How an obscene work becomes a classic

Looking back on the Madame Bovary trial, and the banning of Lolita, Ulysses, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, it’s easy to feel superior to the philistines who didn’t recognize these literary works as high art. (Flaubert disséquant Madame Bovary caricature, at right, found here.)

But Elizabeth Ladenson argues in Dirt for Art’s Sake that each age, including ours, is censorious in its own way — and that our elevation of banned books to classics status is predictable rather than subversive.

“We are titillated by the idea of dangerous literature,” she says, “precisely because literature no longer poses any danger. It has become anodyne, if not entirely irrelevant, at least in terms of ambient threats to the status quo.” Here’s an excerpt from her introduction:

In the spring of 2001, as I was beginning work on this book, a strange thing happened. I was at Berkeley, on leave from the University of Virginia on a visiting appointment, and I had seemingly endless problems getting my e-mail account to function properly. When I finally resolved the difficulty, I wrote a message to a friend and colleague describing my electronic travails. I used a number of what used to be called “Anglo-Saxon” four-letter terms in my description, and when I hit “send” a message popped up on the screen, accompanied by a sinister computer-generated voice emanating from the machine’s speaker. Both of these informed me that my message contained language which might be considered offensive by the average reader, and that I should reconsider sending it, lest my keyboard, the warning continued with ponderous virtual jocularity, be washed out with soap. Stunned by this interpellation I set out to find what was behind it, and discovered that the version of Eudora I had been furnished with included a default option called “Moodwatch,” designed to protect unwary e-mailers from their own linguistic impetuosity. Moodwatch operated through a series of offensiveness ratings iconically represented by little cartoon chili peppers. According to the degree of offensiveness, one’s message is assigned one, two, or three chili-pepper icons, and when one uses language that Moodwatch judges to be beyond the pale, as was the case for my message complaining about the inconveniences of e-mail itself, the warning message inviting one to change one’s ways is delivered in simultaneous visual and auditory form.

I had, in fact, already noticed occasional chili-pepper icons attached to my missives, and had vaguely wondered why condiments were popping up seemingly at random in my email, but my computer illiteracy and general technophobia had prompted me to conclude that this was merely one of the infinite number of computer-related phenomena I would never understand and had best ignore. The experience of being vocally berated by my e-mail program, however, shook me out of my luddite torpor and caused me to do two things: first, I spent hours typing various terms into Eudora in an effort to discern the contours of its sensitivity to linguistic offense. I discovered at length that Eudora (which means, after all, “beautiful gift,” a name its originators apparently intend to be taken seriously) is sensitive indeed, but selectively so. It is, for one thing, sexist: a number of both slang and technical references to male genitalia and related sex practices (e.g., fellatio) are deemed unacceptable by its vigilant software, while equivalent terms referring to female anatomy and sexuality (e.g., cunnilingus) pass without comment. This represents a suggestive reversal of tradition, since for centuries representations of female rather than male sexuality were viewed as dangerous and therefore to be suppressed.

But the historical implications of Moodwatch were not my immediate concern. In the midst of my prurient research into the parameters of Eudora’s offendability, it occurred to me that since I had been seeing inexplicable chili peppers for weeks, I should investigate their causes. This was the second action I took, and what I found was perplexing. Chili peppers were affixed here and there to outgoing messages containing “strong” language. “You should be ashamed of yourself!” was one pepper-festooned message I had for instance written to a friend in a spirit of irony, but irony-detection is not Eudora’s strong point. I then tried out “I should be ashamed of myself,” as sentiment of which, in my case at least, Moodwatch presumably approved; at any rate it remained silent. What horrified me, though, was the discovery of two chili peppers appended to a message I had written to an undergraduate student in one of my classes who was in the hospital. As it happened, the course in question was on censorship in nineteenth-century French literature, and the message I had sent her, to tell her that week’s assignment, consisted in the main of a list of the thirteen poems the imperial prosecutor had named as obscene or blasphemous in the prosecution of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal in 1857.

With increasing consternation I scanned the message: Had I somehow, in an unprecedented and unnoticed fit of typographical Tourette’s syndrome, included some obscenity or blasphemy in the salutation or expressions of hope that the student’s condition would soon improve? No; I could find nothing but the expected formulas. With the hallucinatory feeling that Eudora was somehow channeling the spirit of the imperial prosecutor himself, I turned to the list of poem titles. There, after an embarrassingly long period of contemplation, I found the offending article. There was no other possibility; what had alerted Eudora to my nefarious designs was the poem title “Lesbos.”

At first, although I realized this was the only possible culprit, I could not figure out why. I typed various related eterms into the computer: “lesbian,” lesbianism”: nothing. At length I realized what the perspicacious reader will already have grasped. Eudora (despite the Greek heritage of its name) had taken Baudelaire’s reference to the birthplace of Sappho for its homonym, the insulting epithet, as in “I hate fags and lesbos.” In other words, Eudora and the French government in 1857 had both been offended by the same title, but for approximately opposite reasons.

The Eudora mail program has been discontinued (or at least gone open-source) since Ladenson used it, but I thought of the chili peppers earlier today when Google — automatically placed on safe mode at work — wouldn’t let me search for “Lolita Bar.”

Instead I got this message: “The word ‘Lolita’ has been filtered from the search because Google SafeSearch is active.” I guess Google thought the general Wikipedia entry for “bar,” my first result, would be just as helpful.

I’ve been reading Ladenson’s book on and off since December. It provides, beyond an interesting argument, an excellent overview of literary censorship from Madame Bovary to Fanny Hill. John Sutherland reviewed Dirt for Art’s Sake in the Washington Post late last month.


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