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A Whole New Kind of Obscenity?

Updated: Jul 29, 2023

In episode 9 of Fiction/Non/Fiction, V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell talk with Ron Charles, editor of The Washington Post Book World and Shanthi Sekaran, author of Lucky Boy, about obscenity, literature, and immigration. In the first half of the show, Charles leads us through the famous 1933 obscenity trial involving James Joyce’s Ulysses and the 1964 trial involving Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. Then Shanthi Sekaran talks to us about Trump’s infamous shithole comments, his immigration policy, and how she believes the language surrounding immigration—”ICE,” “illegal alien”—is more profane than any of Molly Bloom’s dirty talk. (Bonus: Whitney reads the dirtiest passage he can find in Ulysses and embarrasses his mother.)

Readings for episode #9

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller · Ulysses by James Joyce · The Awakening by Kate Chopin · Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran

PART ONE: In which the dirtiest passage from Ulysses is read aloud.

V.V. Ganeshananthan: Ok, so, can somebody just read one legitimately dirty part from Ulysses?

Whitney Terrell: All right, I’m gonna do this. This is gonna prove to Ron that there were dirty words in Ulysses. This is from the Molly Bloom soliloquy: “I wanted to kiss him all over his lovely young cock there so simply I wouldn’t mind taking in my mouth if nobody was looking as if it was asking you to suck it so clean.” Hi mom! My mom listens to the podcast, so, this is. . . [laughter]. Ok, so the final end of my degradation from high school is—we’re all coming full circle here.

Ron Charles: Yeah, even my high school students would’ve caught that.

VVG: I mean, that certainly does sound legitimately dirty, which bring us to this–

WT: That will be the worst thing I ever read in public on the radio. Well maybe not, I don’t know. I could write something that would be worse than that, I guess.

RC: Definitely.

VVG: Podcasts: not subject to the FCC. So, wait, this brings us to the second profane book in trial we wanted to talk about: Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, which was published in France in 1934 right after this 1933 court case that Joyce and Random House won. And Tropic of Cancer was, you know, after [being] repeatedly seized by US customs agents, declared obscene by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals by 1950 and wasn’t legally published until 1964 when the Supreme Court ruled that it was not obscene. Why did the Ulysses case just settle things? Like, why was there a second trial?

RC: Well, the terms of the original decision were pretty slippery even at the time, and so there would continue to be obscenity cases throughout—there are still obscenity cases because you have to prove what is obscenity in each case. Ulysses was allowed to be published because it was proven that it was not legally obscene, not that obscenity could be published.

WT: Right, that it wasn’t obscene according to the definition, which they didn’t change. Yeah, and so it was later court cases that started messing around, or trying to redefine what obscenity was or make it a looser definition. The funny thing about the Miller case was that it was actually decided by a different case that was decided on the same day, which was a suit based on a Louis Malle film (The Lovers) that was playing in Ohio. The guy who owned the theater had been accused of showing obscene material. That was the case that had the famous decision from Justice Potter Stewart talking about obscenity or pornography. He defined it as, “I know it when I see it.” Everyone’s heard that, right?

RC: [laughter] Yeah, and that’s—that’s kind of that slippery definition that is really of no use at all. And then you’ve got other things the court introduces like “community standards,” or whether the work has what they call the “slightest redeeming social importance.” I mean, those are not very cut-and-dry standards for publishers to use.

WT: It still doesn’t seem very cut-and-dry, I mean, the judges all had standard definitions in that case, and there was another one, another case, “Miller v California” in ’73 that set up this standard that says that “obscenity is material that lacks serious literary artistic political or scientific value.” That’s what, basically, is the standard today.

RC: Right, and so it’s easy for pornographers, you know, in the 70s and 80s to throw in some serious article in the middle of lewd pictures and then claim that the magazine, you know, meets that standard.

WT: Oh, so that’s why Playboy had articles in it!

RC: I wasn’t using that example, but there are other much, much, much cruder examples than Playboy.

WT: Reading up on this it appears to me—and none of us are constitutional scholars, so one of our smart listeners can call in and correct us—but obscenity is still not protected by the first amendment.

RC: Right, as far as I know you’re right, yes.

WT: So how do you get to PornHub?

RC: [laughter] Well, you claim that it has some social value.

WT: Ok…

RC: That it has some artistic value

WT: I’d like to see that argument.

RC: Yeah. Well, it’s not hard to make it if you define it very, very broadly in terms of mental health, or expressions of repressed orientations, or even, I mean, there’s lots of different arguments you could take. We had a reviewer [for] many, many years named Carolyn See, one of the great book reviewers, just passed away a couple years ago, but she was sometimes called in for obscenity trials, you know, she was one of these experts who would . . . go in and make these arguments about the social importance of different works of art that were being accused of being obscene.

WT: Oh, that’s fascinating.

VVG: Community standards—here again, I know later in the episode we’ll be talking to Shanthi about what it means to be thinking about this language in terms of the way that the right and the left use it for politics, but it’s sort of majoritarian. So what does it mean when the people determining these things—I mean, as we talked about in our last episode, a huge amount of the publishing industry is controlled by white Americans. So then, for example, you can see situations where, if I’m remembering correctly, examples of trying to censor really radical texts on the grounds they were obscene or profane in some way. And some of those were anti-racist texts or groundbreaking works by people who in some way were marginalized.

RC: I think that’s one of the real dangers. Books by early gay writers, lesbian writers, black writers, that sort of legal argument was used to repress certain works that were of immense social importance.

PART TWO: In which true contemporary profanity is considered.

VVG: Your book [Lucky Boy] obviously preceded [Donald Trump’s] shithole remark and the immigration policies that we’re talking about these days. These are not new conversations. I see the plight of undocumented immigrants, the Muslim ban and even the relatively new category of people perceived to be Muslim. Assimilation, model minority, freedom of speech, etc.—there are all these contested terms, so you’re also writing a book that was dealing with all this sort of language.

Shanthi Sekaran: Yeah. People use different terms in my book depending on where they’re coming from. So, when I started researching this it was back in 2011, and one thing I think about is ICE. This group ICE: Immigration Customs Enforcement.

WT: Such a scary acronym in its way.

SS: Yeah. That’s what I was going to say. When I started, I always thought of this group being INS: Immigration Naturalization Services. And it was actually established in 2003 as ICE, and I think it took a number of years to catch on in the mainstream. But as writers, I think we can appreciate the unspoken nature of or the connotations of that word “ICE.” That acronym, you know. It’s cold. There’s coldness to it.

WT: Yeah. You “ice” someone, you kill them. That’s one of the meanings.

SS: There’s violence in there for sure. There’s an inhumanity—an inherent inhumanity—in the sound of that acronym, and I don’t think that’s accidental. I think there’s a certain amount of power wielded by that sound. And we also look at terms for undocumented immigrants, so there’s a time when it was very common to call an undocumented immigrant an “alien” or an “illegal alien,” or—you know—it’s a blanket term, “illegals.” Of course, thinking about that word “alien,” it’s so unearthly. It’s so dehumanizing. And it’s still used. It’s used almost aggressively. It’s used almost deliberately now.

VVG: So, we were just talking with Ron about the fact that the pro-profanity position used to be the position of the artist and the left. There have been various obscenity trials and questions about what could be banned in American schools, etc., and sometimes that position is still a position of the left. But now you can also find people on the left who are shocked by Trump’s language—not just in the shithole case—and I think for some of the reasons that you were just saying. And now you can also find people on the right saying the only thing really wrong with his comments was that he used a profane word. If he just used the term “hellhole” then sort of, you know, he’s telling the truth. He’s a straight shooter. He’s our Chief Truth Teller, which is a horrifying idea to me.

WT: Going back to what Shanthi was just saying, the violence, maybe—I’d be curious what you think profanity itself is, the violence here, or if it’s these other terms that are actually violent and profane. Maybe “shithole” is not as profane as “illegal immigrant” or “alien” or “ICE.”

SS: Right. I think it’s the spirit in which words are used, and it’s the ideas behind those words. You know, one way to look at it is that using words for a sort of perversion of the truth is the profanity—that is the violence. Using a scatological term is not in itself profane.

WT: The argument for, you know, Ulysses, for instance, which we talked about in the first half, is that this is how people actually think. It’s an honest thought rather than a masking thought, right? But when Trump uses the term “shithole” it doesn’t feel like an honest thought. It feels like a deliberately masking thought. It’s like twisting the way that profanity used to work as a way to shock a system that was insensitive. And I don’t know what it’s doing, but it seems like a different use of profanity.

SS: Yeah, kind of.

WT: [Laughing] Thank you.

VVG: The response is sort of, “Oh, those snowflakes. They want their safe space.” Right? Like the idea that, I don’t know, almost as though language is denuded of meaning. It doesn’t matter how you say what you’re saying is something underlying that.

WT: Maybe profanity becomes a way of brutality, whereas before, if you’re looking at the way it’s used in Ulysses, for instance, it’s a language of honesty.

SS: Yeah. But, of course, if you spoke to a Trump supporter they would say they’re being honest now, that they’ve done away with this political correctness. They’ve done away with this false politeness, and they’re using words like “shithole” to express what they actually think. And they see virtue in that.

VVG: Whit, when you’re saying illegal, you’re pausing a little, and then you’re adding “immigrant.” And I feel like it’s because you instinctively understand that “illegal” as a noun is even worse. I always kind of flinch when you get… there are sections, Shanthi, in your book, where people are referred to as illegals by, say, customs officials, and I know I flinch, for example, when I read something and it refers to “Blacks” as opposed to “Black people.” I recently had my attention called to the violence of saying “slaves” as opposed to “enslaved people,” and some of it is even in the very tiny grammar choices.

SS: Yeah. I mean, there’s a move toward humanizing at every possible angle because… I think of the historic dehumanizing that’s happened for so many people…

–Transcription by Amanda Minoff and Erin Saxon.

In the Stacks with JJ Cantrell: Amanda and Anthony Stromoski of Rough Draft Bar and Books, in Kingston, NY. recommend:

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi · A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James · This is How We Do It: One Day in the Lives of Seven Kids from around the World by Matt Lamothe

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