Writing obscenity: from Lady Chatterley to the Earl of Rochester



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Jacob Huysmans

Claudine van Hensbergen, Northumbria University, Newcastle

The judge’s copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover used in the landmark 1960 obscenity trial of DH Lawrence’s famous novel is to be sold at auction in October. The paperback copy will be sold with a fabric bag, hand-stitched by the judge’s wife Lady Dorothy Byrne so that her husband could carry the book into court each day while keeping it hidden from reporters. The lot includes the notes on significant passages that Lady Byrne had helpfully marked up on the book for her husband, and a four-page list of references she had compiled on the headed stationery of the Central Criminal Court.

After six days of evidence and only three hours of deliberations, the jury found in the favour of Penguin Books, its verdict allowing the publisher to print copies of the novel for the first time. The trial was seen as a victory for liberal ideas over the old establishment. In literary terms, it signalled the opportunity for authors to write with a new type of language and freedom.

First edition of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, 1060.
Twospoonfuls via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-NC

But was Lawrence really the first writer to use obscenity in literature? And were liberal readers of the 1960s the first to appreciate the literary potential of obscene words and sex scenes? In short, the answer is no. The literary world which Lawrence and his fellow modernist writers inherited was that of the Victorian establishment. An establishment that had silenced earlier writers who, like Lawrence, used obscenity for literary ends.

One of the most important writers to be wiped from the publishing record during the 19th century was the poet John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Even today, we continue to find the obscene language and images found in Rochester’s poetry shocking. Take, for example, his A Satyr on Charles II a critique of the monarch as a man governed by his penis:

‘Tis sure the sauciest prick that e’er did swive,
The proudest, peremptoriest prick alive.
Though safety, law, religion, life lay on ’t,
‘Twould break through all to make its way to cunt.
Restless he rolls about from whore to whore,
A merry monarch, scandalous and poor.

Following his death in 1680 publishers scrambled to produce editions of Rochester’s poems – correctly perceiving the public appetite for his verse. An initial run of pirate editions of Rochester’s poetry was quickly supplanted with an authoritative collection, produced in 1691 by the leading literary publisher of the day, Jacob Tonson. Tonson is credited with popularising John Milton’s (up to that point, fairly unsuccessful) poem Paradise Lost and also producing the first footnoted editions of William Shakespeare’s collected plays.

So why did a respectable publisher such as Tonson take the gamble of printing Rochester’s verse? The answer lies in the recognition of Rochester’s poetry as literature rather than obscenity. Just as with Lady Chatterley’s Lover, we need to read past the obscene language and images of the work to understand what Rochester is really saying.

The animal in human skin

Rochester is a poet of the human condition. He strips man down to his barest drives and desires to see the animal lurking underneath. In this way, he was much like the contemporary philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who famously pronounced that life was “nasty, brutish and short” and that underneath it all man was a beast like any other.

For Rochester, the sexual realm is just another place where we see (and feel) this stark reality. Rochester strips away all sense of love and romance from his depicted sexual encounters. And there are many of them. His images are those of the mechanics of sex, its failures, disappointments and disease. Take his notorious poem, The Imperfect Enjoyment, a work that opens with a scene indicating the sexual promise to come:

Naked she lay, clasped in my longing arms,
I filled with love, and she all over charms …

Quickly, this promise is destroyed. The poem’s speaker prematurely ejaculates:

But whilst her busy hand would guide that part
Which should convey my soul up to her heart,
In liquid raptures I dissolve all o’er,
Melt into sperm, and spend at every pore.
A touch from any part of her had done ’t:
Her hand, her foot, her very look’s a cunt.

The speaker’s lover encourages him to try again, but to no success:

Trembling, confused, despairing, limber, dry,
A wishing, weak, unmoving lump I lie.

The obscene language Rochester employs in The Imperfect Enjoyment – and the sexual act on which it focuses – led generations of readers to view the work as pornographic. But this is to misread the poem. The clue is in the title: the poem portrays the ultimate failure of desire. The emptiness of human experience. And its cold, clinical and obscene language (sperm, spend, pore, cunt) is contrasted throughout the poem with phrases that point to the scene’s absent romance (the sexual act “should convey my soul up to her heart”, but it doesn’t).

The beast within

Rochester is often seen as a dangerous or obscene writer in the way he glamorised the licentious world of the Restoration court. But when we read his poetry more closely, we find little glamour in the language expressed. His verse exposes human feeling and behaviour, showing the superficiality of our social world with all its polite manners and codes of behaviour. And the use of obscene language is key to that project. As Rochester succinctly phrased it in his correspondence, “Expressions must descend to the Nature of Things express’d”.

The Victorians couldn’t cope with Rochester’s poetry, and there were no editions of his work published in the 19th century. It wasn’t until 1963, in the wake of the Chatterley trial, that American scholar David M. Vieth began work on a modern uncensored edition. Vieth gave us back the real Rochester and made it possible for readers to access his poems once again.

Obscenity might not make for comfortable reading, but that’s often its point. The purpose of literature is to make us feel, and to give us new ways of experiencing and thinking about the world around us. For Lawrence this involved using a new language that cut across class and gender in celebrating the sexual act – for Rochester it involved looking into the mirror and confronting the beast within.The Conversation

Claudine van Hensbergen, Senior Lecturer in 18th Century English Literature, Northumbria University, Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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I’m talking to you: second-person narratives in literature



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James Peacock, Keele University

While browsing for recipes online, I found this: “Give your Friday night fish and chips an Asian twist with tempura-battered cod and a spicy wasabi tartare sauce.” Sounds delicious? Perhaps – but more exciting to me is the use of the second person possessive. “You” and “your” in the typical recipe are markers of inclusivity and universality – they include us all. The expectation is that everyone eats fish and chips on a Friday so everyone will be enticed by this fusion-tinged variation.

When we consider a common location for the second person voice – the self-help text – matters become complicated. Jordan B Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (2018), to take a recent controversial example, appears to behave like the recipe. In the declared pursuit of “a shared cultural system” in which people “act in keeping with each other’s expectations and desires”, Peterson uses the second person in a universalising way.

If everyone follows his imperatives – a typical example being: “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today” – the implication is that the result will be order, harmony, contentment. The illusion of inclusion (for it is only an illusion) is bolstered by the liberal use of the first person plural: “we”. In my opinion, Peterson isn’t really giving advice – he is luring the reader into complicity with his neoliberal, individualist, masculinist world view. Observations such as “you must be prepared to do anything and everything, in case it becomes necessary” merely reassert Peterson’s male authority. Any supposedly shared beliefs are those of the marketplace.

Sympathy for the devil

Reading Peterson, one is reminded, bizarrely, of Scottish writer Iain Banks’ use of the second person in his 1993 novel Complicity, in which the reader is tempted towards sympathy with the views of a serial killer. The difference is that Banks’ narrative style encourages the reader to put themselves directly into the situation being described:

Then the door closes and they are there in front of you and in that instant you see him turned slightly away, putting his briefcase down on the table beside the answermachine … You swing the cosh and hit him very hard across the back of the head…

Iain Banks 1993 novel, Complicity, makes extensive use of second person narrative.
Amazon

This demands that the reader reflects on the ethics of sympathy and complicity and questions the values being espoused. Complicity is a well-known novel – but the second person in literature is rare enough to be a curiosity.

One of the reasons for this might be that, if used very extensively – as in Paul Auster’s memoirs Winter Journal (2012) and Report from the Interior (2013) – it can feel forced, awkward and, frankly, irritating: “Until that morning, you just were. Now you knew that you were.” Whether or not – as critics such as Irene Kacandes have argued – the second person enhances reader involvement, overuse can feel like a form of harassment from someone trying too hard to get into your head.

Auster gestures toward universality, claiming in Report from the Interior that he writes not because “you find yourself a rare or exceptional object of study, but precisely because you don’t, because you think of yourself as anyone, as everyone”. This is disingenuous: the experiences he describes are too personal and specific to be universal – and to assume they are is presumptuous. Even if he is trying to gain distance from himself by using the second person, Auster is still talking only to another version of himself. After all, “you are still who you were, even if you are no longer the same person”.

Talking with yourself

Karl Geary’s 2017 coming-of-age story, Montpelier Parade, works in a similar way to Auster’s memoirs – the adult writer addresses a youthful self, adding sage, gently ironic reflections with hindsight: “You were the hero in your dream of saving her.” The irony derives from differing levels of experience and knowledge, but again the reader watches from a distance as the narrator talks to himself.

Montpelier Parade: second person as confession.
Amazon

In both Auster’s and Geary’s texts, narrators compare themselves to who they were yesterday, as Peterson recommends. What is revealed is an idea of literary selfhood closer to the strong, adaptable second person of the self-help book than we might expect.

By contrast, the most effective second person literary narratives are those which deliberately satirise the self-help text. In Lorrie Moore’s 1985 collection, Self-Help, the stories The Kid’s Guide to Divorce and How are moving precisely because they show that the second person does not instruct or help in practical ways. All it does is catalogue the sadness, the multiple disappointments of a person’s everyday life: “You will meet another actor. Or maybe it’s the same one. Begin to have an affair.”

Likewise, Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013) begins by acknowledging the paradox of self-help books. “You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that someone being the author” – and then goes on to admit that “the idea of self in the land of self-help is a slippery one. And slippery can be good”.

Slippery can indeed be good. In fact, the power of Moore’s and Hamid’s stories is their paradoxical nature. They show that individual experience is messy and that it is not amenable to generic recipes for success, and they are more inclusive and universal for doing so. It is easier to relate to a narrator who turns out not to have all the answers – one who, like Hamid, realises that every “you” is different.

Used in such ironic, ambiguous ways, the second person becomes a powerful tool because it reminds us that, as Canadian philosopher Lorraine Code argues, “persons essentially are second persons”. No matter how clear my sense of self, I am always somebody’s other. You may well have found that yourself.The Conversation

James Peacock, Senior Lecturer in English and American Literatures, Keele University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Once upon a time … ‘sleeping beauties’ and the importance of storytelling in science



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Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Jennifer Byrne, University of Sydney

I’m a regular biomedical scientist, although in one sense I’m perhaps a bit different, in that I really like the process of writing.

From speaking with colleagues and teaching postgraduate students about the process of scientific writing for more than ten years, I estimate that eight or nine of every ten biomedical researchers would say they don’t like writing.

Now, while I do like writing, that’s not to say I find it easy. When I’m in the thick of getting my thoughts onto the page, terms such as “bloodbath” and “fight to the death” flood my mind.




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I have images of fighting a slippery dragon, trying to break its back. I feel as if I’m fighting my own ideas or whatever I’m trying to write, and there’s only one possible outcome: breaking these ideas down, whatever the cost.

And remember, I like writing, so imagine what it’s like for the majority of scientists who don’t.

To illustrate what can go wrong with the writing process, I’m going to refer to an old fairy tale: Sleeping Beauty.

A fairy tale

This is the story of a princess who was cursed to fall into a deep sleep, along with her family and everyone else living in the castle. They sleep for 100 years, and during this time a thick thorny forest grows up around the castle, shielding it from view.

One day, a prince who has heard about the sleeping beauty arrives on horseback, with a sword. With great difficulty, he cuts his way through the forest to eventually reach the castle. He finds the princess, wakes her up, and they presumably live happily ever after.

So what has this got to do with scientific writing? Well, scientific results and ideas can be viewed as something valuable, and yet they can be wrapped up in forests of words that lack structure and overuse complex language.




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Sometimes this just reflects a lack of training, but there can also be an assumption that scientific ideas deserve to be discovered by those who are clever enough.

This means readers are expected to hack their way through the word forest, if they’re really committed to understanding the results.

The only problem with this approach is that it doesn’t consider the sheer number of papers that scientists need to read. Most researchers and academics can’t keep up with their fields, so if a paper is hard to understand, or unclear, researchers may simply put it down and pick up the next one in the pile.

Expecting too much of the reader can lead to a paper sinking within the literature and effectively falling asleep.

The ‘sleeping beauties’ of science

In fact, a “sleeping beauty” is now a recognised type of academic paper. A sleeping beauty experiences what is also termed “delayed recognition”, sleeping within the literature for up to 100 years until another paper known as the “prince” recognises its value.

The sleeping beauty goes on to be highly cited and influential, sometimes in a different field. Researchers now study sleeping beauties and their princes, as a kind of extreme example of how science works – or doesn’t, depending on your perspective.

It’s generally assumed that sleeping beauties describe ideas that were ahead of their time. But I wonder whether some of these papers might have also been asleep in their forests of words.

After all, we only know about these scientific sleeping beauties through their awakening, in the same way that without the prince’s determination, the story of Sleeping Beauty may never have been told. It is very difficult to know how many other ideas may be lying dormant in the literature, wrapped in their forests of words.

What can we do about this? We need to recognise that to avoid the word forest, the research team needs to hack through their ideas and lay these out as clearly as possible.

This is really difficult, and learning how to do this takes years of practice and effort. As researchers and academics, we need to talk about this process and embrace it.

We expect that professional sportspeople will push themselves to the limit, and be supported to do this. Scientists are essentially intellectual athletes, so we need to talk about the virtue of pushing ourselves to the limit when writing, how to do this, and what kind of support we need.




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Many features of scientific life, such as crowded work environments, and generally measuring quantity over quality, do not favour the truly difficult process of hacking through our ideas so others can understand them.

It’s important to remember that in the story of Sleeping Beauty, many people fell asleep in the castle. Also, scientific papers are not just about their authors, but also about the public funds and the many supporting resources that make them possible.

We can’t afford the risk that our results and ideas fall asleep. Humanity doesn’t have the next 100 years to wait.The Conversation

Jennifer Byrne, Professor of Molecular Oncology, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Should writers only write what they know? What I learned from my research


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Writing is an act of imagination – but when it comes to imagining other people’s lives, it pays to do your research.
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Tresa LeClerc, RMIT University

As an academic in creative writing, I attend a lot of literary events. One question I can always count on being asked is, “can I write characters of other backgrounds?” This has been a growing concern since Lionel Shriver at the 2016 Brisbane Writers Festival unleashed a tirade against what she called “censorship” in writing – referring to criticism of her book The Mandibles.

The recent ABC Q&A episode, Stranger Than Fiction, in conjunction with the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, showed the many sides of the “write what you know” debate. Dr Michael Mohammed Ahmad and Sofie Laguna argued that space should be given for marginalised groups to represent themselves. Maxine Beneba Clarke pointedly discussed when appropriation can be harmful, as was the case with Shriver’s representation of Latino and African American characters. Meanwhile, Trent Dalton argued that appropriation leads to a good story, which also takes empathy and care.




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But is taking a walk in other people’s shoes as effective a writing method as many authors believe? To find out, I wrote a novel manuscript about four people from refugee backgrounds. I did it in three drafts, each using a different method. I wrote the first draft while observing and empathising as a volunteer working with asylum seekers, and refugees. I wrote the second after interviews with 15 people from refugee backgrounds (some of whom I had observed) and the third after getting feedback from three of the interviewees about the manuscript. Then I compared the drafts. The findings were very interesting.

Even before I had begun my interviews I had an interesting instance regarding the fallibility of my own memory. I had kept a journal while I was volunteering. As I sat down to write the novel manuscript, I remembered an instance when a young girl, who happened to be in the same public place, approached the group with an origami boat she had made. She offered it to one of the volunteers. It was beautiful – with crayon scribbles on the outside and three different sized paper cranes lined up in a row inside. In my memory, the attendees recoiled and anxiously said, “we hate boats!”

I began to write this into the manuscript, when I remembered the journal. I opened it to the day of the event, and found I’d recorded that the attendees were not anxious at all, nor did they recoil. They were joking and laughing about how they hated boats.

One criticism of stories about refugees is that they tend to show refugees as helpless victims. Was I drawing on existing stereotypes when I remembered this instance? Another possibility is that my feelings about the highly emotional issue of asylum were influencing how I interpreted the conversation.




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In another instance, I wrote a character that was verbally and racially attacked on public transport. White Australians came to her rescue. I was thinking that was what I would have done. But after interviews with refugees, I discovered the instances of racial abuse were much more violent and common than I imagined.

One interviewee related a story about an apple being thrown at her head; another described how her foot was stomped on. Contrary to what I had written, they expressed resilience and stood up for themselves.

I once watched author Claire G. Coleman in a debate by ABC RN on the topic of writing what you know. She said that cultural appropriation is dangerous because authors can only “contextualise that character as a version of themselves”. That certainly seemed to be the case. I was just writing what I thought would happen, from my perspective – not theirs.

So how can we get it right? It’s difficult to tell unless we ask someone from the background we are writing about. In getting feedback, I found that there were parts of my manuscript that resonated with interviewees’ experiences, such as an instance where an Iranian man was told that he was lucky to be here by a white Australian. The character didn’t feel that he was lucky. One interviewee said that he felt the same, that he had everything in Iran, including education and a job, and now he had to start over.

But even gaining feedback from interviewees did not mean they were going to tell me everything I “got wrong”. Those giving feedback wanted to give advice, not to criticise.

Walking in someone’s shoes is useful as a method, but it is far from perfect. As writers, we need to ask ourselves whether we are contributing to the oppression of a group of people by speaking for them, and reinforcing racist stereotypes as we do so.

This is not to say that we should never write characters from other backgrounds, just that we need to accept criticism by people who identify from that group rather than dismissing it as censorship (as Beneba Clarke also pointed out on Q&A), and to be more realistic about our own limitations as empathetic writers.The Conversation

Tresa LeClerc, Sessional teacher, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Writers’ festivals aren’t an imaginary republic of letters – they are political arenas



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After Germaine Greer was apparently uninvited from the Brisbane Writers Festival, author Richard Flanagan questioned whether the festival was giving into the social media ‘mob’.

Leigh Boucher, Macquarie University

Once again, we are in the middle of a public spat about who should get to speak at a writers’ festival in Australia. It appears the Brisbane Writers Festival uninvited Bob Carr and Germaine Greer (the festival has said neither author had been signed to a contract for appearances). In a context where #metoo has demonstrated the potency of social media mobilisation, it would seem the festival has erred on the side of caution rather than inflame the Twitterverse with contentious speakers.

Richard Flanagan issued a forceful response, questioning the festival’s “courage”. Flanagan argued with palpable frustration that this was indicative of a tendency to silence ideas that rub “against the grain of conventional thinking” and it is in danger of becoming a festival “Approved by Twitter Bots”. For Flanagan, this and other moments like it endanger the operation of the “republic of letters” that nourishes our democratic life.

Carr’s and Greer’s publisher has queried the “disinvitation”, suggesting it seems “counter to the ethos of freedom of speech”.

This debate is, in part, a contest over the ethics of public life and what rules should govern speaking privileges within it. The writers’ festival is hardly a politically neutral space in which the most virtuous ideas win the day through their intellectual force and merit; these are curated programs that adhere to visible and invisible rules of admission.




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Perhaps Flanagan would do well to remember that his ideal republic of letters was an intellectual community that took shape in specific ways during the Enlightenment. This intellectual community of philosophers forged many of the ideas we take as common sense, like the importance of freedom of speech to democratic culture. But it too had rules of admission.

The conventions of this imaginary republic were profoundly gendered and racialised. It was a space that assumed a white male perspective as the norm and tended to uphold rather than critique gender and racial inequalities. Some historians even suggest that women’s participation in public life in Europe declined over the 18th century as the imaginary republic exerted more influence.

While 200 years of political transformation has meant our public life can admit the ideas of people who don’t look like Voltaire or Rousseau, there are certainly cultural legacies of these formulations. Bucketloads of research demonstrates how, for example, university students grant male professors much more authority than their female colleagues. So too, all kinds of male misbehaviour is excused as the cost of genius. Perhaps the writers’ festival author that Flanagan expects to arrive drunk and tardy would be an example of this.

Gendered ideas are clearly part of the DNA of this contest, often in quite subtle ways. It is no coincidence that the forces Flanagan and others suggest endanger our democratic culture include young feminists emboldened by networks of support on various social media platforms. Social media have provided a space in which a new generation of feminist voices is holding older forms of authority to account.

Indeed, Flanagan’s examples of this dangerous policing of public life are revealing. Junot Diaz, Germaine Greer and Lionel Shriver have all had their sexual, racial and gender politics brought into question at recent writers’ events.




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Diaz’s gut-wrenching account of his sexual abuse as a child was soon followed by multiple female voices who raised questions about the impact of his adult behaviour on others. His authority was called into question and he withdrew from a set of public engagements. This represents for Flanagan some kind of calamity.

Flanagan argues that the stories about Diaz remain unproved accusations and, as a consequence, we do him an injustice if we let these accusations alone exclude him from public life. However, as the #metoo moment has demonstrated, the rules of admission for public life tend to conceal rather than reveal sexual misconduct.

We need to ask tough questions about whose voices are more readily heard and what these limitations make invisible. Sometimes that might mean different voices are granted authority and others step back. The social media world that Flanagan fears is limiting our democratic life has, in some cases, provided a space for the articulation of young feminist voices to call into question male authority and the gendered privilege of artistic genius.

The idea that social media is somehow destroying our public culture is hardly a new one; the mob mentality that sometimes unfolds to sustain the pleasures of virtuous condemnation are worth thinking critically about. So, too, it clearly encourages the polarisation of political views.

When Michael Cathcart ran into uncomfortable territory around race in his interview with Paul Beatty last year, the baying continued on Twitter for the next week. This was partly a moment in which Cathcart’s older ideas about how to read and understand texts crashed into more recent political norms about who can and cannot speak about what topics, and who can use what language.

To be sure, these voices certainly have a tendency towards virtuous outrage about harm. As Jacqueline Rose recently argued, rigid calculations of harm sometimes do not allow for the messiness of everyday life. A politics conducted in single images and outraged tweets will always struggle with political nuance.

However, #metoo can also be read as a politics that has flourished on social media because the present rules of public life will not fully admit these young female voices. The moment we are living through right now is, in part, a contest over how we should decide who gets to speak.

The ConversationI’m not sure Flanagan’s idealising of the profoundly gendered republic of letters offers a useful solution to this historically specific rupture. I suspect both sides of this debate might benefit from thinking carefully about the rules they implicitly and explicitly hope to enforce on our public culture, but I’m pretty sure dismissing young feminists as a social media “mob” is hardly productive.

Leigh Boucher, Senior Lecturer – Modern History, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.