Dirty Gerty

James Joyce, Censorship and The Net

Recently, at 43 years of age and of relatively sound mind, I read Ulysses for the first time. I had been intimidated for more than 25 years, since I first thought about it, by the book's famous difficulty and its length.

I found Ulysses both better and worse than I expected. I think Joyce is a genius and Leopold Bloom possibly the most believable portrait of an ordinary man ever created. I also think the book is overlong, deliberately obscure, and that parts of it are blather. It is a dizzying book to read, because it is functioning on so many levels at once: it is a story about Leopold Bloom, a modern version of the Odyssey, a pastiche of journalistic and other writing styles, a rich source of riddles and puns, and full of hypertext-like connections almost too subtle to detect (a piece of paper Bloom throws into the Liffey River turns up several more times, and is also one of several references to "throwaway", which is the name of a horse that Bloom does not bet on which wins a race that day.)

When I had finished the book's 900+ pages, one scene in particular stood out in my mind. A young woman named Gerty McDowell sits on the beach, exchanging glances with a grave, distinguished-looking man sitting nearby. Gerty is described (or describes herself) as being a rare Irish beauty. At the end of a long, detailed scene recounted from Gerty's viewpoint, the stranger, whom Gerty has converted in fantasy into a lover, is revealed to be Bloom (who has never previously been described as handsome.) Now we switch to Bloom's point of view. Watching Gerty get up to leave the beach, we experience a second shock: she is lame.

In one passage, Joyce described Gerty leaning back to look at fireworks:

And she saw a long Roman candle going up over the trees, up, up, and, in the tense hush, they were all breathless with excitement as it went higher and higher and she had to lean back more and more to look up after it, high, high, almost out of sight, and her face was suffused with a divine, an entrancing blush from straining back and he could see her other things too, nainsook knickers, the fabric that caresses the skin, better than those other pettiwidth, the green, four and eleven, on account of being white and she let him and she saw that he saw and then it went so high it went out of sight a moment and she was trembling in every limb from being bent so far back he had a full view high up above her knee no-one ever not even on the swing or wading and she wasn't ashamed and he wasn't either to look in that immodest way like that because he couldn't resist the sight of the wondrous revealment half offered like those skirtdancers behaving so immodest before gentlemen looking and he kept on looking, looking. She would fain have cried to him chokingly, held out her snowy slender arms to him to come, to feel his lips laid on her white brow the cry of a young girl's love, a little strangled cry, wrung from her, that cry that has rung through the ages. And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O!O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lively! O so soft, sweet, soft!

I had no recollection that this was the passage which (in a slightly different but not more explicit version) had earned two women, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, a conviction for obscenity in New York state court in October, 1920. They were publishers of a small magazine, The Little Review, which was running Ulysses in segments. The Gerty McDowell passage, known as "Nausicaa" after the scene in The Odyssey it echoes, was the last The Little Review would ever print. No U.S. publisher dared to bring out Ulysses in book form until 1932, when Random House successfully went to court to get it declared non-obscene.

Jane Heap, who managed to keep her sense of humor about her trial and conviction (she and Anderson paid a $100 fine), commented that:

Mr. Joyce was not teaching early Egyptian perversions nor inventing new ones. Girls lean back everywhere, showing lace and silk stockings; wear low-cut sleeveless blouses, breathless bathing suits; men think thoughts and have emotions about these things everywhere--seldom as delicately and imaginatively as Mr. Bloom--and no one is corrupted.

The prosecution was brought by a New York organization, the Society for the Suppression of Vice, which had been empowered to act as prosecutor in obscenity cases. The Society had been chartered in 1873 by Anthony Comstock, and the prosecution of Heap and Anderson was handled by John Sumner, who replaced Comstock after his death in 1915. Heap commented that the Society claimed to protect the public from corruption.

When asked what public? its defenders spring to the rock on which America was founded: the cream-puff of sentimentality, and answer chivalrously: 'Our young girls!' So the mind of the young girl rules the country?.... If there is anything really to be feared it is the mind of a young girl.

Comstock bragged that in his forty-three year career, he had jailed a trainload of people. His biographers add to this that fifteen women committed suicide as a result of being prosecuted by him.

One of Comstock's first actions was to obtain the passage of a strong federal indecency law--which was then used to pursue authors and publishers of novels including works by Balzac and Tolstoy. This law today is largely dead on the books though never repealed, as a result of many leading free speech cases. Senator James Exon of Nebraska, in proposing the Communications Decency Act in 1995, reinvigorated the Comstock law in two ways. His vague Internet indecency language echoed part of the wording of the original Comstock law. Even more outrageously, the CDA extended portions of the Comstock law to information transmitted over the Internet. As a result, some long-disused language banning the distribution of abortion information became federal law again--until the Justice Department stood up in federal court in Brooklyn and announced that the government would not attempt to enforce this provision of the CDA.

The CDA restored to federal law a crime involving the distribution of "indecent" material even though it had literary or artistic value-- and allowed a jury to make the decision based on "contemporary community standards." Effectively, a law of the type under which "Nausicaa" was deemed too dirty to distribute was back on the books for the first time in many decades. Could an online version of Joyce be censored again?

Proponents of the CDA scorned such arguments, characterizing the CDA as a law against pornography and rejecting the idea that a well-established work like Ulysses could ever be prosecuted again. But they were unable to explain why Senator Exon and the other drafters of the law had chosen not to include an exception for works of scientific, literary, political or artistic value.

In fact, people who say that "Nausicaa" could not be censored under an online indecency law are falling into the same fallacy as the author of the extremely bad French novel in which a doctor came home and told his wife, "I delivered Victor Hugo today."

This argument says that we will not censor Joyce, because he is already famous. But it tells you nothing at all about how we will protect the online writings of the next Joyce--the controversial, marginal, beautiful speech of an artist not yet recognized.

When Sumner prevented The Little Review from publishing any more of Ulysses, there was little reaction, because few people aside from Heap and Anderson knew that Joyce was a genius. The New York Times, approving the convictions, called Ulysses "a curious production, not wholly uninteresting, especially to psychopathologists." The Times said that Joyce's realistic use of language didn't make it "more tolerable in print"; the paper did not find Ulysses "artistic or literary."

In the Philadelphia trial of the CDA case, prosecutors made the "Victor Hugo" argument that prosecutors would be careful not to apply the CDA against artistic works, despite the fact that its broad language made no exception for them. In the court's decision invalidating the CDA, Chief Judge Dolores Sloviter commented:

That would require a broad trust indeed from a generation of judges not far removed from the attacks on James Joyce's Ulysses as obscene.

After the CDA was thrown out, the focus shifted to blocking software. These private censorship tools-- I prefer the pejorative phrase "censorware"--become First Amendment violations the moment they are installed by a government entity such as a public library. The Austin and Boston public libraries, for example, both have the CyberPatrol product installed. In Austin, even adults are forced to use the censorware; in Boston it is imposed only on minors under 18. The Loudoun County, Va. public library uses the X-Stop product, and will not turn it off for adults.

I recently had the opportunity to ask Susan Getgood, the director of marketing for CyberPatrol, the following question:

"Does your product block First Amendment-protected, socially valuable speech?"

Susan acknowledged that it does. "When we evaluate sites for blocking, we ask if they are inappropriate for children, not if they are First Amendment-protected or socially valuable."

After almost eighty years, we are back to the "mind of a young girl."

Go into the Austin, Boston or Loudoun County public libraries and try to access the page of excerpts from Molly Bloom's soliloquy at http://www.dimensional.com/~randl/molly.htm. You won't be able to, because the SpaceTime Portal site is blocked by CyberPatrol and X-Stop. (Its also blocked by Surfwatch.)

Various other Joyce resources on the Web have been blocked by CyberPatrol. For some time, you could not access the Fileroom, a site which summarizes incidents of censorship around the world. It has a page on the prosecution of Ulysses at http://fileroom.aa.uic.edu/FileRoom/documents/Cases/64jamesJoyce.html. Similarly, you could not get to the Wiretap server to read Donald Theall's essay on "James Joyce and the Prehistory of Cyberspace", http://wiretap.area.com/Gopher/Library/Cyber/joyce.txt..

And X-Stop, the product installed in the Loudoun County library, blocks a Banned Books page which has the entire text of Ulysses.

Censorship of the Net today is the most recent link in an unbroken chain stretching from Anthony Comstock to the present. Today's advocates of Net censorship--people like CDA author Bruce Taylor, Patrick Trueman of the American Family Association, and library censorware advocate David Burt-- share Comstock's overwhelming self-righteousness and wilful blindness to artistic value. Today's criteria for censorship--both the CDA's indecency standard and CyberPatrol's "inappropriate for children"--are firmly rooted in the Comstock law and the mores of the nineteenth century.

James Joyce had a powerful sense of time and the constancy of human folly. In The Dead, he described the past reaching forward to harm the present. In the opening pages of Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus says, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." In the book's penultimate section, Leopold Bloom describes the endless repetition of our experience:

[E]ach one who enters imagines himself to be the first to enter whereas he is always the last term of a preceding series even if the first term of a succeeding one, each imagining himself to be first, last, only and alone, whereas he is neither first nor last nor only nor alone in a series originating in and repeated to infinity.

We can escape history and break out of the infinite series of repeated folly by understanding freedom of speech to mean protecting the next James Joyce-- in print, on the Web, or in a medium undreamed of yet.

My source for details of the prosecution of The Little Review is De Grazia, Girls Lean Back Everywhere (New York: Vintage, 1992.) Highly recommended.