Gallery of Indecency

The American law of indecency, stretching back to the passage of the so-called Comstock law in 1873, has a long, disreputable history. It has been used by Anthony Comstock, founder of the New York Society for the Supression of Vice, and his successors, to put journalists, political radicals and birth control proponents behind bars, hound sex educators to suicide, and end the careers of publishers. Among the extensive list of famous authors whose works have been held indecent in this country are Balzac, Zola, Freud, Margaret Mead, Joyce, Miller, and Nabokov. Books that were once deemed unfit for the public to read are now recognized as masterpieces and taught in our schools. The passage of the Communications Decency Act, which resuscitates the Comstock law and applies its terms to cyberspace, raises the question of whether we have learned anything from past follies, or whether it is necessary to ruin more lives before arriving at the obvious recognition that the First Amendment makes no distinction between paper and electronic text.

The following are excerpts from famous works which have several things in common:

The purpose of posting them here is two-fold:

These works illustrate that great literature is rooted in the disorderly human heart, that art cannot act as if men exist only from the waist up and women from the shoulders.

I am indebted to Edward de Grazia, Girls Lean Back Everywhere, (New York: Vintage, 1992), for a history of indecency law and some of the quotes I have reproduced here.

This is a work in progress. I will add more authors and works as I have time.

Sigmund Freud, On Dreams

The majority of dream symbols serve to represent persons, parts of the body and activities invested with erotic interest; in particular, the genitals are represented by a number of often very surprising symbols, and the greatest variety of objects are employed to denote them symbolically. Sharp weapons, long and stiff objects, such as tree trunks and sticks, stand for the male genital; while cupboards, boxes, carriages or ovens may represent the uterus. In such cases as these the tertium comparationis, the common element in these substitutions, is immediately intelligible; but there are other symbols in which it is not so easy to grasp the connection. Symbols such as a staircase or going upstairs, representing sexual intercourse, a tie or cravat for the male organ, or wood for the female one, provoke our unbelief until we can arrive at an understanding of the symbolic relation underlying them by some other means. Moreover a whole number of dream symbols are bisexual and can relate to the male or female genitals according to the context.

As late as the 1950's, the works of Sigmund Freud were banned from the mails by the U.S. post office because of their sexual content.

Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness

This novel of lesbian relationships was condemned for the following sentence, which illustrates the subjectivity of indecency law, taken to its extreme:

"And that night they were not divided."

James Joyce, Ulysses

I suppose he'd like my nice cream too I know what Ill do Ill go about rather gay not too much singing a bit now and then mi fa pieta Masetto then Ill start dressing myself to go out presto non son piu forte Ill put on my best shift and drawers let him have a good eyeful out of that to make his micky stand for him Ill let him know if thats what he wanted that his wife is fucked yes and damn well fucked too up to my neck nearly not by him 5 or 6 times handrunning theres the mark of his spunk on the clean sheet I wouldnt bother to even iron it out that ought to satisfy him if you don't believe me feel my belly unless I made him stand there and put him into me....

The trials of various publishers of Joyce's work were numerous. at the behest of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Jane Heap and Margaret Anderson were tried in the U.S. in 1920 for publishing excerpts in The Little Review. Heap wrote about the experience:

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.

She also wrote:

The society [for the Suppression of Vice] was founded 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.

Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

Everything is endured--disgrace, humiliation, poverty, war, crime, ennui--in the belief that overnight something will occur, a miracle, which will render life tolerable. And all the while a meter is running inside and there is no hand that can reach in there and shut it off. All the while some one is eating the bread of life and drinking the wine, some dirty fat cockroach of a priest who hides away in the cellar guzzling it, while up above in the light of the street a phantom host touches the lips and the blood is pale as water. And out of the endless torment and misery no miracle comes forth, no microscopic vestige even of relief. Only ideas, pale, attenuated ideas which have to be fattened by slaughter; ideas which come forth like bile, like the guts of a pig when the carcass is ripped open.

And so I think what a miracle it would be if this miracle which man attends eternally should turn out to be nothing more than these two enormous turds which the faithful disciple dropped in the bidet. What if at the last moment, when the banquet table is set and the cymbals clash, there should appear suddenly, and wholly without warning, a silver platter on which even the blind could see that there is nothing more, and nothing less, than two enormous lumps of shit. That, I believe, would be more miraculous than anything man has looked forward to.

The distributors of Tropic of Cancer were prosecuted in six American states before the Supreme Court ruled in 1964 that the book was not obscene. This beautifully written passage, ending deliberately in a shocking and repellent image, reminds me of Tadeusz Borowski's words on hope, which I reprinted in An Auschwitz Alphabet.