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.

The science of the plot twist: How writers exploit our brains


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Vera Tobin, Case Western Reserve University

Recently I did something that many people would consider unthinkable, or at least perverse. Before going to see “Avengers: Infinity War,” I deliberately read a review that revealed all of the major plot points, from start to finish.

Don’t worry; I’m not going to share any of those spoilers here. Though I do think the aversion to spoilers – what The New York Times’ A.O. Scott recently lamented as “a phobic, hypersensitive taboo against public discussion of anything that happens onscreen” – is a bit overblown.

As a cognitive scientist who studies the relationship between cognition and narratives, I know that movies – like all stories – exploit our natural tendency to anticipate what’s coming next.

These cognitive tendencies help explain why plot twists can be so satisfying. But somewhat counterintuitively, they also explain why knowing about a plot twist ahead of time – the dreaded “spoiler” – doesn’t really spoil the experience at all.

The curse of knowledge

When you pick up a book for the first time, you usually want to have some sense of what you’re signing up for – cozy mysteries, for instance, aren’t supposed to feature graphic violence and sex. But you’re probably also hoping that what you read won’t be entirely predictable.

To some extent, the fear of spoilers is well-grounded. You only have one opportunity to learn something for the first time. Once you’ve learned it, that knowledge affects what you notice, what you anticipate – and even the limits of your imagination.

What we know trips us up in lots of ways, a general tendency known as the “curse of knowledge.”

For example, when we know the answer to a puzzle, that knowledge makes it harder for us to estimate how difficult that puzzle will be for someone else to solve: We’ll assume it’s easier than it really is.

When we know the resolution of an event – whether it’s a basketball game or an election – we tend to overestimate how likely that outcome was.

Information we encounter early on influences our estimation of what is possible later. It doesn’t matter whether we’re reading a story or negotiating a salary: Any initial starting point for our reasoning – however arbitrary or apparently irrelevant – “anchors” our analysis. In one study, legal experts given a hypothetical criminal case argued for longer sentences when presented with larger numbers on randomly rolled dice.

Plot twists pull everything together

Either consciously or intuitively, good writers know all of this.

An effective narrative works its magic, in part, by taking advantage of these, and other, predictable habits of thought. Red herrings, for example, are a type of anchor that set false expectations – and can make twists seem more surprising.

A major part of the pleasure of plot twists, too, comes not from the shock of surprise, but from looking back at the early bits of the narrative in light of the twist. The most satisfying surprises get their power from giving us a fresh, better way of making sense of the material that came before. This is another opportunity for stories to turn the curse of knowledge to their advantage.

Remember that once we know the answer to a puzzle, its clues can seem more transparent than they really were. When we revisit early parts of the story in light of that knowledge, well-constructed clues take on new, satisfying significance.

Consider “The Sixth Sense.” After unleashing its big plot twist – that Bruce Willis’ character has, all along, been one of the “dead people” that only the child protagonist can see – it presents a flash reprisal of scenes that make new sense in light of the surprise. We now see, for instance, that his wife (in fact, his widow) did not snatch up the check at a restaurant before he could take it out of pique. Instead it was because, as far as she knew, she was dining alone.

Even years after the film’s release, viewers take pleasure in this twist, savoring the degree to which it should be “obvious if you pay attention” to earlier parts the film.

The pluses and minuses of the spoiler

At the same time, studies show that even when people are certain of an outcome, they reliably experience suspense, surprise and emotion. Action sequences are still heart-pounding; jokes are still funny; and poignant moments can still make us cry.

As UC San Diego researchers Jonathan Levitt and Nicholas Christenfeld have recently demonstrated, spoilers don’t spoil. In many cases, spoilers actively enhance enjoyment.

In fact, when a major turn in a narrative is truly unanticipated, it can have a catastrophic effect on enjoyment – as many outraged “Infinity War” viewers can testify.

If you know the twist beforehand, the curse of knowledge has more time to work its magic. Early elements of the story will seem to presage the ending more clearly when you know what that ending is. This can make the work as a whole feel more coherent, unified and satisfying.

Of course, anticipation is a delicious pleasure in its own right. Learning plot twists ahead of time can reduce that excitement, even if the foreknowledge doesn’t ruin your enjoyment of the story itself.

The ConversationMarketing experts know that what spoilers do spoil is the urgency of consumers’ desire to watch or read a story. People can even find themselves so sapped of interest and anticipation that they stay home, robbing themselves of the pleasure they would have had if they’d simply never learned of the outcome.

Vera Tobin, Assistant Professor of Cognitive Science, Case Western Reserve University

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