Sunday, September 23, 2012

Reading #$%*&: Loren Glass Comments on the Poetics of Obscenity

Editor's Note: A few weeks back, P&PC came across the late nineteenth-century business card for Michigan hotelier Magnus Hallgren pictured here. While we admire his hipster 'stache—and while his attire makes us think of Robert Frost's "A Hundred Collars"—we haven't been able to find out much about Hallgren himself except that, in 1889 (according to Michigan Supreme Court records) he was appointed Street Commissioner of the City of Menominee, Michigan, after former commissioner William Campbell, who "graded and graveled a road on the town line" without city council permission, was "removed from office."

It's not Hallgren's style, occupation, or court appearance, but his taste in poetry, that got the attention of P&PC, however. Like Dr. C. B. Weagley Veterinary Surgeon, C.G. Blatt's Photographic Emporium, The Palace Saloon and Restaurant, and the City Cab Company of Hays, Kansas—Hallgren had a poem printed on the back of his business card (shown here). And what a poem it is! In five stanzas, "A Fair Bather" incorporates as many dirty words as it can, except that none of those words actually appear in print; instead, they're evoked by the poem's rhyme scheme, as in line two of the following example (stanza 3):

She would float on her side and for shells she would hunt,
And go through the motions of washing her
Clothes out so tidy and wringing them dry,
And hanging them out with a tired out sigh.

At its most clever, "A Fair Lady" makes sense both with and without the dirty words; in the passage above, for example, one can read from line 2 to line 3 ("washing her / clothes") and make sense, or one can mentally supply the dirty word and make another kind of sense.  Same goes for stanza 4:

She could dive like a frog and swim like a duck,
And showed by her actions that she knew how to
Frolic in water clear up to her chin,
Without being drowned as so many have been.

You can probably hear the entire P&PC Office snickering, right?

Still, despite all of our adolescent humor, we wanted to know more about how we might read "A Fair Bather," and so we turned to old friend, mentor, and University of Iowa English professor Loren Glass (pictured here). In addition to studying American literature and celebrity culture (see Authors, Inc.: Literary Celebrity in the Modern United States [2004]), Glass is an expert on dirty words and the history of obscenity. He is co-editor of Obscenity and the Limits of Liberalism (Ohio State UP, 2011), and his new book, Counter-Culture Colophon: Grove Press, the Evergreen Review, and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde (forthcoming from Stanford UP, Spring 2013) traces the history of the anti-censorship publisher that printed—and was taken to court again and again for printing—such "obscene" books as Lady Chatterley's Lover and Tropic of Cancer. (When you get a chance, check out Part I and Part II of the preview to Counter-Culture Colophon that Glass published in the Los Angeles Review of Books about a year ago.) In other words, if anyone could tell us about the poetics of obscenity in "A Fair Bather," Glass would be the one.

So, yes, we wrote to Glass. And here's what he had to say:

Dear P&PC,

In Reading Voices: Literature and the Phonotext, Garrett Stewart argues that "silent reading processes a text as the continuous inhibition of the oral" (2). Stewart has little to say about literary obscenity in this book—he is hunting for larger game—but the idioms in which he expresses the relationship between the phoneme (the smallest unit of spoken language) and grapheme (the smallest unit of written language) continuously evoke the process of censorship.

In addition to using "inhibition" in the passage I quote above, for example, Stewart specifies that "silent reading locates itself…in the conjoint cerebral activity and suppressed muscular activity of a simultaneously summoned and silenced enunciation" (1); he continues to explain that "inwardly, reading voices only as a concerted veto of sound. Where we read to ourselves is thus the place, always, of a displacement, a disenfranchisement of voice, a silencing" (2, italics mine). I couldn't help but think of Stewart's study when you sent me "A Fair Bather"—a poem that relies on the reader's unspoken knowledge of the sounds of the dirty words that are absent from the written rhyming couplets.

Indeed, reading "A Fair Bather" in terms of Stewart's provocative (and neglected) thesis reveals the logic, and the phenomenology, behind the most common methods of invoking forbidden speech in print. Conventionally, bad language is represented through the substitution either of a random series of typographic symbols (as in my title above) or in a series of dashes, occasionally preceded by the first letter of the suppressed word (hence f-bomb or c-word). This allows the reader to hear the word which has been suppressed from print, enabling both reader and writer to have it both ways: one submits to the censorship of print while evading it in (silent) speech. One hears what cannot be written.

But, of course, the reader must know these words in order to hear them, thus asymmetrically mapping this division between voice and print onto the distinction between childhood and adulthood. The mapping is asymmetric since the correlation is not between childhood and voice, on the one hand, and print and adulthood, on the other, though it is true that young children don't yet know how to read; rather, the distinction is between those old enough to have heard the concealed words and those too young to have become familiar with them. Thus a secondary acquisition of reading is added on to the primary one. This secondary acquisition is marked by a knowledge of the speech that is suppressed by the conventions used to represent bad language. Ultimately, then, this poem reveals that dirty words, unlike children, are heard but not seen.