Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Censorship and Literature

I live in a country where censorship is the norm:  the internet, newspapers, films, books.  Some of the censorship is overt, such as when searching for (always boringly innocent in my case) information one inadvertently triggers the ‘block everything’ signal and a big notice comes up saying what one is looking for is prohibited, and some much more subtle, like the secret list of banned books which is only revealed if one breaches it.  I can understand it, no, on second thoughts, I can’t.  The aim to control ideas fills me with rage.  I am not a closet revolutionary, not particularly interested in politics and I do appreciate that in policy choices there are trade-offs, incompatibilities, ideals and pragmatism, but I also believe that discussion, thought experiments, and honesty are critical to a civil and engaged society.

The censorship of literature is a tricky question.  I am not thinking so much of my case where books are simply unavailable, but rather the fashion for tampering with existing texts.  The Bible has a long history of ‘translation’, selection and suppression; our old friend Shakespeare has been subject to various ‘improvements’ over the centuries, sometimes to help him be intelligible, sometimes to protect delicate ears and sensibilities from salacious language and behaviour.

Recently the autobiography of Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens has been released, along with a natty new version of his masterful Huckleberry Finn, made safe for 21st century students with the exclusion of ‘nigger’ and ‘injun’ as unacceptably derogatory and racist.  These words are unattractive and objectionable; there is no debate about that.  The arguments for replacing them with the words ‘slave’ and ‘Indian’ focus around the greatness of the work, the need to make it accessible to modern classrooms and the desire to protect potential readers from offense.  Very noble aims. 

There are compelling arguments against the replacements too:  not to white-wash history, not to miss the intended anti-racism of the author, not to tamper with a cultural artefact, to name a few.

Educators in America are concerned that Huckleberry Finn is disappearing from the cultural consciousness because of these difficult words and some welcome the introduction of a sanitised text.  It is hard to imagine that students will have the same experiences and opportunities for personal growth and understanding if those discussions about word choice and racism are skipped. 

Tastes in books change.  Some books erupt like volcanoes onto the reading public’s awareness, making both publishers and authors very rich in the process, but like volcanoes, they cool down and in many cases are quietly forgotten.  They slip off backlists, out of libraries (because nobody borrows them) and then can only be found in second-hand bookshops or in attics.  The once mighty fall (can’t wait for some popular authors to get there myself).  Perhaps this process is a kind of censorship too, a democratic one where the public truly decides a book is of no interest.

Consider Kingsley Amis’ One Fat Englishman.  This novel is not comparable to Huckleberry Finn, except it too carries some pretty scandalous ideas and words in it, albeit wrapped in a comic, self-deprecating voice.  It is so extreme it is impossible to take seriously and once over the surprise, to take offense at.  It has numerous instances of sexism, jingoism, racism, and misopedia (a morbid hatred of children, and yes I had to look it up) amongst others.   The worst abuse is directed at the main character Roger Micheldene  (‘Of the seven deadly sins, Roger considered himself qualified in gluttony, sloth, and lust but distinguished in anger.’ p 9) and the limited third person narration is full of both overt and discrete instances of criticism of his failings.  The almost universal antagonism does not excuse sentiments that make us squirm with appalled laughter.   I wonder if it would be publishable today.
Consider this passage and then tell me if the use of the word ‘nigger’ is so impossible as to be banned:

...  A girl of Oriental appearance, who would have been quite acceptable if she had had eye-sockets as well as eyes came forward and said:   ‘Good-afternoon, sir, and what can I show you this afternoon?’
Although relieved at not having to start on the wantee-speakee-missee drill he had been contemplating, Roger would have preferred something less impeccably American.  However, he replied at once in what he thought of as a cool brisk tone:  ‘Oh, good-afternoon to you.  I wonder if I could possibly have a word with Mrs Atkins.  Would you kindly let her know that Mr.Micheldene is here, please?’
The girl looked him up and down for about a second and a half before saying:  ‘Sure, I’ll kindly let her know.  One moment, please.’  Her earlier friendliness had largely abated.  She looked again and went away.
Roger recognised this treatment.  They thought that because you spoke like an Englishman you must be homosexual, which only testified to their deep doubts of their own masculinity.  It was true that this girl was a girl, not a man, but the principle held.
A middle-aged Negro woman, six feet tall and pretty near as close to jet black as the human skin can get, pushed her way through a bead curtain and came towards him.  His mouth opened a short distance.  Surely ... No, rubbish, of course not.  Actually this sort of thing was proving a great help:  race and colour as an unexpected extra variable to eke out the small stock of Mollie Atkins recognition-aids.  Given a few Red Indians and Indians and a Bushman or two as the others present in the shop, he was sure of being easily able to pick out Mollie Atkins, about whom all he knew for certain at the moment was that she stood between 4 ft. 6 ins and 6 ft. 6 ins. and was in the 25-55 age-group.
Kingsley Amis, One Fat Englishman. Gollancz, 1963, pp 84-85 

One Fat Englishman was not Kingsley Amis’ finest piece of writing and it is out of print.  The chances of anyone but an Amis scholar being interested in it are remote and I would not argue that it should be re-issued, not on literary merit nor on the grounds of the wide-spread potential offense it would certainly cause.   The book buying public has made its decision. 

Huckleberry Finn has numerous supporters who would like to prevent it going the same way as the Fat Englishman, and it has a long history of affection and importance in the American literary canon.  Re-imagining it as an uncontroversial storybook does not do Mark Twain nor the anti-racism cause he supported, any favours.

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