We men of good will had a little scare last week when it was announced that the Sun – a venerable British newspaper whose prose style makes America’s National Enquirer sound like an excerpt from a late Henry James novel read by a young Laurence Olivier – would bow to political pressure and axe Page 3. This is their daily pin-up page, portraying maidens in various states of déshabillé to effect that might be considered offensive in, say, the 1930’s, though, speaking historically, it adds little to what Aubrey Beardsley had to say on the subject in the 1890’s or Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in the 1880’s.
Writing in the Spectator last week, Toby Young, a man of good will if ever there was one (he once wrote a book entitled How to Lose Friends and Alienate People), drew a parallel between Page 3 and the Donald McGill postcards of the 1930’s, immortalized by Orwell in a 1941 essay that concludes: “In the past the mood of the comic post card could enter into the central stream of literature, and jokes barely different from McGill’s could casually be uttered between the murders in Shakespeare’s tragedies. That is no longer possible, and a whole category of humour, integral to our literature till 1800 or thereabouts, has dwindled down to these ill-drawn post cards, leading a barely legal existence in cheap stationers’ windows. The corner of the human heart that they speak for might easily manifest itself in worse forms, and I for one should be sorry to see them vanish.”
Here’s one of the gags cited by Orwell to give his readers the flavor of those McGill postcards. JUDGE: “You are prevaricating, sir. Did you or did you not sleep with this woman?” CO-RESPONDENT: “Not a wink, my lord!”
The conflict between immorality, which includes bad taste, and public opinion, which includes taste that, oddly enough, is often immeasurably worse, goes back to the great scandal of 1857 caused by the publication in France of Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, ruled by the judge an “outrage aux bonnes mœurs” (“an insult to public decency”). Yet the French poet was not imprisoned; his book was not pulped; his publisher was not shut down; and the fine of 300 francs imposed by the court was a small price to pay for becoming an idol to every writer then writing. Certainly the killer line, used by T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land, in which Baudelaire addresses his “hypocrite reader” as his own “likeness and brother” (“Hypocrite lecteur, – mon semblable, – mon frère!”) has lost none of its venom in the last century and a half.
As it turned out, Page 3 is still with us. It was a false alarm, but the little scare flushed out the Sun’s opposition – liberal imams who sing hallelujah to freedom of the press when the press offends the taste of others, yet swear fatwa upon it when it offends their own.
Three weeks ago, Harriet Harman, deputy leader of the Labour Party, “wrung her hands,” in the words of Brendan O’Neill of Spiked, “over the possible post-Charlie Hebdo ‘chilling of free speech.’ She hailed the ‘right to satirize, to lampoon and to criticize.’ ‘No democracy can function without freedom of the press,’ she said.” And a few days later the same politician was calling on the Sun to shut down Page 3 because theirs “is not the representation of women that I want to see.” “Who does she think she is,” mused O’Neill, “God? Muhammad?”
She isn’t that, of course. She’s our own kith and kin. She is Baudelaire’s hypocrite lecteur, everyman’s likeness and brother.