My life and loves Vol. 3
For thilke cause, if that ye red
I wolde go the middle wey
And write a boke between the twey
Somewhat of lust, somewhat of lore.
Give me the man that on Life's rough sea Loves to have his sails filled with a lusty wind, Even till the sail- yards tremble, the masts crack, And the rapt ship runs on her side so low That she drinks water while her keel ploughs air.
There is no danger to a man who knows What life and death is; there's not any law Exceeds his knowledge, nor is it lawful That he should stoop to any other law.
At length the oracle has spoken. Mr. Justice Levy of the Supreme Court in New York has looked into the second volume of My Life, and 'found it necessary to read but a few passages to arrive at the inevitable conclusion that it is neither literature nor art.'
Now who made Levy, with his 'inevitable conclusion,' a judge of literature and art? He may be a judge of what is legal or illegal; but what does he know of literature or art?
Levy proceeds to declare that my book 'is not only obviously and unquestionably obscene, lewd, lascivious, and indecent, but it is filthy, disgusting and utterly revolting,' and he adds, not seeing that he is contradicting himself, 'I purposely refrain from naming it, as I am averse to enhancing its sale'; but if it is 'disgusting and utterly revolting,' then surely no sale need be feared. Levy, why play Dogberry and write yourself down an ass!
But this New York judge has given the police the power to raid private printing establishments without a search warrant and arrest the printers of a book about which nothing is known! 'The police,' he declares, 'do not merit the criticism leveled at them' for exceeding their constitutional powers.
'Quite the contrary, they are to be commended,' for the book turned out to be obscene. Justice Levy's law is as ridiculous as his view of literature. I can only hope the police may raid his house and arrest him for having in his possession a Bible, the obscene passages in which are known to every schoolboy!
Is there any way of arriving at an impartial and definitive judgment on what should be allowed and what should be forbidden in writing of sexual matters? It will scarcely be denied that there is far less freedom of speech in England and the United States than anywhere else in Christendom, and this Anglo-Saxon prudery is hardly more than a century old. It came with the increase of women readers, coincident with the vast growth in wealth and numbers of English-speaking people since the French Revolution. It is manifestly founded on Puritanism and is supported by the middle classes and has no deeper or more rational sanction. In France, and indeed in every country of Europe, the man of letters today can treat sexual facts as freely as the painter or sculptor treats the nude: it is only in England and the United States that he would be advised to speak of his 'little Mary' instead of his stomach.
And since this prudery has come into power, English literature has lost its pride of place. French books and Russian books have taken the position once held by English books. If it were worth the trouble, it would be easy to trace the emasculating effect of this prudery throughout English and American literature; but the main facts are manifest and indisputable.
Let us see what the best Frenchmen have to say about their wider liberty, do they praise or condemn it?
Anatole France, who died recently, held for a dozen years the foremost place in French literature. He was, by almost universal consent, the foremost man of letters in the world. A book on him has been published lately by Jean Jacques Brousson, who was for many years his secretary. He calls it Anatole France in Slippers. Again and again Anatole France expresses himself on questions of sex with complete freedom.
'A sad prudery reigns over literature; a prudery more stupid, more cruel, more criminal than the Holy Inquisition.' (La triste pudeur regne sur la litterature, la pudeur plus sotte, plus cruelle, que la Sainte Inquisition.) And he goes on:
'I want Venus from head to foot. Her face is good enough for relations and friends and children, and the husband, but her body must be ready for caresses. For I hope you are not one of those fools who would limit the lover to a kiss on the face, as if she were a holy relic. Lovers can claim all the unedited places and the first editions, if I may so speak… (Hark to that, Levy!) 'People praise my learning; I only want to be learned now in the things of love. Love is now my sole and particular study. It is to love that I devote the remains of my continually diminishing power. Why can I not write everything that the little god inspires me with?
'For me now a woman is a book. There is no such thing as a bad book, as I have already told you. Going over its pages, one is sure to find some place that will repay you for your trouble. Page by page, my friends, I love to go over it slowly.' And while saying this, 'he wet his fingers and made the gesture of caressing some imaginary pages, his eyes sparkling with youth,' Brousson adds.
Again and again he returns to this theme: here is his advice to his young secretary:
'Make love now, by night and by day, in winter as in summer… You are in the world for that and the rest of life is nothing but vanity, illusion, waste. There is only one science, love; only one riches, love; only one policy, love. To make love is all the law and the prophets.'
It must be remembered that Anatole France, when he complains of the prudery and reticence in literature, is speaking of French literature, the frankest in the world. Again and again Anatole France has written and spoken as frankly as I have written in any page of My Life, and yet he complains of French prudery as 'stupid, cruel, criminal,' and no Judge Levy dares to assail him.
There is another example one should cite. In his last book, published since his death, Paul Verlaine, perhaps the greatest of French poets, certainly one of the immortals, sings the delights even of unnatural passion, and yet the Upton Sinclairs will read us Sunday school lectures of what we must say and what leave unsaid in describing normal human desire.
And if the authority of Anatole France and of Verlaine is not enough, I can comfort myself with the saying of Michelangelo: 'The great indiscriminating masses always honor what they should despise and love what they should abhor'; or the saying of perhaps the wisest Frenchman: 'The value of any work of art can be gauged by the Indignation it excites among ordinary folk.'
When Rubens was criticized by the Archduke Ferdinand, the governor of the Low Countries, for his bold painting of The Three Graces, the great artist answered frankly, 'It was in painting the nude that the power of the artist could best be seen' (c'etait au nu qui se voyait le merite de la peinture). And this was said at almost the end of his life.
I leave Sinclair to his Mammonart and communist tracts, for already the new time is upon us and the new paganism is making its claim felt. The old paganism was emphatic enough: Aristophanes wrote stage scenes that would have made Sinclair shudder, and Plato, 'the divine one,' as Barrett Browning called him, declared in the fifth book of his Republic that the man who condemned women exercising naked was like 'unripe fruit' on the tree of life.