Dirt for Art's Sake: Books on Trial from Madame Bovary to Lolita

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In Dirt for Art's Sake, Elisabeth Ladenson recounts the most visible of modern obscenity trials involving scandalous books and their authors. What, she asks, do these often-colorful legal histories have to tell us about the works themselves and about a changing cultural climate that first treated them as filth and later celebrated them as masterpieces?

Ladenson's narrative starts with Madame Bovary (Flaubert was tried in France in 1857) and finishes with Fanny Hill (written in the eighteenth century, put on trial in the United States in 1966); she considers, along the way, Les Fleurs du Mal, Ulysses, The Well of Loneliness, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Tropic of Cancer, Lolita, and the works of the Marquis de Sade. Over the course of roughly a century, Ladenson finds, two ideas that had been circulating in the form of avant-garde heresy gradually became accepted as truisms, and eventually as grounds for legal defense. The first is captured in the formula "art for art's sake"—the notion that a work of art exists in a realm independent of conventional morality. The second is realism, vilified by its critics as "dirt for dirt's sake." In Ladenson's view, the truth of the matter is closer to —dirt for art's sake—"the idea that the work of art may legitimately include the representation of all aspects of life, including the unpleasant and the sordid.

Ladenson also considers cinematic adaptations of these novels, among them Vincente Minnelli's Madame Bovary, Stanley Kubrick's Lolita and the 1997 remake directed by Adrian Lyne, and various attempts to translate de Sade's works and life into film, which faced similar censorship travails. Written with a keen awareness of ongoing debates about free speech, Dirt for Art's Sake traces the legal and social acceptance of controversial works with critical acumen and delightful wit.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In this slim volume on the history of literary censorship, from the work of Gustave Flaubert through that of Henry Miller and with an epilog covering John Cleland's Fanny Hill(a.k.a. Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure) and the Marquis de Sade, Ladenson (French & comparative literature, Columbia Univ.) successfully compacts masses of disparate information. Although acknowledging such full-length works as Sebastian de Grazia's Girls Lean Back Everywhere: The Law of Obscenity and the Assault on Genius(1992), she uses just seven essays and a prolog and epilog to analyze legal and cultural censorship from the Gilded Age to our liberated days. Flaubert, Charles Baudelaire, James Joyce, Radclyffe Hall, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and Vladimir Nabokov were formerly censored as pornographers but are now literary classics. Her title, she insists, "is meant to conjure up an image of the author of writings viewed as obscene as a child playing with his excrement and calling it art." Despite the tremendous amount of historical information and original literary criticism included on each author and on the films made from the titles, to consider Ulyssesor Lolitastill as "dirt" is either too old-fashioned or too postmodern for this reviewer. Recommended, with reservations, as a supplementary work.
—Shelley Cox
From the Publisher
"A professor of French and comparative literature, Ladenson sets out to answer the question, 'How does an 'obscene' book become a 'classic'?' with this spry but exhaustive look at the history and culture surrounding the modern world's most controversial literature. Ladenson touches on numerous 'dirty' books, using a handful of landmark titles as jumping-off points for a wide-ranging survey: Madame Bovary, Les Fleurs du Mal, The Well of Loneliness, Ulysses, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Tropic of Cancer and Lolita. Using court records, novelists' letters, newspaper reviews and other books on the subject, Ladenson constructs a vivid composite of society's shifting relationship with such polarizing subjects as adultery, homosexuality and pedophilia—including the suppression thereof as well as the appetite therefor. Tracing the evolution of 'obscenity' from the 1850s to the late 20th century, Ladenson outlines the debates over 'art for art's sake,' as well as the province of realism, illustrating the rocky process of acceptance for the twin concepts and the literature they provoked. Witty, well-written and relevant, including fascinating details from the lives of writers, court cases as recent as the 1960s and as far-flung as Japan, and attempts to reinvent controversial works for contemporary audiences (such as two film versions of Lolita), this highly readable study should make scholars and book junkies as happy as pigs in lit."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"A witty and elegant study, written with an exceptional sensitivity to the multiple ironies regarding sex and censorship in literature. . . . With every text Ladenson so perceptively reads, she has something fresh and arresting to say. She is especially brilliant on Ulysses, along with Madame Bovary the most obvious work of genius under examination here. . . . Assuredly not an obvious work of genius is Lady Chatterley's Lover . . . and Ladenson's commentary on it is illuminating. . . . The chapter on Nabokov and Lolita is extremely funny: a chapter of accidents. . . . We still believe in censorship today. It's just that we're too hypocritical to call it censorship, and talk instead of 'inappropriate language' in regard to gender or ethnic stereotyping, and of the need to have our 'awareness raised'. Bah humbug, says Ladenson, in so many words."—Christopher Hart, Sunday Times (London), 31 December 2006

"An absorbing study of a century's worth of literary obscenity trials. Between the landmark year of 1857, when Britain passed the Obscene Publications Act and France launched prosecutions against Baudelaire and Gustave Flaubert, through the trials of Ulysses, Lady Chatterley's Lover and Fanny Hill, Western culture completely overthrew its traditional concept of the relationship between art and morality, obliterating the very idea of literary obscenity. Out went the old—literature's duty to uphold the ideal—and in came the new: art for art's sake (exempt from moral judgment), and what Ladenson calls dirt for art's sake, art's duty to be realistic, particularly in sexuality."—Brian Bethune, Maclean's, 1 January 2007

"Elisabeth Ladenson's witty meditation on literary obscenity pivots on 'irony, paradox, and absurdity.' How, she ruminates, can one generation's 'dirt' be another generation's 'art'? 'How does an obscene work become a classic?' It's a fascinating set of hows. Ladenson takes, as her principal texts, seven ambiguously obscene classic works of literature. . . . What adds freshness to her discussion is chapters on that infamous period of Gallic censorship when public prosecutor Ernest Pinard took Flaubert and Baudelaire to court. By so doing, he installed himself in the annals of literature—as one of its clowns. They also serve who makes fools of themselves for art."—John Sutherland, Washington Post, 28 January 2007

"We have come to applaud transgression, Elisabeth Ladenson argues, but only so long as the values transgressed are different to our own. Discussions of Flaubert, Joyce, Nabokov, and Sade each illustrate the point well, as we see how their most controversial texts have been rewritten in print and film in order to moderate the original provocation."—Anthony Cummins, Times Literary Supplement, April 6, 2007

"In witty analyses, she establishes common themes and cross-references from nine obscenity trials, revealing shifting sensibilities and legal rulings since 1857 in France, England, and the US, occasionally to comic effect. . . . Highly recommended. All readers; all levels."—Choice

"With far-ranging erudition, a keen eye for analysis, and a great sense of humor, Elisabeth Ladenson looks at the real reasons behind the censorship of masterpieces like Madame Bovary and important but lousy books like The Well of Loneliness. She pinpoints many of the moralistic arguments that are once again rearing their ugly heads in this age of spying and 'Christian' militancy. The censorship of movies was already a recapitulation of the principles that had been applied to literature a century earlier. This book is so entertaining it made me laugh out loud at least once at some expertly skewered absurdity during every chapter."—Edmund White

"This witty, exhilarating romp through a century and a half of literary culture offers many pleasures and discoveries. It contributes an important chapter to the study of modernism, it allows us to compare the different sensibilities of France, Britain, and the United States, and it deepens the ironies of literary history. Best of all, Elisabeth Ladenson provides a trenchant critique of both the absurdity of censorship and the absurdity of imagining that we will ever do away with censorship. Instead, she demonstrates-to the discomfort of hypocritical readers everywhere-how perennial, renewable, and irresistible is the impulse to ban someone else's speech."—David Halperin, W. H. Auden Collegiate Professor, University of Michigan, author of Saint Foucault

"Dirt for Art's Sake is a brilliant combination of literary sleuthing, cultural history, and just plain great storytelling. Why is it that the literary masterworks of the last two centuries have been prosecuted for obscenity-and that we continue to consider some words, images, and ideas to be subversive? Ranging through literature, film, history, and law, Elisabeth Ladenson's magnificent book suggests some answers. Witty, ironic, beautifully written, and massively entertaining, Dirt for Art's Sake easily straddles the worlds of literary page-turner and first-rate scholarship. All lovers of good writing should bow down before Ladenson."—Marjorie Heins, Free Expression Policy Project, Brennan Center for Justice

"I agreed to blurb this book intending to skim a few pages in the normal manner of blurbists and then opine favorably in blurbese. What I did not bargain for is that I would not be able to put the book down, to my great enjoyment and edification. The book is totally engaging, a great read, delightfully unpretentious, and loaded with insight. Treat yourself."—William Ian Miller, University of Michigan, author of Faking It

"This book is an intellectual tour de force that combines scholarly erudition with wit, analytical insight, and brilliant writing. Focusing specifically on the question of how works once banned as 'obscene' become classics, Elisabeth Ladenson engages the problems of the relationship between aesthetic value and moral content, high versus low culture, the obscenity of ideas versus the obscenity of language, and obscenity as a problem of accessibility. She demonstrates with care and precision the important historical shifts in obscenity law in France, England, and the U.S. as a story about the shifting importance of literature itself. An original and provocative book."—Lynne Huffer, Emory University, author of Maternal Pasts, Feminist Futures: Nostalgia and the Question of Difference

"Elisabeth Ladenson writes with clarity, verve, and considerable wit. Dirt for Art's Sake explores changes in attitudes that not only reflect on social transformations but also raise questions about the changing role of literature. Comparisons with cases against movies add to the dimensions of this book and strengthen Ladenson's conclusions."—Rosemary Lloyd, author of Shimmering in a Transformed Light: Writing the Still Life

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801474101
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 7/28/2007
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 0.20 (d)

Table of Contents

Preface: Red Hot Chili Peppers     xi
Acknowledgments     xxiii
Prologue: History Repeats Itself     1
Emma Bovary Goes to Hollywood     17
Florist of Evil     47
Leopold Bloom's Trip to the Outhouse     78
The Well of Prussic Acid     107
Sexual Intercourse Begins     131
A Gob of Spit in the Face of Art     157
Lolitigation     187
Epilogue: The Return of the Repressed     221
Notes     237
Bibliography     257
Index     263
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