Nov 122008

Colligan, Colette. The Traffic in Obscenity from Byron to Beardsley Palgrave Macmillan, 2006 Link

Alan Moore wrote, in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1, “The British Empire has always encountered difficulty in distinguishing between its heroes and its monsters.” That applies to more than just fictional characters. Why else would two of England’s heroes also be known as notorious pornographers?

The first example from Colette Colligan’s book is Lord Byron’s epic poem Don Juan. Instead of a conquering hero as the character is usually depicted, this Don Juan is more of a submissive masochist, sold into slavery in the Orient and consigned to a sultan’s harem as a cross-dressed woman. Instead of a conquering masculine hero, Don Juan is transformed (feminized) by his environment, which opens new sexual possibilities away from the heteronormativity of England.

At the time, there was much concern over who would read these books. Advances in printing technology and increased general literacy created a new mass market for print publications on all subjects, including sex, of course. Byron’s Don Juan was one of those point of controversy on obscenity This created a bizarre double bind: To prohibit the unauthorized printing of Don Juan, Byron’s copyright had to be enforced, but to give the work copyright meant that it had artistic merit, and therefore wasn’t pornography.

They don’t tell you stuff like this in high school English classes. Maybe the kids would pay more attention if they did.

The second chapter of Colligan’s book focuses on Sir Richard Francis Burton. Burton brought back from his travels what purported to be a true and un-Bowdlerized translation of the Arabian Nights, with considerable violence and sexuality. Arabian Nights, in a very bowdlerized version, was a popular children’s book in Victorian England and many people weren’t pleased by Burton’s new version. Burton pressed on by authoring translations of the Kama Sutra, the Kama Shastra and other Asian sex manuals.

In some editions of Burton’s erotic works, the original tex was only a minority of the total page count, with the rest taken up by exegesis and various essays, forewords, afterwords and side texts. Burton used a book ostensibly about Oriental sexuality to discuss English sexuality at length, and to argue that homosexuality isn’t such a big deal, if it is done by the right kind of people.

Many of these editions were sold by subscription in print runs of only a few hundred or less, trying to secure that these disruptive sexual ideas would only be seen by sufficiently elite individuals. These editions, lavishly produced volumes selling for guineas, may have been the most expensive pieces of pornography ever produced.

There are a number of men (usually English) who have sought psychosexual transformation via masochistic rituals in “the East”, notably TE Lawrence, Aleister Crowley and William S Burroughs. Even Leopold von Sacher-Masoch looked East, or rather South-East, for expanded sexual possibilities. However, I think the expanded sexual possibilities are more relative than absolute.

Even today, there’s this belief that sex is better somewhere else. The teen sex comedy Euro Trip holds out the promise of the East (in this case, Europe) as a place of both sexual adventure (played for comedy) and true love.

In both cases, Byron and Burton used the threat/challenge of the Orient as Other for both sexual fantasies and to challenge English sexual mores.

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