The Reinvention of Obscenity: Sex, Lies, and Tabloids in Early Modern France

The Reinvention of Obscenity: Sex, Lies, and Tabloids in Early Modern France

by Joan DeJean

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The concept of obscenity is an ancient one. But as Joan DeJean suggests, its modern form, the same version that today's politicians decry and savvy artists exploit, was invented in seventeenth-century France.

The Reinvention of Obscenity casts a fresh light on the mythical link between sexual impropriety and things French. Exploring the complicity between


The concept of obscenity is an ancient one. But as Joan DeJean suggests, its modern form, the same version that today's politicians decry and savvy artists exploit, was invented in seventeenth-century France.

The Reinvention of Obscenity casts a fresh light on the mythical link between sexual impropriety and things French. Exploring the complicity between censorship, print culture, and obscenity, DeJean argues that mass market printing and the first modern censorial machinery came into being at the very moment that obscenity was being reinvented—that is, transformed from a minor literary phenomenon into a threat to society. DeJean's principal case in this study is the career of Moliére, who cannily exploited the new link between indecency and female genitalia to found his career as a print author; the enormous scandal which followed his play L'école des femmes made him the first modern writer to have his sex life dissected in the press.

Keenly alert to parallels with the currency of obscenity in contemporary America, The Reinvention of Obscenity will concern not only scholars of French history, but anyone interested in the intertwined histories of sex, publishing, and censorship.

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The Reinvention of Obscenity: Sex, Lies, and Tabloids in Early Modern France

By Joan E. DeJean

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2002 Joan E. DeJean
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226141411

1 - Male Practices

He viewed life as a four-letter word.

--Lenny Bruce's obituary,

Time Magazine, August 13, 1966
The trial of the poet Theophile de Viau in 1623 is a milestone both in the reinvention of obscenity and in the history of censorship. This was the moment at which censorship began to assume its modern form, becoming both secularized, an authority under state control, and institutionalized, an authority that followed established procedures. Theophile dallied with sexually transgressive literature at just the wrong moment: he thereby became the first writer to undergo a thoroughly modern writer's trial. To understand its modernity, one need only think of what seems the closest precedent to Theophile's case, the suppression in Italy, exactly a century earlier, of Aretino's Sonetti Lussuriosi; that censorship, controlled entirely by the Vatican, was anything but systematic. Similarly, in France until the 1620s, the Church had exercised almost exclusive control over the institution of censorship: when writers were prosecuted, it was because of a perceived lack of religious orthodoxy in their work.

With Theophile's case--surely more by accident than by design--a new model began to be put into place. Even though he was prosecuted at least partly because the subject matter of his work was considered heretical, and even though religious factions did exert influence on the proceedings, the case against Theophile de Viau was managed exclusively by civil authorities. In addition, although the case unfolded in a fashion that could hardly be considered systematic by subsequent censorial standards, it does provide the first clear evidence that censors were beginning to recognize the necessity of established procedures in their work. Both the grounds on which books could be suppressed and the terminology that could be used to justify those suppressions were obviously being reconsidered. Partly because of this nascent desire for censorial bureaucracy and partly because Theophile provoked further debate about the nature of the enterprise (his testimony indicates that he sensed that the sands of censorship were shifting around him and that this encouraged him to question his censors' tactics), the trial proceedings also provide a commentary on the first modern censorial machine even as it was being established. Theophile's trial is a monument in the history of censorship for still another reason: when it is considered in the context of the dramatic legal changes concerning that institution that were debated in the years just prior to and immediately following it, we see clearly how rapidly the desire to secularize censorship took root in France.

It is no surprise, therefore, that these legal proceedings are remarkably complex, nor that, despite obvious differences, they resemble something still recognizable as a writer's trial, even by today's vastly different standards for such enterprises. What is surprising, especially in view of the general state of seventeenth-century French archives relating to the suppression of books considered dangerous, is that the proceedings appear to be remarkably complete. In them are already evident the vexed issues that continue to dog the major French writers' trials (those of Baudelaire and Flaubert, to cite but the most spectacular): first, the question of whether the man is on trial at the same time as his work; and second, the problem of indecency's peculiar status as an offense somehow both religious and secular, a problem French law never successfully negotiated.

In the end, the state eliminated the man widely considered the leading freethinker of his generation. In so doing, Theophile's judges may truly have believed that they were following a model established by the Inquisition and thereby saving France from a threat to religious orthodoxy. After all, the landmark trials of freethinkers were hardly far in the past. Surely the spectacular case of Giordano Bruno's execution by the Inquisition in Rome on February 17, 1600, could not yet have been forgotten. The judges appointed by the Parisian parliament were, however, hardly grand inquisitors; issues of religious orthodoxy were quickly and systematically displaced by the question of where the frontier defining sexual decency should be traced and, above all, by the issue of the types of sexual practice to be allowed to reside within those confines. Theophile proved to be the "example"--the term always used to justify the execution of those pronounced heretics--that allowed the first sexual inquisitors to indicate both that obscenity's modern era was about to begin and that censorship had begun to assume its modern guise.

During the four-year period from 1619 to 1623, near the end of his short life, Theophile de Viau (better known then as now simply as Theophile) was continually coming into conflict with both religious and secular authorities. Precisely at that moment, the crown was seeking to bring the French book trade under tighter control. Theophile was a recently converted Protestant. In addition, his trial took place relatively soon after the late-sixteenth-century wars of religion, during which Protestantism had become, as at no other time, a major threat to the French state religion and during which the powerful Protestant book trade constituted an important part of the religious menace. These facts cannot have been far from his accusers' thoughts. Indeed, all the proceedings against him reveal the extent to which, prior to the establishment of the book police in 1667, it was difficult, at times impossible, to disengage the danger of literature from its menace to religious orthodoxy, even when the literature on trial was not dangerous on what we would now consider religious grounds.

Theophile's trial helps us pinpoint the confusion, between literature as religious threat and literature as secular threat, that was fundamental to the censorship of print culture in early modern France. It was the widespread and rapid circulation of Protestant literature in French subsequent to the previously unheard of print-runs and sales in German that prompted Francois I to impose strict controls on the nascent French print industry. It was this same sweeping success of Protestant publications in French that led, in 1544, to the establishment of the first French index of forbidden books. Thus, secular authorities and religious authorities began to clamp down on the French book trade at the same time and for the same reasons. For the next two and a half centuries, they continued to fight over the turf and never completely managed to sort out the limits of jurisdiction. Until the end of the Ancien Regime, for example, the index was often used to censor works whose threat was not only and not always primarily religious. The first incursions of the obscene into print culture prove just how confused the situation had become, seventy-five years after the struggle for control over book censorship had begun.

The confusion between religious and secular issues that permeates the case against Theophile may have resulted in part because the same years during which Theophile was on trial--1619 -1623--marked an essential, perhaps the essential moment in the early modern history of French print censorship for two reasons: (I) it was at this time that the authorities first seriously considered implementing rules and regulations, some of which had been on the books for a century or more; and (2) these years were significant in the transition from church to state control over print censor-ship--never again would the battle lines be so sharply drawn as at this time. The possibility of secular censorship was first considered during the second half of the sixteenth century. Finally, just as Theophile was going to trial and as the publications for which he was tried were appearing, the first lay censors were named to try to bring an increasingly unmanageable situation under control--and religious censors fought back. Thus, the case against the poet unfolded against the backdrop of a struggle for power over the institution of censorship.

Theophile's trial makes three things clear. First, the modern obscene would not have taken shape as it did, and perhaps not at all, without the decisive role of print culture. Second, whereas all censors, civil and religious alike, claimed to be interested only in religious issues, they were really more concerned with trying to convict Theophile of sexual crimes. Third, their obsession with Theophile's sexuality, in particular with what we would now term his sexual orientation, ultimately played a crucial role in giving obscenity its modern form.

Theophile's troubles began with his first exile, ordered by Louis XIII in 1619, an exile that appears not to have been enforced. In its account of the king's activities during 1619, Le Mercure francais called Theophile an "atheist poet" and described his poetry as "unworthy of a Christian as much because of its beliefs as because of its filth" (indigne d'un Chretien tant en croyances qu'en saletes, 65). The double confusion that put the state's case against Theophile on a shaky foundation is already evident in this first attack. To begin with, the authorities were consistently unwilling or unable to distinguish between a threat to the religious order (croyances) and a threat to the moral order (saletes). In addition, in their attempts to condemn Theophile's work on any grounds other than religious, they were never able to get beyond vague terms such as filth or to define in any way his actual crime.

Theophile's trial is a significant moment in the history of bad books because his work is not particularly threatening according to any of the rules then governing the censorship of literary texts. Not only is Theophile's work not essentially blasphemous, but it should not have been perceived as sexually shocking in the contemporary context. In fact, Theophile may have been the initial victim of a fundamental shift in the standards for decency, a shift that played a key role in the invention of modern obscenity.

Theophile appears to have been the first French author whose career was amputated because of the awakening desire on the part of all would-be censors for the category now known as the obscene.

In late 1622 or early 1623, a collective volume, Le Parnasse des poetes satiriques, appeared without a privilege. The volume belonged to a then reasonably familiar type, the various verse collections, usually called parnasses or cabinets (though sometimes also delices or quintessence), a series of which had been published, sometimes even with a privilege, in the late sixteenth century and until around 1615. Many volumes with similar names contain no sexually transgressive poetry; all those that do have the adjective satirique in their title. A specialist on French erotica, Pascal Pia, describes these "satirical" compilations as displaying "an exaggerated and joyful gauloiserie"(I:I2), by which he means, just as was the case in England at the same time, that a degree of sexual explicitness which might seem surprising today was then acceptable. In Pia's view, this was the case because the so-called Gallic poetry, the French bawdy, was always accompanied by overtly comic intent. This widely held view does nothing, however, to account for the bawdy's strange history in France, in particular for the fact that, comic or not, the tolerance for it suddenly came to an abrupt end.

These compilations were apparently largely the work of the printer-booksellers who published them and sold them out of their bookshops; they were thus closely tied to market concerns. It appears that the publishers simply gathered together poems that had already circulated in print or in manuscript, generally without even notifying the poets responsible for them. Their casual attitude indicates that no one in the print world expected to encounter any difficulties with censorship because of these publications. Certainly this was true in the case of the 1622 edition of Le Parnasse des poetes satiriques. The publishers were so confident of doing business as usual that they had not even bothered to inform the author of a sonnet being published here for the first time, an author whose recognition value was such that, in a time-honored marketing strategy, his name was featured on the volume's first page, just before his poem: Le Parnasse des poetes satiriques, ou dernier recueil en vers piquants et gaillards de notre temps. SONNET. Par le Sieur Theophile. As for the poet whose name was thus exploited, initially he clearly shared the view that this was a low-risk venture: Theophile eventually did get around to lodging a complaint against the publisher--he protested that his name should not have been used to promote a volume without his authorization--he did so, however, only months later, once the censorship process had already been initiated.

It's easy to see why no one thought that the 1622 parnasse would be treated differently from earlier collections of bawdy verse: it seems truly indistinguishable from those that no one had prosecuted. These collective volumes are all remarkably similar: they include numerous (several hundred) short poems, some of them attributed to well-known poets, most of them anonymous. The poems' content is varied; most seem in no way worthy of censorship. Among the daring ones, few try to scandalize in religious terms, whereas many are explicitly sexual. Of these, most are merely what might be called a bit risque; only a minority are truly sexually transgressive. Those that are achieve this status by being totally frontal, centered on the overwhelming, unrelenting repetition of what are known in English as four-letter words: fuck (foutre), cock (vit), and cunt (con) are by far the most prominently displayed, with the first two occurring much more frequently than the third.

These four-letter words, primary obscenities, stand out as the principal mark of this bawdy poetry's sexual transgressiveness. With one exception, cul (ass), which was to become key in Theophile's case, they are never written out. Instead, in an act of self-censorship that initially may have helped save the volumes from official prosecution, the words were abbreviated in various ways, and different types of punctuation were inserted to stand as a visual mark representing the suppressed content. This punctuation is the typographical equivalent of the fig leaves that began appearing in Renaissance engravings to veil male and female genitalia without fully hiding their contours.

The typographical fig leaves are, however, less efficient than their visual counterparts. A leaf painted on a representation of a human body means that the viewer, even though he or she obviously knows what presumably is there behind the cover-up, is nevertheless denied the right to see the offending sexual characteristics. In the case of a text, however, a reader--and there is no reason to imagine that seventeenth-century readers were any more conscious of these textual barriers than are their counterparts today--simply replaces the missing letters without a thought, so much so that he or she is immediately unaware that anything has been left out. This is truly the zero-degree of censorship. Since, however, it obviously served an important function, I will consider it for a moment more. What follows may seem too detailed for this early stage of my argument, but its importance should soon become clear.

In sixteenth-century France, before secular censorship was even a theoretical reality and when the bawdy was in full flower, the problem of the four-letter word was negotiated in very different fashion. Poets twisted characters around within the words designating primary obscenities; confronted with a nonsense term, readers automatically rearranged the letters to reveal the four-letter word. Thus, to continue with the example of the term that became particularly problematic for Theophile, cul became luc in the expression jouer du luc. No letters were elided, so there was no need for any typographical symbol to designate an omission.

By the time the bawdy anthologies came along, the conventions for self-censorship were changing. Either poets or printers, or perhaps poets and printers together, decided to omit letters in the four-letter words whose status would, in the course of the parnasses' history and around Theophile's trial, be radically transformed. From terms that, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, were considered inoffensive enough to the audience for which these collections were intended that they could be printed with only the most minimal of veils, these words became, before the century's end, totally unprintable--except, that is, in works certain to be immediately pursued by censorship. The brief span of time during which the "satirical" verse collections continued to appear marks a strange moment in the history of punctuation: once the decision was made to suppress some letters in each four-letter word, the need was clearly felt for a typographical code to guarantee that readers understood what was going on.

I first noticed this printerly creativity when I was looking for differences among the various collections, trying to understand why a type of sexually explicit poetry previously tolerated suddenly became intolerable. I noted only two changes, the first involving the punctuation of four-letter words. Prior to the moment when censorship was imminent, no effort was made to be systematic. Then, in 1618, just as Theophile's troubles were beginning, printers initiated the code that remained in place until the end of the collections' history. Vit (prick) and con (cunt) are simply truncated to v. and c., a typographical practice that remains invariable. The case of foutre (fuck) is, however, more interesting. From the beginning, printers decided that none of the then available forms of punctuation would do, probably because the poets intended, just as Lenny Bruce did three and a half centuries later, to display the word in its full grammatical range. They thus printed the initial f and the ending that allows the reader to tell if it is being used as noun, verb, or adjective.

This left one question: How to represent typographically the excised letters? At first, in the 1618 cabinet, for example, all sorts of combinations are found: two dashes, two periods, two dashes and a period. Then, beginning with the 1622 parnasse, the compilation that provoked secular censor-ship's first involvement with sexually transgressive literature, the visual mark that signaled suppressed content was standardized: ". . ." Thus, about a century before the ellipsis is thought to have existed in printing, at a time when the sign is not mentioned in treatises on punctuation, it was invented by the printers and typographers who were in the process of trying to bring sexually transgressive literature out of the "secret cabinets" to which its circulation had previously been confined and into the hands of a broader audience.


Excerpted from The Reinvention of Obscenity: Sex, Lies, and Tabloids in Early Modern France by Joan E. DeJean Copyright © 2002 by Joan E. DeJean. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Joan DeJean is a Trustee Professor of French at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of seven books, most recently Tender Geographies: Women and the Origins of the Novel in France and Ancients against Moderns: Culture Wars and the Making of a Fin de Siècle, the latter published by the University of Chicago Press.

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