Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNumérosVol. XI - n°3The Poetics of CensorshipNovel and Censorship or Eros’ Bad...

The Poetics of Censorship

Novel and Censorship or Eros’ Bad Fait h  

Roman et censure ou la mauvaise foi d’Eros
Maurice Couturier


En tant que « prodigieux laboratoire du désir », le roman moderne a très tôt été une cible de choix pour les censeurs. De fait, avec l’avènement de la subjectivité moderne et de la figure de l’auteur, le roman ne traite plus des structures de cohésion au sein du groupe mais exprime les forces pulsionnelles de l’individu. Afin de pouvoir parler librement de l’amour – qu’il soit sentimental ou sexuel – et contourner la censure, les romanciers ont très vite eu recours à des stratégies narratives et énonciatives de plus en plus sophistiquées, leur permettant de nier toute responsabilité auteuriale tout en laissant des traces textuelles que le lecteur peuvent déceler. Dès lors, la censure se définit comme la relation dialectique qui lie entre eux les différents protagonistes de la production et de la circulation d’un texte - à savoir l’auteur, l’éditeur, le censeur et le lecteur – chacun devenant l’exégète des désirs de l’Autre.

Haut de page

Notes de l’auteur

This text is a – slightly edited – translation of the introduction of Roman et censure ou la mauvaise foi d’Eros, Seyssel: Champ Vallon, 1996

Texte intégral

1Storytelling, whatever its form, has always constituted a prodigious laboratory of desire: the desire of a people awaiting the coming of a messiah, Ulysses’s desire to return to Ithaca, Œdipus’s desire to avoid the curse announced by the prophecy but his yet stronger desire to kill his father and marry his mother. Each time, it is a group’s peace and prosperity that is at stake. This situation begins to change with the Greek and Latin novels in which it is not so much the group’s fortune that matters as the many sufferings endured by the lovers who are temporarily the victims of political institutions, of history, or more simply of their respective families’ ambition or wickedness. Yet, these novels are less concerned with drawing the anatomy of desire than with deferring its fulfillment by multiplying the turns of fortune. In all these stories, the authors merge their own desires with that of the group whose scribes or interpreters they are supposed to be. If, in many cases, their names remain unknown, it is because they did not claim to be writing for their personal glory but to contribute to the enlightenment of their cultural groups and to please their leaders. On the other hand, the lyrical poets, of whom Sappho is perhaps the emblematic figure, were always more intent upon foregrounding their personal desires in their more or less avowable aspects. This fracture between the story as an expression of the group’s, the Other’s, desires, and poetry as the vehicle for the expression of individual desires is not absolute, of course: these stories often contain important lyrical elements, while lyrical poetry often contains long stories, too. Yet Western literature has always been drawn towards these two opposites which fit the paradoxical desire of the culture which has produced it, a desire to create strong and coherent national groups, on the one hand, and to encourage the individual’s initiative and creativeness while promoting the idea of personal happiness, on the other hand.

2The invention of print fundamentally changed the situation by allowing the author to give free rein to his personal desires and to disregard the needs and preoccupations of the society in which he lives. The main objective of the modern novel, in its most innovative form at least, is not to strengthen the structures of the social group but, most of the time, to boost the forces which threaten them. This is practically what Lukacs said:

  • 1 Georg Lukacs, The Theory of the Novel (1920), trans. Anna Bostock, London: Merlin Press, 1971, 88.

The novel is the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God. The novel hero’s psychology is demonic; the objectivity of the novel is the mature man’s knowledge that meaning can never quite penetrate reality, but that, without meaning, reality would disintegrate into the nothingness of inessentiality.1

3The author who stages this demonic character indifferent to the laws of society – let us call him the picaro to be brief – does not share such privileges since, willy-nilly, he does belong to that society and is responsible towards it.

  • 2 See Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979.

4It was only logical, therefore, that institutional censorship should begin to structure itself only after the invention of print which, as Elizabeth Eisenstein explains, greatly contributed to triggering the Reformation if only by allowing the Church to reproduce a great number of saleable indulgences. It was also the same technology which was to facilitate the rapid diffusion of Luther’s ideas throughout Europe.2 The technology invented by Gutenberg had a profoundly subversive logic; for example, it gave birth to the largely clandestine commerce of chapbooks (the English equivalent of the Bibliothèque Bleue in France). Now, authors and readers could partly free themselves from the law and trade fantasies and dissenting ideas behind the back of the institutions. To be sure, literary censorship first exerted itself against polemical or didactic books and also against theater, still the most popular literary genre at the time, but it would soon take up arms against the novel which progressively became the major literary genre after the eighteenth century.

  • 3 Paul Valéry, Œuvres complètes, Paris: Gallimard-Pléiade, 1959-1960, Vol. 2, 1415. My translation.
  • 4 Samuel Johnson, “Novel”, Dictionary of the English Language, London: P. Knapton et al., 1755.

5It is little wonder that the novel soon became one of the chief targets of censorship since, right from the start, its main subject was love, either sentimental or sexual, the two being often indistinguishable. Valéry liked to say that “sentimentality and pornography are twin sisters”.3 In his famous Dictionary published in 1755, Samuel Johnson defined the novel in the following way: “a small tale, generally of love”,4 considering it both in terms of its format (it was usually a little duodecimo, whereas the romance often had a larger format) and of its most common theme, namely love. The first English writer to use the word “novel” on a title page was Congreve in his Incognita: or, Love and Duty Reconciled (1692); in his preface he justified this label in the following way:

  • 5 Quoted in Geoffrey Day’s From Fiction to the Novel, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987, 1.

Romances are generally composed of the constant Loves and invincible Courages of Heros, Heroins, Kings and Queens, Mortals of the first Rank, and so forth; where lofty Language, miraculous Contingencies and impossible Performances, elevate and surprize the Reader into a giddy Delight, which leaves him flat upon the Ground…. Novels are of a more familiar nature; Come near us, and represent to us Intrigues in practice, delight us with Accidents and odd Events, but not such as are wholly unusual or unpresidented, such which not being so distant from our Belief bring also the pleasure nearer us. Romances give more of Wonder, Novels more delight.5

  • 6 Marthe Robert, Roman des origines et origines du roman, Paris: Gallimard, 1993, 49. My translation. (...)

6Marthe Robert explains that the delight provided by the novel is directly linked to sexuality: “the novel has access to a livelier world only when it discovers sexuality and, along with it, the notion of difference, without which the concepts of harmony, conflict, union or separation remain properly speaking unintelligible”.6

7In order to speak freely about sex and to counter the effects of censorship, the early novelists soon had to develop more and more sophisticated narrative strategies which allowed them to disenfranchize themselves, apparently at least, from the demonic or desiring behaviours of their characters. Despite their efforts to absent themselves from their texts, they, either deliberately or unconsciously, left multiple traces of their own personal desires which their readers could use to reconstruct the authorial figures without which the texts could not be configured or interpreted. In the sexually explicit novels, a paradoxical relation started to establish itself between all the subjects involved in the production, the circulation and the reading of the text: the author, the publisher, the censor, the critic and the reader. This commerce usually gave rise to a great deal of bad faith, each subject insisting upon protecting as best he could his private sphere in which his shameful desires dwelt.

8Censorship is therefore the principle which binds together all the different subjects and more especially the author and the reader who alternately claim to be the Other’s interpreter. Censorship takes two fundamental forms in this context: it is first the author’s self-censorship which surfaces in a preface or afterword where the authority of the law is acknowledged; it is also the censorship enforced by the reader who temporarily plays the part of the Other’s interpreter in order to unmask the author’s desires.

9The two main characteristics of the modern novel, namely the complexity of the narrative and enunciative strategies through which the novelist manages to silence his own voice, and the theme of love, particularly in its sexual aspect, through which he more or less openly parades his desires, greatly encourage the development of censorship. The two main forms of censorship enforced by the Other naturally derive from this logic: the political and judicial form which seeks to prohibit sexually explicit novels, and the critical one, especially during the deconstructionist period when the author was considered as dead and the text was up for grabs. In both cases, it is a question of silencing the author, a strategy which, paradoxically, fulfils the author’s main desire, not his desire for celebrity or money but his desire for power and simulation. To proclaim the death of the author and to ban a novel like Ulysses means playing the very game induced by the author himself.

10The concept of censorship is not easy to define. The Dictionnaire historique de la langue françaiseindicates that the French word “censure” was borrowed in 1387 from the Latin ”censura” meaning “office, dignity of the censor” and then “judgment, examination”. It was first used in a concrete sense as “disciplinary measure taken by the Church against one of its members” but it was applied to the official control of published materials only after 1790, whereas the word “censeur” appeared in 1671 to designate the individual who had to check whether or not speeches and publications were in conformity with the law. The English word “censor”, borrowed from Latin through French, appeared for the first time with its present meaning in Milton’s Areopagitica (1644), whereas the first occurrence of “censorship” occurred in 1827 according to the OED.

11From the execution of Socrates who was accused of worshipping foreign gods and corrupting young men, to the condemnation to death by the Iranian authorities of Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses in which the Muslim religion is sometimes ridiculed, many people have been bullied, imprisoned or executed for offending either religion (like Giordano Bruno who was burnt alive in 1600), or the powers-that-be (the countless executions decreed by Stalin’s regime), or again morality (Edmund Curll pilloried in 1728 for having published books considered as obscene, among them Venus in the Cloister). These are, indeed, the three main areas in which censorship has traditionally been active, those concerning the religious, political and moral cohesion of society.

12Being always subjected to the political vagaries of the different countries, censorship takes on different aspects and seems to lose some of its harshness over the centuries, yet it never disappears completely. Religious censorship is not very strong in highly-developed countries, but it surfaces again from time to time as it did when Scorsese screened The Last Temptation of Christ; political censorship has virtually disappeared in modern democracies but reappears periodically during wars and major crises. Even though political and religious censorship has considerably declined in our Western countries, moral censorship against sexually explicit material has never disappeared for good. In the particular field under examination here, that of the modern novel, it continues to have a strong influence even in those countries which, officially at least, claim not to interfere with the publication and distribution of sexually explicit material. To be sure, this kind of book censorship less frequently involves the courts of justice, but it continues to influence the modes of exchange between author and reader, each assuming the role of the Other alternately.

  • 7 J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis, Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse, Paris: PU de France, 1967, 62.

13This particular kind of censorship is structurally linked to a psychological phenomenon common to all men and which does not need to be relayed by any public institution, namely psychological censorship. The German word « Zensur » appeared for the first time in its psychoanalytic sense (with the following meaning given by the Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse: “Function which tends to prohibit access to the preconscious-conscious system to the unconscious desires and to the formations which derive from them”7) in a letter written by Freud to Fliess in 1897; it was almost immediately adopted in English and in French. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud compares the work of censorship in dreams to that of literary censorship:

  • 8 Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, New York: Discus Books, 1965, 177.

The fact that the phenomena of censorship and of dream-distortion correspond down to their smallest details justifies us in presuming that they are similarly determined. We may therefore suppose that dreams are given their shape in individual human beings by the operation of two psychical forces (or we may describe them as currents or systems); and that one of these forces constructs the wish which is expressed by the dream, while the other exercises a censorship upon this dream-wish and, by the use of that censorship, forcibly brings about a distortion in the expression of the wish.8

14One finds here a nearly perfect representation of the process of novel-writing: the author tries to fulfil his guilty desires by writing but he must dress them up properly with his writing to make them acceptable to his ideal ego as well as to the cultural group he writes for, the ego’s demands marvellously coinciding with those of the superego, of course.

15In his Séminaire II, Lacan slightly amends Freud’s thesis: he explains that censorship is “the law to the extent that it remains misunderstood”, and he insists that one must not confuse it with resistance “linked to the register of the ego. It is an effect of the ego”. A little later, he is more specific:

  • 9 Jacques Lacan, Séminaire II, Paris: Seuil, 1978, 158-159. My translation.

Censorship and the superego must be located in the same register as that of the law. It is the concrete discourse, not only to the extent that it dominates man and gives rise to all kinds of fulgurations, anything, everything that happens, everything that discourse is, but as far as it gives man his private world, which we call, more or less felicitously, cultural. It is within this context that censorship situates itself, and you can see how it distinguishes itself from resistance. Censorship belongs neither at the level of the subject, nor at that of the individual, but at that of discourse in as much as, taken as such, it constitutes a complete universe all by itself, and has at the same time something irreducibly jarring, in all its parts.9

16Censorship is an effect of symbolic exchange: it is the law that the Other exerts upon the form and content of my discourse; therefore, it also means self-censorship since, when I speak, I am constantly monitoring my discourse with respect to my audience, because I know or claim to know in advance what aesthetic and moral values it is likely to tolerate or promote. Censorship fills in the gaps in my discourse but always incompletely, so that I unwittingly draw attention to my bad faith whenever I try to conceal my unease.

17Michel Foucault did not adhere, as we know, to the repressive thesis of the interdict and censorship with regard to sex. He claimed on the contrary that the Western world has long tried to develop a science of sex:

  • 10 Michel Foucault, La Volonté de savoir, Paris: Gallimard, 1976, 102. My translation.

Between each of us and our sex, the Western world has developed a ceaseless call for truth: it is up to us to extract its own truth since it evades it; it is up to it to tell us our own truth, since it keeps it in the shadow. Concealed, sex? Robbed by new forms of modesty, hidden under a bushel by the tedious demands of bourgeois society? On the contrary, it is incandescent. It was established, many centuries ago, at the centre of a formidable petition for knowledge. A double petition, because we are driven to find out everything there is to know about it, whereas it is itself suspected of knowing everything there is to know about us.10

18A few paragraphs earlier, Foucault mentioned Diderot’s famous novel, Les Bijoux indiscrets, in which the ladies’ sexual parts are petitioned to speak the truth about their past experiences. Foucault’s thesis truly helps us understand the functioning of the modern novel since the seventeenth century: it is indeed a question of extorting the truth of sex and of guaranteeing that this truth be taken in charge by language.

19This thesis, which is hard to refute in view of the documents presented by Foucault, does not however contradict the theory of censorship and the interdict, especially when it comes to discussing literature or art in general. There is little doubt that the novelist wants to find out the truth about sex if one considers for instance such novels as Vénus dans le cloître, Fanny Hill, Les 120 jours de Sodome, or again Madame Bovary and Ulysses. Yet, the interdict in question is not so much ethical as aesthetic, since exploiting sex in a crude and vulgar way means being a pornographer and not an artist. The novel was not yet considered as a noble art in the eighteenth century but it has acquired this status since, occupying as it now does a prominent place in literature. The novelist’s purpose has therefore been the following: to speak the truth about sex while taking pleasure in writing and fantasizing about it, and with the hope, eventually, of being acknowledged as a true artist. It is the co-presence of these two desires (which may turn out to be the same one), the erotic and the aesthetic desires, which renders the artist’s status very precarious. Whereas it often suffices for a mediocre novelist to mention commonplaces about life, death, love or God, if he wants to be acknowledged as a true artist, the great novelist who speaks about sex, say Laurence Sterne or James Joyce for instance, must develop elaborate new techniques to vindicate himself in the eyes of the public (often with a considerable amount of bad faith), if he wants to be awarded a similar status.

20This seemingly intrinsic incompatibility between these two desires is due to a number of reasons, the main ones being probably the following: sex is considered as ugly by many people, among them Georges Bataille, and it cannot therefore be used, it seems, for artistic purposes except as a form of provocation; the erotic pleasure experienced by the author when describing sexual scenes is generally considered as suspicious, masturbatory, and childishly narcissistic, and it is tempting to say that it cannot generate any form of genuine artistic communication; finally, as sex plays such a fundamental role in the structuring of the subject, the author runs the risk of saying too much about himself when speaking about it, even through his many characters, being unable to distance himself from his text. Implicitly, author and reader recognize the danger, and this inextricably binds their destiny within the text itself: sex, when represented or subtly evoked, is the recognition by both of them of the lack in which desire takes its origin; it is that which creates the conditions for their complicity. It is the most powerful element which structures the system and prevents either of them from pulling out of the text. In the interplay of censorship and self-censorship, author and reader weave the web of the interaction which supports the fabric of the text, the hyphos, as Barthes suggests in Le Plaisir du texte.

21Censorship, in its institutional dimension, is linked firstly to the degree of self-censorship which the author must impose upon himself in order to make his text readable and desirable, secondly to the editorial censorship exerted by the publisher so as not to run into financially and morally costly difficulties with the law, thirdly to the kind of interpretative censorship imposed by the reader when he lends his voice to the text and momentarily supplants the author, and fourthly to critical censorship as it has been practiced in recent generations by the structuralists and deconstructionists while proclaiming the death of the author. Censorship is a global phenomenon: it appears whenever a subject interacts with another subject, each alternately assuming the legitimacy and authority of the superego, both being subjected, whatever they say to the contrary, to a multitude of moral, political and aesthetic laws. It is at one and the same time public censorship as imposed by the authorities through the police and legal system, by the publishing world, by the critics and the readers, and self-censorship as experienced by the author in his attempt to produce an artistic corpus which is desirable and likely to promote his image in his readers’ eyes.

22The discourse on sex in the novel has changed considerably since the seventeenth century: it gradually developed from a pornographic mode (L’Ecole des filles, Vénus dans le cloître, Fanny Hill ) to a comic mode (Tristram Shandy ), then on to an ironic mode (Madame Bovary, Ulysses), a didactic mode (Lady Chatterley’s Lover), and it culminated with what I call the poerotic mode (Nabokov’s Lolitaand Ada), with here and there a clear resurgence of the past modes. These discursive modes are never “pure”: the pornographic mode, which entertained poetic ambitions very early on, drifted almost naturally toward the didactic mode; the comic mode flirted dangerously with the pornographic, the ironic with the poerotic, the didactic with the pornographic, and the poerotic with the ironic and sometimes the pornographic. It is often in the shift from one mode to the other that the author’s bad faith betrays itself. One notices that the pornographic mode is the only one to contaminate most of the others. The novelist cannot write about sex without succumbing to what I call the pornographic temptation because, whatever the mode he wishes to favour, he still wants to speak the truth about sex, both to exorcize it and to indulge his own erotic fantasies, since every discourse about sex (the critic’s included) is already a kind of sexual practice in its own way.

  • 11 See also, on the subject, La Figure de l’auteur, Paris : Seuil, Coll. Poétique, 1995.

23This challenge that the author tries to pick up is also a challenge he addresses to all the other actors involved in the circulation of the text who will have to scrutinize his text and sound his intentions, taking into consideration the judicial, moral, aesthetic principles in force at a given moment before rendering their verdict. Depending on their tastes or their moral and aesthetic preferences, they will develop the same modes of discourses as the author himself, except, perhaps, the pornographic mode. The novelist seeks to pamper his desires but claims at the same time that he should not be blamed for the perverted desires indulged and the sins committed by his narrators and protagonists.11

Haut de page


COUTURIER Maurice, La Figure de l’auteur, Paris: Seuil, Coll. Poétique, 1995. ____________, Roman et censure ou la mauvaise foi d’Eros, Seyssel: Champ Vallon, 1996.

DAY Geoffrey, From Fiction to the Novel, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987.

EISENSTEIN Elizabeth, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979.

FOUCAULT Michel, La Volonté de savoir, Paris : Gallimard, 1976.

FREUD Sigmund, The Interpretation of Dreams, New York: Discus Books, 1965.

JOHNSON Samuel, “Novel”, Dictionary of the English Language, London: P. Knapton et al., 1755.

LACAN Jacques, Séminaire II, Paris: Seuil, 1978.

LAPLANCHE J. and J.-B. PONTALIS, Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse, Paris: PU de France, 1967.

LUKACS Georg, The Theory of the Novel (1920), trans. Anna Bostock, London: Merlin Press, 1971.

ROBERT Marthe, Roman des origines et origines du roman, Paris: Gallimard, 1993.

VALÉRY Paul, Œuvres complètes, Paris : Gallimard-Pléiade, 1959-1960, Vol. 2.

Haut de page


1 Georg Lukacs, The Theory of the Novel (1920), trans. Anna Bostock, London: Merlin Press, 1971, 88.

2 See Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979.

3 Paul Valéry, Œuvres complètes, Paris: Gallimard-Pléiade, 1959-1960, Vol. 2, 1415. My translation.

4 Samuel Johnson, “Novel”, Dictionary of the English Language, London: P. Knapton et al., 1755.

5 Quoted in Geoffrey Day’s From Fiction to the Novel, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987, 1.

6 Marthe Robert, Roman des origines et origines du roman, Paris: Gallimard, 1993, 49. My translation. M. Robert’s italics.

7 J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis, Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse, Paris: PU de France, 1967, 62.

8 Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, New York: Discus Books, 1965, 177.

9 Jacques Lacan, Séminaire II, Paris: Seuil, 1978, 158-159. My translation.

10 Michel Foucault, La Volonté de savoir, Paris: Gallimard, 1976, 102. My translation.

11 See also, on the subject, La Figure de l’auteur, Paris : Seuil, Coll. Poétique, 1995.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Maurice Couturier, « Novel and Censorship or Eros’ Bad Fait h   », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. XI - n°3 | 2013, mis en ligne le 22 novembre 2013, consulté le 01 octobre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Maurice Couturier

Maurice Couturier is Professor Emeritus at the University of Nice. He taught previously at the Sorbonne and in various American universities (San Diego State, University of Notre Dame, Claremont College, etc.). He is former vice-president of the French Association of American Studies, former head of the Doctoral School in Nice, former editor of an American collection with L'Age d'Homme publishing house. He is the author of many articles on so-called postmodernist authors, plus one book in English on Barthelme (Methuen), books of literary theory on the authorial figure in fiction (Textual Communication: a Print-Based Theory of the Novel (London, New York: Routledge, 1991), La Figure de l'auteur (Paris: Seuil, Collection "Poétique", 1995), Roman et censure ou la mauvaise foi d'Eros (Seyssel: Champ Vallon, 1996), six books published in French on Nabokov (the latest: Nabokov, ou la cruauté du désir  (Sesseyl: Champ Vallon, 2004) and  Nabokov ou la tentation française (Paris: Gallimard 2011). He is also chief editor of Nabokov's novels in the Gallimard-Pléiade edition (first volume in 1999, the second in 2010) and translator of six books written by Nabokov, Lolita among them (Paris: Gallimard, 2001), and six by David Lodge. He has also written two novels, La Polka piquée (Lausanne: L’Age d’Homme, 1982), Ziama (Paris: Orizons, 2009), and a memoir, Chronique de l’oubli (Paris: Orizons, 2008).

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Les contenus de la Revue LISA / LISA e-journal sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
  • OpenEdition Journals
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search