Thursday, 16 June 2011

Censorship is a terrible thing

Across the world people have begun to pay tribute to James Joyce’s magnum opus of modernist literature, Ulysses, by eating breakfasts of inner organs of beasts and fowls, thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods' roes, and of course, grilled mutton kidneys which give to the palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine. As a classics student, I find that I love the narrative, the references and the story, but at the same time I can see how anyone who isn’t at least mildly schizophrenic could have difficulty following it, not like it and be branded as a cynical philistine.

The book was dismissed as indecent and blasphemous when it was first published for its language, vivd lavatory guide by Mr. Leopold Bloom, and light hearted attitude to religion. I find it amazing to think that the ballad of Joking Jesus could be considered offensive, but it just goes to show you how insecure people are about their beliefs (“If anyone thinks that I amn’t divine, he’ll get no free drinks when I’m making the wine”). Although Joyce is one of the giants of literature who shows that we Irish have other talents besides political backwardness and alcoholism, the book itself was rejected in Ireland, but did not quite suffer the fate of the many, many others that were outright banned in Ireland.

State censorship is a terrible thing, and if there were an award for it, Ireland would be up there with North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Airstrip One. It’s been said that the 1957 Register of Prohibited publications reads like an everyman’s guide to twentieth century literature. Being banned in Ireland was a mark that you’d made it as a writer, and everyone from Steinbeck, to Huxley to Hemingway, not to mention Irish writers, Joyce, Beckett, Kavanagh, Sean Ó Faolain and others was presented with this badge of honour. The State would have been kinder to the trees to publish a list of books that weren’t banned. The ban-happy Censorship board were not the sole culprits in these grave crimes; the Customs authorities and An Post used to search imports from “disreputable publishers” to make sure people couldn’t pollute their minds with "indecent" and "obscene" materials. What these words actually meant was left entirely to the discretion of the Censorship Board, a quintet of busybodies from the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland and the Knights of Columbanus, with a token Protestant from Trinity College thrown in for good measure. Eventually, the superfluous liberal from Trinners resigned because of the committee’s in-built 4-1 majority, and the board became exclusively Catholic, now unhindered to bring the dream of the Ayatollah-I mean, Archbishop McQuaid and Dev to life.

The Ayatollah’s- sorry, slip of the tongue, Archbishop’s vision was realised in the form of an Ireland where literature could not pollute the minds of Irish virgins and boys. Pity Kohmein-, McQuaid’s own institutions didn’t have similar aspirations for their bodies. An average of 589 books between 1949 and 1953, and an utterly disgraceful 1,034 bans in 1954, all copies of these books were met either with return-to-sender or burning, yes book burning.

Censorship is absurd, as are the individuals who take it upon themselves to go out in the world to find things to offend them. It reminds me of the story about the lexicographer Samuel Johnson. After the publication of A Dictionary of the English Language, he was approached by two ladies who commended him on the exclusion of all naughty words. "What! my dears! Then you have been looking for them?" he retorted, and they promptly dropped the subject.

Before I picked up Ulysses and followed the story of that famous Dublin day in 1904, I read Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, and what made the book all the more pleasurable, (although it's an amazing and excellently written story in its own right) was a sense of defiance surrounding it. All the way through, I remembered that there are people out there who do not want me to read this book, and there are people who would have (and indeed have) killed because of it, and that made the book a precious thing. That I could read it and enjoy it was a triumph of freedom of expression and ideas, and to take a lead from Alan Moore's V for Vendetta, no amount of censorship or violence will silence ideas, because ideas are bulletproof.


EDIT: Apparently I had my facts muddled up when I wrote this. Ulysses was not banned in Ireland, but it was rejected by publishers in the country.

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