Posts Tagged ‘censorship’

On being lost for words…

August 15, 2017

I’m not often left speechless, but I was yesterday evening, as I did my final catch-up on the day’s news online, before bed. I came across a story reporting that a professor of English Literature at the University of London had decided to remove John Cleland‘s novel Fanny Hill from a course on seventeenth and eighteenth century libertine literature which she had taught for years, on the ground that it might upset students…

I really don’t know where to start. If it’s a course on libertine literature, what sort of texts do you expect to meet? And surely it can’t be a compulsory course, so why have you chosen to do it? If you are at university to study literature, what were you expecting to be reading – Winnie the Pooh or Thomas the Tank Engine? Are you not up to being challenged, to being expected to read books you may not like, even books that you may actually dislike? A university course is usually put together carefully, with a specific aim in mind and a corresponding reading-list to suit the purpose.

I never met this issue at school myself, either as a student or as a teacher. I read disturbing and challenging books whilst in the sixth form: my English teacher handed us Hubert Selby‘s Last Exit to Brooklyn, among other things. I’m not sure I got it completely at the tender age of seventeen, but I read it, marvelled that people actually wrote like that and about those sorts of things, and came back to it when I was a bit older and a little more worldly-wise. And it was round about then that I read Cleland’s novel, too. I enjoyed it, as many teenage males would at that age; it made me think that a man should write such a book, purporting to be by a woman, and it certainly reinforced the notion that women had a right to sexual pleasure. I know that I wasn’t aware of a whole range of subtexts and broader issues that the book raised, but it was a start.

When teaching, I worked on all sorts of potentially upsetting texts with students: all that literature about the First World War, for starters. And what about all the horrible stuff that goes on in Shakespeare’s plays (back to the article that has triggered this rant – apparently a student had been ‘upset’ by King Lear, the death of Cordelia and the gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes…)? I always felt that one had a ‘duty of care’ in my situation, i.e. to warn students that something a bit strong or violent was coming up, but these were school students, often not even at a stage where they could be choosing what they studied…

I’ve tried, and failed, at least three times, to get to the end of Nabokov‘s Lolita. Various people have recommended it to me, including students of mine, and I’ve give it my best efforts, but I have found it so toe-curling that I have been unable to get beyond the first third or so. If I’d been asked to read it as part of a university course, I’d have made myself do it, and delivered my opinions in the seminar. But when it’s optional, as it has been, I don’t have to read it.

I’ve said many times before in these pages that good literature is meant to challenge, to make us think. The world is a nasty place in many ways, full of violence, certainly, but also increasingly sexualised (and I make no judgement on whether that is a good or bad thing here) and young people of university age have long had access via the internet to all sorts of horrendous violence and pornography if they chose to view it. Literature reflects our world, showing us the goodness and the evil in ourselves and those around us. It’s perfectly possible to avoid literature and what it presents, and the issues it rubs our faces in, if one is afraid of being upset. In which case, don’t go off to university to study it…


My A-Z of Reading: X is for XXXX (censorship)

December 26, 2016

I have always had the impression that a great deal of swearing goes on in the armed forces. There is the story that NCOs were forever yelling at squaddies, “Get your f***ing rifles!’ but they knew that if one yelled, “Get your rifles!” then the situation was for real, deadly serious, and reacted accordingly. And so, a play set in the trenches during the First World War will be full of expletives… or not. Journey’s End, by R C Sherriff, a play I know extremely well from my teaching years and from the study guide I wrote about it, contains no bad language at all. Until the nineteen-sixties, all plays staged in Britain had to be passed for performance by the Lord Chamberlain, and profanity was not permitted. You can even find examples, comparing different versions of Shakespeare’s plays, where the language had to be toned down after James I inveighed against bad language onstage…a look at the textual variations in Othello is quite interesting.

More serious, of course, is the censorship of undesirable ideas. Graphic descriptions of sex (among other things) restricted publication of such classics as James Joyce’s Ulysses and D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (now utterly toe-curling); would-be British readers had to smuggle such books in from France! And there was the hilarious court case about Lawrence’s novel in the early 1960s when Penguin Books first published it in this country. Political correctness now demands censorship of some American classics such as Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, even To Kill A Mockingbird, because they all contain a certain word beginning with ‘n’. Grossly offensive though that word is, I’ve always felt that the shock effect of actually meeting it in a novel, and the brief discussion that could ensue when a class did meet it and realised that the word used to be ‘acceptable’ in the past, was better than neutering the book.

In the days of the USSR, many entire books went unpublished. Writers wrote ‘for the bottom drawer’, knowing that their manuscript would have to stay in their desk. And they wrote anyway. Vassily Grossman was told by a KGB officer that it would be at least two hundred years before his novel Life and Fate could possibly be published. The effect of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch being published in a Soviet literary magazine was like that of an earthquake; none of his other novels was allowed to be published and he was eventually driven into exile and obscurity, like a number of other dangerous authors.

Books and ideas can be very dangerous to established power. The Catholic Church maintained its Index Librorum Prohibitorum up until a generation or two ago, and books can still be shunted into a religious limbo by being denied the official imprimatur of the Church. A small plaque in the Bebelplatz in Berlin marks the site of the Nazis’ public book-burning. And in Nineteen Eighty-four, George Orwell saw the advantage to the state of controlling everything in print, of rewriting the past, and of manipulating the language itself, far more clearly than anyone else has done. Ray Bradbury eliminates print and writing totally in the society of his novel Fahrenheit 451.

I have always regarded censorship as a very dangerous thing. And yet, I have also always felt a profound unease with the simplistic idea of the free speech argument: why should one allow free speech to those who would use that very ability as part of their struggle to destroy that very free speech for everyone? That’s a circle I’ve never managed to square for myself; I think we must acknowledge that we live in a very imperfect society and that ownership and control of the means of publishing and disseminating ideas is not neutral in itself.

My A-Z of Reading: P is for Printing

December 7, 2016

Mediaeval handwritten manuscript books are often stunningly beautiful because of their gorgeous illustrations. And handwritten books were incredibly expensive: I remember reading somewhere that by the end of his life, Geoffrey Chaucer had acquired a library of some sixty books; I had that many by the time I went off to secondary school…

So printing was a wonderful invention, in a lot of ways. Books became more plentiful, and somewhat cheaper; for a while the wealthy paid to have hand illustration done to their printed copies, but it wasn’t quite the same. Woodcut illustrations became the norm, and while some are beautiful, many are quite crude and rather pedestrian. With print, the focus was very much on the dissemination of the word, the idea: historians often say that the Reformation could never have happened without the advent of printing in the West, and if you think that a major contribution was the mass production of bibles in vernacular translations, then this is surely true.

Printing meant the spreading of ideas, then, and it must also have contributed to the spread of eduction through different social classes, for if there is the technology to produce books more cheaply, printers and booksellers will have an eye to business, and they needed readers. And you couldn’t have the general access to universal education that spread in the nineteenth century without access to books.

However, printing and the dissemination of ideas is also subversive, a danger to the establishment: though you can give everyone access to the bible and preach about obedience to the authorities, you cannot easily stop other philosophies and ideologies spreading through the same medium. They thought of censorship, which was reasonably effective for a while in dealing with troublesome literature.

And so we get to our own times, where the internet is as powerful, if not a more powerful, disruptor of things. Previously, you needed a certain amount of money to get your book into print and distributed; you needed to be a wealthy man to start a newspaper and influence people that way. But with the internet, you could do it all for almost nothing: spread your ideas, lies, false news, ‘post-truth’ writings – call them what you like. And trying to censor the internet is like… well…

But those who would control ideas quite rapidly realised that there was a much better way to block dangerous or subversive ideas, no matter what the medium – print, television, internet – you simply swamp real content with crap. Think about it: serious newspapers exist and are read by the few, while The Sun, the Daily Mail, Bild Zeitung are read by the millions. Serious TV programmes exist, but who can find them among hundreds of channels of soaps, dramas, game shows, shopping channels and the rest? And on the internet it’s easier still: so much garbage out there, particularly when social media and search engines take control: who actually knows what is out there and where to find it, what is going on, how we are being manipulated?

Truly, both printing and the web are double-edged swords, allowing both the dissemination of new ideas and control of large numbers of people through obfuscation and fog. And no-one has found a way to cut through those, yet.

A Westerner tries to understand Russian literature

September 19, 2015

As I’ve grown older, I’ve developed the impression that Russia is so very different from anywhere I know and am familiar with. I’ve read its history and followed the ins and outs of communist politics for many years, and I’ve read a good deal of Russian literature, and explored a lot of the country as an armchair traveller, through many and varied travel writers. And the place seems vast and unknowable, the more I read and try to understand.

Partly this must be through the sheer size of the country, which defies the imagination. Many years ago, I was given a Soviet road atlas of the USSR. It’s a very slim volume, with very small-scale maps, and vast areas simply do not feature, not because the Russians had anything to hide, just because there are no roads. And the places where a single road goes on for five or six hundred kilometres, through a handful of small towns and then just stops…well. And then there’s the Russian idea of government: autocracy is as far as it seems to get – one all-powerful ruler, whether a tsar or a First Secretary of the CPSU or V Putin. It seems that only such a ruler can hold such a country together. Democracy they don’t do. When you get to religion, that is also alien to us in the West. Yes, it’s Christianity, but they think that theirs is the one and only true and original version, rather like the Church of Rome does. Which came first? Their services are obscure, in a mediaeval language, last for hours…

And yet I have been more than curiously fascinated by all this for many years; I am drawn to the unusual, the strange and inexplicable. Dostoevsky is hard work: The Idiot – what is it all about? and The Brothers Karamazov? at least Crime and Punishment is approachable, and frightening in its convincing psychology and paranoia. But I still find the ending, redemption through love and forced labour, hard to take, sentimental. It is a brilliant novel, though. Tolstoy is actually likeable, perhaps the closest a Russian gets to ‘the Western novel’ for me, even though they are vast tomes that make even Dickens look manageable… War and Peace I really like (I’ve read it three times so far) and am in awe of its vast scope, the sweep of its action, and the author’s direction of and dialogue with his readers. I like the ideas of Anna Kerenina and find the character of Levin fascinating, sometimes comprehensible and sometimes alien. Just as in France, the nineteenth century novel reached great heights in Russia.

Those writers had to grapple with the censorship and controls of Tsarist times; writers in the twentieth century didn’t have it anywhere near as easy, as the Soviets wanted to control everything, and literature was meant to serve the party and the revolution. I gather it produced a great deal of grim hack-work known as Socialist Realism, which I am sure was (badly) translated into English but probably never reached many bookshops here.

And those times also produced great writers and great literature. Stalin’s purges and the Great Patriotic War provide the background for Vassily Grossman‘s epic Life and Fate, and Anatoly Rybakov‘s astonishing Arbat trilogy. Grossman’s work has finally begun to achieve some of the recognition it merits – it really is a twentieth-century War and Peace – but Rybakov attracted a brief, post-Soviet flurry of interest with his first volume and then no further notice, which is a great pity. One can read historical accounts of the madness and paranoia that was the 1930s in the Soviet Union, but you can only begin to feel what it could have been like through a cast of convincing characters living through those times.

I still fail to understand how Mikhail Bulgakov survived, having written The Master and Margarita, but I have read that he was perhaps protected by Stalin. The devil appears in Moscow and creates scenes of utter mayhem; Pontius Pilate and his wife attempt to make sense of Jesus and his message; magic and anarchy reign. It’s a marvellous novel, a tour-de-force, but Socialist Realism it ain’t…

I’ve waxed lyrical about the Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek‘s hero Svejk, an anarchic anti-hero who creates chaos in the Austro-Hungarian war effort wherever he goes; he has his Soviet era equal in Ivan Chonkin, in a couple of novels by Vladimir Voinovich, where Soviet bureaucracy and managerial ineptitude are satirised quite mercilessly.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn‘s earlier works made a great impression on me at school. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch is a powerful read (the film is utterly unmemorable) as a political prisoner in the gulag shares his work, thoughts, hopes and fears, knowing that it’s back to the start every night for twenty years; Cancer Ward explores (as I recall) the vulnerabilities of the powerful and the weak, reduced to the same equality by the dread disease, its treatment and consequences, and The First Circle, which I think is probably the best, explores Stalin’s paranoid world, urge to spy on and control people through the eyes of prisoners and ‘free’ men involved in a research project that will allow the regime to identify people from recorded voices alone. Solzhenitsyn, like other Soviet era writers, tries hard to create Stalin as a fictional character, and thereby come to some understanding of his psychology and power.

I have yet to read anything written since the fall of the Soviet Union that is worth the eyeball time.

On censorship and the freedom to write (concluded)

August 19, 2015

If we consider writers’ tactics faced with control and censorship – and Eastern Europe, the Soviet empire for half a century provides copious examples – then we can see them taking risks by writing, and having their books published in the West since they would not be published at home, or as samizdats (typed manuscripts circulated clandestinely), or writing allegorically and hoping perhaps to outwit the censors. Writers in totalitarian societies wrote, impelled by the same muses and motivations as writers in the ‘free’ world. Ismail Kadare produced a wonderful allegory about the Kafkaesque control within the social structures of Albania in a novel allegedly about ancient Egypt, The Pyramid.

What particularly interests me – and I’ll admit that this is personal opinion – is the way that writers without freedom seem to produce sharper and more interesting novels, more perceptive literature, which I find more powerful and more moving; somehow they are compelled, it appears, to address broader issues about their (imperfect) society and an imperfect world, to ask existential questions; for them the collective is still relevant, if not paramount. I come back to the example I cited earlier, Vassily Grossman‘s epic about the siege of Stalingrad and its consequences. I will admit that Joseph Heller‘s Catch-22 is another astonishingly powerful novel about the Second World War, but Grossman’s works on an altogether different level, packing power that I cannot think of a parallel to in Western literature. Anatoly Rybakov‘s Arbat trilogy is my second example: he follows the fortunes of a group of classmates through the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s to the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany. It’s harrowing: the purges are insane and one finds it hard to believe that people could and did behave in such a warped way; Rybakov pulls no punches as far as this episode in Soviet history is concerned. And then, he sets the heroism and self-sacrifice of those young people who have endured the purges as they fight for the liberation of the Motherland: the tension between the cruel tyranny and the love of country is live, sharp, electric…

In freer, Western societies I feel writers have become more introspective, self-indulgent at times, self-interested and self-obsessed, part of an increasingly fragmented literary culture; there is too much navel-gazing. Yes, at one level that’s an almost farcical dismissal of half a century of writing during which voices have been given to, or been seized by many cultural and political subgroups. But this does also represent a fragmentation of any challenge to the dominant cultural and economic hegemony, which remains largely unseen but which dominates every aspect of the way we live.

I’m not advocating that novels and literature should always be political, but I do feel that good literature makes us think about the human condition, about our world and ourselves. I’ve read many good and challenging novels by Western writers who have the freedom to write and say what they like. And I have found that writers who have had to struggle to be heard have written more profound and moving stories. I don’t know where this leaves us, because I’m neither advocating repression of writers in order to stimulate better literature nor didactic literature. But it has made me think a lot…

On the freedom to write and draw

January 8, 2015

Reflecting on the dreadful events yesterday in Paris:

It seems to me that the more ‘civilised’ we become, freedom to becomes more important than freedom from; I’ve mentioned this idea in previous posts. There’s no need to enumerate all those who have suffered and died for asserting the freedom to think/ say/ write what they liked/ felt/ believed. Tyrannical regimes allot no special place at all to writers and creative artists: I don’t know why I was shocked when I found out that the writer Irene Nemirovsky was killed at Auschwitz, a faceless murder among millions of others…

The notion of ‘the sacred’ is a complex one; many people and things are sacred (whatever that may mean) to millions of people; if one feels – as an atheist, perhaps – that one has gone beyond such stuff, has left religion behind, as superstition or whatever, then that person perhaps also leaves behind their understanding of how someone or something can have that special meaning and significance to others. Another step on, and perhaps that person (unwittingly?) permits her or himself to be offensive towards something that others revere…

To question, to discuss, to analyse religion, as a believer or not, is surely permissible, as long as there is respect for what some hold sacred. To mock, insult or degrade a religion is a different matter, for me, at least: it’s a much greyer area and though I may not understand a particular aspect of a faith, I think I must recognise others will think differently. We come up against an old question: how far does freedom of speech extend?

Yes, that’s a typical Western bourgeois liberal approach, perhaps… but what else should one do? The old adage about sticks and stones is true, and religions that have survived centuries or millennia are not about to vanish because of a few cartoons. But this I do believe: to kill and slaughter in the name of a religion is not acceptable; killing has nothing to do with religion; killing is killing.

Soviet Literature (1)

August 27, 2013

One thing I have read a great deal of is literature written in the Soviet Union or during its existence, in other countries that were known as the Soviet bloc. Literature written during a dictatorship is a very different beast from that produced in ‘free’ countries. As far as I’m aware, there was not much literature written or published in Nazi Germany: most writers fled the country and carried on in exile. But the Soviet Union lasted much longer, and not all writers went into exile.

I’m also aware that, in the nearly quarter century since the revolutions in Eastern Europe which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new generation has grown up, which know astonishingly little of those times generally, and the literature in particular. And this concerns me, because so much powerful literature was written during those times. Some of it was translated into English and published here, but a lot of it was not; is it all going to vanish into history?

There are several kinds of writer from those times: those who knew that what they were writing could not, or would not, be published, and so wrote ‘for the bottom drawer’ (as it was called) or who took the enormous risk of smuggling their manuscripts abroad for publication. So, for example, Vassily Grossmann was told by the KGB that Life and Fate (his epic novel centring on the battle for Stalingrad, that has justly been called a War and Peace for the twentieth century) could not be published for two hundred years, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was eventually driven into exile because novels such as The First Circle and Cancer Ward were published in the West. And then there are those who wrote, and whose novels were allowed to be published, with or without alterations, but always after having gone through censorship. An enormous number of these were undoubtedly hackwork, but by no means all of them: in other words, some decent literature came out of a totalitarian state.

Another thing that isn’t widely known is the huge number of books published in the Soviet bloc countries – turgid political tracts by the million, certainly, but also quality literature (safe works like the classics of the past) at very cheap prices because culture generally was intended to be available to everyone. I’m reminded of this when I see the cheaply produced books sold for ridiculously high prices here in the ‘free world’.

So, what were the constraints on authors? Various topics were completely off-limits, particular recent history, politics and religion. Others had to be handled very carefully if there was to be a chance of publication. I haven’t really formed the impression that writers’ expression was thereby limited; writing was often more symbolic or allegorical in order to avoid censorship, but most of the themes, tropes and topics that have always been explored in good literature are there, if treated and explored in different ways.

It’s when I come on to making comparisons (inevitably subjective, I know) that I feel on rather shakier ground. Somehow, it has often seemed to me, because of the restrictions placed on them, writers from Eastern Europe managed to write better (?) deeper (?) more meaningful or provoking novels than their ‘free’ counterparts, who were often being incredibly narrow, self-indulgent and experimental for the sake of it; similarly, I often feel that novels addressing the key issues of life, its meaning and our future, are often not being written in Europe or the Unites States, and certainly not in English: the energy and dynamism of really good literature has long been elsewhere…

I realise that much of what I’ve written is subjective and provocative; no apologies for that, as it comes from a lifetime of reading, but I hope that I shall be able to provide some evidence and justification in future posts.

To be continued…

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