On censorship and the freedom to write

August 18, 2015

I’ve been thinking about censorship, and the control of ideas and writers, which has gone on in all societies almost as long as writing and thinking, as rulers quickly became aware of the subversive power of words. The basic idea is to prevent, or if that is not possible, to control publication, thus restricting access. For instance, until relatively recently, the Catholic Church maintained an Index Librorum Prohibitorum (index of prohibited books) which the faithful were not allowed to read; all kinds of political, religious, philosophical and social writings were not supposed to be read by good Catholics. Books on doctrine were carefully vetted: you can still see nowadays the Nihil Obstat (nothing against doctrine) and Imprimatur (let it be printed) granted by a highly-placed cleric often labelled as Censor…

In Britain, until 1964, all plays performed in the UK had to be licensed by the Lord Chancellor, and there were many reasons why a license might not be granted. The British have always been very wary of any overt sexual content in literature, and the Obscene Publications Act was used to prevent the publication in this country of such books as James Joyce‘s Ulysses, DH Lawrence‘s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Hubert Selby‘s Last Exit to Brooklyn. The trouble was, that what couldn’t be printed here could be printed abroad and brought back, in exactly the same way as religious tracts were smuggled around Europe during the Reformation.

We tend to associate censorship with totalitarian regimes rather than our own country, and it’s true, dictatorships can deal with the issues of control of ideas rather more directly and effectively. The Nazis banned books, and publicly burned them (there’s a monument in Berlin’s Bebelplatz commemorating just such actions); given the severity of punishments meted out for small infringements, not much more was required. Writers went into exile – Bertolt Brecht, for instance, knowing that his life was at risk if her remained in Germany. And writers were killed; Irene Nemirovsky, French writer of Jewish origin, author of the astonishing Suite Francaise, was killed in Auschwitz.

The Soviet Union had longer to get ideas under control. Writers perished in Stalin’s purges – the poet Osip Mandelstam, for example – and others had narrow escapes. Some went into exile voluntarily, others were forced out of the country: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who had one novella published in the country during a brief thaw, eventually ended up in the USA, a twisted and embittered man cut off from his roots, losing his creative powers. This, one suspects, was exactly what the Soviet authorities desired: he couldn’t be openly tried and jailed or executed, and he couldn’t be kept under control at home; exiled, he was emasculated.

Book production was controlled by censorship and also by paper rationing. Many writers wrote ‘for the bottom drawer’, a euphemism for accepting that, whilst they could write relatively freely, they could not disseminate their manuscripts, and would certainly not be published. As long as they remained quiet, they would be left alone. So a masterpiece such as Vassily Grossman‘s Life and Fate, which has rightly been called a twentieth century War and Peace, sat neglected for years; a KGB officer who read the manuscript was reported to have told Grossman that there was no way the book could be published for at least two centuries…

And every now and then there surfaces from the USA some bizarre story of a school board somewhere wanting to ban a book and prevent students from reading it because they don’t like the ideas in it – To Kill A Mockingbird is one of those books, but any book with vaguely left-wing ideas or hints of sexual freedom is fair game for the book-burners in some places.

The situation is rather more sinister in the West, in some ways. Yes, we can read anything we like as long as we know it exists and we can get hold of it: we have that freedom. But, books which challenge the accepted social, political or religious order are tolerated because of their basically relative irrelevance in the greater scheme of things; literary culture is a very minority interest in the days of modern bread and circuses, The Sun newspaper, Sky TV and Netflix being what most people accept that they want, having been told that and been sold them.

(to be concluded)

 

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