IT is a generally accepted truism in the 21st century that freedom from any form of censorship is a precondition for the flourishing of the arts and sciences and that such freedom is presumed to be a guaranteed right in a democracy. It is also a generally accepted truism that oppressive dictatorships are the enemy of original creativity — as evidenced by recent history in Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Franco’s Spain and Ziaul Haq’s Pakistan, where writers were either killed or imprisoned or forced into exile, and their books banned or set on fire. Any established order, whether secular or religious, is threatened by, and therefore intolerant of, radical original thought — whether the new idea is a scientific discovery or, in the arts, some conspicuous stylistic departure from traditional forms. The establishment’s response to originality is often a combination of derision, ridicule, rejection, or an outright ban of the new work; or when the establishment is headed by a powerful fascist, military or theocratic leader, the response is the peremptory destruction of the new work or even its creator.
Thomas Mann, Hermann Broch, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, to name only the major German writers from a long list, were fortunate to escape the Nazi horror of Hitler’s Germany by going into exile, while those who could not, most notably the genius Bruno Schulz, were murdered. The superb Spanish poet Antonio Machado fled to democratic France from Franco’s fascist Spain and the great Federico Lorca who stayed behind was murdered. More recently, in Pakistan, Faiz Ahmad Faiz was jailed and then obliged to live in exile, and Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses was burned in public and the author made the subject of a fatwa pronounced on him by a high priest who based his judgement on hearsay, not having the learning to read for himself.
Dictatorships in Latin America in the second half of the 20th century, from Cuba down to Argentina and Chile, obliged many writers to flee to northern democratic nations. Oppressive governments in several African nations jailed some prominent writers whose ideas they deemed unsuitable, for example Wole Soyinka in Nigeria, Kofi Awoonor in Ghana. In the 1960s, eminent white and coloured South African writers were in London debating what action was open to them to fight the apartheid imposed upon their country by its white supremacist rulers. The liberal democracies of the West were not always a haven for unrestrained free expression. In England, though there is a wonderful earthy language in Chaucer in the 14th century and Shakespeare in the 17th, a quaint prudery crept into English sensibility that in the 19th century saw Thomas Bowdler produce expurgated editions of Shakespeare and Gibbon. Victorian England took to ‘bowdlerisation’ with gusto, and obscenity laws took away the writer’s freedom to use words associated with sexuality. In the supposedly noble cause of protecting women and children, there was such strict censorship in the first half of the 20th century in England that printers, authors and publishers could all be jailed for the offence of using language considered indecent, though the vocabulary of indecent speech, composed largely of what came to be known as four-letter words, was liberally used by the very people that the censorship law was supposedly protecting.
Because of the sexual suggestiveness of some of his sentences, the young James Joyce could not get a publisher to take his Dubliners for several years, and his Ulysses, an untouchable book for British publishers in the 1920s, was first published in France, then the country which led in the uncensored publication of literature. Any reader of Joyce today will look in vain for a passage, or even a phrase, in either of those books that will be considered remotely offensive — and this is one of the sad facts about any censorship: what one generation deems offensive turns out a generation later to be a perfectly natural representation of normal human experience, and sometimes what the censor excises proves to be a laughable triviality.
It seems laughable today that such words as ‘bastard’ were considered too scandalous for sensitive ears, and I remember in the London theatre in the 1950s playwrights getting a round the censorship by substituting ‘bastard’ with ‘basket’, so that one heard an actor on the stage shout at another, ‘You basket!’ and understood what he really meant and not that he mistook the other character for a pile of dirty laundry.
Beckett had to revise some of the phrasing in his plays to make them acceptable to the British censor; a glance at that correspondence from mid 20th-century London demonstrates in retrospect how ridiculous all that pious censorship was. And frustrating though it was for Beckett to have to put up with the piety of prudes, it is often amusing to see how he got around the objections, he who had audaciously titled a book of stories More Pricks Than Kicks and then silenced the morally outraged, including his pious mother, by pointing out that the title happened to be a Biblical reference, a remark attributed to Jesus himself (see the King James Bible, Acts 9:5).
It was not till 1960, when Penguin Books published the unexpurgated text of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence and were acquitted of the charge of obscenity at the famous trial at the Old Bailey, that a legal precedent was set that permitted authors complete freedom of expression and led to the abolition of censorship.
In the US, there was a similar repression of literature presumed to be obscene. The customs officers at the ports had the power to confiscate books considered obscene, so that books like Nabokov’s Lolita and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, published in France, could be kept from corrupting the American people as if they were innocent pious pilgrims who’d only recently disembarked from the Mayflower. Had it not been for the freedom from censorship that France traditionally accorded to writers, several important works of 20th-century literature would have remained suppressed until other nations caught up with the French ideal of liberty. No wonder post-World War I Paris teemed with writers and artists from countries where freedom of expression was not a guaranteed right. And as for the Bowdlerian need to protect women and children from moral corruption, the fact that French liberty allowed pornography to thrive and the Moulin-Rouge image of beautiful women flinging their bare legs projected the idea of Paris as a city of sin and immorality, yet the people of France, yes, even the women and children, were perfectly normal and no more corrupted than those in the most Puritanical of countries. And indeed, some of the finest works in all of the arts that the world has known since the beginning of recorded history were produced in France during the late 19th and early 20th centuries when neither the state nor the church interfered with the artist’s freedom: the literature, music, painting and sculpture that we admire today, and much of our cultural vocabulary, come from the Paris of that time.
It would not be incorrect to say that France provided the model for a true democracy in which literary aspirants, including most importantly those who broke from established conventions with some shocking heresy, could produce their work without the censor’s shadow falling over their shoulder. And indeed, by the second half of the 20th century, most of what was then known as ‘the free world’ — principally western democracies — had granted that freedom to its writers. Only the surviving dictatorships and theocracies with their rigidly fixed ideologies continued to demand an unconditional support of the state religion, or else be incarcerated or even hanged.
But even in some countries that proudly flaunt the notion that they are democratic, secular and liberal, there is a certain sense of insecurity that prompts their political leaders to attempt to suppress the writer’s freedom of expression — usually because there are votes to be gained by appealing to the ignorant. Even in the US there are extremists with fundamentalist persuasions who would prefer to ban works that do not conform to their narrow ideology. There are school boards in states like Texas that routinely attempt to marginalise Darwin’s work because to accept the theory of evolution implies a rejection of the Biblical version of creation.
Still, in spite of right-wing fundamentalist pressures, western democracies are holding on to the ideal of an absolute freedom of expression, which is proclaimed as a model for emerging democracies to follow. But here’s the paradox: democracy being based on majority rule and since the engine that drives a capitalist economy is the buying public, therefore, like all commodities, the market value of a work of literature acquires a greater importance than its literary value, and the editorial decision to publish a work becomes increasingly influenced by its sales potential while judgement concerning its literary quality is deemed irrelevant. With the public persuaded by advertising to become conditioned to admiring books promoted by bestseller lists, literary judgement becomes a hostage to commercial success. That which is observed as the power of the people is advanced as the purchasing power of the people; rabid consumerism then works to vitiate the nation’s intellectual quality because of the inevitable dumbing down required by the market to sell to the majority, which results in a diminishing of the power of the people because the majority becomes controlled by the goods it is sold. The people who buy end up selling their brains.
Furthermore, after the abolition of censorship in England and the US, it did not go unnoticed that heaps of trashy literature came on to the market by writers with fake pretensions to originality; but then, every liberty that is dearly won includes the cost of having to tolerate people who abuse it. Then there is this other paradox. Before modern times — which is to say, before the American and French revolutions of the 18th century when most of Europe from Britain in the West to Tsarist Russia in the East was run by monarchies, only a few of which allowed its people what we call democratic freedoms, and much of the rest of the world was divided into jealously guarded imperial properties for some of the European powers — before modern times the arts flourished thanks to the generous patronage of a privileged plutocracy. Elizabethan England, the Italian Renaissance, and Mughal India are three obvious examples. There are others, most conspicuously Tsarist Russia, first under Catherine the Great — who went to the extent of inviting Denis Diderot, the French philosopher-novelist and encyclopaedist, to be an intellectual in residence at her court — followed by her 19th-century successors during whose time Russia produced one of the most astonishing bodies of literature the world has known — Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Chekhov (to mention only the giants) — as well as the extraordinary music of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov and advances in the visual arts that nourished the Constructivist and Futurist movements of Europe.
By contrast, under the Soviets, mediocrity triumphed because the artist was obliged to serve the glory of the state religion and talented writers like Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn were victimised. In this matter of freedom of expression, one popular error needs to be corrected. There is a general belief that literature which supports some noble cause and conveys a strong message to promote it helps the ultimate success of that cause. Regrettably, this is not true. Didactic literature may stimulate the debate concerning a particular cause and make people who agree feel good, but it does not affect the wished-for change, which comes from political action. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own is a glorious trumpet call of the feminist movement, but success came from the sort of political action led by Emmeline Pankhurst. Nadine Gordimer’s work, commendable though it is for its stand against apartheid in South Africa, did not cause the fall of apartheid; Nelson Mandela did. James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison, however important their novels in stimulating a national dialogue about racial inequality in America, did not bring about the liberation of the African Americans in the US; Martin Luther King, Jr., did. Governments do not change policy because a literary text, even one of great dramatic power which captures a nation’s imagination, suggests that they should. All but a very few of those texts end up on the rubbish heap while the Mandelas and the Kings have statues built in their memory all over the world. Writers who considered themselves of monumental significance because of their ideas — for example George Bernard Shaw — find themselves shattered by neglect, the body of their work, wasted by the worms of irrelevance, reduced to dust in the desert of history. And even some of the great didactic or satirical works, like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Orwell’s Animal Farm, end up as amusing entertainment or, worse, children’s books. W. H. Auden was right when he memorably said in his elegy on W. B. Yeats: “Poetry makes nothing happen.” All that the poet can do is to “persuade us to rejoice.” And in the poem’s final glorious couplet what Auden hopes poetry will do is:
In the prison of his days,
Teach the free man how to praise.
It is always the freedom of the individual, trapped though he is in his own being, that is sacred to the writer; and in the end, it is the aesthetic brilliance of a work, together with an unconscious transmission of transcendental knowledge at the heart of all great art, that elicits the free man’s praise. No government can censor beauty.