Frye and Obscenity (2)


Here is a selection from the diaries and notebooks referencing obscenity.

Anatomy Notebooks.

[118] The conception of semniotes is beginning to take shape.  Primitive tribes distinguish serious tales & less serious ones; this distinction appears later as the distinction between myth & legend or folktale.  One has to distinguish between an intensive encyclopaedic tendency, which selects & expurgates & builds a canon, from the extensive one that we find in satire & in prose fiction generally.  The latter is exploratory of the physical world: hence satire & irony are “obscene,” just as painters are forever poking into women’s bedrooms & toilets (the actual process of changing a menstrual pad or cacking on a pot is, however, considered unpaintable).  Hence literature expands through satire & through the genre of fiction (cf. Shaw’s preface to The Shewing-up of Blanco Posnet on the “Eliza in her bath” problem in drama).  Folktales expand the original quest-archetype, which is forever collapsing into semniotes.  Cf. The Egyptian masturbating god with Jesus’ clay & spittle.  Semniotes is connected with abstraction was well as morality—we often speak of “pure” abstraction, & the purifying of myth is like the purifying of mathematics. (CW 23, 241)

[The issue Shaw examines is the difference between impropriety in books and in plays.  He reports that Sir William Gilbert remarked, “I should say there is a very wide distinction between what is read and what is seen.  In a novel one may read that ‘Eliza stripped off her dressing-gown and stepped into her bath’ without any harm; but I think that if it were presented on stage it would be shocking.”  Shaw proceeds to demolish the illustration as an argument for censorship on stage (Preface, The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet [New York: Brentano’s, 1928], 69).]

[Semniotes appears to be NF’s coinage, derived from σεμνός, decent, modest.  On the Egyptian myth, see AC, 156.]

In the circle of myths, I must work out some more oppositions between romance and irony.  Irony-satire is always what is called “obscene,” & hence is the exact opposite of the element in romance which is the release of erotic fantasy.  Sadist fantasies (Romantic Agony, Spenser’s Amoret & whosit in 6—not Seven, though she fits, but the C of L [Court of Love] one—Mirabell, I think, & my William Morris stuff), masochist ones (I think less common, but cf. the C of L) & other erotica (in Freud’s sense of Eros) are found.  I’ve just been reading an admirable piece of science fiction: [John Wyndham’s] “The Day of the Triffids.”  Catastrophe blinds all the human race except the merest handful of survivors—Flood archetype.  Brought on by human folly—Atlantis archetype.  (The writer is intelligent enough to note both).  Heroine makes her appearance being whipped.  Harem (two extra girls) introduced, but censored out.  Little girl often picked up—erotic archetype censored out.  The flood archetype is the transference of an infantile fantasy: suppose everybody died except me & the people I could boss, or at least play (i.e. work) with.  The comfortable good [?] & the world shut out feeling, the sense of holiday, turns up early when they loot a Picadilly flat: I don’t know if this kind of erotica, which turns up in the dismissal of catechumens theme in ghost stories (Turn of the Screw) has a name, but it’s linked with the regression to the family unit which is a part of the Flood archetype.  Several important things have to be worked out.  Pr. ph. 4. (ibid., 246)

Late Notebooks.

[222] Rimbaud again: “Venus Anadyomene” is a deliberately “shocking” poem, but not obscene: no hatred is expressed for the poor creature.  “Mes Petites Amoureuses” I thought obscene at first, because of the hatred (“Que je vous haïs!”) and sadistic wishes to break their hips.  Yet the real context of this poem is the Lettre du Voyant, in which it is included, and the letter prophesies a new age of poetry where women will have a leading part.  The “amoureuses” are not girls but false Muses.  He says the poem isn’t part of the argument, but (a) it is (b) one can take that remark both ways. (CW 5, 39)

[715]  For mother’s generation Scott was the pinnacle of serious secular reading: no one realized that he inverted a popular formula, and isn’t “serious” in the way Jane Austen or Balzac are.  This point has been confusing me: it’s involved me in one of those “revaluation” antics I detest so much, and which invariably appear when there’s a confusion of genres.  If Scott had been allowed in his day to be, if not “obscene,” at least as sexually explicit as Fielding, he’d have been more centrally in the Milesian tales tradition. (ibid., 247)

[197]  The whole section on the Spirit and the transition to kerygma needs [sic] more careful expression.  Of the chaos of myths waiting for the Spirit to brood on them, ranging from the profound to the frivolous, the reverent to the obscene, which can be “believed”?  Belief here means the creative use of a recognized fiction.  Myths that cannot be “believed” remain in the imaginative corpus, as possibilities only. [See WP, 129.] (ibid., 294)

[593]  I think, with a modicum of that horrible obscene four-letter word (ugh) WORK, these four chapters will come off all right.  Eight will simply extend the ascending ladder into evolutionary & other views that start with nature & end with man.  The intensifying of consciousness bit & the four levels of time & space will fit into the end.

[594]  Now what do I do?

[595]  Well, first you finish the fucking book. (ibid., 377)

Bible Notebooks.

[39]  Now this tolerance is not merely liberalism or weakness of spirit: it is a product of a type of knowledge, even of vision, that I dare not & cannot decry.  How does high Bhakti express itself?  In charitable works.  That to me means working for the C.C.F. [Co-operative Commonwealth Federation].  In miracles of healing.  I admire more the abortionist who risks a penitentiary sentence to help terrified women.  In contempt of the world.  My model there is an author who works for years on a book so “dirty” it gets banned.  These are all new moral facts; they are not expressions of rebelliousness or perversity.  And because of them we must look for aspects of God which we have not looked for before.  The female saint that knows she is transferring the language of sexual love to God must have known as well as Freud what the “great wound” that began her development was all about.  Naturally her censor suppressed the information, her readers cooperate, & even in the age of Freud it is still true that, as the sheriff says in a well-known folk tale, the just person who says cunt gets both barrels.  Nevertheless it isn’t new knowledge but a new power of knowledge, a new courage to know, that’s important.  Hence we must find our new courage, or rather found it in God himself.  We must cling to a God who approves of blasphemy because he hates Jehovah & Nobodaddy & Zeus & Isvara & all the other kings of terrors & tyrants of the soul.  To a God who appreciates obscenity because he looks not into the secrets of our hearts but into the hearts of our secrets, & knows that our bloodfilled genitals & cocking guts are the real battlefields, not that dull & respectable pumper. (CW 13, 19)


[Response to a question after his speech at the Moncton Centennial: Diversity in Unity] And I have certainly found in my own teaching that the growth of tolerance or respect for varieties of imaginative expression is one of the main benefits of studying literature, of studying the humanities.  Every so often we read about controversies about censorship and obscenity and so forth in the press.  The thing that is wrong with that is that, while there is such a thing as vulgarity––and I wish that there was a very strong public sentiment against it––nevertheless the people who want to start excluding things, banning things, are almost always people whose attack is on serious writing.  I’m not quite sure that I’ve got your question. (CW 25, 58)

[40]  Somebody, perhaps not Jack, should declaim against the hygienic, sterilized cleanliness of modern obscenity: erotic in movies & comic strips in impeccably pure language (as far a blasphemy or coprolalia go).  That’s where the rutting in rubber phrase belongs. (ibid., 115)

[39]  If we look at some of the stories in Tristram Shandy—the man who dropped a hot chestnut into his open fly, the abbess and novice using obscene words to move a pair of balky mules, etc., we say that the stories are nothing: Sterne seems to be making a point of this.  In the common phrase, there is style but no substance.  The trouble is that this is a false antithesis: style-itself is substantial.  I noticed this absorption of everything into rhetorical patterns in Alan of Lille in medieval times, and it recurs in Sterne.  The link with the age of sensibility may be that there’s nothing there but the quivering of words: using words for doing other things doesn’t get in.  So he’s a deconstruction pioneer, or at least a formalist one. (ibid., 249-50)


Obscenity in language is an ornament except when it becomes routine, & in the latter event it approaches mere idiocy.  The most horrid example of passivity & inertia of mind I know is Woodside’s story of the soldier who gazed into a shell hole at the bottom of which a dead mule was lying, and said: “Well, that fuckin’ fucker’s fucked.”  (What sort of person is it, incidentally, whose feelings would be spared by printing the above as “that ____in’ _____er’s ____ed,” or “that obscene obscenity’s obscenitied”?)  Probably much the same as the temperance crank reported in the Star (which is run by one & gives publicity to such vaporings) who said in effect “if they must have a beer pub (beverage rooms, they’re called here) they should see that there’s a good solid partition between the men’s & the women’s side,” as though it were a urinal—as a matter of fact that’s how Ontario thinks of it, as a slightly salacious necessity for the vulgar people who don’t stay home.  I remember being in Richmond Hill,  which is as dry as a paper cinder, with [Bert] Arnold & asking where we could get a beer.  The natives’ expressions, confidentially coming out to meet the outside world or else shrinking correctly from it, were exactly what they would have been had we asked for whores. (CW 8, 10)

The Modern Century.

The combination of Bohemian and hobo traditions in the beat, hip, and other disaffected movements of our time seems to be part of an unconscious effort to define a social proletariat in Freudian instead of Marxist terms. Such groups find, or say they find, that a withdrawal from the social establishment is a necessary step in freeing them from repression and in releasing their creative energies. Creation is close to the sexual instinct, and it is in their attitude to sex that the two groups collide most violently, as each regards the other’s views of sex as obscene. The Freudian proletarian sees established society as a repressive anxiety structure, the basis of which is the effort to control the sexual impulse and restrict it to predictable forms of expression. His emphasis on the sexual aspect of life, his intense awareness of the role of the thwarted sexual drive in the cruelties and fears of organized society, make him quite as much a moralist as his opponent, though his moral aim is of course to weaken the anxiety structure by the shock tactics of “bad” words, pornography, or the publicizing of sexual perversions and deviations. The collision of youth and age is more openly involved in this kind of movement than elsewhere. In a society dominated by the alienation of progress, the young, whose lives are thrown forward to the future, achieve a curious kind of moral advantage, as though the continued survival of anyone whose life is mainly in the past required some form of justification. Certain other elements in this social movement, such as the growth of confessional and self analysing groups, show some parallels with Marxist techniques. (CW 11, 44)

Romance Notebooks.

[3]  Discussion of obscenity (the use of a subject-matter generally recognizable, though the word carries no moral overtones) among critics have all the graceful & easy assurance of a man walking over uneven ice on stilts.  Yet I shall have to devote a chapter to the democratic revelation of the body.  The predominance of the nude in painting is a Sartor-Resartus matter, & corresponds to the unveiling of Beatrice in Dante, though Dante foozles it out of a prudery both C of L [Court of Love] and medieval-virginal. (CW 15, 64)

[58] Obscenity and the amusing of Demeter by dirty stories: again the obscenity of Old Comedy at least has long been recognized to have a ritual source, as have most features in Aristophanes (Cornford).  The point is that the ritual features have been subordinated, as the ritual features of the Carnival, the Feast of Fools, and the Ass, and all the Chambers stuff were subordinated in medieval Christianity.  Consequently they eventually come through and dominate the next phase.  How I show that I dunno, but it’s an old hunch of mine that Shakespeare was drawing on a lot of popular-drama material we haven’t even begun to look at.  Not to speak of his deliberate rapprochement with more obvious types of popular drama in the romances. (CW 15, 198)


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