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.