Dirt for Art's Sake: Books on Trial from "Madame Bovary" to "Lolita"

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In Dirt for Art's Sake, Elisabeth Ladenson recounts the most visible of modern obscenity trials involving scandalous books and their authors. What, she asks, do these often-colorful legal histories have to tell us about the works themselves and about a changing cultural climate that first treated them as filth and later celebrated them as masterpieces?

Ladenson's narrative starts with Madame Bovary (Flaubert was tried in France in 1857) and finishes with Fanny Hill (written in the eighteenth century, put on trial in the United States in 1966); she considers, along the way, Les Fleurs du Mal, Ulysses, The Well of Loneliness, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Tropic of Cancer, Lolita, and the works of the Marquis de Sade. Over the course of roughly a century, Ladenson finds, two ideas that had been circulating in the form of avant-garde heresy gradually became accepted as truisms, and eventually as grounds for legal defense. The first is captured in the formula "art for art's sake"―the notion that a work of art exists in a realm independent of conventional morality. The second is realism, vilified by its critics as "dirt for dirt's sake." In Ladenson's view, the truth of the matter is closer to ―dirt for art's sake―"the idea that the work of art may legitimately include the representation of all aspects of life, including the unpleasant and the sordid.

Ladenson also considers cinematic adaptations of these novels, among them Vincente Minnelli's Madame Bovary, Stanley Kubrick's Lolita and the 1997 remake directed by Adrian Lyne, and various attempts to translate de Sade's works and life into film, which faced similar censorship travails. Written with a keen awareness of ongoing debates about free speech, Dirt for Art's Sake traces the legal and social acceptance of controversial works with critical acumen and delightful wit.

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"With far-ranging erudition, a keen eye for analysis, and a great sense of humor, Elisabeth Ladenson looks at the real reasons behind the censorship of masterpieces like Madame Bovary and important but lousy books like The Well of Loneliness. She pinpoints many of the moralistic arguments that are once again rearing their ugly heads in this age of spying and 'Christian' militancy. The censorship of movies was already a recapitulation of the principles that had been applied to literature a century earlier. This book is so entertaining it made me laugh out loud at least once at some expertly skewered absurdity during every chapter."--Edmund White

"This witty, exhilarating romp through a century and a half of literary culture offers many pleasures and discoveries. It contributes an important chapter to the study of modernism, it allows us to compare the different sensibilities of France, Britain, and the United States, and it deepens the ironies of literary history. Best of all, Elisabeth Ladenson provides a trenchant critique of both the absurdity of censorship and the absurdity of imagining that we will ever do away with censorship. Instead, she demonstrates-to the discomfort of hypocritical readers everywhere-how perennial, renewable, and irresistible is the impulse to ban someone else's speech."--David Halperin, W. H. Auden Collegiate Professor, University of Michigan, author of Saint Foucault

"Dirt for Art's Sake is a brilliant combination of literary sleuthing, cultural history, and just plain great storytelling. Why is it that the literary masterworks of the last two centuries have been prosecuted for obscenity-and that we continue to consider some words, images, and ideas to be subversive? Ranging through literature, film, history, and law, Elisabeth Ladenson's magnificent book suggests some answers. Witty, ironic, beautifully written, and massively entertaining, Dirt for Art's Sake easily straddles the worlds of literary page-turner and first-rate scholarship. All lovers of good writing should bow down before Ladenson."--Marjorie Heins, Free Expression Policy Project, Brennan Center for Justice

"I agreed to blurb this book intending to skim a few pages in the normal manner of blurbists and then opine favorably in blurbese. What I did not bargain for is that I would not be able to put the book down, to my great enjoyment and edification. The book is totally engaging, a great read, delightfully unpretentious, and loaded with insight. Treat yourself."--William Ian Miller, University of Michigan, author of Faking It

"This book is an intellectual tour de force that combines scholarly erudition with wit, analytical insight, and brilliant writing. Focusing specifically on the question of how works once banned as 'obscene' become classics, Elisabeth Ladenson engages the problems of the relationship between aesthetic value and moral content, high versus low culture, the obscenity of ideas versus the obscenity of language, and obscenity as a problem of accessibility. She demonstrates with care and precision the important historical shifts in obscenity law in France, England, and the U.S. as a story about the shifting importance of literature itself. An original and provocative book."--Lynne Huffer, Emory University, author of Maternal Pasts, Feminist Futures: Nostalgia and the Question of Difference

"Elisabeth Ladenson writes with clarity, verve, and considerable wit. Dirt for Art's Sake explores changes in attitudes that not only reflect on social transformations but also raise questions about the changing role of literature. Comparisons with cases against movies add to the dimensions of this book and strengthen Ladenson's conclusions."--Rosemary Lloyd, author of Shimmering in a Transformed Light: Writing the Still Life

"What could 'dirt for art's sake' mean? And where? And when? What could you do with what it meant? Elisabeth Ladenson takes us on a lively journey through books, newspapers, and movies, through courtrooms, the halls of publishing, and film studios, making us pause to wonder at all the ways dirt (whatever and wherever it is) gives meaning to art-and to us."--Michael Lucey, University of California, Berkeley, author of Never Say I: Sexuality and the First Person in Colette, Gide, and Proust

About the Author:

Elisabeth Ladenson is Associate Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. She is the author of Proust's Lesbianism, also from Cornell.

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