Anthony Burgess and the Censorship of Ulysses
Reading Ulysses by James Joyce was perhaps the first time that Anthony Burgess had experienced forbidden literature. He first read Ulysses as a school boy, though his recollections of the event are inconsistent. In Little Wilson and Big God, he claims a teacher ‘had brought it back from illiberal Nazi Germany in the two-volume Odyssey Press edition’, while in Here Comes Everybody, his critique of the works of Joyce, he recalls his acquisition of the novel: ‘As a schoolboy I sneaked the two-volume Odyssey Press edition into England, cut up into sections and distributed all over my body’.
Whatever the truth of Burgess’s first encounter with Ulysses, it is clear that the logistical difficulties in reading it formed part of the experience. The novel was banned on its publication in 1922 in both the United States and Britain because of content deemed obscene. Specifically, the censors in America objected to the Nausicaä episode of the novel, in which masturbation and sexual fantasy are depicted.
Despite the banning of Ulysses coming to an end in Britain in 1936, the novel maintained a reputation. Burgess remembers reading about Joyce’s death while he was cleaning windows in the army mess hall in 1941. His commanding officer only knew of Joyce because of his ‘dirty book’. Of his comrades’ attitude towards Joyce and ‘dirty books’, Burgess writes: ‘I have never felt inclined to condemn people who look for dirt in literature: looking for dirt, they might find something else. I do not think that those of my fellow-soldiers who read paperback pornography for masturbatory thrills saw that sort of stuff as of the same order as The Decameron or Joyce’s dirty book. In literature […] they wanted confirmation that sexual desire, sexual exercise, and sexual obscenity were valid aspects of life.’
Burgess’s first experiences of Ulysses not only informed his own novel writing, such as the mythic foundation of novels such as The Worm and the Ring and A Vision of Battlements, but it was also formative in developing his attitudes towards literary censorship and obscenity. Much like his fellow soldiers in the barrack rooms, Burgess thought that literature had a duty to reflect all aspects of life, whether sexual, bodily, or emetic. Ulysses is all of these things, depicting masturbation, menstruation and other vital human experiences that were deemed obscene by the censors.
For Burgess, Ulysses was a novel that used language in new and interesting ways, but this alone meant that it could be attached as a ‘dirty book’. He writes: ‘It seems that the novelist who is interested in language is also interested in life – too interested, say the censors.’ This was something he felt was true of A Clockwork Orange as well as Ulysses.
Yet, Ulysses is not merely, as Burgess writes, ‘dirty words and descriptions of bodily functions’. Burgess supposes that ‘the obscenity was a structural necessity, not an arbitrary device of casual shock. Ulysses is, in fact, remarkably chaste, though its unbanning encouraged unchaste authors to smear themselves with filth and indulge in orgies of spermatorrhea and coprophagy.’
The literary value of Ulysses, claims Burgess, stands apart from its representations of so-called ‘obscene’ acts. Describing the power of the book, he writes: ‘It is a story about the need of people for each other, and Joyce regards this theme as so important that he has to borrow an epic form in which to tell it. The invocation of the Odyssey may reduce Ulysses to Bloom, but it also exalts Bloom to Ulysses.’
These ideas, which Burgess formed in the 1930s, developed throughout his career, but the core of his thinking remained the same: if art is to be successful it must reflect the world in its entirety, including the distasteful or obscene aspects. The fullest articulation of these ideas came in 1970, when Burgess gave a lecture on obscenity to the Maltese Library Association.
This lecture, Obscenity & the Arts, has been published internationally for the first time by Pariah Press, and includes a response by Germaine Greer and an interview with Burgess by Marie Said. It is available to order from Pariah Press’s website.