From Fanny Hill; or, The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (illustrated by Franz von Bayros)
Nature’s God Week Six: Marquis de Sade and Other Libertines (pg. 71-108 Hilaritas edition)
By Gregory Arnott
Special guest blogger
Like the end of the separate Parts of The Earth Will Shake and The Widow’s Son, Book One of Nature’s God closes with a panorama of the historical events that surround our four protagonists. This gives the book an epic scope and allows RAW to make his riff/commentary on history and progress. I doubt that I need to point this out to any of us but this chapter is of course written somewhat in the style of “The Wandering Rocks” from Joyce’s Ulysses. (I say somewhat as, despite the headlines, Wilson doesn’t really ape newspaper writing and instead writes in his regular, suggestive style.)
Chapter 6 covers five major story lines, in my opinion (or I’m going to make an arbitrary division because it would be incredibly difficult to write about all this otherwise): the publication of A Moistness in the Wind, the efforts of the men we now call the Founding Fathers to further the American Revolution- especially the pugnaciously honest and self-assured John Adams, Colonel Muadhen’s direct experience of military service and lionizing mortals, the return of Voltaire to Paris which is juxtaposed with the imprisonment of de Sade, and Sigismundo in Ohio meditating and experiencing all phenomena as real in some sense, unreal in some sense, meaningless in some sense, real and meaningless in some sense, unreal and meaningless in some sense, and real and unreal and meaningless in some sense. And this paragraph is made of two sentences.
Maria’s rather innocuous letter to London Gazette and the actions of Weskit Fitzloosely, while fictional, reflects the complicated history of the press in England. It was often the actions of drunks and pornographers that pushed the borders of decency and championed true freedom of the press. For example; The Yellow Book was the most popular periodical in 1890s London, it published the artwork of Aubrey Beardsley and John Singer Sargent, contributors included Ernest Dowson, W.B. Yeats, Max Beerbohm, and Baron Corvo. Yet, when Oscar Wilde was brought to trial he carried a yellow bound book with him- most likely a copy of Huysmans or Pierre Louys, and although Wilde had never contributed to The Yellow Book, because Beardsley’s (who detested and even feared Wilde personally) sumptuous illustrations had graced both Wilde’s Salome and The Yellow Book the periodical was inextricably linked to deviance, buggery, and indecency. A valuable publication was snuffed out. Luckily Arthur Symons is in the corner, rubbing the shoulders of his prize-fighting pornographer Leornard Smithers who fearlessly puts out The Savoy. Smither’s provides work to the members of the Decadence Movement when other publishers fear Victorian prudishness and public opinion and The Savoy remains to this day a jewel case of gemlike parts of English prose and art. A more contemporaneous example, in relation to Maria’s publication, would be the downright humorous publication of John Cleland’s Fanny Hill; or, The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. Cleland wrote his pornographic masterpiece while in debtors prison and promptly found himself back before a judge after the initial publication of his manuscript. There Cleland whittled and wailed his way out of a conviction and according to one biographer was rewarded a pension by the court to prevent further writing. Meanwhile, Fanny Hill went merrily along being published by the pirate press by the boatload- no one really knew what to do about it.
Maria, under her borrowed-from-Jonathan-Swift nom de plume of Beckersniff, ironically asks if anyone more civilized than “the Methodists, the Howlers, and the Ranters” believe in God as a physical being versus a spiritual concept. I say ironic since it was the Protestant dissenters who really began the underground printing tradition in England. Going back to Tyndale’s Bible in the early sixteenth century and continuing to John Bunyan’s writings (written while imprisoned for his preaching more often than not) in the late seventeenth century and beyond to Blake in the eighteenth, Protestant religious nutters have had a lot to do with freedom of the press. This is something I’m sure most of today’s fundamentalists would regret if any of them were literate or capable of having even the most rudimentary grasp of history/reality. Oh well- ignorance and dragging the world back to the Dark Ages are bliss, as they say.
We are told that, like Fanny Hill, Maria’s “little volume” proliferated in pirate editions and that seven copies remain in libraries around the world today. Two of the libraries are interesting: one is the collection of Gershon Legman. Legman was a folklorist who specialized in erotica and wrote The Rationale of the Dirty Joke, a book the author of Playboy’s Book of Forbidden Words would surely have appreciated. The second library is of course Miskatonic University. The subject matter of A Moistness in the Wind, as I mentioned before, harkens back to Wilson’s first published essay in Krassner’s The Realist. The material in the excerpts seems to be an anachronistic rewrite of the original essay with some of Hargrave Jennings material thrown in for extra flavor. (In the spirit of Wilkes I will relate that my wife pointed out a few evenings ago that there seems to be no purer happiness than that of a man who is having his penis touched. I couldn’t argue in most circumstances, but she’s never had to endure that supremely awkward part of a physical.)