Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘literature’

01 OCTOBER, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Bukowski, Susan Sontag, Harper Lee, and Other Literary Greats on Censorship

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A century of conviction celebrating the freedom to read.

Some history’s most celebrated works of literature have, at various times and in various societies, been banned — from Arabian Nights to Ulysses to, even, Anaïs Nin’s diaries, to name but a fraction. To mark Banned Books Week 2012, I’ll be featuring excerpts from once-banned books on Literary Jukebox over the coming days. But, today, dive into an omnibus of meditations on and responses to censorship from a selection of literary heroes from the past century.

Kurt Vonnegut writes in his almost-memoir, A Man Without a Country (public library):

And on the subject of burning books: I want to congratulate librarians, not famous for their physical strength or their powerful political connections or their great wealth, who, all over this country, have staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves, and have refused to reveal to thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles.

So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the House of Representatives or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.

And yet libraries have had a track record for exercising censorship themselves. When Virginia’s Hanover County School Board removed all copies the Harper Lee classic To Kill a Mockingbird (public library) in 1966 on the grounds that it was “immoral,” Lee wrote the following letter to the editor of The Richmond News Leader, found in Understanding To Kill a Mockingbird:

Monroeville, Alabama
January, 1966

Editor, The News Leader:

Recently I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board’s activities, and what I’ve heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read.

Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that “To Kill a Mockingbird” spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners. To hear that the novel is “immoral” has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink.

I feel, however, that the problem is one of illiteracy, not Marxism. Therefore I enclose a small contribution to the Beadle Bumble Fund that I hope will be used to enroll the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.

Harper Lee

In 1985, when the Public Library in Nijmegen decided to remove Charles Bukowski’s Tales of Ordinary Madness (public library) after a complaint from a reader, declaring it “very sadistic, occasionally fascist and discriminatory against certain groups (including homosexuals),” a local journalist reached out to the author for a response. Bukowski immediately fired off an altogether brilliant letter, which included a direct shot at the essence of censorship:

Censorship is the tool of those who have the need to hide actualities from themselves and from others. Their fear is only their inability to face what is real, and I can’t vent any anger against them. I only feel this appalling sadness. Somewhere, in their upbringing, they were shielded against the total facts of our existence. They were only taught to look one way when many ways exist.

In a poignant and heated exchange with the editor of Esquire in 1975, E. B. White considers media sponsorship as a form of censorship that hinders the free press, and argues:

For a citizen in our free society, it is an enormous privilege and a wonderful protection to have access to hundreds of periodicals, each peddling its own belief. There is safety in numbers: the papers expose each other’s follies and peccadillos, correct each other’s mistakes, and cancel out each other’s biases. The reader is free to range around in the whole editorial bouillabaisse and explore it for the one clam that matters — the truth.

In September of 1965, Susan Sontag wrote in her diary, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980:

I am against censorship. In all forms. Not just for the right of masterpieces — high art — to be scandalous.

But what about pornography (commercial)?
Find the wider context:
notion of voluptuousness à la Bataille?
But what about children? Not even for them? Horror comics, etc.
Why forbid them comics when they can read worse things in the newspapers any day. Napalm bombing in Vietnam, etc.

A just/ discriminating censorship is impossible.

Lemony Snicket writes in The Penultimate Peril (A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 12) (public library):

The burning of a book is a sad, sad sight, for even though a book is nothing but ink and paper, it feels as if the ideas contained in the book are disappearing as the pages turn to ashes and the cover and binding — which is the term for the stitching and glue that holds the pages together — blacken and curl as the flames do their wicked work. When someone is burning a book, they are showing utter contempt for all of the thinking that produced its ideas, all of the labor that went into its words and sentences, and all of the trouble that befell the author.

In Mrs. Warren’s Profession (public library), George Bernard Shaw puts it in the most deterministic terms possible:

All censorships exist to prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently, the first condition of progress is the removal of censorship.

In June of 1945, Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary:

The important task of literature is to free man, not to censor him, and that is why Puritanism was the most destructive and evil force which ever oppressed people and their literature: it created hypocrisy, perversion, fears, sterility.

Ray Bradbury writes in Fahrenheit 451 (public library):

There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish/Italian/Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib/Republican, Mattachine/FourSquareGospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.

When a New Hampshire high school banned John Irving’s “inappropriate” The Hotel New Hampshire (public library), Irving sent an indignant letter to the head school librarian, ending with the following parenthetical:

Real readers finish books, and then judge them; most people who propose banning a book haven’t finished it. In fact, no one who actually banned Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” even read it.

In fact, Salman Rushdie himself recently reflected on censorship in The New Yorker:

The creative act requires not only freedom but also this assumption of freedom. If the creative artist worries if he will still be free tomorrow, then he will not be free today.

For a weeklong celebration of the freedom to read, tune into Literary Jukebox for some favorite excerpts from censored books, thematically paired with music.

Public domain images courtesy of Flickr Commons

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26 SEPTEMBER, 2012

T. S. Eliot on Idea Incubation, Inhibition, and the Mystical Quality of Creativity + a Rare Recording

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“We do not know until the shell breaks what kind of egg we have been sitting on.”

In this passage from The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (public library), cited in the 1942 gem Anatomy of Inspiration, celebrated poet, playwright, and cultural critic T. S. Eliot adds to previously explored theories of how creativity works by taking a curious look at how physical illness brings a near-mystical quality of poetry, driven by two key elements of creativity: the presence of an incubation period when unconscious processing of existing ideas takes place, and the removal of habitual inhibitions, or something John Keats has termed “negative capability”.

That there is an analogy between mystical experience and some of the ways in which poetry is written I do not deny … though, as I have said, whether the analogy is of significance for the student of religion or only to the psychologist, I do not know. I know, for instance, that some forms of ill-health, debility or anaemia, may (if other circumstances are favourable) produce an efflux of poetry in a way approaching the condition of automatic writing — though, in contrast to the claims sometimes made for the latter, the material has obviously been incubating within the poet, and cannot be suspected of being a present form a friendly or impertinent demon. What one writes in this way may succeed in standing the examination of a more normal state of mind; it gives me the impression, as I have said, of having undergone a long incubation, though we do not know until the shell breaks what kind of egg we have been sitting on. To me it seems that at these moments, which are characterised by the sudden lifting of the burden of anxiety and fear which presses upon our daily life so steadily that we are unaware of it, what happens is something negative: that is to say, not ‘inspiration’ as we commonly think of it, but the breaking down of strong habitual barriers — which tend to re-form very quickly. Some obstruction is momentarily whisked away. The accompanying feeling is less like what we know as positive pleasure, than a sudden relief from an intolerable burden. … This disturbance of our quotidian character which results in an incantation, an outburst of words which we hardly recognise as our own (because of the effortlessness), is a very different thing from mystical illumination. The latter is a vision which may be accompanied by the realisation that you will never be able to communicate it to anyone else, or even by the realisation that when it is past you will not be able to recall it to yourself; the former is not a vision but a motion terminating in an arrangement of words on paper.

Complement this with a rare recording of Eliot reading his celebrated 1915 stream-of-consciousness poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” found in his Selected Poems:

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24 SEPTEMBER, 2012

F. Scott Fitzgerald Responds to Hate Mail

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“The Rosseaus, Marxes, Tolstois — men of thought, mind you, ‘impractical’ men, ‘idealist’ have done more to decide the food you eat and the things you think + do than all the millions of Roosevelts and Rockerfellars.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald — literary legend, master of the muse, star of early book ads, and one amazing dad — was born 116 years ago today.

In 1920, shortly after the publication of his debut novel, This Side of Paradise, he received a piece of “hate mail” criticizing the book as an affront to the respectable members of society, particularly those in power. Fitzgerald’s feisty, brilliant response, found in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters (public library), pulls into question — just as his fiction famously does — the superficial values high society holds so dear, touching on everything from education to ethics to politics to creative legacy with equal parts insight and irreverence:

TO: Robert D. Clark
38 W 59th St.
New York City

Feb 9th 1920

Dear Bob:

Your letter riled me to such an extent that I’m answering immediatly. Who are all these ‘real people’ who ‘create business and politics’? and of whose approval I should be so covetous? Do you mean grafters who keep sugar in their ware houses so that people have to go without or the cheap-jacks who by bribery and high-school sentiment manage to controll elections. I can’t pick up a paper here without finding that some of these ‘real people’ who will not be satisfied only with ‘a brilliant mind’ (I quote you) have just gone up to Sing Sing for a stay — Brindell and Hegerman, two pillars of society, went this morning.

Who in hell ever respected Shelley, Whitman, Poe, O. Henry, Verlaine, Swinburne, Villon, Shakespeare ect when they were alive. Shelley + Swinburne were fired from college; Verlaine + O Henry were in jail. The rest were drunkards or wasters and told generally by the merchants and petty politicians and jitney messiahs of their day that real people wouldn’t stand it And the merchants and messiahs, the shrewd + the dull, are dust — and the others live on.

Just occasionally a man like Shaw who was called an immoralist 50 times worse than me back in the 90ties, lives on long enough so that the world grows up to him. What he believed in 1890 was heresy then — by by now its almost respectable. It seems to me I’ve let myself be dominated by ‘authorities’ for too long — the headmaster of Newman, S.P. A, Princeton, my regiment, my business boss — who knew no more than me, in fact I should say these 5 were all distinctly my mental inferiors. And that’s all that counts! The Rosseaus, Marxes, Tolstois — men of thought, mind you, ‘impractical’ men, ‘idealist’ have done more to decide the food you eat and the things you think + do than all the millions of Roosevelts and Rockerfellars that strut for 20 yrs. or so mouthing such phrases as 100% American (which means 99% village idiot), and die with a little pleasing flattery to the silly and cruel old God they’ve set up in their hearts.

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