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The importance of obscenity A century after Ulysses was banned, a strange paradox remains at the heart of vulgarity

Obscenity or artistry? Ulysses in Nighttown, adapted from the James Joyce novel, Credit: Barham/Mirrorpix/Getty

Obscenity or artistry? Ulysses in Nighttown, adapted from the James Joyce novel, Credit: Barham/Mirrorpix/Getty


January 19, 2021   5 mins

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:

“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.


Andrew Doyle is a comedian and creator of the Twitter persona Titania McGrath

andrewdoyle_com

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Richard Pinch
Richard Pinch
3 years ago

It would illuminate the author’s case if he were to tell us whether there is anything which he thinks the law ought to prohibit or limit the depiction of. If he takes the view that literally anything ought to be permissible, that’s a logical position which he could and should have defended from the outset. If, on the other hand, there are things that he believes the law should prohibit, perhaps he could explain why his views on what ought and ought not to be seen have any greater weight than the views of the US Postal Service, the Society for the Suppression of Vice, the British Board of Film Classification, or the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Keith Lannon
Keith Lannon
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard Pinch

Richard Pinch has plummeted the depths of the logic of the whole issue.Both sides, especially the liberals need to define where the line needs to be drawn. For those who cry “no lines required” let us discuss their mother, wife, daughter and son in the context. Everyone has a point where we have to demand, “This is where you stop.” Instead of fighting each book, film, or article as it arises, let both sides determine where the fence is.

Andrew McGee
Andrew McGee
3 years ago
Reply to  Keith Lannon

I agree that the location of the fence should be established. Personally I would like to see it in the dustbin, having been ruthlessly demolished. I do not have a point where I say ‘this is where you stop’. But of course everyone is different in this regard.

Penny Adrian
Penny Adrian
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew McGee

Draw the line at child pornography and filmed (actual) rape or murder scenes or the non consensual sharing of sexual images.
Other than that, who cares?
But saying there should be no restrictions at all – even on child pornography, etc – is the kind of insanity that has helped fuel a backlash against Free Speech in the USA.
Luckily, the 2014 anti-obscenity law passed in the UK could not be passed in the USA, thanks to our First Amendment.

diana_holder
diana_holder
3 years ago
Reply to  Keith Lannon

If your advice had been followed in more Puritan times in the 17th century, and the location of the fence set for evermore, we’d now still be arguing about how depictions of religious figures have the power to deprave and corrupt. Our culture evolves through time, and the proper husbandry of Common Law and Case Law means that our laws more or less keep pace.

mark taha
mark taha
3 years ago
Reply to  Keith Lannon

The fence is violation of the valid rights of others.No one has the right not to be offended.

Penny Adrian
Penny Adrian
1 year ago
Reply to  mark taha

I agree. But everyone has a right to be protected from non consensual exploitation – so child porn and non consensual sharing of sexual images should not be allowed.

larry tate
larry tate
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard Pinch

I totally agree with Richard Pinch here. When the author writes…” 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.”
Of course the evidence is common sense. One knows that it takes the slightest hint to corrupt and deprave the weak minds of the human primate.

Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
3 years ago

‘caughte hire by the quentye’ …now why do I recall l Donald Trump?

Angus J
Angus J
3 years ago

The version given by Andrew Doyle of Ezekiel 23:20 is far more explicit than the original, which reads in the translation by Robert Alter (one of the foremost scholars of Hebrew in the world) in his book ‘The Hebrew Bible’ vol.2 p.1119 as “And she was hot for their consorts whose flesh was the flesh of donkeys and whose members were like the members of stallions”. The relevant footnote explains that this is likely to be euphemistic language.

The whole point of euphemism is to avoid obscenity, so Andrew Doyle’s change to explicit language is a misrepresentation of the original text, and therefore deceptive. Something that a comedian might think acceptable, but not a scholar.

Andrew Doyle
Andrew Doyle
3 years ago
Reply to  Angus J

It’s a direct quotation from a translation of the Bible. The one you’ve cited is omitting the ejaculation, which none of the common translations do (including the KJV). Since we’re talking about the Bible as commonly read, your point is irrelevant.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago

Onan continues to be grievously misrepresented. His sin was not that he had sought the company of Mrs. Thumb and her four lovely daughters. It was interruptus, which he practised with his late brother Er’s widow (God had killed Er). Had he not, she would have borne a child, who would be assumed to be Er’s heir (one imagines both Er and his spouse referred to each other as “Er indoors”).

This child, whom God had ordered Onan to father expressly to gerrymander the estate, would then have inherited all Er’s loot, instead of Onan – so you can sort of see Onan’s point.

What’s less clear is God’s point. Was Onan bad to do this because it flouted God’s will – the intended inheritance fiddle? Or because it was done in pursuit of money? Or to do it at all, because God’s purpose for all rumpy-pumpy is procreation? The latter is a substantial inference, largely unsupported by any text. One struggles to find any Biblical objection to the hand shandy, which could quite plausibly be inferred to be part of God’s intent for humans by its being possible at all (it’s not possible for most other animals).

And in Genesis 19:30″“38 Lot’s daughters get their dad drunk and have sex with him, both getting knocked up thereby. So Lot’s children and grandchildren were in two cases the same person. Why was interruptus near the jester’s shoes a mortal sin in God’s eyes, but father-daughter incest just fine and dandy?

Funny cove, God.

Michael Cowling
Michael Cowling
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Reminds me of something in Freud:
“Do you masturbate?”
“O na nie!”

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago

“Harold Bloom masturbates as he watches three girls on Sandymount Strand”

I rather think it was Leopold of that ilk.

CYRIL NAMMOCK
CYRIL NAMMOCK
3 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Who knows?

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  CYRIL NAMMOCK

Leute die Ulysses gelesen haben.

Ben
Ben
3 years ago

The real danger today is not censorship of obscenity but censorship of political views.

Penny Adrian
Penny Adrian
1 year ago
Reply to  Ben

I agree, but adults have a right to watch creepy porn if they choose to – it’s child porn and porn made with trafficking victims I think should be illegal.
That’s a pretty small category, and all the US needs to do is repeal Section 230 to hold web sites accountable for profiting from non consensual sexual images and child pornography.

Charles Rense
Charles Rense
3 years ago

I love that he asked a jury to consider what they would allow their servants to read. Now that is an out of touch judge!

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Rense

I think it was the prosecuting council,Griffith-Jones, who asked the jury whether it was “a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read.”
Given the subject matter of the novel, I always took that to be a brilliant quip. Must be my sense of humour I suppose.

George Lake
George Lake
3 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

Remember in 1960 we were still hanging malefactors at a rate of about six per annum.
It was also good of Mr Doyle to remind us of the joys of Catullus!
For the curious, Isaiah 36:12 is worth a peek.

diana_holder
diana_holder
3 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

Would have been funnier if he’d said ” . . . your wife or your gamekeeper. . . “.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
3 years ago
Reply to  diana_holder

I took it mean that that is what he was getting at.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Rense

Almost as out of touch as the current government, which would deprive people of 20 pounds a week in Universal Credit while using the ‘pandemic’ to remove the right to work. (And I write as one who would prefer to dismantle most of the welfare state).
Some things never change.

Kathryn Richards
Kathryn Richards
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Do people who were already in receipt of UC need more, or less, money if they are stuck at home? They were not working before, and so their situation hasn’t really changed, vis a vis paid work.
The problem with the £20 issue is that having given it as a temporary measure, it will be almost impossible to take it away.
By the way, I don’t have the answer. Just posing the question.

George Lake
George Lake
3 years ago
Reply to  Charles Rense

Even the saintly Lord Denning ‘let the side down’ in his Profumo Enquiry because of that dreaded word ‘sex’.

Tony Reardon
Tony Reardon
3 years ago

Is anyone of an age to remember the fuss when Kenneth Tynan first said “f**k” on the BBC when he was discussing whether the word was still totally forbidden on stage? This late night comment prompted an apology by the BBC, censure motions in the House of Commons plus a letter to the Queen from the indefatigable critic of all thing blue Mary Whitehouse.

Fiona Archbold
Fiona Archbold
3 years ago
Reply to  Tony Reardon

Absolutely! I remember as a teenager being horrified that the BBC had ‘stolen’ our naughty word which we never used in front of the adults. Took all the fun out of it, b******s.

Sean MacSweeney
Sean MacSweeney
3 years ago
Reply to  Fiona Archbold

I remember being told off for saying “knife and fork” the other way round when I was young as it might be misconstrued lol, we had great fun reciting it that way

Andrew Wood
Andrew Wood
3 years ago
Reply to  Tony Reardon

Great memory on my part. I was delivering a girlfriend home, we walked into her parents’ living room late in the evening and the telly was on, her parents watching. The first time I’d met them too. Tynan was on the box and this happened during a lull in conversation, Not easy to handle as a 17 year old back then. That relationship did not last.

CYRIL NAMMOCK
CYRIL NAMMOCK
3 years ago
Reply to  Tony Reardon

I well remember watching the programme.

Stephen Hoffman
Stephen Hoffman
3 years ago

From the same chapter of Ulysses as “Cunty Kate” (sung by the Prison Girls):

If you see kay
Tell him he may
See you in tea
Tell him from me.

Or Molly’s indecent wordplay (based on a poem by Thomas Moore):

You dare not linger O my heart
Kiss me on the brow and part.

“Douglas felt that Lawrence had usurped the aristocrat’s privilege of lewd indulgence,” says Doyle. Douglas was right. Lewd indulgence should be reserved for literary aristocrats like Joyce and Shakespeare, not literary proles like Lawrence.

CYRIL NAMMOCK
CYRIL NAMMOCK
3 years ago

Upticked on the understanding of sarcasm.

Chris Hudson
Chris Hudson
3 years ago

Just imagine… If state censors could be elected, or appointed by parliamentary committee. The debate would be illuminating.

George Lake
George Lake
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Hudson

Censors were elected in the Roman Republic, every eighteen months.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago

Oh, sorry. Thought it said obesity.

Dan Poynton
Dan Poynton
3 years ago

Perfect!

mark taha
mark taha
3 years ago

Decorum- de number of people you has to have in de room before you can start de meetin’!
I suppose that would be banned by the woke brigade!

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
3 years ago

c**t?

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
3 years ago

If this article is valid, why has Unherd censored the word in my post above (which I wrote out in full there)?

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

As I watch no televison bar Racing, am on no social media, except for Unheard, have not been to a theatre for 35 years, and have been to a cinema once in the last 20 years, I have a failsafe personal censorship mechanism.

xsarahdavis
xsarahdavis
3 years ago

I “did” Joyce (even also FW) and love the stuff.
Why is it that all you sterile death-loving poo pipe pokers lean on Wilde and Joyce hoping that some of their golden greatness will shower upon you. Fags are just life-long onanists destroying and spreading death wherever you go. You are not literary giants (even oh so brilliant Tits McGrath) … free speech isn’t just writing dirty limericks. Homo wankers. Is all you are.

Kevin S.
Kevin S.
3 years ago
Reply to  xsarahdavis

Are you offended?