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Dirt for Art’s Sake: Books on Trial from “Madame Bovary” to “Lolita” (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 45, Number 2, Winter 2008
pp. 372-374 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0068

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Dirt for Art’s Sake, a title conspicuously playing on the famous “dirt for dirt’s sake” in Judge John M. Woolsey’s opinion regarding Ulysses,1 offers an engaging history of literary censorship in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Writing with a plain style and a touch of humor, Elisabeth Ladenson embarks on a wonderful exploration of how books (and movies) travel from literary obscenity to undisputed classics, her analysis never losing sight of the senseless repetition of the journey.2

Not surprisingly, James Joyce and Ulysses are a central part of the analysis. Ladenson is an associate professor of French and comparative literature at Columbia University. With a comparativist’s eye, she traces what she defines as two lines of defense to a charge of obscenity: (1) art for art’s sake, elevating art above the chains of societal censorship, and (2) realism, an understanding that art must engage every aspect of life, even at its crudest.

Ladenson begins with Gustave Flaubert, including a keen discussion of the 1949 film version of Madame Bovary that collided with the Motion Picture Production Code, requiring departures from Flaubert’s text, and even an actress change so as not to be “too sexy” (39). Ladenson moves through Charles Baudelaire and “The Flowers of Evil” (47), Joyce, Radclyffe Hall, D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolitigation” (187). Other authors considered include the Marquis de Sade and John Cleland.

As is well known, Ulysses first appeared in the United States in March 1918 in the Little Review (91).3 Publication stopped after the thirteenth episode in 1920 because of an obscenity suit. The Little Review’s editors lost their case and could not continue publishing, and Ulysses was an illegal novel when it was published in full in 1922, an act that ultimately reinvigorated the national censorship debate.4 In 1933, Woolsey issued his hallmark opinion, famously opining that the book is “somewhat emetic, [but] nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac” (185).

Because of the difficulty in reading Ulysses, Ladenson reminds us, it is “the most unlikely of dirty books” (80). Further complicating the matter is the law’s inability successfully to grapple with obscenity: “An assignment of what art is cannot be comprehended in a judicial sense, although attempts have been made historically to define the concepts of what art is not. . . . [Obscenity statutes] can lead to slicing up areas of creativity based upon the slimmest of emotional causes.”5 Ladenson identifies through Ulysses the separation between “dirty” words used in a sexual sense and “dirty” words that are simply vulgar without sexual overtones:

Literary “dirt” is in fact a twofold category, referring alternatively—and often simultaneously—to the “four-letter words” that took on great importance in the trials of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer, for instance, and to the depictions of sexuality that were no less at issue in those same trials. The persistent metaphors of “dirt” and “filth” as well as related terms such as “sewage” to refer to sex in literature and art, all of which were deployed unsparingly when Ulysses was first published, are, moreover, ample testimony to the degree to which eroticism and excretion are conflated not just for the Leopold Blooms of fiction but for their would-be censors as well. In works such as Lawrence’s and Miller’s, as in Ulysses, the use of vulgar terms is for the most part inseparable from the representations of sexual situations they accompany.


Grappling with this troubling conflation further muddies the scope (at least as it is relatively defined) of obscenity.

Censorship today seems unlikely to reach the breadth sought at the time of Ulysses,6 but one painful observation in Ladenson’s book refers to the recurrence of foolish censorship prosecutions. The most illustrative case may be her discussion of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a book subjected to impropriety charges in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As Ladenson concludes, “[o]ur age is all for subversion, as long as the ideas subverted are other than our own” (236).

Gregg Mayer  

Gregg Mayer is a lawyer and writer in Jackson, Mississippi. At the University of Mississippi...

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