Monday, June 14, 2010

"The Leer of the Sensualist"

If last week was a slow one for chutzpah, this week seems to be getting of to a roaring start. It is only Monday; and, in a single report story, there are multiple acts of chutzpah. Selecting only one for an award bears considerable thought.

Fortunately, one of the candidates is not really current. That would be the conception of Ulysses Seen, an interpretation of James Joyce's Ulysses in comic book form. Having grown up with Classics Comics, I can appreciate how the comic book genre can contribute to, rather than detract from, literature. Not all of the projects in this series were great successes, but many of them accomplished far more than one might imagine. Still, in the canon of English literature, Ulysses stands as one of the great challenges to the reader. One could not even begin such a project without the fortification of a strong personal sense of chutzpah; and, on the basis of my initial sampling of the Web site, I have to say that illustrator Robert Berry and production director Josh Levitas did an admirable job. I certainly believe Julie Bosman's report in The New York Times that the entire project took them over two years.

Boseman's story, however, is not about the project or about its publication by Throwaway Horse. It is about the far more contemporary question about whether or not the iPad will be the future of our reading practices. Where this particular instance of image-based literature is concerned, Apple has thrown a few speed bumps into the road to publication for the iPad. Apparently any images of nudity must be removed before Apple will approve such publication.

Now, between the pages I examined and the duration of the book project, I have to say that Berry and Levitas are serious people who deserve the benefit of the doubt. Ulysses is unbelievably rich in its discourse structure, and there have been massive annotation projects to demonstrate that not a single word of its 800 pages is either superfluous or out of place. If Berry claims that he was trying to establish an equally elaborate discourse structure through images, then I am willing to believe him and assume that any depiction of nudity was there for functional reasons in the overall scheme of the novel. I also wonder whether or not Apple intends to have art books published in iPad version and how they plan to deal with nudity in any number of sources of "textbook material."

Most important, however, I wonder whether or not anyone at Apple, particularly the Apple representative who argued the issue with Chad Rutkowski, Business Manager of Throwaway Horse, took the time to read the 1933 United States District Court decision by Justice John M. Woolsey, which lifted a ban imposed on importing copies of Ulysses (conveniently reproduced in the Modern Library edition of this work). Woolsey's judgment was based not on the content itself, but on the intent behind the content. He took the premise that "pornographic" intent would provide grounds for maintaining the ban. He then continued:

But in "Ulysses", in spite of its unusual frankness, I do not detect anywhere the leer of the sensualist. I hold, therefore, that it is not pornographic.

It seems to me that Apple responded to the portrayal of nudity without worrying about whether or not that image was offered with "the leer of the sensualist." If so, then the corporate chutzpah of Apple far surpasses that of the gargantuan (and some might say pretentious) ambitions of Berry and Levitas in undertaking their project. Apple may have once been the company of computing "for the rest of us;" but, where reading is concerned, they seem to neither know nor care who "the rest of us" are. Given the power that the company now has, I feel it is entirely justified that this particular act of censorship earn them the Chutzpah of the Week award; and I wish a Happy Bloomsday to all this year!

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