- Dirt for Art’s Sake: Books on Trial from Madame Bovary to Lolita
As I review Elizabeth Ladenson's recent history of literary censorship, Dirt for Art's Sake, my writerly tongue clicks with envy: she so elegantly straddles what I have come to regard as mutually exclusive stylistic domains. Her prose is genuinely entertaining, yet it remains supple enough to accommodate a substantial critique of literary philistinism, running the gamut from the Napoleonic Code to the modern-day cult of transgression. To insist on Ladenson's excellent style is not, I hope, disingenuous. As Valéry once wrote, "Ce que nous avons de plus profond, c'est la peau"; by analogy: Ladenson's most salient insights inhere in the deceptively breezy, humorous quips that punctuate her work. In part, this is because they reinforce her main argument, which warns against "chronological chauvinism," by which she means "the temptation of cultural self-congratulation" (xvi)—our flattering, and misguided, assessments of the progress we have made.
Such a warning inflects the apparently innocent—and increasingly ironic—question her study sets out repeatedly to answer: namely, "What is classic status? How does one arrive at this sort of distinction?" (xiii–xiv); or, as her ingenious title leads us to rephrase: how did yesterday's dirt enter the Pantheon of modern art? As Ladenson demonstrates, much of it never did; not, in any case, until the antithetical (if equally vague) strictures of "realism" and "art for art's sake" sanitized the works in question, thus dulling the edginess that made them unacceptable in the first place. Marshalling an impressive number of clever and suggestive analyses, she debunks the myths that allowed some now-canonical works—including Madame Bovary, Les Fleurs du mal, Ulysses and Lolita—ever to see print; their apologists, we learn, widely insisted on missing the point. Madame Bovary's acquittal, for instance, hinged on a moralistic reading that hardly squared with Flaubert's iconoclasm. Likewise, the rather belated rehabilitation of Les Épaves [End Page 925] (in 1949) privileged a "symbolic" stratum of meaning that neatly elides the disturbingly literal thrust of more than a few Baudelairean fleurs. The legal/critical reception of Ulysses, for all its vicissitudes, seems to have run a similar course: sympathetic readers, from Stuart Gilbert to Judge Woolsey and beyond, have emphasized the novel's Universal Themes to the detriment of its less decorous—and, arguably, more interesting—dips into the scatological, though this undermines the "new realism" that Joyce wished his great work to inaugurate. Most perturbing of all Ladenson's examples is perhaps her last, namely, the popular recasting of Sade as an advocate of individual rights, which, as anyone knows who has schlepped through his catastrophic fantasies, he emphatically is not. This recent trend suggests just how far the urge to sanitize (and, all the while, to rail against the oppressive machinery of old regime censorship) extends; it represents history repeating itself . . . or, as Ladenson puts it in a delightful extended metaphor, "history reeling around, grabbing us drunkenly by the collar and repeating itself in such loud and insistent tones that we can only sit back and listen to its incoherent tale" (16). The mores of the past continue to thrive, all protests to the contrary; they have simply been displaced to more accessible media. Hence, the film adaptations of almost every work treated in Dirt for Art's Sake, which either preempt an inevitable censorial backlash by altering their source-texts (i.e. Minnelli's Madame Bovary, Kubrick's Lolita), or—taking a censor-free society at its word—faithfully reproduce them . . . and face the (financially disastrous) consequences (i.e., Joseph Strick's X-rated versions of Ulysses and Tropic of Cancer).
Ladenson's humorous style tends to uncover such lines of continuity, linking our subversion-happy age to a past some would prefer to dismiss. More: it interpellates her audience as so many "hypocrites lecteurs." From the false bottom of his nympholept soul, Humbert Humbert apostrophizes, "Reader! Bruder!"—a clear reference (as Ladenson notes) to...