Modernism, After Dark
Ezra Pound might not be the first person you'd turn to for sex advice. Nor would you expect T. S. Eliot to recommend a salacious read. Yet, to judge from some midcentury pulp publications (or at least from their covers), some poor publisher thought that these highest of the "High Modernists" could lend a little pique to their wares. Consider this 1957 edition of Bubu of Montparnasse:
The back cover reads:
NAKED BODIES FOR SALE
Night after night the girl sold her body in the dark streets of Paris. In the rented room she would slowly strip herself before the men who paid for love . . .
Toward morning she would return to the arms of the man who took her earnings--the same man beat her until she cried out aloud for the sensual release of his love-making. . .
The cover illustration and back copy lead one to believe that this is, shall we say, a "certain kind of book." For those unfamiliar with Phillipe's short realist novella of Parisian prostitution, it is worth pointing out that the "Bubu" of the title is not the buxom "girl [who] sold her body in the dark streets of Paris," described in the back copy and represented (I assume) on the cover, wearing an outfit that seems a little anarchronistic for the novel's setting in 1901; Bubu is, in fact, a rather violent and unpleasant pimp ("the man who took her earnings").
But if this is that kind of book, the kind of book the back copy describes, then what is Eliot doing here? Admittedly, a typo at the end of Eliot's preface gives his name as "T. E. Eliot." Yet, this infelicity aside, the book seems strangely eager to announce its literary pedigree. A blurb on the inside cover brags, "Charles-Louis Philippe is now recognized as one of the most individual, as well as influential of modern French writers . . . Bubu of Montparnasse is usually regarded as the greatest of his novels." The cover announces a "Preface by T. S. Eliot," and, if she didn't know already, the title page assures the reader that this T. S. Eliot guy is no slouch, proudly proudly proclaiming "With a Preface by T. S. Eliot, Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature."
This tiny, pocket-sized book seems to simultaneously flaunt its status as a consumable piece of quasi-pornography (worry not, the cover assures us, it is "complete and unabridged," wink, wink) while simultaneously claiming the literary imprimatur of Eliot and the Nobel prize. It may be cheap--25c, which the inflation calculator informs me is an astoundingly affordable $1.90 in 2009 dollars--but it is literature.
Eliot had written the preface for an edition of the novel that had appeared in 1932, twenty five years earlier. In the preface Eliot recalls how he first read the book while he was in Paris in 1910, and how it seemed to capture that experience. "The Paris of 1910 was more like the Paris of 1900 than like the Paris of 1932," he explains; it was, that is, a different time. The book, for Eliot, captures the life of the poor Parisian of the turn of the century, before the arrival of a more politicized sense of class consciousness. But whatever else the book might be, it is certainly not, Eliot assures us, that kind of book. His brief preface concludes:
There have been many novels of low life, of metropolitan vice and degradation. Novels of sentimentality, novels of satire, novels of indignation, novels of social reform, novels of prurience. Bubu de Montparnasse succeeds in being none of these: emphatically not the last. Philippe certainly disturbs any lingering complacency that we may feel towards the world as it is; but he has no cure to advocate. He is both compassionate and dispassionate; in his book we blame no one, not even a "social system"; and even the most virtuous, in reading it, may feel: I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word and deed.
Not a sense of prurience, but of sin is what is in store for the reader of this text ("even the most virtuous"!). Boy, what a disappointment--and the back cover made it sound so promising. But how to explain the disjunction between what the book at one level says--in its preface or on its title page--and on another level what it is--a cheap book ($1.90!) with a cheesecake cover illustration?
The French psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche describes the process of "propping" whereby one drive emerges by essentially piggy-backing on another. Following a Freudian model, Laplanche describes how the adult sexual drives emerge by "propping" themselves on the earlier, more fundamental, somatic drives (hellenophile James Strachey translated Freud's Anlehnung [propping] as "anaclisis"). Whatever you may think of psychoanalysis, I would suggest a similar process occured in the middle of the twentieth century, whereby pornographic modes of reading often propped themselves on existing literary modes of reading. As a mode of reading that was noninstrumental, literary reading provides a model for aestheticized, readerly engagement with a text that is not necessarily as antithetical to "pornographic reading" (as a practice of reading) as we might today think.
And, in the wake of the obscenity trials of Ulysses and, most importantly, Lady Chatterley's Lover, literature itself seemed to have a sexual charge--a patina of prurience. The back pages of this 1957 edition of Bubu list other works of Interest to the reader. "If you enjoyed this book," it says, "you will also want to read:" and then lists a number of works with title like "Perversity" and "The Sign of Eros." Among the titles included is Jean-Paul Sartre's (!) Intimacy, which, a blurb assures us, "... leaves Lady Chatterley's Lover asleep at the post."
As for Pound's sex advice--that will have to wait for a future post.