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Dirt for Art's Sake: Books on Trial from Madame Bovary to Lolita Hardcover – 1 Nov 2006


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How it is, asks Ladenson (French and comparative literature, Columbia U.), that so many literary works once designated as obscene have ended up on required reading lists. She looks at nine works that were banned or prosecuted, or both, when they first appeared and have since achieved, in some way or another, classic status. Annotation 2007 Book New

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Few books are as closely associated with their legal histories as is Madame Bovary. Read the first page
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Absurd Attempts to Clean Up Literature 21 Feb 2007
By R. Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
1857 was an important year for literature, and for sex. It was either an _annus mirabilis_ or _annus horribilis_, depending on your point of view. _Horribilis_, says Elisabeth Ladenson in _Dirt for Art's Sake: Books on Trial from Madame Bovary to Lolita_ (Cornell University Press). It was the year in which _Madame Bovary_ was published and then prosecuted, as well as Baudelaire's _Les Fleurs du Mal_. The year also saw the Obscene Publications Act in England. That prosecutors were able to harass the authors and publishers of these books, as well as the other later ones that Ladenson considers, seems now quaint but also sad. Some of these books are among the highest of the classics, and the others gained far more infamy because of their prosecutions than their literary worth would have earned them. The unmemorable smut that is the huge bulk of pornography isn't much considered here (this is _Dirt for Art's Sake_, after all), but Ladenson's witty and thorough book can only remind the reader that this sort of societal fussing over what people can read, especially screening for the benefit of a supposed impressionable "young person", is wasted effort. It annoys readers, authors, and publishers, and has from time to time kept important books out of the hands of those who could appreciate them.

_Madam Bovary_ is Flaubert's most famous work, and its trial is intimately connected with the book. The problem as the French government saw it was that literature was to be useful and encourage moral order; literature that threatened the state was to be suppressed. The defense was two-pronged. First, there was "art for art's sake", that art exists independently of conventional morality. The other, somewhat contradictory, defense was that art depicts by means of realism, that if there were sordid aspects of life, they should still be fearlessly presented. But Flaubert's defense still relied upon the upholding of morality; his realistic depiction of the adultery of Emma Bovary was only to promote a higher virtue. Emma might not be a positive example, but served as a bad example to keep readers from making the same errors themselves. It is hard to see how even the prudish objected to the other indisputable member of the literary canon included here, unless they were given a list of four letter words that are included in the text, or specific pointers to the pages where Mr. Bloom goes to the outhouse or where sexual activity takes place. _Ulysses_ is, after all, a big book, full of a close examination of three characters and their one ordinary day in Dublin, so "naughty" themes are far from predominant. The book is not as easy to read as real porn, and only the misguided might pick it up hoping quickly to find spicy bits; Joyce's novel, Ladenson says, "provides its own inaccessibility." The classic 1933 decision allowing the book into the US, written by Judge John Woolsey and included as a preface to the work, gives the judge's opinion that while parts of the text may be "somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac."

Woolsey's was a limited judgement; it meant that the "emetic" parts of _Ulysses_ redeemed the whole. (It is also a limited reading of the book, which tends more to comedy and ebullience than to outrageousness.) Because of this, the decision didn't close the issue of censoring frank literature, which had to be legally settled for _Lady Chatterley's Lover_, _Tropic of Cancer_, and _Lolita_, all of which have chapters here. (Lolita was a special case in which there could be no objection to the words in the book, but to the subject, a man's fascination for a pre-pubescent female.) Ladenson has read them all, and the legal decisions concerning them, and has not only read the books but seen the movies. Her perceptive readings of the books makes for a fine social history of censorship of artistic works. She has an agreeable sense of humor, pleasing in a scholastic work, and lets us enjoy sniggering at the foolish efforts of prudes trying to snip away at great literature. The absurdity of the censors' efforts is well displayed, as is, alas, their pigheaded persistence through the centuries.
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