Obscenity and Censorship in Literature

Introduction: Obscenity, and its consequent censorship, is perhaps as old as literature itself. If Plato had pleaded for literary censorship, if the Roman Catholic church had come up with the Index Expurgatorial, and if the Elizabethan  period had its own politico-religious system of censorship, the 19th century and 20th centuries have been the champions of ‘moral’ censorship Wielding their excising sword especially on all trace of obscenity, latent or patent, obvious or farfetched, contextualized or in isolation.

Freedom of Expression: In spite of the general movement towards freedom of expression, the 20th century came up with some of the most amazing decision: among novels declared ‘obscene’ were some of the master pieces of this century including The Rainbow, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Ulysses, The Tropic of Cancer and Lolita. The saga began as early as 1915, the year in which The Rainbow was published and immediately banned for being, in the sententious language of its critics ‘a monotonous wilderness of phallic is on’ and ‘a greater menace to our public heath than any of the epidemic diseases to fight’.

Literature and Pornography: Literature and pornography may be sheer opposites and antipodes, and yet one does not know how to keep the two apart. Sexuality is omnipresent in life, and if literature is the imaginative presentation of life and nature through words, literature and sexuality can scarcely be segregated. The world of words are a rounded completeness and tolerates no excuse. In the language of Coleridge, ‘all thought, all passions all delights that start this mortal frame’ are but the province of literature. Were it not so literature would be restricted and constricted, being reduced to some certain ephemeral and seyoerficial aspects of human life. Were it so, Ovid and Catullus, kalidasa and even The Mahabharata would cease to be read. Were it so, Shakespeare’s work littered and prepared with sexual allusions and bawdy divergences, would have to be consigned to the flames or perhaps reduced to inane mass of words by the likes of the right Rever and Bawdler, who came up with his ‘Expurgated Shakespeare’.
Sex and Sin: Sex by itself is no more sin than strength of limb is violence. If such phenomenon are presented not crudely or luridly, but with sympathy sensitivity and imagination, it does not transgress the bounds of art. Being one of the basic instincts of man, literature would be impoverished of this psycho-somatic aspect of the human character were over looked or ignored. This is true of all the arts, for as even Satyajit Ray had pointed out, the ‘puritanical line regarding permissiveness has done great harm to Indian cinema’.
Is Pornographic Permissible in Literature?: Question remains as to whether the presentation of the erotic verging on the pornographic is permissible in literature. The obscene and the pornographic have been described or defined as passages which, taken as whole, tend to deprive and corrupt persons who have read the entire whole. It would indeed be pornography if the writer suffers priapism and includes passages on carnality for its own sake, or if a writer consciously exploits the longing for the carnal in man for commercial success by rendering to the crude longings of the lumpen . But the test of pornography or obscenity has to be the literary work alone which is to be read as a  integral whole. The whole is always greater than the part , and if the part on sexuality and sensuality is relevant to the whole, one can scarcely categorize it as pornography. Some will always read passages insulation merely for the sake of the crude thrill, but that by it self cannot make a work of art obscene. Indeed , some of the criteria by which pornography is determined are relative and culture specific. What is taboo in an Indian film is not in an American film, and what is unspeakable in the drawing room is not so in the countryside .A scientific treatise can refer to the physiological facts of life with meticulous precision but work of literature must present them as part of an imaginative experience. It is only whom these references are not part of the total impression, that one should begin to question its relevance. It must be admitted in this context that the greatest of writers have to walk o9n this perilous razor’s age of artistic necessity and propriety without stumbling or slipping.

Sex and Literature: Lady Chatterley's Lover raise the greatest of furors  for its uninhibited use of four letter word, and frank depiction of sexuality. It was consequently censored for almost thirty years before the jury ultimately passed the verdict of being not guilty of pornography .And almost everyone concurred that the unexpurgated book is a better literary work than the expurgated one and that the evil of censorship was much worse than the evil in the book. Bernard show went so far as  to declare, ‘If I have a marriageable daughter . I will certainly ask her to read this book; Mulk Raj Anand  opined that ‘Through this book Lawrence tried to teach the young the value of the body’s rapture in the eternal cycle of creation’. Ulysses the path breaking stream of consciousness novel , too, was duely banned  but has today achieved general recognition as a classic and is now readily available. Even Henry Miller, who has been described by  George or well as ‘The only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among English-Speaking races for some years past’ had been banned for a considerable period of time.Vladimir Nabokav’s Lolita, a fictional case study of an unusual  relationship between a ‘nymphet’ and a middle-aged man has often been subjected to lurid comment. But for all his cunning, Humbert , the narrator hero is only a pathetic self-conscious creature and a bundle of feverish anxieties.It too has today been deemed a moral work . In France novelist like Gide, Proust, Beauvoir and    Camus have been subjected to much less censorship than the writer in the English speaking world. Again, much of Aldiss’s work are characterized by innovative , open treatment of sex as a theme. All Jean Genet's works also expose his deep sense of sympathy with the outcasts of society as they are confronted by omnipresent crime, sex, and death.
Conclusion: Misuse of literature is possible, even as misuse of other good thing in life is possible, but that is no reason for the suppression of all the good things in life .We cannot give up the use of electricity because there are risks of electrocution, nor can we destroy medicine  because an overdose can prove fatal.The dedicated writer must present the utter truth about life –sin and holiness, beauty and ugliness, love and hate – in a language that is destined to survive.
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An English Teacher;    M. A.(English) , D. Ed., B. Ed., UGC- NET Qualified

"Dear Readers/ Students, I am a huge fan of books, English Grammar & Literature. I write this blog to instill that passion in you." 

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