Dirt for Art's Sake (Book Review)

Five years ago, Elizabeth Ladenson, a not always mild-mannered French professor at New York's Columbia University, was startled to learn that her new email software came complete with a default option named Moodwatch. Designed to save emotional emailers from their own impetuosity, Moodwatch ranks messages by inserting chili pepper icons when it encounters potentially offensive words. Looking back over past emails, Ladenson was puzzled to find a two-chili ranking on one that merely listed the 13 poems for which Charles Baudelaire faced obscenity charges in 1857. The problem turned out to have been the poem "Lesbos" - politically correct Moodwatch had read the word as a derogatory reference, the feminine equivalent of "fags." In other words, the conservative Catholic France of Napoleon III and an officious bit of contemporary software both wanted to censor Baudelaire, albeit for entirely different reasons.

That's only the first in an array of ironies and absurdities that Ladenson examines in Dirt for Art's Sake (Cornell UP), her absorbing study of a century's worth of literary OBSCENITY trials. Between the landmark year of 1857, when Britain passed the Obscene Publications Act and France launched prosecutions against Baudelaire and Gustave Flaubert, through the trials of Ulysses, Lady Chatterley's Lover and Fanny Hill, Western culture completely overthrew its traditional concept of the relationship between art and morality, obliterating the very idea of literary obscenity. Out went the old - literature's duty to uphold the ideal - and in came the new: art for art's sake (exempt from moral judgment), and what Ladenson calls dirt for art's sake, art's duty to be realistic, particularly in sexuality.

The story we tell ourselves about this transformation - the cultural narrative, in academic-speak - is one of ever greater commitment to free expression. Trouble is, as Ladenson happily points out, that's simply not true. We may have shifted the grounds of our complaints, from sex to politics, but we're as prone to censor - in a good cause, of course - as our ancestors were, as shown by Moodwatch, hate-speech laws and the ongoing travails of classic literature. A century ago, censors wanted to suppress Huckleberry Finn for its "immorality"; today they seek the same end because of a character in it who can safely be referred to (in Christopher Hitchens's satiric formulation) only as "N-word Jim."

That's a far cry from attitudes 150 years ago, when Madame Bovary - Flaubert's classic tale of an adulterous wife - went on trial for "offences against public and religious morals." Privately, Flaubert agreed he was as guilty as could be, but his lawyer mounted a defence that would be seen time and again in obscenity trials: the author had played by the rules. He only described vice - and the bitter, suicidal wages of sin - to better highlight virtue. Flaubert was acquitted, but Baudelaire wasn't so lucky with Les Fleurs du Mal six months later. Despite depicting vice as repellent to a far greater extent than the amoral Flaubert, five of his poems were suppressed, because the court demanded more idealism from lyric poetry, then the highest of literary genres, than from trashy novels.

In the United States, where the First Amendment warred with a Puritan cultural heritage, the legal hurdle for disturbing literature was whether it pruriently excited (or disgusted) any innocents who might encounter it. Hence the guileless defence offered by the counsel for Ulysses in its 1920 obscenity trial in New York. James Joyce's notoriously difficult novel - which troubles even its admirers by, in Ladenson's delicate phrase, "its constant conflation of excremental and sexual themes" - could not corrupt anyone, attorney John Quinn said, because "nobody could understand what it was about." Unfortunately for Quinn, he was up against an eagle-eyed judge. Justice Joseph Corrigan found a masturbation scene and denounced it in very un-judicial language: the episode "where the man went off in his pants, which no one could misunderstand," made Ulysses "smutty, filthy" and illegal.

In 1933, Ulysses returned to court before a judge who noted that two of his friends had read bootlegged copies and considered it more tragic than pornographic. Once the chattering classes were willing to apply considerations of artistic merit - dirt for art's sake - to sexual material, Ladenson makes clear, the obscenity law was ultimately doomed. There were still hurdles to overcome: the four-letter words and explicit sex acts of Lady Chatterley's Lover; the pedophilia of Lolita; and the cheerfully crass pornography of Fanny Hill. But one by one the barriers fell, and the century of literary obscenity trials drew to a close in the late 1960s.

But the vaunted tolerance we have displayed since, Ladenson argues, is actually closer to indifference. The 19th-century panic over "indecent" novels was sparked by the new media of cheap editions, which made books dangerously available to women and children. We similarly fret over our new media, like the Internet and video games, while no longer seeing a threat in literature - most parents would be overjoyed to hear their teenagers had abandoned Grand Theft Auto for Madame Bovary, adultery and all. Now, there's a cultural change that might have shocked even Gustave Flaubert.

Maclean's January 1, 2007