Art or pornography?
The debate over an 18th-century erotic novel, Fanny Hill, is revisited by LAU professor Kristiaan Aercke, chair of the Humanities Department, in a talk about the book’s literary significance.
Dr. Kristiaan Aercke, chair of LAU's Humanities Department in Beirut, lectures on the controversial 18th-century erotic novel, Fanny Hill.
Dr. Kristiaan Aercke, chair of LAU’s Humanities Department in Beirut, framed the debate over pornography and art in a historical context, at a public lecture on the 18th-century erotic novel Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, also known as Fanny Hill, at LAU Beirut on January 14.
At the lecture entitled “Fanny’s Philosophy: Art and/or Pornography?” Aercke described the controversial history and long road to the legal acceptance of the 1748 novel about a young prostitute named Fanny that goes into vivid detail on many controversial topics such as homosexuality, masturbation, rape, anal sex and prostitution. It was written and published in London while the author, John Cleland, was imprisoned for debt.
“In a remarkable stroke of bad luck,” Aercke said, “an earthquake shook London on the same day [an edition of Fanny Hill] was published,” which the religious authorities attributed to the book’s publication, prompting the Bishop of London to launch a campaign against literature that the Church deemed inappropriate.
Shortly after his release, Cleland was thrown back in prison, along with the book’s publishers, charged with “corrupting the King’s subjects,” and the book was banned in England until 1970 — 221 years after its initial publication.
The book landed in the United States in 1821 where it was immediately banned until the ban was successfully challenged in 1966 at the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was granted protection under the First Amendment.
There, Fanny Hill’s defenders masterfully argued that art and pornography are mutually exclusive and thus no text can be deemed as both pornography and literature.
“Consequently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the literary style of Fanny and her technique lifted the narrative of her ‘sexploits’ from the cesspool of obscenity to the heights of Mount Parnassus,” said Aercke.
Until the period of the ruling, literary critics, sociologists and psychologists were using the terms pornography and obscenity without defining them, explained Aercke.
The trial succeeded in setting precedent in the debate over pornography and art by giving meaning to the terms and deciding that the structure, style and prose of a text, if written with enough eloquence, could not simply be deemed as obscene based on its content.
Aercke’s talk was the second event in a string of public lectures organized by the Humanities Department that will take place every month until the end of the academic year.