Category Archives: Obscenity

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)

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TGIF: “The worst penis, probably, in the world”


Ricky Gervais and Louis C.K. — together at last.  (Video not embedded: click on the image and then hit the YouTube link)

My previous posts on “Andy Warhol” and on “Frye and Obscenity” are good preparation for this master class in the liberatingly obscene element in comedy: Ricky Gervais here makes an appearance on Louis C.K‘s new show on HBO. (Ricky’s father was a Canadian veteran of the Second World War, if an appeal to patriotism might help.)

And, of course, I come armed with a relevant quote from Frye:

Comedy is moral insofar as it expands the range of response; obscenity, for instance, is profoundly moral. (CW 15, 28)

Obscenity is profoundly moral.”  So that’s that, then.

After the jump, a clip from Ricky’s show, Extras, in which Kate Winslet, playing herself playing a nun, provides some sound advice on playing with oneself during phone sex.

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Frye and Obscenity


The 100 Greatest Insults in the Movies.

Anyone who knows Frye well knows that he had no trouble with obscenity and in fact regarded it as creative.  I was fortunate enough to hear Kingsley Joblin, Frye’s first year roommate at Burwash, tell the story of how the 17 year old Frye, with his wild mane of yellow hair, had to pass through a gauntlet of swells and bullies on his way to meals each day to taunts of “Buttercup!”  One day, Joblin reported, Frye’d had enough, turned on his tormentors, and unleashed (as Joblin put it) “an Elizabethan torrent of obscenities.”  The taunting ceased forthwith.  It’d be nice to think that the seed of Frye’s quickly established reputation for genius was planted that day.

Frye himself refers to the story of how one of his favorite writers, Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, liked to go down to the London docks to listen to the sailors swear.  It isn’t obscenity Frye would object to.  It is mindless profanity, the kind of verbal reflex that only communicates the absence of wit or thought:

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”?) (CW 8, 10)

Fuckin’ right.  And what sort of person is it exactly who could come across this phrase — “obscenity in language is an ornament” — and not feel challenged about complacent moral reflexes and the unexamined assumptions that lay behind them?

Thanks to Bob Denham’s Northrop Frye Unbuttoned, I gained quick access to this entry on “excremental vision” culled from the late notebooks.  The stanza Frye refers to is from Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room” (which he also refers to in the same context in Words with Power, HBJ, 263-4):

Thus finishing his grand Survey,
Disgusted Strephon stole away
Repeating in his amorous Fits,
Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!

Here’s Frye:

Swift’s notorious poem on a woman’s dressing room is usually cited as simply Swift himself being obsessed by the fact that women shit: “insanity,” says Lawrence, “excremental vision,” says Norman Brown.  Well, it’s that, all right: if you haven’t got an excremental vision you have no business setting up as a major satirist.  But “Celia shits” isn’t Swift screaming: it’s Celia’s lover Strephon, whose love for Celia is of the insipidly idealistic kind that hasn’t taken in the fact that women, mutatis mutandis, have the same physical basis to their lives that men have.  Besides, if, like the hero of Berkeley Square, one of us were to wake up in the middle of eighteenth-century London, assailed by all those unfamiliar stinks, wouldn’t we be just as nauseated?  That’s the mark of the great writer: who sees his own time, but with a detachment that makes him communicable to other ages.  (85)

So we might say that the obscene element in comedy and satire is derived from the universal fact that we defecate and fornicate; a humbling but, in the right context, hilarious corrective for an all too human vanity fraught with fear, shame, and resentment when it comes to perfectly natural (not to mention wholly necessary) bodily functions.  As Frye notes in Anatomy, it is important that satire remind us that powerful men and beautiful women have excretory functions and sexual relations as well.  It is a great equalizer: “Obscenity [is] a bodily democracy, also a danse macabre” (CW 8, 19).  In the two clips in our regular TGIF post to follow shortly, for example, it is male sexuality that is the target in the first; and, in the second, anxiety about the still semi-taboo but totally mundane practice of masturbation (again, perhaps more of a male-anxiety problem: as Martin Amis notes, most men think they ought to have outgrown masturbation, but most men also discover they haven’t).

In short, nothing to be ashamed of.  But plenty to laugh about.

“I Give Up” Reprise


For non-Canadian viewers, here’s a direct link (which I was unable to provide yesterday) to Jon Stewart’s brilliant rant on Congress’ inability to pass a health care bill for chronically ill 9/11 responders.  Not to be missed. (Once again, Canadian viewers can see it here.)

While watching, ask yourself, “Is there anything more repulsive than Republicans from Texas?”  The reason Texas Representative Kevin Brady gives for voting against the bill raises an audible gasp from Stewart’s audience.  This is a congress of whores to big business who can’t find it in themselves to offer humanitarian aid to people they otherwise call “heroes.”  It is as disgusting a display as you could ever hope to see from politicians who actively undermine the duty they owe to the public they are supposed to serve.  As we’re dealing with obscenity today, this is what real obscenity looks like, and Jon’s declaration that Brady is an “asshole” is from God’s lips to your ear.

Andy Warhol


The first nine minutes of Warhol’s “Blow Job” (1964).  As I outlined in a post yesterday, this is the first in a series of posts today exploring “obscenity” in the arts.  We’ll be citing Frye extensively in the posts that follow.

Today is Andy Warhol‘s birthday (1928 – 1987).

Here’s Frye in “Foreward to English Studies in Toronto“.  As with the reference to Warhol from Words with Power cited in an earlier post (“Andy Warhol Eats a Hamburger”), what is interesting about it is that Frye invokes Warhol to illustrate a bigger point.  In this case, it is the contextualizing experience of art and the role of scholarship in understanding it:

At every step in the liberalizing of the curriculum, some academics will say: “Why should we set up courses and examinations in that?  Shouldn’t students be reading that on their own?  We’ve got a library, haven’t we?”  In one generation Edmund Blunden’s colleague would have applied this to the whole of English literature; in the next it would have applied to contemporary literature; in the next to the study of films, television and pop culture.  In my experience such objectors do not read that sort of thing on their own, but apart from that, there are two very important facts left out of their assumptions.  One is the immense psychological difference between cultivating a leisure-time activity and studying the same material within the context of a university course.  It is a little like, though considerably subtler than, the difference between looking at a row of soup cans and looking at them in Andy Warhol.  The other is the schizophrenia set up in the teacher’s mind.  Two of my teachers at Victoria were Pelham Edgar and John Robins, both interested in the modern novel and Canadian literature.  But all reference to such subjects in lectures devoted to Shakespeare and The Rape of the Lock, had to be bootlegged, so to speak, and lectures got very digressive as a result.  It was very important to our education as students to be told about the short stories of Hemingway and the poetry of Duncan Campbell Scott — it was difficult for us to read these authors “on our own” when we did not yet know they existed.  Edgar, Pratt and Robins at Victoria, and Woodhouse and Brown at least at University College, did very important work in Canadian studies many decades before they got into the curriculum.  (CW 7, 597-8)

After the jump, a superior PBS American Masters documentary about Warhol.  Must-see, if only for the wonderful contemporary footage and extended excerpts from his movies.  (Please note, however, that the entire documentary is comprised of two 90 minute episodes, and only the first part of the first episode is offered here, so Warhol’s early years and early successes aren’t included.  However, the second episode dealing with Warhol at the peak of his success until his death is posted in its entirety.  This really is worth the investment of your time, and I hope you’ll watch it.)

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Mature Content


Tomorrow is Andy Warhol’s birthday, and last week I started putting together a post to commemorate it.  People tend to forget that Warhol for five whole years made nothing but movies, which, even today are exhilerating in their wonder and freshness and the challenge they offer.  One critic has noted that, for the first time, thanks to Warhol’s films, we, the viewers of art, are allowed to see as a painter sees, in real time.

Their subject matter, of course, is often iconoclastic.  The clip I opted to post is from the starkly titled Blow Job, which does not really capture the actual experience of the film, even if it accurately describes what is being very cleverly depicted without actually showing it.

That got me thinking about Frye and the issue of obscenity and — coincidentally coming across a clip I wanted to post in our regular TGIF comedy slot that is as obscene as it is hilarious — that led to a series of related posts on the subject of the artistic relevance of obscenity with Frye acting as our guide the entire time.

All that tomorrow.