Sex In Literature with Catherine Brown


>>Catherine Brown: Welcome everybody to those
who weren’t in my talk this morning or don’t who I am , I am Catherine Brown and I am Head
of English faculty at New College of the Humanities. And its lovely to see you several students
at the College and indeed colleagues here today. I’m going to start by apologising for the
crassness of the title of this talk. What the title of this talk sounds like is
though I for some minutes academically waffled to a conference organiser about what I wanted
to talk about and they summarised ok so what you want to talk about is sex in literature,
that’s our title. And this title at least has the virtue of
having the world ‘sex’ in it, because sex as we know sells. I experienced this about half a year ago in
the heaving sweaty mass of the audience at the Bad Sex ceremony, Bad Sex Awards ceremony
in London. A very large, a very full room. Now, the literary review which runs this awards
in order to hold up to shame examples of bad fictional writing outside of pornography,
outside of the literary of pornography was to a good thing here, because sex guarantees
attention and coverage. As it happens, as it turned out, as I came
to realize over the curse of this evening, that evening, half a year ago, I’m actually
somewhat sceptical about the Bad Sex awards. They were started for understandable reason
in the 1970s, in the attempt to drive up the standard of writing about sex. After publishers have started putting pressure
on their novelists to introduce sex scenes in order to drive up sales. This understandably resulted in a deterioration
of the quality of writing about sex, under such compulsion to which the literary review
felt it would be helpful to call attention. But a few things troubled me about the awards. One is that there are widely divergent attitudes
to accounts of sex, perhaps more widely divergent than estimations of the overall quality of
given novels, because of our very, very different experiences of and attitudes towards sex its
self. The format of the award was that each of the
short listed passages was read aloud as it were acted by an actor. The expectations was very definitely that
there would be laugh at. But I sometimes found myself under the compunction
of pear pressure laughing at best half-hearted way, because as it happened I’d found something
rather moving in what was just being read. I found that Ben Okri passage which won the
award last year as one of the least ridiculous and offensive and with many of the others had
a kind of beauty of its own. Its struck me that it would be rather more
interesting and would say rather serve overall aim even if it wouldn’t be as entertaining
if Good Sex Awards were to be instituted I might suggest that we do that in fact at New
College of the Humanities, this would be to start the debate which the Bad Sex Awards
entirely failed to start and would still have sex in the title, ‘what is good writing about
sex?’. Another approach to take to this issue is
to historicize. How we’ve come to the point, where we feel
the need to encourage high as opposed to low quality representations of sex as opposed
to representation as opposed to non-representation of sex at all. And why might we be reaching a point where
we want go in the opposite direction. Now as I am sure you’re all aware a major
figure in the history of literature on the path to where we currently are, not just to where
literary is but to where we generally as society are is the writer that happens to be my mine
specialists author – D. H. Lawrence. He sought to write sex honestly and as it
has not been written before. He wrote ‘I want…’ this is in ‘Lady Chatterley’s
Lover’ of course the novel which most associated with the effort on his part and is the most
sexually explicit of his novels. He said ‘I want men and women to be able to
think sex fully, completely honestly and cleanly. Even if we can’t act sexually to our complete
satisfaction. Let us at least thing sexually, complete and
clean’. And the large part of his philosophical literary
project was thinking sex, rethinking sex in that way and in connecting the mind and the
body. And it’s an obvious type of experience with
which to do – connect the mind and the body, because after all what is sex, but the sex
absolutely relies on the cooperation of those two things. As anybody who’s tried to masturbate whilst
being distracted by some other thought. Well no, it is not merely animal, it is not
merely physical. If your mind isn’t engaged it is nothing. So, one of the ways in which he tried to do
that in ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ was by, was by attempting to re-evaluate words, to take
words, which were generally classified and used as dirty words and to make them clean,
because he said that they were descriptive of things which are clean and therefore should not be
dirty in themselves. He is one of many people and many movements,
which have tried to do this, to sanitize certain types of vocabulary. So when he was asked to explicate his novel
of certain words which were part of the problem of it getting into print or at least in general
release, eventually it was privately printed in Italy. When he was asked by the main stream publishers
that might of have the same experience in the United States to cut certain words he
wrote ‘impossible, I might as well try to clip my own nose into shape with scissors. The book bleeds’. Such words as those he refused to excise were
held up by Mervyn Griffith-Jones for the prosecution at the trail of Penguin Books and therefore
‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ in 1960 as ‘words, no doubt they will be sad to be good, old
Anglo-Saxon, four letter words and no doubt they are, but they appear again and again. These matters are not normally voiced in this
court, but when it forms the whole subject matter of the prosecution than we cannot avoid
voicing them. The wordoroccurs no less
than 30 times. I have added them up, but I do not guarantee
to of adding them all up’. What this indicates is that Lawrence’s attempt
to clean those words in this novel written between in three different drafts, between
1926 and 1928, but each draft was more sexually explicit than the previous so let’s call it
1928. That attempt had got precisely nowhere by
1960. Because they were held up in this way as dirty
words, in the trail. And this became an issue in the latest television
adaptation of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ to which I have happen to be the literary consultant. So one of the discussions that I had with
the writer and director was ‘what words could be used’, and he said ‘well that comes down
to the BBC policy’. So this adaptation, a 90 minute adaption,
by the way coming out hopefully this Autumn. On this, the director when I asked him about
this wrote to me this, ‘currentlyis strongly discouraged andis unacceptable. They count the number of uses and proximity
to programme start. Every use ofwould have to be approved
at controller level’ and he went on to explain that sometimes words would get, or do get
approved on the shooting script by Compliance, which is the name of the group which was used
to be called Taste and Decency, but that often people getting nervous prior to broadcast
and demand that the lines concern then be re-voiced, which is an expense, you have to
pull the actors back in, in order to re-voice those lines, which is an inducement to cation
from the outset. And of course even if they had been contained
to a greater extent than they are by this particular adaptation it is doubtful that
they could of be remotely let alone durably cleaned by that adaption where all other adaptations
on this point in so far as they have contained those words have also failed and Lawrence’s
ancestry on this having failed. So the book which was meant to lead to an
end of dirty books when it was unbanned in 1960 led to a deluge of dirty books. Including ones which were long being ban such
as the poems of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester or Fanny Hill. And many modern works of literary pornography. And it’s as part of the same movement, certain
changes happen to what was permitted in the cinema. And private members clubs grew up on 1960s
cinematic private members clubs which would show pornographic works. So many of the book which were unbanned as
it were or now newly permitted by the unbanning of that novel many of them, I’m sure, Lawrence
would have applaud and whether on balance he would of like an interpretation of Obscene
Publications Act of 1959 which permitted his own novel to be published and those others. Or which permitted neither is, I think, genuinely
open to debate. But what is certain is that the version of
Lawrence which was then held up in the 1960s when he was a poster boy of the sexual liberation
movement so he was the champion indeed in best terms of the high priest of free love
is of course a distortion of him. And his association with smart, bearing in
mind that ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ is the novel that launched a thousand lechery ranges
is a still greater distortion. Now Lawrence of course did famously have a
conception of good sex. And what that conception is would require,
you know, a good hour or many hours to go into and I’m not going to go into it. What became distorted though is that, is the
notion of what good sex is, because we retained the concept, so I would pause it that in our
culture today if you’re not having lots of ‘good sex’ and not what Lawrence explicitly
meant by that then you are somehow socially and existentially inadequate. Sex in our culture is a cocktail and is taken
as an cocktail. Precisely the interpretation of it, precisely
the analogy of it which Connie rejects, that’s Lady Chatterley, when she forms her relationship
with Mellors, and she likens the previous sexual affair that she would had making sex
like cocktails. I would suggest that our attitude towards
sex now is a common cocktail mode, with the relation inflection that it is very
important to our sense of own worth that we drink very many, very good cocktails.

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