The frayed but still consistent relationship between creation and censorship.
By Sana Hussain
As 2012 drew to a close, Literature Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan sparked controversy in the literary world by saying that censorship is a must. During a news conference in Stockholm he said that censorship should not stand in the way of truth, but that any rumors or defamation “should be censored”. Not offering much consolation he added that he hoped that “censorship, per se, should have the highest principle”. Considering his political affiliations and stance on human rights, his advocacy for censorship as a necessary evil may not be altogether surprising, but it is disconcerting nonetheless. The irony of the situation is also too obvious to ignore when Yan pronounces censorship “necessary” in the same breath with which he says “I have always been independent. When someone forces me to do something I don’t do it”.
When a writer and intellectual of the 21st century draws an affinity between censorship and airport security checks, it raises questions regarding his eligibility for an honor whose previous recipients include iconoclasts like Bertrand Russell, Jean Paul Sartre, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, and Toni Morrison. Following his statements “celebrating” censorship, Yan has garnered opprobrium from many writers including the Nobel laureate Herta Muller, and also Salman Rushdie; a writer, who more than anyone else today, is aware of the perils of censorship, having a bounty placed on him following the publication of the infamous Satanic Verses. Rushdie’s book was consequently banned in several countries including South Africa, Sri Lanka, India, Singapore, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sudan and Thailand. For all the indignation and protest surrounding Rushdie’s work, it seems odd that some of the West’s more canonical works that are at the core of its culture and are written in the same vein as Satanic Verses, remain ignored in the censorship discourse.
While an individual or a community may not agree with the views and opinions of the other, taking away the right to express those opinions is not only wrong but also serves no purpose. Opposing ideas do not always threaten the existence of old ones – they only allow room for debate and food for thought. Contrary to what many believe Dante’s writings despite being hostile to the sensibilities of many, did not harm or cause any lasting debilitating effect on any of them. What’s more, progressive individuals like Harold Bloom and Oscar Wilde admired Dante’s work despite being part of the community he offended.
Wilde himself was no stranger to controversy and censorship; he was charged with gross indecency based on the “profanity” on display in his work. The Picture of Dorian Grey, a treat in aestheticism and finely crafted epigrams was censured upon release as being vile and disgusting, forcing Wilde to revise many chapters. But more than a century later, the world is still fraught with the debate of censorship as a necessary measure to protect people. Apologists, who consider censorship as important as airport security measures, are perhaps ignorant of the literary wealth they are refusing the world. Censorship is counterproductive to art –the artist strives to create, censorship aims to destruct.
Though censorship has over the centuries been ineffective in quelling ideas or invalidating content, it has left certain authors and their work with a reputation not easily escapable. For many, Lolita will always be a narrative centered on pedophilia and sexual deviance, but for the insightful reader it is about so much more than an old man’s perversions. Nabokov’s intention while writing the book was never to make it wholly about sex and nymphomania; in fact, he was disgusted by the way the book was being perceived and fought with his publishers who wanted to sell the book on the basis of sex by putting the picture of a teenage girl on the cover.
By banning literature on the pretext of upholding morality, or safeguarding readers from inappropriate content, the censor’s blinkered perceptions overshadow the actual worth of a literary text and subvert its meaning. Focusing only on taboos believed to disintegrate the social fabric, censors remain preoccupied with what shouldn’t have been written and forget to look beyond mere words and understand their meaning. Another novel where most readers seem unable to look past sex is The God of Small Things. Like Wilde, Lawrence, Manto, Chughtai, and many others before her, Arundhati Roy who was writing at the brink of the twenty first century had to face obscenity charges in court for the book’s content. She was made to appear before a first class judicial magistrate on account that her novel describes a sexual union between an upper class woman Ammu and an untouchable Velutha; because even today we can’t help but be mortified when someone sleeps with the wrong person, even if only in fiction. The indignant lawyer who filed the charges against Roy said that the erotic descriptions in the novel were repulsive, and offended the sense of public decency of the Indian people, believing that the book would corrupt the readers, and incite lascivious behavior.
Sadly, despite this evolution and presence of culture, whenever new ideas are explored through literature they are vehemently opposed and censored for the so-called benefit of the public, though who the “public” is, is still uncertain. The Nazis burned over 18,000 books because they did not correspond with their ideology. As much as we would like to believe otherwise, not much has changed over the years as far as the destruction of books is concerned. Twelve out of the twenty-one winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature have either been exiled, imprisoned, or had their books banned in the past two decades. The work of Toni Morrison stands out, whose novels The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon and Beloved were banned because they were explicit in their portrayal of slavery, racism and sexuality. Nobel Laureates J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing were banned in South Africa until 1995 because they wrote against the apartheid. Orhan Pamuk was charged for speaking out against the mass killings of Armenians and Kurds during the Ottoman Empire; his books were burned and rallies were held against him because he supposedly insulted “turkishness”. This anger against him stemmed from his statement in the Swiss publication, when he said that “thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it”. Following this statement, his books were banned in Turkey. It is frightening how governments, instead of apologizing for crimes committed in the past, want to erase the collective memory of them by censoring the voices that speak up.
But it is the power of literature that it has, throughout history, resisted such authority. Although censorship and bans have had adverse effects on writers and their work, they have not prevented writers from pushing the boundaries, challenging status quo, and exposing society’s failings. And while censorship has been an insidious force that has held the public conscience prisoner from Voltaire until today, the written word has triumphed over the laws and mindsets seeking to erase it. At least now, books like Brave New World, 1984, Catcher in the Rye,and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings are being recognized by the mass reading public as great works of literature. Oh some may still believe them to be the gateway of moral corruption and sexual deviance, they are in a minority. One might even call it progress.
As Alfred Griswold said “Books won’t stay banned. They won’t burn. Ideas won’t go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas. The source of better ideas is wisdom. The surest path to wisdom is a liberal education.”
The writer is Features Editor for the magazine.
Artist bio: Andrew Sussman’s foray into tattoo art began after the artist was on the receiving end of a poor tattoo by a person who epitomized everything that was wrong with the tattoo industry, which was when he realized he could tattoo just as well, and be clean, artistic, and most importantly, result in client satisfaction. Mr. Sussman’s work focuses on creating life as he sees it and in his 13 years experience, has focused on portraits and realism.