January 19, 2021

There’s nothing worse than a puritanical postman. When James Joyce’s Ulysses was being serialised by The Little Review, an American literary journal edited by Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, it was the US Postal Authorities who intervened to prevent its distribution. Copies were seized and burned, and after the book’s thirteenth chapter (“Nausicaa”) was published – in which Leopold Bloom masturbates as he watches three girls on Sandymount Strand – the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice decided to get involved.

The ensuing trial would see Anderson and Heap convicted for obscenity and the serialisation of Ulysses discontinued – perhaps the most famous overreaction to a wank since God killed Onan. The trial took place almost exactly a century ago and, inevitably, our conception of “obscenity” has shifted beyond recognition. By modern standards, Joyce’s imaginative elision of Bloom’s ejaculation on the beach with a nearby firework display seems euphemistic rather than obscene:

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“And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind blank and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lovely, O, soft, sweet, soft!”

In the early twentieth century, however, such imagery was always bound to upset the censors. Ezra Pound, the man most responsible for persuading the editors of The Little Review to publish the novel, acknowledged the risk in a letter to Joyce: “I suppose we’ll be damn well suppressed if we print the text as it stands. BUT it is damn well worth it.”

Today most of us would regard the very notion of obscenity to be as hopelessly subjective as taste in music or sense of humour. But even 40 years after the aborted Ulysses serialisation, the judge and chief prosecutor in the 1960 trial against Penguin Books — who had just published D. H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover — were left bewildered by the jury’s disposition to acquit. Much was made during the trial of lead prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones’s opening statement, in which he asked the jury to consider whether the novel was something “you would wish your wife or servants to read”.

The defence understood something that Griffith-Jones could not: that this was a trial about incomparable social values. For a certain class of citizen, Lawrence’s novel was an unambiguous attack on British morality. But this did not square with the lived reality of a population on the cusp of a sexual revolution. For Griffith-Jones, the appearance of the words “fuck” and “cunt” in the pages of a book surely disqualified it from the possibility of literary merit. What he would have made of the appearance of “Cunty Kate” in Chapter Fifteen of Ulysses is anyone’s guess.

Despite his noble intentions, Griffith-Jones was not blessed with a literary instinct, and was clearly unfamiliar with the ways in which obscenity has always been an important tool for writers. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for instance, “the Miller’s Tale” is offered as a direct response to that of the Knight, which is why the high style of courtly love gives way to phrases such as “prively he caughte hire by the queynte”. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare mocks the puritan Malvolio by having him inadvertently spell out the word “cunt” while examining the handwriting of a forged love letter: “these be her very C’s, her U’s and her T’s”. (The “N” was marked with the word “and”, a commonplace abbreviation). If obscenity has the imprimatur of the great bard, might this not give even the staunchest of prudes pause for thought?

In practice, obscenity laws do little more than codify a sense of disgust, an experience that we all share to some degree but that cannot possibly be universalised. It was not until the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 and the trial of Regina v. Hicklin eleven years later that the legal test of obscenity was established as whether the material has the potential “to deprave and corrupt”, an amorphous formulation if ever there was one. Yet the Hicklin test was retained in the Obscene Publications Act 1959, legislation that remains on the statute books today.

But just as many are arrested in the UK every year for “grossly offensive” statements under the Electronic Communications Act 2003, the way in which material might “deprave and corrupt” has never been satisfactorily defined. During the so-called “video nasties” panic of the 1980s, videos of films such as The Evil Dead and Driller Killer were seized on the grounds that they, in the words of the director of public prosecutions, had the capacity “to deprave and corrupt, or make morally bad, a significant proportion of the likely audience”. No evidence for this assertion was ever forthcoming.

Like the pornography restrictions brought in by the UK government in 2014 – which included bans on the depiction of various consensual adult activities such as “caning”, “humiliation” and “facesitting” – the benchmark for what might “deprave and corrupt” is probably best paraphrased as “things we don’t like”.  These are standards that cannot be applied with any degree of consistency, particularly when it comes to literature. Is it obscene, for instance, to write that “Egyptian men have members the size of donkeys, and ejaculate violently like wild stallions”? And, if so, should the Book of Ezekiel be excised from the Bible?

At its heart, the very concept of obscenity seems to be based on a distrust of the masses, an elitism which would prefer bawdy talk to be confined to the smoking rooms of private members’ clubs. We see this mentality in the early editions of the Loeb Classical Library series, in which offensive phrases in ancient literature were invariably left untranslated. Flicking through an early rendering of the Roman poet Catullus, for example, one might have happened upon the line ‘Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo’ (‘I will sodomise you and fuck your face’) still in the original Latin. Of course, the effect of this kind of academic paternalism, designed to restrict certain passages to those sufficiently educated, simply made it easier for curious schoolchildren to locate the filthiest passages.

While it may seem contradictory to be worried about the Great Unwashed being exposed to a little more dirt, such is the chief concern of those who set themselves up as the public arbiters of good taste. When the British Board of Film Classification decreed that The Exorcist was unsuitable for home viewing, they were effectively acting in loco parentis over the entire nation, implying that they were able to stomach imagery that would corrupt lesser mortals. Similarly, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was deemed not so menacing when it existed solely in limited Italian and French editions, or in its expurgated form. When Penguin Books decided to publish the full version in 1960, over thirty years after it was written, the ruling classes saw this as an existential threat to the foundations of societal respectability.

It was under this lingering cloud of paternalism that Norman Douglas published his book Some Limericks in November 1928, five months after the Italian publisher Pino Orioli had brought out Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  Douglas felt that Lawrence had usurped the aristocrat’s privilege of lewd indulgence, and had democratised a sub-culture in which, to quote Douglas’s biographer Mark Holloway, “gentlemen of discretion could be relied upon to keep their filth in its proper place”. To take a typical example:

“There was an old fellow of Brest,

Who sucked off his wife with a zest.

Despite her great yowls

He sucked out her bowels,

And spat them all over her chest.”

Obscene? No doubt. But the puerility is offset by the author’s pseudo-scholarly annotations and, in any case, he had explicitly written this book for the “dirty-minded elect”. Douglas had rushed through the publication of Some Limericks having read Lawrence’s novel in draft form, feeling that its impact would be lessened if the taboos had already been broken.

The implications are somewhat paradoxical. While censorship is an affront to artistic freedom, obscenity as a literary device loses its potency where there are few boundaries of social decorum. So perhaps we need the Mervyn Griffith-Joneses and the Mary Whitehouses of this world as much as we need those artists who are willing to provoke them. At the same time, we should be aware that today’s outrage over scandalous books and movies is often no more sophisticated than those early critics of Ulysses who failed to see any distinction between Joyce’s masterpiece and the kind of vulgar scribblings one finds on a toilet wall. Disgust has the effect of destabilising our critical faculties; like rage or sexual arousal, it actuates our passion at the expense of our reason. Just because we find an artist’s work obscene does not mean it lacks value. We would do well to remember this even as we recoil.