Monday, 27 February 2012
Of Censorship and the books that nobody reads
Censorship ends in logical completeness when nobody is allowed to read any books except the books that nobody reads.
- George Bernard Shaw
Apprehending arrest for reading passages from Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, four eminent Indian English writers had to abruptly disappear from the 2012 Jaipur Literature Festival. Engrossed in the bliss of ignorance, they possibly forgot that “You can discuss a book, read from other writings by the author, have conversations with him, invite him, but you cannot either possess a copy or publicly read from a book that is banned.” So explained William Dalrymple, the co-Director of the Festival, and went on to add how “the consequences could be serious for the four delegates since the readings constituted a premeditated act.” After such knowledge what forgiveness!
Since time immemorial controversies around bans and censorships have always evoked and generated tremendous amount of interest both in the educated elite and the illiterate. The graph of public curiosity naturally rises when it pertains to anything that is denied for reasons extending from the sublime to the ridiculous. It reaches a feverish pitch especially when the issue in question is either pornographic or pertains to what Karl Marx referred to as the “opium of the masses.” Battle lines are instantly drawn between the self-appointed guardians of public morality and over-enthusiastic defenders of free speech and action, be it the case of Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Though it would be an exercise in futility to ruminate time and again on whether a book ought to be banned for offending the sensibility or the fundamentalist sensitivity of a certain class of people, I do feel the urge to recall a particular passage from John Milton’s immortal treatise against censorship entitled “Areopagitica”: “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. Many a man lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”
What I find seminal in Milton’s classic statement, an adage that most of us have grown up with, is his emphasis on the phrase, “a good book,” which many of us may tend to miss while discussing censorship or ban. I distinctly recall that what had impressed me most about Lady Chatterley’s Lover, when I lay hands on it for the first time, was not the picture of alluring nudity displayed on the frontispiece of the book or the charge of obscenity that was brought against it; I saw the magnetic appeal of Lawrence’s magnum opus in his very opening statement: “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.”
I discovered on reading the novel how the inherent complexity of life after the apocalypse was as significant as the intimate scenes involving the union of Connie and Mellors and how the blending of these twin concerns went on to create an exquisite work of art. In this context it may not be out of place to quote Oscar Wilde: “The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame."
Contrary to my admiration for Lawrence’s novel, I wish to cite an instance related to my initial date with The Satanic Verses. When Rushdie’s novel hit the stands in 1988, fetching the author $2 million within a few months of its publication, it immediately stirred the proverbial hornet’s nest and initiated a controversy that has not dimmed in any way with the passage of time. I was obviously intrigued by Rushdie’s open letter to Rajiv Gandhi, then prime minister of India, which I happened to see on the front page of The Indian Express. Protesting against the ban imposed on the book on the testimony of a few parliamentarians who had not cared to read the book, Rushdie had stated: “The right to freedom of expression is at the foundation of any democratic society….I ask you this question: What sort of India do you wish to govern? Is it to be an open or a repressive society?”
At that point of time, I was working on my book Calculus of Power at the American Studies Research Centre, Hyderabad. When a friend made The Satanic Verses available, I tried reading a couple of pages and found the experience excruciatingly unenjoyable and gave up the effort in despair. Over the years, I have come across many honest readers whose opinions about the book have not been much different. Though I confess being an avid reader of many of Rushdie’s other works and greatly admire him as an icon of IWE, I’d reiterate the absurdity of banning books that are considered unreadable. This approach, I guess, would be wiser and safer than suppressing the suppressors of freedom of expression.
Nibir K. Ghosh
Editorial, Re-Markings Vol. 11 No.1, March 2012
It is heartening to know that even highly acclaimed writers are not unaware of the significance of a good story that appeals to the “laws of our primary nature.” For instance, we may look at a lyrical passage from Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things:
The secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably….They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again.
I wonder how many of us would really like to glance at the novel for the sake of reading a “Great Story.”