A few days ago I noted that books like Lolita, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Tropic of Capricorn, and Naked Lunch were used to break down censorship rules in the West. The books themselves are not the problem—the books are grey zone works. As with psychopathy, the wholesomeness of a book is not diagnosed—really diagnosed—in a check-list manner; rather, it’s about a constellation of behaviours and traits—as such, there will always be intermediate books. Lolita is not simply pornographic, it is highly artistic—yet it does contain an unwholesome erotic element in it where the reader is invited to act out, acting-out being a preparation for action, a sexual adventure with a young girl.
The fact is that any society can stand one or two Lolitas or Naked Lunches—it’s not the end of the world, the books do have artistic value and were not just produced to titillate. Yet what happened with these titles in the 1960s was not one or two borderline cases; rather, these titles were sought out and used to force test cases in the courts to knock down censorship laws—push the laws down with high-quality borderline work so that the full black tide of obscenity could flow into the culture. As previously noted, men like Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch, were plucked from unpublished obscurity by powerful aristocrats and publicised as cause célèbres.
In another constellation, the legal constellation, there was a problem: it was not about an odd perverse but remarkable book here and there, it was many remarkable but perverse books pushed forward at once to break the system—and that is a big difference. There are genuine Puritans who would ban anything that isn’t a didactic and anodyne tale—indeed, the original Puritans banned Shakespeare and his “enormous ‘c’ by which she makes her ‘p’”. For liberals, all conservatives are that—philistines who would ban Shakespeare; perhaps some are—though actually, when it comes to censorship, liberals are taking the p.