The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Taming the classics

Posted on: July 21, 2007

A major theme of Dirt for Art’s Sake is how we’ve domesticated novels formerly considered “dangerous” while at the same time vaunting their censured past to raise their cachet. A popular method is to effectively gloss over the offensive sections and reduce everything to “grand ‘universal'” themes that inspire the right amount of awe.

Ladenson’s characterisation of typical academic scholarship’s take on James Joyce’s Ulysses is worthy of more than a few chuckles. It’s amazing how passages intertwining “sexual and excremental” functions are somehow talking about a universal “life-force” or it’s the  “Great Mother Earth  Speaking”. Huh?

my hole is itching me always when I think of him I feel I want to I feel some wind in me better go easy not wake him have him at it again slobbering after washing every bit of myself back belly and sides if we had even a bath itself or my own room anyway I wish I hed sleep in some room by himself with his cold feet on him give us room even to let a fart God or do to the least thing better yet hold them like that a bit on my side piano quietly sweeeee theres that train far away pianissimo eeeeeee one more song.

I guess that could be about the Earth-Mother if one read it context….

Stuart Gilbert’s popular guide to Ulysses, first published in 1930, also helped to sanitize the text. It was published in the USA before the novel ever got here and was only able to stay published because it studiously avoided any of the memorably offensive lines. It’s chapter by chapter breakdown  complete with duteous note of supposed Homeric references and organ motifs (in short, sounding breathtakingly tedious) in general supported the idea that Joyce’s outrageous “filth” was a distraction from the intellectual meat. Ladenson’s asserts that Nabokov felt the same way, recommending to his students that “the squeamish among you regard the special preoccupation of Joyce with perfect detachment”.

I knew nothing about Ulysses so some of the passages quoted made my eyes widen quite a bit. I appreciated the defences used for his novel against prosecution. In the first case in 1920 the defence’s case was basically that the novel was too abstruse for anyone but the most intellectual — traditionally men at the time, the least vulnerable to obscene material — to even begin to understand. Indeed he didn’t know half of what the thing was about. Suffice it to say he didn’t win. What changed in 1933, according to Ladenson, is that Judge Woosley ruled that a) one had to consider the “offensive” material in the context of the entire work rather than judging the excerpts in isolation, and b) testing whether material is “obscene” on the standard of a “normal person” rather than innocent, charming children.

The funniest quotes were from a raving mad English moralist who excelled in pouring out vitriolic judgement on any work of art he deemed dangerous to the populace. James Douglas must be read to be believed.

James Douglas, the journalist who wrote that Ulysses was “the most infamously obscene work in ancient or modern literature,” went on to say the following: “The obscenity of Rabelais is innocent compared with its leprous and scabrous horrors. All the secret sewers of vice are canalized in its flood of unimaginable thoughts, images and pornographic words.”

Good heavens. All that in a book? The usual irony is that Anthony Burgess, a youth at the time, wrote that Douglas was the go-to man for he and his peers when they needed book recommendations. If he hated it was sure to be something tantalizing. Sigh. I can’t but feel a little wistful for the days when novels were dangerous.

There’s a great deal more literary criticism than I expected but now makes sense in light of her aim of exploring what it is about the books that make them obscene and how the taste makers gave it canonical status.

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4 Responses to "Taming the classics"

This is wonderful stuff, imani! I’m really looking forward to reading about the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the book on Penguin publishing I’m reading. I enjoy it so much when academics decide to defend works of art from charges of obscenity. The resultant mix of pomposity and bizarre justification and quite intriguing arguments about art is irresistible.

I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while, and after your discussion, I think I’ll have to move it up on the list! Thanks for a great post (as always).

litlove aren’t they though? The ambivalence of the literati when it came to Hall’s novel was something to behold. I’ll have to read the chapter on the Lawrence novel and do a little post for you, which can act as a preview. I do not plan to read the entire book as I intend to but have not read some of the books she covered, like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal.

Sarah you’re welcome and thanks for commenting. I definitely think it’s a book worth reading, if only for its historical perspective.

I am not able to enjoy this website correctly on opera It looks like theres a problem.

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