The Secret Museum: A review

By Danny Yee

title: The Secret Museum
: Pornography in Modern Culture
by: Walter Kendrick
publisher: University of California Press 1996
other: 318 pages, references, bibliography, index, US$13.95

The word "pornography" is often used as if it were entirely unproblematic, even by those campaigning against its censorship. In _The Secret Museum_ Kendrick has produced a history of the term which should be mandatory reading for anyone who finds themselves using it regularly. (It is not a history of pornography itself, so those seeking titillation should look elsewhere.) While many analyses and histories of pornography depend on complex critical and psychoanalytical theories or have obviously polemical goals, Kendrick's account is unburdened by such baggage.

"Pornography" is barely two centuries old, having its origins in the response to explicit artifacts unearthed at Pompeii (which were stored in the "Secret Museum" from which Kendrick takes his title) and in scientific studies of prostitution from a public hygiene perspective. Having explained this, Kendrick moves on to what he calls the "pre-pornographic era", when the crudities of writers such as Catulus, Horace, Shakespeare, and Chaucer posed knotty problems for the censors. A failure to take into account the _intentions_ of such works, or to make special allowance for their artistic merits, resulted in Bowdlerisation and other responses which seem laughable to us now. Less fuss was made about works, such as those in the tradition that originated with Aretino, which would now be labelled pornographic: they were too obscure to attract attention.

Similarly, the collection of erotica by aristocratic bibliomanes was, because of the scarcity of the material and the standing of those involved, not a matter of great concern. Urbanisation and the spread of literacy removed this protection, fanning the spread of affordable and popular sensation novels and other such works. These fell into the hands of those -- the young, women, the lower classes -- considered incapable of coping with them. Here originated the mythological Young Person at risk of corruption, whose presence continues to haunt debates about pornography.

Kendrick next surveys some of the early legal landmarks: the 1857 trials of Madame Bovary and Les Fleur du Mal in France; in Britain the 1763 Wilkes trial, Lord Campbell's Act, the Hicklin test, and and the origins of Anglo-Saxon anti-obscenity legislation. Turning to the United States, he covers early legislation there and the career of Comstock. (The first half of The Secret Museum rarely ventures outside Western Europe and the United States; the second deals almost exclusively with the United States.)

Two chapters, "Good Intentions" and "Hard at the Core", trace the gradual refinement, in various trials, of "pornography" so as to exclude material of artistic, literary, and scientific value and to take into account the intentions of its creators. This culminated in the 1966 ruling by the United States Supreme Court that redeemed the pornographic classic _Fanny Hill_, on the grounds that "a book cannot be proscribed unless it is found to be utterly without redeeming social value".

After the rejection of the 1970 Report, the nature of the debate changed. With Brownmiller, Dworkin, McKinnon, and the feminist anti-pornography campaign the focus was on "harms" instead of morals. Instead of gentlemen protecting innocent children and women from depravity, women were now preventing brutish young men from becoming rapists: the Young Person had arisen in a new form. The 1986 Meese Report ("an unbelievably fatuous document") took a similar tack. Kendrick saw this as a sign of a "post-pornographic era" and concluded "we have fought ignorant battles... and... we ought not to be so stupid as to believe that we must fight them again".

This is where the The Secret Museum (published in 1987) originally concluded. This 1996 paperback edition contains a new chapter written in the aftermath of the Communications Decency Act ("a radically ignorant and atavistic piece of work"). Kendrick now thinks he was too hasty in predicting an end to battles over pornography -- they will be fought over and over again, in the same form they have been for the last two centuries.

Disclaimer: I requested and received a review copy of The Secret Museum from the University of California Press, but I have no stake, financial or otherwise, in its success.

Copyright (c) 1997 Danny Yee

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