Within the last four years, D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the two Tropics of Henry Miller have at last been allowed to circulate freely. Both writers use the so-called ‘obscene’ words extensively, and the publicity given to the Lady Chatterley case, as well as the character of the books themselves, has strengthened the view that these words are an essential part of the writer’s vocabulary, and that they have special functions in literature which no other words can perform. We can be certain that they are going to be widely used in English fiction from now on (they are already a standard element in American novels), and so there is some point in looking at the practice of Lawrence and Miller to find out how useful the words are, and to suggest ways in which future novelists may be helped by the exploratory work of these pioneers.

It may seem odd that I omit Joyce from this examination. There are two reasons for this. First, there is the extremely restricted circulation of his work: few readers apart from literary specialists persevere with Ulysses; Lawrence and Miller on the other hand have an enormous readership—their work reaches the outermost limits of the public now accessible to the influence of serious writing. Even for those particularly concerned with the modern novel, Joyce is a special case; not many practising novelists actually admire him, and scarcely any of importance have been influenced by him. Secondly, Joyce did not use obscene words in a strikingly significant way; for him they were an extension of realism, a franker rendering of the way people actually talk. This was a valuable thing to have done, but as an achievement it belongs to the history of taste rather than to the development of our understanding of the creative possibilities of language. (This is not, of course, my estimate of Joyce’s fiction as a whole.) Lawrence and Miller saw more than merely documentary possibilities in the words, and that is their special interest.

Before proceeding to their work, one current peculiarity of our culture should be mentioned—the way in which obscene words are, at the moment, simultaneously permitted and forbidden. In certain literary contexts they are tolerated, although on most social occasions they are still out of bounds. Consequently a situation is arising in the novel which has been familiar in the theatre for years: in the provincial—or indeed in the West End—theatre, the word ‘bloody’ is of itself funny—hence the enormous success of Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar. Similarly, in the novel it has recently been realized that what could formerly only be written on lavatory walls can now be put into print. The Ginger Man is the prototype for this genre: for J. P. Donleavy, literature is a vast lavatory wall on which he is inscribing his oeuvre as fast as he can in order to cash in on this temporary anomaly in British taste.

At this stage in my article I cannot, of course, offer a complex definition of obscenity—I hope that will emerge during analysis of the actual novels—but, throughout, I shall accept as a framework for definition the assumption that the obscene words are those four letter words describing the sexual and excretory functions, together with a few other homely terms for the male and female genitalia. Perhaps ten or a dozen words are involved altogether, but, in fact, as the evidence of the Lady Chatterley trial makes clear, it is the two words ‘cunt’ and ‘fuck’ that form the crux of any analysis of the kind I propose.

In an early fan-letter of September 1935, Lawrence Durrell wrote to Miller:

I wish D. H. Lawrence were alive to give a great bloody whoop of joy over it [Tropic of Cancer].footnote1

This feeling that Lawrence and Miller were doing the same things in literature has persisted, and reviewers are still capable of repeating it—a misconception understandable in 1935, but not now. (No major contemporary writer, however, has been as incompetently reviewed as Henry Miller.) Miller himself, although he acknowledged Lawrence as an influence, always recognized the great divergence between them. In a letter to Durrell dated 22nd January 1946 he describes how he has met Frieda Lawrence: