In her Reinvention of Obscenity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), Joan Dejean turns to philology as a point of departure. The Latin words obscenus and obscenitas meant "inauspicious, ill-omened, sinister in Antiquity," in addition to the "secular" usage, filthy and indecent. Dejean's project is to explore how a word ceased to be used for centuries, and how it came to flourish in the seventeenth century.
One may also set out by studying the semantic field of a word with no antique antecedents, when it is used for the first time. These approaches are excellent for grasping the general sense of a moment when a cultural -- in this case, a legal and cultural -- shift or change occurs. This is what Alfred Soman did in his remarkably learned and thoughtful "Press, Pulpit, and Censorship in France before Richelieu," published as the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 120 (6) Dec. 1976, pp. 439-463. Some write books in the space of a few short articles; some take entire books to say what is in fact appropriate for a short article. Soman's work is a little book in an article, with remarkable notes and brilliant conclusions.
The danger of reading back into Antiquity the meaning of Renaissance words is formally and eruditely explored by Jotham Parsons in his "The Roman Censors in the Renaissance Political Imagination," History of Political Thought, 22 (2001), pp. 565-586. The shift in meaning in that article sheds light on what Soman and Dejean are after.
In his pioneering work on public opinion in the early reign of Louis XIII, J. Sawyer takes Soman's work into account (Painted Poison, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990). But H. Merlin seems not know know Soman's work in her very influential Public et Littérature en France au XVIIe siècle (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1994). True, scholars sometimes do not include in their bibliographies all the works on which they have drawn, but I read Merlin pretty carefully at one point (see my review, Modern Language Notes, 111, no. 4, Sept. 1996, pp. 806-812).
Hélène Duccini's magisterial Faire voir, faire croire: l'opinion publique sous Louis XIII (Paris: Champ Vallon, 2003), soon to be reviewed here, has Sawyer and Merlin, but not Soman in the bibliography. Christian Jouhaud, Les pouvoirs de la littérature (Paris: Gallimard, 2000), has Merlin in his notes, but none of Duccini's articles, some of which appeared as early as 1978. (See my review of Jouhaud's book.)
Joan Dejean's learnedly stimulating The Reinvention of Obscenity comes to fundamentally the same conclusions as Soman, but she does not cite him in her bibliography. Nor are Duccini's articles nor Merlin's works, although Jouhaud's is. Enough of this pedantry: suffice it to note that public-opinion studies, public-space studies, obscenity, and censorship have become somewhat distinct fields of inquiry.
More interesting, Soman and Dejean offer strikingly similar conclusions. Soman explores obscenity in the broader context of blasphemy, perversion, obscenity, prognostications, and of course censorship. His sources are mainly legal treatises and manuscript law cases. Several minor authors were put to death, 1574-1611 (p. 455), but it would be the major figures, Duplessis-Mornay, de Thou, and Casaubon whose works posed a dilemma for royal authorities. Rival jurisdictions kept censorship quite inefficient during Richelieu's ministry, and this was still quite the case in the 1650, under Séguier (p. 457).
For Dejean "classical Latin had a vocabulary of obscenity" (p. 3) that collapsed and then was revived thanks to the arrival of more and larger markets for books as a result of the invention of printing (p. 3). She offers interesting aperçus of experiences in Italy and England, then turns to a careful re-examination of Théophile de Viau's career, writings, and trial, as found largely in that magnificent work by Frédéric Lachèvre, Le Procès du poëte Théophile de Viau (Paris: Champion, 1909), 2 vols.
But I have been too cursory to be fair, in characterizing Dejean's approach. Sensitive to the speech around her, she notes that in our time the word obscene is extending its field of meaning to all sorts of cultural facts, way beyond the "dirty." It now refers to violence in war, enormous fatty desserts, and commercial athletics (the latter is my selection!). She ponders the relation between words and things (p. 4) and asks: "Can a concept fully exist before the word we use to name it has been invented?" (p. 4). Is the word concept the mot juste? I think so.
And Dejean continues: "... it would appear that, in all cultures and at all periods, primary obscenities are perceived as having an unusually close connection with the things they designate. Her reference is Amy Richlin, The Garden of Priapus: Sexuality and Aggression in Roman Humor (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). "Primary obscenities," Dejean continues in a note, did not function as expletives in Latin and so presumably did not signify anger as they do in English today.
But before going further, a word on Dejean's resolute perspective -- the modern, the latest. She is so eager to cast her research in a framework that casts light on the present that she challenges this reader to understand her. On p. 124 she refers to someone named Lenny Bruce. Who is he? She refers to Maplethorpe's works. I do know about these because of the controversy they unleashed. Are they indecent or obscene? What is the difference?
(Here I become a source, a factoid. I knew about Maplethorpe because of the controversy, and the material was visual. Was Bruce a painter? a poet? Whatever, he was probably a verbal rather than a visual artist, and he produced less controversy than Maplethorpe.)
At one point she almost laments in frustration by saying that someone will probably assert that there are ancient examples: clearly she wants an untarnished modern broken away from ages with the same old metaphors and dirty words. Aretino's obscenities are diminished, it seems, by the heavy Latin in which they were written. The search for a "truly vernacular sexually transgressive literature ... totally without classical models" is unrelenting (p. 58). I do not object to this. In fact, as J. H. Hexter observed about himself, I really am also only partially a "modern" and Dejean helps me sense this. I spend hours and hours each day in the seventeenth century. And here I have no feelings of inadequacy or frustration from my lack of familiarity with contemporary culture. But on to more interesting issues.
Dejean is a careful and thoughtful reader of Foucault. She has sought and found a creative synthesis in his writings (p. 76), and this too I admire. Whether on epistème or on author, or on sexuality, Dejean moves along with Foucault in mind. If the terrain is carefully chosen, an extended conformity on historical research with a general theory of historical-cultural change may result. And Dejean has chosen the terrain brilliantly, and it may be summed up in one immortal name: Molière. He is the "first modern author in France" (p. 84).
Let us note the wonderful absence of reductionism here. The market is there (p. 86), but it is not as determinist as in Merlin. True, Molière, very ill, went on stage that last night because the troop needed the money. But it was the conjuncture in innovations that is important. The evocation of the obscene word on the stage, a depiction in the frontispiece, the publication, the scandal, the critiques around L'École des femmes, Molière's portrait as an author, and lastly, the cultural process of secularization: all are pulled together in exemplary close readings. Let the reader enjoy Dejean's work; no summary would do it justice. The literature, the private life, and the pre-paparazzi are all here!
But Dejean is after something more, and it is possible that here she
goes beyond Foucault. I cannot recall if he takes a position that images
precede words (of "things," etc.), or the reverse, especially in an
epistemic moment. Dejean comes down firmly on the precedence of words.
Her findings in this book, with the rise of the modern obscene, confirm
So much more could be written about this book, but I conclude by noting that Dejean has helped Patricia Ranum support her argument regarding the presumed portrait of Charpentier; and in his tirade about his nose, doesn't Rostand's Cyrano ask his interlocutor whether it finds it obscene
R. B. Waddington's book on Aretino (University of Toronto Press, 2004) makes claims similar to Dejean's regarding modernity, although less categorically. This self-constructed literary artist became famous (notorious?) as a result of his published letters (in Italian), and his writings about erotic engravings inspired by Romano's drawings, the I Modi. Visual preceding verbal?
Aretino's writing about genitals is a take-off on social conventions as "philosophy" (we hide the wrong parts) inspired by Pliny. Here is a strong candidate for being named the "father" of modern porn (writing about prostitutes.