The history of literature is as much a history of censorship as it is creation. Books have often burnt, sometimes with their authors. The motives behind banning or burning books alter through the years, but the dominating reasoning behind instances of 20th Century Western censorship of fiction has been sex. Literary explorations of sex and sexuality have been a profound source of anxiety for publishers and law enforcers. Sex is a potent creative subject; it contains connotations of power, control, expression and danger. Erotic literature reaches into something incredibly personal, plays on desire and questions limits, which has often induced a fearful and paranoid response.
The primary motive for censoring sexual literature is the belief that such works corrupt. Censorship seeks to stem this potential corruption by removing that which might inspire or encourage it, but in the process has to forsake democratic liberties. Some works are thought to have the power to influence the reader behaviour against their better judgement. It may seem humorous now that written sex has been deemed such a potent threat to society, but the notion that unchecked desire leads to subversive acts has been propagated since Plato. It is visible in the Greek opposition of Apollo and Dionysus, where Apollo represents goodness, rationality and reason, and Dionysus, spontaneity, chaos and the irrational. This opposition manifests in several forms: civilization vs anarchy, reason vs passion, man vs nature, and high vs low culture. Censorship aims to uphold the positive side of these oppositions in the face of the deviancy and destruction that unchecked desire can result in. Social cohesion requires that desire, from sex to violence, be harnessed and restrained for the benefit of civil order. A productive society and workforce is achieved by obedience, therefore the transgressive is detrimental to those in control. In this way censorship is not merely the act of hiding the disgusting or offensive from view. It is rather, an attempt to uphold the fundamental binary opposition of the rational, human, creators of high art, against the animalistic, daemonic corruptors of perverted art.
Sexuality was, in the early 20th Century, deemed a potent force of personal rebellion. Sex is transgressive in that it can undermine traditional gender roles and the family unit which were/are essential modes of structuring the population, law and work. The early 20th Century was saw a great number of books banned on charges of obscenity, including Joyce’s Ulysses, Lawerence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Rainbow, and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. The threat of sexual deviancy was a potent one in these early years of the century. Previously, novel censoring had focused on heretical and subversive writings, ones that addressed and questioned ruling powers. However, with the increase in public literacy during the 19th Century, the Novel became increasingly popular and more widely distributed. It became an art form for the masses. The height of censorship of sexual literature parallels the increasing availability of literature to the masses, and the increasingly trangressive traits of the modernist avant-garde. In this instance, censorship was attempting to uphold standards of normality in the midst of two devastating world wars. The prevalence of novel censorship at this time was due to the profound changes taking place in society. Censorship following after transgression rather than preceding it.
The attempt to sustain sexual order begins by dividing it into categories of acceptability. That which is deemed unusual is relegated to the realm of the disgusting, and disgust is a prime motor of censorship. Disgust, morality and shame are typically defensive strategies against unbridled instinct. That which slips outside these categories of acceptability were deemed obscene and so too the literature which explores, describes and/or endorses it. Radcliff Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness found itself a victim of such censorship. Hall’s novel fell outside the realms of acceptability because of its lesbian narrative. As an early 20th Century novel, the charges of obscenity it faced originally based in Christian prudishness. Hall’s lesbian love story, though not explicit in its imagery, was deemed a great enough threat to merit having the novel destroyed. The issue for the court was that the relationship depicted is at no point condemned, and was therefore considered an endorsement of homosexuality. The book had the potential to corrupt women and children, so was believed to be a very real and physical threat to society:
The book advocates the toleration and social recognition of a form of vice known as lesbianism…it leads to gross mental illness, nervous instability, and sometimes suicide…the book should be regarded as obscene…the book must be regarded as a danger to society and the well-being of the nation.
It is the threat of corruption rather than offence that drove this particular instance of censorship. The book threatened authority by condoning homosexuality and depicting sexual liberated women in a time when the role of women was an issue of contention. In the UK, 1928 was a seminal year for women as it was they gained the same electoral rights as men, therefore traditional positions were being questioned. The insecurities over gender roles drove concerns over the seditious power of literature to feed female rebellion.
It was mostly depictions of homosexuality that persisted to be issues of contention. The homosexual themes of William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch meant the book found itself banned on similar charges to The Well of Loneliness. Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl was also put in the dock. These works, however, managed to successfully fight their charges. What followed from the clearing of these works was a radical reassessment of censorship in literature. Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and D.H.Lawerence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover were subsequently cleared in light of the new laws on obscenity. If a novel could be proved to be of artistic and social importance whatever its content it could not be censored. The fifties marked a major turning point for novel censorship as definitions of obscenity changed to recognise that works could be both artistic and obscene. It is a sentiment recognised and explored by Susan Sontag in her essay, ‘The Pornographic Imagination’. The threat of prurient interest however could not persist. By the 50’s the modernist project had reached its peak, art and literature had fought with taboo for decades and the shock of written sex had widely worn off.
This change of tact does not signal a loosening of the power of censors, but just a shift of concern. There was a renewed interest in the heretical during the 50s in America due to Red Fear – the trial of Naked Lunch in Boston spent considerable time discussing the political satire present in the book. The Sexual Revolution of the 60’s and Third Wave Feminism of the 70’s meant the traditional cause of protecting women from the erotic was rendered obsolete. Sexual transgressiveness is not the force it once was. Books are still regularly banned for their pornographic or homosexual content, but regionally. The US sees hundreds of books pulled from shelves every year, but from local libraries and schools rather than countrywide. The influence of religious prudism is still a dominant force, throughout the West, but now State wide bans are rare. Fifty Shades of Gray would doubtless have been banned in the early 20th Century, as its imagery far surpasses the scenes in The Well of Loneliness. It embodies many of the features of the obscene; it explores violent and alternative sexual practices and is widely available to the masses, even the young. The book could inspire violent sexual experimentation, but also it may merely inspire one to by the Fifty Shades board game. The Novel is now rarely seen as a place of sexual transgression. The Shades trilogy caused little more than titillation and intrigue in the UK; the fear of sexual deviancy has migrated to others forms.
The demise of concern with sexual literature has also mirrored the rise of new media. The increasing availability of television and VHS gave a new dimension to sex. The rise of the image changed censorship concerns. Now the fear was that the Image is could corrupt, the ‘vunerable’ can engage with imagery much quicker than with literature. The rise of the printed, and then filmed porn industry meant that novels apparently no longer carried the subversive sexual threat they once did. In the midst of the proliferating image the debate of whether to censor has largely forgotten the written text. The internet now inspires the same hysterics that the text once did. The instant availability of hard-core pornography and challenging films are seen as a source of corruption.
The validity of censorship is ultimately undermined by its inability to fulfill its primary task: it does not stem sexual experimentation, promiscuity or homosexuality, it never has. Censorship responds to transgression rather than prevents it, so is already failing. Much like Hannah Arendt’s ‘violence’ it operates at a loss of control rather than the administration of it. Censorship is always one step behind. The more we try to contain and control sex and sexuality the more likely it will resist this restraint. The novels described here resist the shackles placed on literature forever extending the borders of acceptable erotic writing and artistic freedom.
Jessica Gregory 2012
This article was originally published with Inky Needles which has since ceased to exist. Though, in essence, with re-reading it I wasn’t too embarrassed by its contents, I am looking to expand and clarify on the themes and postulations it explores in the future.
Georges Bataille explains why nice books don’t matter.