Obscenity and literary merit

Yesterday’s viewing: the 2010 movie Howl, an evocation of an era and a celebration of Allen Ginsberg, with stunning performances, notably by James Franco as Ginsberg. The film interleaves three stories: a dramatization of the 1957 U.S. trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti (of City Lights Books) for publishing obscenity; the story of Ginsberg’s life up to that point (especially the episodes that are transformed in the poem); and an animation of the poem.

All the words spoken in the movie are taken from life, though the film is not a documentary. So we get — several times, in fact — a line that played a central role in the trial; as the Wikipedia entry for Howl puts it:

On the basis of one line in particular

“who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy”

customs officials seized 520 copies of the poem on March 25, 1957, being imported from the printer in London.

Ginsberg himself was pleased with “screamed with joy” (rather than pain) — though he might have edited “let themselves be” to “asked to be”, to accord better with his experiences — but the customs officials found both the wording and the image offensive.

The trial turned, as did the British Lady Chatterley trial of Penguin Books (decided 50 years ago last fall — a significant anniversary), on the question of the merits, in particular the literary merit, of the work.

(On the Lady Chatterly trial, see Ben Yagoda’s excellent and wryly entertaining piece “Trial and Eros” in the Autumn 2010 American Scholar, which concludes

… sometimes inevitable changes don’t come easily.

In this case they required a literary show trial, with a comic-opera Podsnap forcing literary scholars to overpraise a deeply flawed if not actually bad novel, and blunt the intricate and subtle distinctions by which they had become used to defining themselves. They can be thankful there hasn’t been another such spectacle since. Their profession would probably not be able to survive it.

That was three years after the Howl trial.

In both cases, linguistic expressions — in particular, the word fuck — were viewed by many people as intrinsically offensive, indeed dangerous, regardless of the context in which they were used, and the trials turned on whether the context could mitigate the offense as a matter of law, leaving  untouched popular opinions and attitudes about the matter, at least for the moment.

These popular opinions continue to surface afresh, as in the case of “That little faggot, he’s a millionaire”, scathingly reported on by Geoff Pullum in Language Log last month:

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC), an independent broadcasting agency charged with overseeing private radio stations in Canada, has banned Mark Knopfler’s wonderful 1985 Dire Straits rock anthem “Money For Nothing” from the airwaves. The reason? The word faggot appears in three of the song’s lines (as originally written), and the CBSC believes that this lexical item should never again sully Canadian air.

Here, context makes all the difference, as Pullum worked out in detail.

Then there’s the bowdlerization of Mark Twain — notably to eliminate the offensive term nigger from the text of Huckleberry Finn — much discussed in the media recently. In a “Language Lounge” column in Visual Thesaurus recently, Orin Hargraves gives a thoughtful discussion of the matter, giving a sympathetic hearing to the editor, Alan Gribben, but concluding that the emendations are a mistake, in an appeal to, yes, context:

Lurking behind Gribben’s editorial choice, and his lengthy defense of it, one senses his hope that actively removing offensive words from the notice of young readers might contribute to their demise in English. But words don’t die so easily, and in fact the use of nigger in the works of Mark Twain is one of the very few places in which its appearance may provide teachable moments par excellence: about the power of words, their history, and their ability to mean different things to different people in different contexts. If not in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, where else are young readers and listeners going to encounter this word? They may hear it in the form nigga or niggaz in a rap song; they may see it scratched into the paint in a truck stop toilet stall, or hear it spat out of the mouth of a truncheon-wielding cop in some video gone viral on YouTube. None of these contexts are likely to provide a supervisable opportunity to learn something about the history of the most loaded word in English and why it cannot be used in any neutral way today.



3 Responses to “Obscenity and literary merit”

  1. The Ridger Says:

    Also, The King’s Speech getting a R rating for a rather brief – and contentless – scene of swearing. Discussion with teens about why he didn’t stutter saying those words, and how they differ from others, might have been more useful than pretending they haven’t heard them all before.

  2. Back to the ’50s « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Zerbina is fixated on Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the recent movie about it (on this blog, here), and she and Zippy consider recapturing the […]

  3. “a word now shunned” « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] (On obscenity — and slurs — in collision with literary merit, with links to discussions of nigger, see here.) […]

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