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Obscene Modernism and the Trade in Salacious Books

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 16, Number 1, January 2009
pp. 87-104 | 10.1353/mod.0.0065

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Friedrich Nietzsche, in On the Genealogy of Morals, writing of the relation between the ascetic ideal and modern science, claimed that the word "science" in the mouths of modern scientists was obscene:

these trumpeters of reality are bad musicians, it is clear from the sound they make that their voices do not rise up from the depths, that the abyss of the scientific conscience—for today the scientific conscience is an abyss—does not speak through them, that the word "science" in the mouths of such trumpeters is simply an obscenity, an abuse, an example of impudence.1

The word he uses is unzücht; here it is translated as obscene, but it can also mean indecent, a word with more social or class connotations. Science, for Nietzsche, is obscene for two main reasons: first, because modern scientists are abusing the language of science; and second, because Nietzsche foregrounds the mouth in his extended musical metaphor. The mouth is thus visualized as more than a mouthpiece for language. It is also a body part whose physical nature shapes, moistens, warms, and potentially contaminates its words. In Nietzsche's work, the assertion of knowledge is tied to the physical nature of the will. The ascetic ideal, by trying to cancel out the body, has both "ruined" "health and taste" and created a set of "monstrous" cultural ideals.2 While the ascetic ideal has made the healthy body obscene, then, Nietzsche uses images of repressed and unhealthy bodies to concretize the moral hypocrisy of late-nineteenth-century culture. Foul bodies, disgusting smells; they are everywhere in Nietzsche's writing.

The word obscene is from the Latin obscenus meaning ill-omened; but over time it has come to mean that which is off-stage. There are always important reasons for sidelining certain areas of representation. Ideas of obscenity depend on labeling and circumscribing particular kinds of language or representation. Nietzsche alters where we locate obscenity, but not the circumscribing logic that informs its assignation. The obscene is a kind of last resort, a limit beyond which a writer will not go; the reasons for the assertion of this limit are always revealing.

It is partly from the desire to test conventional limits that obscenity plays such a central role in modernist writing. Like Nietzsche, modernist writers use obscene images because they want to reveal, and sometimes revel in, the uncomfortable limits of representation. Alternatively, there is a desire to attack a combination of an unhealthily repressed attitude to the body and hypocritical cultural norms, a theme present in novels from the late nineteenth century on. From Emile Zola's L'oeuvre (The Masterpiece [1886]), through to Ulysses (1922) and Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928), it is the sentimental cant of the moral majority that is labeled as obscene, not the explicit references to naked bodies or sexual interaction. These writers attempt to overturn dominant cultural and legal understandings of obscenity. Thus, the rise of literary realism coincided with the rise in legal prosecutions of literary obscenity.

The literary inclusion of sexualized flesh in realist novels meant that prosecutions for obscenity in Britain and America rose exponentially from the 1870s through to the 1933 Ulysses trial in the U.S. and the Lady Chatterley's Lover trial in Britain in 1960. At the same time, this literary drive coincided with a new kind of desire to stamp out sex in literature. What became known as the New Puritanism in America, and "comstockery" by those on the other side of the argument, was run by the virulent Anthony Comstock who boasted two years before his death in 1915, "In the forty-one years I have been [in New York] I have convicted persons enough to fill a passenger train of 61 coaches . . . I have destroyed 160 tons of obscene literature."3 Much of what he destroyed seems innocuous now: the mere mention of prostitution, for example, was enough to send a book to the pulping machine.

Modernist and avant-garde writing, with its more deliberate flouting of moral conventions and exploration of sex and the language of sex, ratcheted up this confrontational dynamic. The period of modernist writing is framed by an embattled context of...

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