Those books are -- let's not ask how I know-- pretty intense, hardcore bondage-y stuff, and I bring this up not because I'm offended by it; frankly, I like living in a world where Target feels free to put S&M books out in the open; I'd rather live in that world than the one in which Tipper Gore got all up in arms because George Michael thought sex was best when it's one on one.
(Raise your hand if you mentally added, in a lower voice, one... on... one.)
I bring it up more because while I didn't read very much of Ulysses today -- I was busy biking and then working and then taking Mr F and Mr Bunches to McDonald's instead of the park because it was raining and then taking them to the park, too, because Mr Bunches pointed out the rain had stopped and he had me on a technicality and Lawyer Dad respects technicalities, and then I did some actual yardwork for only the second time this year (and bought half a trimmer, a story for another day) but the parts I did read I think are the parts that are some of the obscene ones that Joyce was charged with writing.
In the case of United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, in 1933, an appellate court upheld a ruling that obscene language in a book is not obscene if it doesn't promote lust. The case arose when a girl read a portion of the book that had been serialized, and complained that the masturbation references upset her, so the district attorney charged the publishers of the magazine with obscenity, and Ulysses wasn't published in America for 10 more years, until Random House arranged for a test case: it imported a French copy of Ulysses and convinced Customs to seize it and the authorities to condemn it as obscene.
(The test case was needed because Random House wanted to publish the book but needed to have it found obscene, and almost didn't happen: Customs at first refused to seize the book and the prosecutor thought the book had merit.)
The trial proceeded, though, in the face of a law that banned obscenity, and ultimately a 2-1 vote of the Court of Appeals upheld the ruling that the book was obscene -- but that the obscenity was okay because it didn't promote lustful thought:
Art certainly cannot advance under compulsion to traditional forms, and nothing in such a field is more stifling to progress than limitation of the right to experiment with a new technique. The foolish judgments of Lord Eldon about one hundred years ago, proscribing the works of Byron and Southey, and the finding by the jury under a charge by Lord Denman that the publication of Shelley's Queen Mab was an indictable offense are a warning to all who have to determine the limits of the field within which authors may exercise themselves. We think that Ulysses is a book of originality and sincerity of treatment and that it has not the effect of promoting lust. Accordingly it does not fall within the statute, even though it justly may offend many.The minority vote would have continued the ban based on "community standards."
The part I read today involved Bloom, the main character, going to church and musing on how it was smart that the priest used wine for communion, because if he used beer he might get all the drunks in town wanting to come just for that, and then after church pondering how he sometimes sees a bit of ladies' butts on the way out (that's the quote at the start of this); Bloom then goes to the drugstore to order something and considers getting a massage and bath, but soon is on the carriage for the funeral of his friend.
(It's worth mentioning that one of the grounds for charging the book to be obscene was it's derogatory treatment of the Catholic Church. Can you imagine, today, a prosecutor bringing charges against an author who said something bad about a church?)
None of the "obscenity" is particularly shocking, or even graphic -- I suppose it would have been if I'd lived in a world where the sight of a woman's ankle was forbidden, rather than in a world where a song that graphically and quite cleverly compares sex to a show on the Discovery Channel can hit the Top 40, -- but even so, while standards might have changed such that now we don't think that a mere mention of pubic hair is obscene...
...I was about to say that I found it surprising that America would try to ban a book merely because it was offensive, and say that we wouldn't do that anymore, but I thought about it, and we would.
Our attitudes haven't changed, not really. Sure, nowadays, we let Fifty Shades and The Claiming Of Sleeping Beauty be sold at Target, but we have news show after news show ad infinitum ad nauseam talking about why that is and what it remarks, and we still bleep the latter part of the word asshole on TV unless it's HBO, and didn't the Supreme Court just finish up an obscenity hearing over brief use of language on TV?
The things we find shocking now are more shocking than ever -- but we are not any more permissive, not really. We think we are, because we walk by the erotic books in the supermarket and think "That would never have happened in the 1920s" but then we come home and remember that we still can't swear in Prime Time and The Bob & Tom Show can't play some of their funniest stuff on the radio.
So, really, America is just as uptight as ever: we're still into banning things, we just ban different stuff now and get upset over more exotic forms of nudity. In 1933, America took 10 years to be ready for Leopold Bloom to think about sex while at a Catholic mass, and did so only grudgingly. In 2012, America sells slashfic in the supermarkets but we get all up in arms if Jon Stewart calls someone interior of a person's butt on the news.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. We haven't made any progress in tolerance; we've just started not tolerating different stuff.
What if this: What if when people didn't want to watch something, see something, read something, they just didn't, and let others decide how much nudity they need in their sitcoms or cop shows? I'm not against warning people or having information that lets me decide, before watching, whether my kids should see something or not -- I'm against you telling me or me telling you how much of the word asshole Jon Stewart can say on the air, and what books should be in the public library.