writer, journalist and critic

The risk of freedom: public and private censorship

Words tend to lose their meaning through overuse. Freedom, democracy, censorship: we colour these words, we place them in dubious company and confound them to the point where they hardly recognize themselves any more. Through repetition they become empty, and then we have to reach for the dictionary to try and recapture the original meaning of what we want to say. The dictionary defines censor as: "1. one empowered to judge the fitness of manuscripts, communications, etc., for publication, 2. One who censures; a faultfinder; — to judge critically; examine for fitness, delete as unsuitable". Several words strike one as ominous: empowered and faultfinder, for example. Someone has been given the power to find faults with someone else´s writing. Who empowers the faultfinder? Society, public opinion, that most mysterious of institutions, the system? Furthermore, once faults having been found, they are to be deleted as unsuitable. Unsuitable for whom?  We have two victims of censorship: the writer, whose work is subjected to such empowered scrutiny, and the potential reader, who is deprived of his right to judge for himself. One cannot help but think of a pile of books being burned in the public square: books, not a musical composition or a sculpture. William Shakespeare, a man known —among other things— for his love of life, said that "censorship is art made tongue-tied by authority". I call upon another writer, one of impeccable moral credentials, John Milton: "Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God´s image, but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye". 

Structural organizations have always tried to keep the private world of the individual under control. All creative and artistic expressions are subjected to judgement and/or censorship, but none are persecuted with such wrath as the written word. Books, wrote Voltaire in a satirical pamphlet called Concerning the Horrible Danger of Reading, "dissipate ignorance, the custodian and safeguard of well-policed States". Books are the curse of dictatorships, and it is therefore logical that they should be destroyed with such enthusiasm. About the year 213, the Chinese emperor Shih Huang-ti tried to abolish reading by burning all the books in his realm; Caligula ordered all the works by Homer, Virgil and Livy to be burned; luckily for us, someone considered disobeying the order. "The illusion cherished by those who burn books is that, in doing so, they are able to cancel history and abolish the past", writes Alberto Mangueli in his essay A History of Reading.  He goes on to provide some enlightening examples: in 1981, the military Junta under general Pinochet banned Don Quijote for its defense of freedom and its attack on established authority. We would like to think of this type of mentality as a thing of the past, pertaining to George Orwell´s Ministry of Truth, and inconceivable in this our transtextual and relativist postmodern world. To dissuade my reader from such unwarranted optimism, I shall mention some of the books most frequently banned from libraries and public schools in the United States between 1990 and 1992, according to Herbert N Foerstelii: Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck; Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger: Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain; Lord of the Flies, by William Golding; The Color Purple, by Alice Walker; The Handmaid´s Tale, by Margaret Atwood; A Hundred Years of Solitude, by Garcia Marquez, and, oh surprise, Little Red Riding Hood by the brothers Grimm. I stumbled upon this list, and —in an honest effort to find a connection— I tried to analyze the offensive themes. Religion? Hardly evident. Politics? Possibly, in the case of Steinbeck, who professes such a concern for the rights of the individual against exploitation. Feminism? Of course, it is obvious in the works by Atwood and Walker. But then, Walker being a black writer, another element comes up to further complicate matters: Racism? Perhaps she shares a heretical point of view with Mark Twain, whose characters establish such deep relationships in spite of race and social standing. Or… perhaps the censurable context in Twain is his understanding of adolescence, and this would also apply to Salinger. Back to politics, with Garcia Marquez, or the negative aspects of society depicted in Lord of the Flies…How can the individual be such a menace to the system? All of a sudden I saw the light. It is only the Humane Society intent on protecting the wolf from Red Riding Hood, the flies of the Lord, Steinbeck´s mice and the children with pig´s tails, —product of incest— in Garcia Marquez…What a relief, to be able to identify the source of censorship…

Censorious and repressive structures are not always obvious. Burning people or books is no longer politically correct —although the objective is still attained through more efficient means. Whenever public and private interests contend there is a confrontation between the subjective freedom of the individual and the authoritarian spirit of the system. Herbert Marcuse argues that advanced societies embody a paradox: increased abundance and satisfaction of material needs along with increased repression in the form of external controls and administration. In his book One Dimensional Maniii he holds the view that American capitalism has preempted all traditional modes of opposition merely by tolerating them, thus making tolerance itself a form of repression. Most  disheartening for Marcuse was the perception that that the two most hopeful means of liberation, art and sexuality, had been absorbed by the system and had become "cogs in a cultural machine…entertaining without endangering". Marcuse, nevertheless, writes at a time of great emphasis on individual freedom and contempt for the regulating forms of the system. Now, when there is a universalizing trend towards political correctness as upheld by such regulating forms, repressive means hide behind the mask of apparent tolerance. "Everything is allowed", says Ivan Karamazov, but the concept is muddled and becomes a leveling inhibitor of all transgressions. Albert Camus declares: the fact that everything is allowed does not imply that nothing is forbidden. "Absurdity is a tie and not a liberation…if all experiences are indifferent, that of duty is as legitimate as any other".

This idea of duty compels us to inquire; is censorship valid, at some specific time or for some special reason? No matter how tolerant we deem ourselves to be, we are all confronted at some point with the temptation to censure, although fortunately few of us find ourselves in a position to do it. Perhaps in a scholarly milieu, censorship would be liable to focus on specific targets. As Oscar Wilde said, when confronted with a compromising letter: "it is not immoral; much worse, it is badly written". If there are 20 people in a room, there are probably just as many points of view concerning what is valuable and what is harmful, all of them respectable but not necessarily compatible. We come thus to the best argument against censorship that I have ever encountered: who judges? We should conclude thereof that censorship is not valid under any circumstances. To stifle the spirit of Prometheus —or  Pandora—to suppress the natural audacity that leads to uncharted or dangerous territories is to deny the possibility of adventure, creativity and progress. We are well aware that the outcome of such endeavours is not always for the best. This is evident in the field of science, where doors are opened on to potentially ominous ground. But man needs to invent and transform: stone into sculpture, colour into painting, volume into architecture, words into stories. He is only led to measure the foreseeable —and perhaps dangerous— consequences of his actions by the notion of duty.

The other aspect of censorship is private: it implies the voluntary or subconscious inhibition of self—expression. It may originate in various factors, but the word that comes to mind as an all-encompassing explanation is fear, of oneself or of others. Once again, writing appears to be the field where self-censorship is at its most evident: the written word declares, assumes, affirms,and therefore becomes an undeniable commitment by the author.

Why do we write? Is it only for love of words, of the possibility of reinventing the world, of illuminating its darkest and most seductive corners? There may be those who satisfy this love with the work itself, and then hide or destroy their writings; we do not get to know them. Usually, the act of writing involves the invention of the perfect reader, he who understands and identifies with what he reads. All literary work is a message, a bottle thrown to sea in the hope of reaching a sympathetic accomplice; it implies the need to establish certain ties with the other, this other whom we imagine and whom we intend to be read by. After all, any attempt at writing is also an attempt at communication. The process —and the love of this process— implies an objective: it is not carried out with the other in mind but it contemplates the reader as a secret correspondent. The relationship between writer/reader involves parallel demands: the writer´s imagination grows, expands, explores complex or forbidden ground, and the reader is dragged along to share the adventure. Salinger´s character, Seymour, tells his writer- brother: "If only you´d remember before you ever sit down to write that you´ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind…then ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing Buddy Glass would most want to read…then sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself." iv Not the kind of advice that is easy to follow, but meaningful nevertheless: every writer who honestly pretends to be one is, before all else, a passionate —and also honest— reader. Perhaps our imaginary interlocutor is only the projection of that inner reader. In a circular process, the reader is endowed with the intentions of the writer. In his essay on Coetzee, Michael Ignatieff says: "…great writing is private: it issues from an intensely inner dialogue with the imaginary beloved. And the imaginary beloved is language itself. A true writer is fundamentally in love with language, ultimately for the sake of language itself".v

The projection of our writing/reading process unto the imaginary interlocutor develops into the unconscious judgement we pass on our own abilities. Through an involuntary transference of criteria, we bestow upon the unknown reader the capacity to appraise our work. Self-censorship issues, therefore, from the assignment of our own fears to the other, thus invested with the power to judge. J.M. Coetzee argues: "If the imagined reader makes the writing possible, the censor´s eruption into the inner world of the writer can destroy the bond which gives a writer the courage to write".vi External censorship provokes rebellion: the fight for freedom which man —according to Albert Camus—, in undertaking it for his sake, undertakes for the whole of mankind. In our postmodern world we are convinced that truth lies within man´s private conscience, and cannot be decreed by public power. The other, inner censors, hold a secret control over words and ideas; they may be as imaginary as the reader, but if we deem the reader to be sympathetic, we think of the censor as inevitably condemnatory. Fear of condemnation is paralyzing; we cannot stand naked, helpless, before a disapproving enemy. ¿Who is this enemy? The others: all those who are admitted to our inner conscience through our writing. The presence of the beloved reader was a source of courage; its transformation into a critic allows him to creep into the innermost folds of our mind, and to carry out —from within— his disqualifying task. Writer/reader/censor then unfold in a game of mirrors: the writer projects his image as it is known to him, and is subject to its reflection as a detonator of his creative possibilities. The mirror´s function is not to invent, but to reflect; it only gives back the projector´s self-conception.

Another —and powerful— intimidating element is the contemporary urge to find autobiography where there is nothing but imagination. In this time of intellectual voyeurism, it becomes difficult to hide behind traditional masks. Words, songs or colour are not enough to establish barriers against overinterpretation. Anecdotes are seen as an extension of life, liable to betray the secret place where they grow. That old piece of advice traditionally given to aspiring writers, "write of what you know" becomes ominous. ¿Should I stand naked before the eyes of the imaginary judge created by my own insecurity? The possibility of his becoming a sympathetic reader lies in the ability to seduce, and to let ourselves be seduced: by language, by images and by the world around us.  It also lies in the conviction that every writer describes himself, but not necessarily narrates himself. His characters inhabit a different dimension in time and space —physical as well as metaphorical—, speak in a different voice, walk along alternate roads.  He infuses them with life, together with the power to see through his eyes, to capture an image and make it into fiction. In order to hold on to this drive, to follow it with enthusiasm, the writer must remain the accomplice of his imaginary beloved, who is none other but himself.

The risk of freedom lies in every challenge: defying the system whenever it proves to be repressive; ignoring the contempt of conventional communities; refusing to submit to unacceptable codes. It also lies in recognizing one´s own  projected image, and in transforming the imaginary judge into the equally imaginary reader, he  who shares the exploration of that mysterious territory: fantasy. "Why is it so difficult to grasp, this world seemingly so near to us?", demands Patrick White. Perhaps that recurrent questioning, why do we write, is what comes between this nearby world and our possibility of grasping it. In our effort to transmit this world, to seduce our self  —transmuted into reader— with its reinvented image, to capture it within the net of language, we abolish the frontiers that keep us apart from it, and we open the way to tell it to others. 

i  Alberto Manguel, Une Histoire de la Lecture, Actes Sud, Paris, 1997

ii Herbert N. Froestel, Banned in the U.S.A., Greenwood Press, 1996

iii Herbert Marcuse, One- Dimensional Man, Beacon Press, Boston, 1964

iv J.D. Salinger, Seymour, An Introduction, Little, Brown & Co. Boston 1955

v Michael Ignatieff, The Beloved, London Review of Books, Feb. 1997

vi J.M. Coetzee, Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship, Chicago Press, 1996.