The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘obscenity’

An Inglorious Slop-pail of a Play

September 8, 2015 | by

Alfred Jarry, cruising.

When the French playwright Alfred Jarry—born on this day in 1873—was fifteen, he enjoyed lampooning his physics teacher, a plump, inept man who so amused his students that he became the subject of Jarry’s first attempt at drama, Les Polonais, staged with marionettes when he was still in short pants. Père Heb, as the physics teacher was called in it, had a prominent gut, a retractable ear, and three teeth (stone, iron, and wood). These features by themselves make him a distinctive figure in the history of French drama. But years later, Jarry revived Heb—as all responsible playwrights do with their juvenilia—making him somehow even more ridiculous, even more obese, and putting him at the center of Ubu Roi, a play so contentious that its premiere, in December 1896, was also its closing night. It lives in the annals of drama because it offended almost everyone who saw it. In this, it prefigured modernism, surrealism, Dadaism, and the theater of the absurd. Read More »

The Totalitarian Tank Engine, and Other News

May 13, 2015 | by


Thomas: a thinly veiled work of socialist realism? Image via the Telegraph

  • As Thomas the Tank Engine turns seventy, it’s worth asking: What’s this talking train’s political agenda? A thoughtless pushover, fearful of going off the rails and fixed on his cohort’s industriousness, “Thomas resembles one of those preposterous idealized figures of Stalinist propaganda. Face radiant with a dream of heightened productivity. In fact, Stalin would probably have approved of Thomas, who always does what the Fat Controller tells him and strongly disapproves of other engines who step out of line.”
  • If society seems increasingly illiterate to you, person of letters, remember that society relies less on literacy every year: “Most human beings worldwide would rather talk than read. Reading and writing are late inventions in the human story; widespread literacy in most places is only a few centuries old. And the fact that in black-and-white pictures of a commuter train almost every passenger is reading was an artifact of the technological state of things at the time. Today, most of those people’s equivalents are either talking on their phone or listening to music on it. Their forebears in those pictures would have been as well, if there had been devices to allow it.”
  • Piero di Cosimo is remembered most for his religious paintings, but he also made “startlingly vivid portraits of individualsHe gave himself the same tests, again and again, though he did not always pass them: for example, depicting feet, which he did in an elegantly detailed manner, down to their splayed toes.”
  • “When I began my first novel … I asked my colleague whether writing fiction caused manic-depression or merely mimicked the symptoms of manic-depression. He answered, ‘Yes,’ a cleverly enigmatic but also oddly confirming response.”
  • Want a euphemism for motherfucker? Try melon-farmer, mother-fouler, or motorcycle, and have a nice day.

The Original Futurologists, and Other News

December 12, 2014 | by


From a set of French nineteenth-century postcards depicting what we thought we'd be doing in the year 2000.

  • Isn’t it time for the New York Times to abandon its senselessly decorous policy on obscenity? “America’s newspaper of record has a habit of relying on euphemism to shield its subscribers’ delicate sensibilities, as if Times readers are all wealthy dowagers prone to fainting spells at the merest suggestion that human beings have sex or excrete waste … We’re all adults here. Reading a dirty word in the newspaper won’t scandalize anyone.”
  • The Victorians invented the future as we know it, insofar as it was only in the nineteenth century that we began to imagine a future that could be radically different from our present. “As new attitudes towards progress, shaped by the relationship between technology and society, started coming together … people started thinking about the future as a different place, or an undiscovered country—an idea that seems so familiar to us now that we often forget how peculiar it actually is.”
  • And the Victorians invented our concept of the biography, too; it could do with some shaking up. “Biography seems remarkably consistent. There is a deep similarity between those worthy (and often fascinating) nineteenth-century volumes … and the contemporary biographies … Why hasn’t biography been as daring as the novel?”
  • Peter Funch’s stunning photographs of Mount Baker re-create decades-old postcards, illustrating how the landscape has changed: “Although imperceptible, each photograph has a narrative.”
  • An interview with Laure Prouvost: “I know I’m never going to fully grasp life in my art. It’s never as good as having the sun on your face. Even if you film someone with the sun on their face it feels as if you’ve lost something.”



June 24, 2014 | by

Warning: the slideshow below contains images deemed obscene in the fifties.

Fifty-seven years ago today, the Supreme Court rendered its decision in Roth v. United States, the preeminent obscenity case of the time. That Roth isn’t Philip—not that he’s any slouch when it comes to indecency—but Samuel, a widely reviled publisher perhaps most remembered today for bootlegging portions of Ulysses. As Michael Bronsky described him in a piece for the Boston Phoenix,

Roth became so notorious as both literary pirate and smuthound (the word in use at the time) that he was attacked in The Nation and The New Yorker as a literary fake and social nuisance. Vanity Fair included him, along with the up-and-coming Adolf Hitler, in its 1932 photo essay titled “We Nominate for Oblivion.”

In the course of his long and thoroughly ribald career, Roth often found himself dragged to court—this particular case saw him violating a federal statute that banned the transmission of “obscene, lewd, lascivious, or filthy” materials using the postal service. Roth had been doing just that: his magazine American Aphrodite (“A Quarterly for the Fancy-Free,” the covers of later editions said) was the finest in literary smut. (And trust us: The Paris Review knows a thing or two about literary smut.) Read More »


It’s All Lustful to Me

February 19, 2014 | by

Georgia’s obscene novels.

censorship header

From a foreign edition of Erskine Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre

Sixty-one years ago today, on February 19, 1953, the State of Georgia approved the formation of the first-ever literature censorship board in the United States. It went by the misleading name of the Georgia Literature Commission, and its humble charge was to stamp out obscenity in all of the myriad and insidious forms it took in our nation’s periodicals and publications. The Washington Post has an excellent gloss on the commission, which persevered for some twenty years, despite having been mired in controversy from its inception. James P. Wesberry, the committee’s chairman—and not coincidentally a Baptist preacher—found himself ridiculed by the national press when, soon after the committee’s formation, he said, “I don’t discriminate between nude women, whether they are art or not. It’s all lustful to me.”

Thus, with God and a pure, unyielding ignorance on his side, Wesberry developed an eight-question checklist with which to gauge literature for obscenity:

1. What is the general and dominant theme?
2. What degree of sincerity of purpose is evident?
3. What is the literary or scientific worth?
4. What channels of distribution are employed?
5. What are contemporary attitudes of reasonable men toward such matters?
6. What types of readers may reasonably be expected to peruse the publication?
7. Is there evidence of pornographic intent?
8. What impression will be created in the mind of the reader, upon reading the work as a whole?

(One imagines that question seven did most of the heavy lifting—the committee probably skipped ahead to that one, much as a wayward youth would skip ahead to the prurient bits in a girlie mag.)

Erskine Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre was the first book to be suggested for censorship, in 1957; The Catcher in the Rye and The Naked and the Dead were also deemed obscene. For the most part, though, the commission went after dime-store sleaze like Alan Marshall’s Sin Whisper—when they banned that title, the battle went all the way to the Supreme Court, which overturned the decision. By 1971, the whole commission seemed kind of silly. When Jimmy Carter, he who had lusted after women in his heart, was governor, he slashed the commission’s funding, and by 1973 it was no more. Still, when you see the lurid covers of these novels, you’ll understand why they were believed to corrupt and deprave. Here are some of the books the committee found too debauched for the public consumption: Read More »