We merely took any opportunity to indulge in unusual acts. We did not lack modesty-on the contrary-but something urgently drove us to defy modesty altogether as immodestly as possible.
-Bataille, G. The Story of the Eye
The history of literature is as much a history of censorship as it is creation. Books have often been burnt, sometimes along with their authors. The motives behind banning or burning books alter through the years, but the dominating justification for 20th Century Western censorship of fiction has been sex. Literary explorations of sex and sexuality have been a profound source of anxiety for publishers and law enforcers. Sex is a potent creative subject. It contains connotations of power, control, expression danger, and even death. Erotic literature reaches into something incredibly personal, plays on desire and questions limits, and this, has often induced a fearful and paranoid response.
The primary motive for censoring sexual literature is the belief that such works corrupt. Censorship seeks to stem this potential corruption by removing that which might inspire or encourage it, but in the process has to forsake democratic liberties. Some works are thought to have the power to influence the readers’ behaviour against their better judgement. It may seem humorous now that written sex has been deemed such a potent threat to society, but the notion that unchecked desire leads to subversive acts has been propagated since Plato. It is visible in the Greek opposition of Apollo and Dionysus, where Apollo represents goodness, rationality and reason, and Dionysus, spontaneity, chaos and the irrational. This opposition manifests in several forms: civilization vs. anarchy, reason vs. passion, man vs. nature, and high vs. low culture. Censorship aims to uphold the positive side of these oppositions in the face of the deviancy and destruction that unchecked desire can result in. Social cohesion requires that desire, from sex to violence, be harnessed and restrained for the benefit of civil order. A productive society and workforce is achieved by obedience, therefore the transgressive is detrimental to those in control. Sex is transgressive in that it can undermine traditional gender roles and the family unit which were/are essential modes of structuring the population, law and work. In this way censorship is not merely the act of hiding the disgusting or offensive from view. It is rather, an attempt to uphold the fundamental binary opposition of the rational, human, creators of high art, against the animalistic, daemonic, corruptors of perverted art.
The early 20th Century was saw a great number of books banned on charges of obscenity, including Joyce’s Ulysses, Lawerence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Rainbow, and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. Previously, novel censoring had focused on heretical and subversive writings, ones that addressed and questioned ruling powers. However, with the increase in public literacy during the 19th Century, the ‘Novel’ became increasingly popular and more widely distributed. It became an art form for the masses. The height of censorship of sexual literature parallels the increasing availability of literature to the masses, and the increasingly trangressive traits of the modernist avant-garde. The prevalence of novel censorship at this time was in part due to the wider distribution of such literature, and to the profound changes taking place in society. Censorship aimed to uphold certain sexual orders originally based in Christianity, but also to hold on to the established norms of role of women in society. An ordered society was particularly important the midst of two devastating world wars.
The attempt to sustain sexual order begins by dividing it into categories of acceptability. That which is deemed unusual is relegated to the realm of the disgusting, and disgust is a prime motor of censorship – disgust, morality and shame are typically defensive strategies against unbridled desire. That which slips outside categories of acceptability are deemed obscene and so too the literature which explores, describes and/or endorses it. Ulysses was originally deemed obscene because of its masturbation scene. Whilst, Radcliff Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness fell outside the realms of acceptability because of its lesbian narrative. Hall’s lesbian love story, though not explicit in its imagery, was deemed a great enough threat to merit having the novel destroyed. The issue for the court was that the relationship depicted is at no point condemned, and was therefore considered an endorsement of homosexuality. The book had the potential to corrupt women and children, so was believed to be a very real and physical threat to society:
The book advocates the toleration and social recognition of a form of vice known
as lesbianism…it leads to gross mental illness, nervous instability, and sometimes
suicide…the book should be regarded as obscene…the book must be regarded as
a danger to society and the well-being of the nation.
-Views of Sir William Henry Willcox, Medical Advisor to the Home Office, Quoted in letter see National
The book threatened Christian and State authority by condoning homosexuality and depicting sexual liberated women in a time when the role of women was an issue of contention. In the UK, 1928 was a seminal year for women as it was the year in which they gained the same electoral rights as men, therefore traditional positions were being questioned. The insecurities over gender roles drove concerns over the seditious power of literature to feed female rebellion. It was also the year that the class conscious tale of sexual fulfilment and infidelity, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, was banned.
This aim to sustain certain standards via censorship reappeared in the 50s. The looming sexual revolution of the 60s had once again bred insecurities in the establishment. There was a flurry of new literature obscenity trials in the face of new sexually explicit literature. Paula Reage’s Story of O, a graphic tale of dominance and submission was published in France, where publishers again faced obscenity charges. The ‘Beats’ in the US became the subject of much legal attention. The homosexual themes of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch meant the book found itself banned on similar charges to The Well of Loneliness. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl too faced similar charges. In the UK Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. was also banned.
The fifties marked a major turning point for novel censorship as legal definitions of obscenity, both in the UK and US, changed to recognise that works could be both artistic and obscene. Modernism and its emphasis on transgression was now well established, and the ideal of high art against low art lay with Victorian aesthetics rather than in the midst of the Modern 20th Century. It is a sentiment recognised and explored by Susan Sontag in her essay, The Pornographic Imagination. Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and D.H.Lawerence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover were subsequently cleared in light of the new laws on obscenity.
Justifications for breaking with democratic values come at times when the nation/establishment/society in question feels most venerable. Concerns of censors shift according to the cultural climate. There was a shift after the legal changes to obscenity in the 50s to a climate of relative sexual obscenity; it is hard to convict books as the defence can always cite artistic value. Fifty Shades of Gray would doubtless have been banned in the early 20th Century, as its imagery far surpasses the scenes in The Well of Loneliness. It embodies many of the features of the obscene; it explores violent and alternative sexual practices, is widely available to the masses, even the young, but the Shades trilogy caused little more than media titillation in the UK. The fear of sexual deviancy has apparently migrated to others forms.
The demise of concern with sexual literature has also mirrored the rise of new media. The increasing availability of television and VHS gave a new dimension to sex. The rise of the image has changed censorship concerns. The rise of the printed, and then filmed porn industry means that novels apparently no longer carry the subversive sexual threat they once did. In the midst of the proliferating image the debate is now to whether the mark of the censor has largely forgotten the written text. The internet now inspires the same hysterics that the text once did. The instant availability of hard-core pornography and challenging films is seen as a source of corruption, and again is inspiring calls for censorship.
The validity of censorship is ultimately undermined by its inability to fulfil its primary task. It does not suppress sexual experimentation, promiscuity or homosexuality, it never has. Censorship responds to transgression rather than prevents it, so is already failing. Much like Hannah Arendt’s ‘violence’ it operates at a loss of control, rather than as control itself. It is always one step behind. Writers have pushed the boundaries of the artistic text, and censorship follows afterwards, trying to contain the fallout. Censorship can ultimately not be justified in that it cannot protect or sustain order, it is an act of desperation in the face of changing tides.
Jessica studied Fine Art at Manchester Metropolitan University before swapping pencil for pen to complete an MA in
Cultural & Critical Theory at Brighton University. Her many varied areas of interest include cultural censorship,
obscenity, philosophy of architecture, 20th Century aesthetics and subversive literature.
She is Reviews Editor for InkyNeedles, and writes her own blog named Degenerate/s.