Lusty Literature

Curious customers, 1959
Curious customers, 1959 (Keystone / Getty Images)
Reviewed by John Sutherland
Sunday, January 28, 2007


Books on Trial From Madame Bovary to Lolita

By Elisabeth Ladenson

Cornell Univ. 272 pp. $29.95

Elisabeth Ladenson's witty meditation on literary obscenity pivots on "irony, paradox, and absurdity." How, she ruminates, can one generation's "dirt" be another generation's "art"? "How does an obscene work become a classic?" It's a fascinating set of hows.

As fascinating is why, after a great work is laboriously exonerated from the charge of obscenity, must the same battle be fought over and again? Why, for example, must the second film version of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita undergo the same ordeals as the novel did when it was published 30 years earlier? Why are the victories of enlightenment always hollow? Put another way, why is censorship in some form or other (most recently with O.J. Simpson's je m'accuse) always with us?

The law's clod-hopping attempts to throw some kind of lasso round obscenity is a well-trodden topic. The End of Obscenity by Charles Rembar, legal defender of D.H. Lawrence, Norman Mailer and Henry Miller, looked at the asininities of the law. The topic has drawn the contemplative attention of philosophers such as Catharine MacKinnon. Polemicists -- most ferociously Andrea Dworkin -- have had their angry say. What distinguishes Ladenson's contribution is her breadth of approach and subtlety of critical analysis. And also, unusual in this field, a sly humor.

Ladenson's historical account opens in the annus mirabilis for obscenity studies: 1857. In Britain, the first legislation was introduced. In France, there were three high-profile prosecutions: against Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal and (more forgettably) Eugene Sue's Les Mystères du peuple.

Ladenson -- a comparatist by academic training -- is expert in keeping several balls in the air simultaneously. There are, as she sees it, two large categories of legal definition. One is Anglo-Saxon, as laid down by the 1857 act of Parliament, which took as its defining criterion that obscenity is identifiable by its inherent tendency to "deprave and corrupt." Especially, that is, the "young." Would it, in Dickens's sarcastic formulation, bring a blush to a maiden's cheek? If that human litmus paper changed color, the book was criminal.

In France, as established in the courts that same year, the criterion was " outrage aux bonnes moeurs" -- public indecency. The question asked by the French authorities had nothing to do with mademoiselle's cheeks. Did a work, by its encouragement of moral disorder, threaten the state?

Ladenson identifies two lines of defense against these legal oppressions. One is " 'art for art's sake,' the notion that a work of art functions on its own terms, exists in a realm independent of conventional morality." The other, quite contrary, is "realism," the notion that literature and art must engage, fearlessly, with the most sordid aspects of the human condition and rub the reader's nose in it.

Ladenson takes her title, indirectly, from the 1933 judgment of John M. Woolsey that James Joyce's Ulysses was publishable in the United States. Joyce's novel, the learned judge opined, was not "dirt for dirt's sake." It was, he intimated, "art." Ladenson has great fun with this facile (but historically welcome) acquittal. What about the defecation scene that opens the Bloom narrative, she wonders.

Ladenson's title also alludes to her favorite commentator on the slippery issue -- the novelist (and ultra-Joycean) Anthony Burgess. Pontificating as everyone did in the wake of the 1960 Lady Chatterley's Lover trial in England, Burgess made the observation that provides one of the book's epigraphs: "I have never felt inclined to condemn people who look for dirt in literature: looking for dirt, they may find something else." Exactly what else he did not specify.

Ladenson takes, as her principal texts, seven ambiguously obscene classic works of literature. Five of them are usual suspects (Joyce, Lawrence, Radclyffe Hall, Nabokov, Miller). What adds freshness to her discussion is chapters on that infamous period of Gallic censorship when public prosecutor Ernest Pinard took Flaubert and Baudelaire to court. By so doing, he installed himself in the annals of literature -- as one of its clowns. They also serve who make fools of themselves for art.

Ironist that she is, there are multiple ironies in Ladenson's own critical discourse. She prefaces her monograph with a light-hearted riff on the Eudora program's "hot chili" warnings, which pop up whenever a dubious word or phrase is used. Ladenson recalls an occasion when, e-mailing a friend, "in my frustration I used a number of what used to be called 'Anglo-Saxon' four-letter terms." What those words are we must guess. Ladenson's delicacy, even in a book about indelicacy, preserves our cheeks from any blush.

After her review of the follies of literary censorship, Ladenson concludes on what strikes me as an oddly depressed note. "Our age," she says, "is all for subversion, as long as the ideas subverted are other than our own." The condition of pure enlightenment, in which the oppression of moral censorship will be lifted, is a chimera. Looking forward, we can never see censorship's end. But looking backward, we can be amused and instructed by its foolishness. That, at least, is something. ยท

John Sutherland's latest book is "How to Read a Novel." He teaches literature at the California Institute of Technology.

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