- Dirt for Art's Sake: Books on Trial from "Madame Bovary" to "Lolita."
Does reading about others who have sex make us want to have sex too? And is that so bad? Though video has replaced books as today's media demon of choice, for about one hundred years, from 1857 to 1961, France, Britain, and the United States prosecuted and attempted to ban books that contained any material thought to corrupt or deprave its readers, most commonly, books with sexual content. In hindsight, what makes this prosecutorial practice seem not only pointless but also counterproductive is that most of the books that went to trial became not just causes célèbres but literary classics, frequently forming the backbone of today's college syllabi.
Elisabeth Ladenson begins Dirt for Art's Sake asking, "How does an obscene work become a classic?" While she doesn't directly answer that question, she does provide a comprehensive and often witty account of the authorial investment, publication, and trials of seven significant books in modern Western literature: Madame Bovary, Flowers of Evil, Ulysses, The Well of Loneliness, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and Lolita. Far more a literary history than a cultural critique, Dirt for Art's Sake offers little new information and no new theories that help the reader understand the cultural causes or effects of canonical obscenity. What the book does offer, however, is the most comprehensive account of three national traditions of obscenity trials and, by doing so, a taxonomy of modern literary censorship and its resistance.
Ladenson divides the writers in her study into three groups: amoralists, immoralists, and moralists. Though each wrote works offensive to public taste, their motives and modes of doing so were clearly different. In terms of canonical longevity, the amoralist line, exemplified by Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Charles Baudelaire's Les fleurs du mal, James Joyce's Ulysses, and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, has had the most success. Each work treats transgressive subjects-adultery, carnal lust, defecation, pedophilia-as so much clay from which art itself is made. Thus, as Flaubert wrote in a letter before Madame Bovary came to trial, "the morality of art consists in its beauty, and I value above all style, and after that, Truth" (21). At issue, of course, is the function and power of literature. The trials of obscene books reveal a tectonic shift from the nineteenth-century author's presumed obligation to present an ideal to which readers could aspire toward the twentieth-century author's representation of life's most quotidian and unpleasant aspects. The deepening skepticism or anti-idealism of literary representation incorporated bodies and physical acts in ever greater detail. In Flaubert's case, the presumption that literature's proper function is moral was that which brought it to trial but also that which saved it. Madame Bovary, the defense claimed, depicted vice only in order to promote virtue. [End Page 646] Thus began the idea that presenting reality in its ugly details could act as a kind of emetic, purging the reader's soul of its unworthy desires.
Before arriving at the consensus that realistic depictions of immoral acts could have positive social effects, however, other works were accused of "vulgar realism offensive to decency," as in the case of Baudelaire's Les fleurs du mal in 1857 (48). Flaubert and Baudelaire are both generally credited with having inaugurated modern and modernist literature by transforming the unseemly into art. If the culture of literary litigation was an attempt to control a changing aesthetic sensibility, it was equally instigated by a changing demographic of readers. The concern with literary obscenity was in part that it might fall into the hands of the wrong kinds of readers-girls and semiliterate working-class men-the newest classes of readers in the nineteenth century, who might not understand how to detach themselves from the readings at hand.
Where Les fleurs du mal and Madame Bovary suffered because they were "dirty...