The last week, wrapped in its banality of horror, has been, to my mind, obscene.
There was the obscenity of yet another school shooting in the US, which has led to more kids being killed in US schools in 2018 than US soldiers killed in the military.
The obscenity of Hamas (an organization not normally known for its non-violent philosophy) encouraging unarmed or lightly armed civilians to charge the Israeli border with Gaza despite the terrible warnings of the IDF about what would await them.
The obscenity of the IDF following through with those threats in a manner that was redolent of Colonel Dyer’s terrible actions in Amritsar in 1919.
Obscenity is an existential response. It exists in the eye of the beholder. The violence of current affairs is rarely seen in those terms. Thoughts of obscenity are usually reserved for more intimate encounters.
Culture in particular, is subject to much examination for offence. In literature some of the greatest books of the last century were deemed, in their time to be far too rude. Ulysses was banned for a scene of onanism that shocked roaring twenties America. The premise Joyce explored is still very much a contemporary concern (older man gawping at younger women who all know he is pleasuring himself), the language used to explore it resides in wonderous obfuscation.
It is human nature to find ourselves attracted to salacious outrage like a moth to a flame. If something is deemed shocking not many of us can resist taking a peek. Sometimes such a furtive look is worth it (i.e., A Clockwork Orange – banned in the UK by Kubrick himself). Sometimes, not so much, for example, to my mind, most of the novels of D.H. Lawrence.
In the 1960 Lady Chatterley trial, when the unexpurgated version of Lawrence’s novel was being prosecuted in the UK for obscenity, the prosecuting counsel, Mervyn Griffith-Jones asked the jury whether Lady Chatterley's Lover was “a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read.” Which says more about the British Class system and patriarchy than is does about the possibility of literary appreciation. In this argument obscenity is at its height when the work is sexy and (god forbid) the vulnerable or uneducated may get to consume it. In the sixties such people were deemed to be the working class (servants) and women. Of course such ideas had been parodied before: in 1984 George Orwell fed the Proles of Airstrip One a steady diet of pornography to keep them in line. Still, for my mind, and this is a personal choice, I find Lawrence’s tome be ah-hem turgid next to the golden tumescence of Joyce.
The scandal generated by such salaciousness often creates huge interest in the subject being chastised or discussed. One of my favourite episodes of the wonderful comedy Father Ted was The Passion of St. Tibulus when a film somewhere between Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane and Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ is shown and faces the full, hilarious, glare of the Catholic church. Parishioner after parishioner asks the protesting Father Ted just how rude the film is. As he explains how much explicit nudity is on show they all scuttle into the cinema. The Passion of St. Tibulus becomes the most watched film in Craggy Island’s history.
The early sixties in particular seems to be a watershed moment, the point in time when society started to let go more than a little. May 1963, fifty five years ago, saw the dirtiest song of the sixties released, at least according to The New Yorker. The song was Louie, Louie by The Kingsmen. The venerable magazine jokingly declared the rendition the dirtiest based on an infamous parental referral in 1964 to the then Attorney General Robert Kennedy. A concerned father cited obscene lyrics.
The FBI examined the recording for two years before determining the actual words that Jack Ely sang to be undecipherable.
How Louie, Louie, wonderful though it is, could be considered “dirtier” than, say, Venus in Furs, Lou Reed’s majestic paean to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novella of the same name is beyond me. You can tie me up, whip me and call me Severin but it still doesn’t make sense. Lou Reed’s song, released in 1967, was based on a book so profoundly explicit that they named an actual fetish after the author. It shows how much societal norms can shift in a very short amount of time.
A society’s view of the acceptable ebbs and flows. We’ve seen shifts recently over feminism and the rights of women in society. We’ve seen it over homosexuality and same-sex marriage. We’ve seen it over cannabis legalization. We are seeing it over race. Our societies are becoming flatter and more socially equitable.
Sometimes, as our preconceptions are challenged, it takes an effort to keep up. Exposure and acceptance calls for an element of understanding, discernment and humanity. In the end the challenge is worth it as we see the wonderful matrix of creative individualism within the beautiful mosaic of society. We can explore culture, literature and art safely with context and understanding, knowing that we don’t have to find everything to our own peculiar taste. A world where I won’t yuck your (consensual) yum, if you promise not to yuck mine.