Arcane Erotica and National ‘Patrimony’: Britain’s Private Case and the Collection de l’Enfer of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France
This article considers the broad politics of the creation and maintenance of two large erotica collections in European national libraries across their histories and in relation to definitions of censorship and obscenity. It also examines the popular and intellectual discourses that have surrounded the Collection de l’Enfer and the Private Case of the British Library, and imbued them with a particular cultural mystique as repositories of secret, hidden and privileged erotic knowledge. Censorship and repression of sexuality cannot account for the policies of these libraries which have policed public morals through their restricted access conditions, even as the works they deemed obscene were published without any legal sanction. By classing their contents into a discreet category, these collections have helped to frame erotic signification as a separate body of meaning. In France the notion of the Enfer’s place within national patrimony has particularly abetted the discourses of mystique and allure around it. In Britain, the bibliographers who have discussed the Private Case have done so through assumptions of masculine heterosexual privilege and normativity.