concerned with adultery and contains situations and allusions that shocked the prudish philistine government of Napoleon III. Indeed, the novel was actually tried in a court of justice for obscenity. Just imagine that. As if the work of an artist could ever be obscene.” The book is Flaubert’s most famous work, and its trial is intimately connected with the book; in fact, when Hollywood made a movie of it, the movie depicted the trial, with the story of the novel shown as part of the legal process. Flaubert had no illusions about the benefits of the prosecution: “If my book is bad, the trial will serve to make it seem better; if on the contrary it is to last, this will be its pedestal.” He was entirely correct. The problem as the French government saw it was that literature was to be useful and encourage moral order; literature that threatened the state was to be suppressed. The defense was two-pronged. First, there was “art for art’s sake”, that art exists independently of conventional morality. The other, somewhat contradictory, defense was that art depicts by means of realism, that if there were sordid aspects of life, they should still be fearlessly presented. But Flaubert’s defense still relied upon the upholding of morality; his realistic depiction of the adultery of Emma Bovary was only to promote a higher virtue. Emma might not be a positive example, but served as a bad example to keep readers from making the same errors themselves. Ironically, she was herself a reader of romantic novels that helped spark her infatuations with men other than her good, dull husband. The trial was not over “dirt” itself, but only whether the book upheld a morality about which both the prosecution and defense agreed. The prosecution lauded Flaubert’s talent, and this was a train of thought in subsequent trials of famous books, because of the idea that, as Ladenson says, “the more talented a writer is, the more pernicious his representation of immorality.” Flaubert didn’t like the compliment, and though he knew that the infamy of his book would make it famous, he resented that it was fame for the wrong reason.
The other indisputable member of the literary canon included here is James Joyce’s Ulysses. It was first prosecuted in the US for obscenity in 1920, and it is difficult to understand how anyone could have been offended by the book except by being given a list of four letter words that are included in the text, or specific pointers to the pages where Mr. Bloom goes to the outhouse or where sexual activity takes place. Ulysses is, after all, a big book, full of a close examination of three characters and their one ordinary day in Dublin, so “naughty” themes are far from predominant. The book is not as easy to read as real porn, and only the misguided might pick it up hoping quickly to find spicy bits; Joyce’s novel, Ladenson says, “provides its own inaccessibility.” That Emma Bovary might be teaching adultery to the women who customarily read novels was a worry in the Flaubert trial, but this could not have happened with Ulysses. And yet the novel was viciously attacked when published in its entirety in 1922, one journalist calling it “the most infamously obscene book in ancient or modern literature.” Ladenson pins down the outrage, in that Joyce reported the thoughts of Mr. Bloom, who linked, as she pithily says, the “erotic and the excretory”. She writes, “The persistent metaphors of ‘dirt’ and ‘filth’ as well as related terms such as ‘sewage’ to refer to sex in literature and art, all of which were deployed unsparingly when Ulysses was first published, are, moreover, ample testimony to the degree to which eroticism and excretion are conflated not just for the Leopold Blooms of fiction but for their would-be censors as well.” The classic 1933 decision allowing the book into the US, written by Judge John Woolsey and included as a preface to the work, gives the judge’s opinion that while parts of the text may be “somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.” He makes clear that he had found nothing that was “dirt for dirt’s sake”, starting a ring of changes on the “art for art’s sake” phrase that, in upcoming trials for Fanny Hill and others was turned into “sex for sex’s sake”, “pleasure for pleasure’s sake”, and of course the current book’s title.
Woolsey’s was a limited judgement; it meant that the “emetic” parts of Ulysses redeemed the whole. (It is also a limited reading of the book, which tends more to comedy and ebullience than to outrageousness.) Because of this, the decision didn’t close the issue of censoring frank literature, which had to be legally settled for Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and Lolita, all of which have chapters here. (Lolita was a special case in which there could be no objection to the words in the book, but to the subject, a man’s fascination for a pre-pubescent female.) Ladenson has read them all, and the legal decisions concerning them, and has not only read the books but seen the movies. Her perceptive readings of the books makes for a fine social history of censorship of artistic works. She has an agreeable sense of humor, pleasing in a scholastic work, and lets us enjoy sniggering at the foolish efforts of prudes trying to snip away at great literature. The absurdity of the censors’ efforts is well displayed, as is, alas, their pigheaded persistence through the centuries.
© 2007 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.