- Against Communal Nostalgia:Reconstructing Sociality in the Pornographic Ballad
In its own era no less than ours, nineteenth-century British pornography enjoyed a reputation as a generic agent of dissolution and subversion. Its narratives mocked propriety, set marriages asunder, frayed public spiritedness, and botched lines of inheritance. This characterization of obscenity as corrosive to social cohesion, however, runs aground on a pornographic ballad like “Expostulation with a Fierce Preacher.”1 Set in India, the poem unfolds a salacious tale of unruly parishioners commandeering the sacred public space of the church for the purpose of sexual seduction. We witness the parson gnashing his teeth as the collapse of his authority seems to augur an attenuation of community:
Oh, jealous Cotterill, why so warm? Because your congregation,In spite of all you preach and storm, Persist in fornication.(ll. 1–4)
Here, the conventionally sovereign voice of the sermonizer—Cotterill—has been supplanted by the collective speech of the congregants. He would coerce his flock into submission by “barking” at them as “sheep in pens,” warning them of the precariousness of their English identity, given their displacement in a foreign colony (ll. 14, 13). Cotterill’s gambit invokes a sentimentalized sense of nativity—familial and national—to keep his parishioners in obeisance: “He merely wants us all to leave / Our ‘Hearts and Souls’ at home” (ll. 23–24). The congregants, however, rebel against his injunction, detaching themselves from the concept of “home” that undergirds Cotterill’s authority and instead embracing the “wantonness” that marks them as “rogues” who are “unfitted for a pew” (ll. 7, 12, 6). Far from disintegrating social bonds, abandoning their nostalgia for their origins allows them to erotically connect in makeshift public spaces—the church becomes “the ball-room and the play-house gay”—where communal coherence is no longer beholden to the citation of forebears (ll. 17). [End Page 497] Indeed, the authority of the past is exposed as a frigid barrier to intimacy. Only when the communal memory of revered antecedents is swept away can an extemporaneous sociality rooted in erotic intimacy take hold.
“Expostulation with a Fierce Preacher” is just one example in a broader constellation of twenty-three pornographic ballads that appeared in William Lazenby’s underground periodical, The Pearl. Originally published in eighteen monthly issues from July 1879 to December 1880, the magazine is famous today for its six serialized novels, which contain a spoil of riches for the cultural historian. Far from merely limning penetrative intercourse, these texts, liberated from the imperative to maintain a veneer of propriety, rove across a startling range of territory: women’s suffrage, physical disability and sexual impairment, secret sex societies, interspecies coition, India-rubber dildos, slave rape in the West Indies, duels, mock crucifixions, Turkish harems, prophylactic devices, friendships ratified by the exchange of pubic hair—the list goes on.2 For all the insights these novels have yielded about gendered power, racially organized imperial conquest, and the global circulation of commodities, the concerted attention paid to them might lead to the mistaken impression that The Pearl was simply a platform for long-form fiction. In fact, the magazine came loaded down with a potpourri of bawdy supplemental pieces: hymns, odes, songs, nursery rhymes, acrostic poems, parodies, faux advertisements, and fabricated letters to the editor. Sifting through this miscellany, one comes to grasp the sophisticated cultural embeddedness of pornographic texts. They are a thick palimpsest whose meaning accrues through interplay with their literary precursors and the topical political environment. The sheer heterogeneity of these items, however, throws into relief one form that crops up with startling regularity: the ballad.
In some respects, the genres of pornography and street balladry share a remarkable affinity. Pornography is event driven. It concentrates on genital activity, eschewing emotional depth, epistemological subtlety, and stylistic intricacy—just as the ballad devotes itself to narrative exposition. Whereas the mainstream Victorian novel privileges depth of characterization, pornography, like the ballad, adduces readily categorized types. Even more importantly, the cyclical structure of reflexive rhymes in balladry lends itself to the repetitive pulls and thrusts of a masturbatory cadence. This parallel becomes particularly salient if joined with the observation that the contained...