Monday, January 30, 2023

Glorifying Intolerance: The Sad History of Banning Books

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Art censorship, especially in cases that did not involve printed books, also once again reveals the limitations and often fortuitous nature of the whole Index project. Condemnations were often delayed for years or even centuries, or omitted altogether, as censors struggled to keep up with the constant flow of publication and creative works. They instead targeted individuals on a selective and often somewhat random basis, according to what came to their attention. Montaigne was quite dismayed by the close expert scrutiny his Essais received on his arrival in Rome, and it must also have been a hawk-eyed reader indeed who managed to pick out a single offending passage in the hundreds of pages of Cervantes’s Don Quixote.
– Robin Vose, The Index of Forbidden Books: Four Centuries of Struggle Over Word and Image For the Glory of God.

Alas, the history outlined in Robin Vose’s harrowing new study of institutionalized intolerance, The Index of Forbidden Books (Reaktion Books, distributed by University of Chicago Press), often veered all the way to the extreme right and even included, on special occasion, bonfires built to incinerate ideas which were deemed too dangerous, or sometimes just too alternative to orthodoxy, to be permitted on the open market of human consciousness. You can imagine how afraid the powers that be must have been around the turn of the first millennium, when the paranoid forces of paralyzing superstition were simply not enough and they needed to resort to more stringent methods of control, such as the complete non-existence of alternate perceptions of reality that ran counter to their own strategic plan for managing moral behaviours and belief systems. The one key ingredient they never quite clarified or explained, of course, was just why the supreme Deity they worshipped, and whose psychic persona armor they were obsessed with forcing down the throats of the entire population of the world, would ever need to be “glorified” in so crass a manner. 

There is a fine line between charming and creepy, between edifying and demeaning, between insightful and dangerous. That line passes directly through the hearts and minds of each individual and it not only controls their own responses to what they see and what they read but also their fervent desire to control what other people see and read. The permanent puzzle is what makes some people, usually the ones in positions of either religious or political power, discontented with monitoring their own personal experiences so that they feel they must interfere with the free choices of their fellow citizens by placing severe and often arcane restrictions and limits on the freedom of expression. Having broached such a sensitive subject as censorship, I can now say without any equivocation or fear of contradiction that I believe I’ve encountered one of the most depressing books ever written. But it’s one of the most important too.

Robin Vose’s informative new release is truly staggering in its documentation of institutional controls over the thoughts and feelings of human beings falling under the sway of their influence. Reading it, I was naturally put in mind of Ray Bradbury’s classic 1953 dystopian tale Fahrenheit 451, where in some future state certain books are methodically burned in order to exert a paranoid power over what ideas the human mind should be allowed to access and which ones need to be prevented from circulation. Eventually the inevitable happens, and virtually all books are considered dangerous by virtue of their very existence. Indeed, the alarmingly imagined social infrastructures of several other literary works also spring to memory: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel We, Aldous Huxley’s 1931 Brave New World, and George Orwell’s 1949 tale 1984. Indeed, we must also add Margaret Atwood’s masterful The Handmaid’s Tale to that woeful list.

Nervous readers of Robin Vose’s control chronicle might well have wondered at those fearful regulatory authors’ seeming compulsion with dictatorial regimes, but at least they were all considered science fiction, or at least speculative fiction, in style and scope, whereas the mind truly reels when one realizes that Vose’s book The Index is not only reality, but actuality and history, in that it documents a regime of thought control that has been in actual operation for nearly half a millennium and continues to this day to exert mind-boggling control (literally) over the everyday thoughts, feelings and choices of contemporary global citizens, not the least of whom are under the sway of certain conservative factions in our supposedly liberally progressive (i.e., more evolved) postmodern Western world in general, and in the American book-banning heartland in particular.

We are also offered the opportunity to examine the frightful extension of such prohibitive limits imposed by religious leaders, in far more varied national examples than solely those concocted by the Vatican in Christian Rome. But it was the Vatican, that floating city-state awash in two thousand years of their own public sins of omission and commission, which forms the bulk of the relentless narrative of woeful assault on the freedom of human expression and wonderment. For some reason, while pondering the issues in the history of prohibited ideas and images (at least in its western version in the first half of the last two millennia) I’ve also been haunted recently by a great quote from the American novelist Walker Percy, who once observed (in Love Among the Ruins) that “God, if you recall, did not warn his people about dirty books, he warned them against high places.”

Percy also accidentally made a query in Lost in the Cosmos which is at the heart of this present study, one also touched upon by the supposedly scandalous Irish writer Oscar Wilde: what becomes of lust denied or dreams deferred?

Question (The Great Problematic): Will the ultimate liberation of the erotic from its dialectical relationship with Christianity result in (a) the freeing of the erotic spirit so that man- and womankind will make love and not war? Or (b) the trivialization of the erotic by its demotion to yet another technique and need-satisfaction of the organism, toward the end that the demoniac spirit of the autonomous self, disappointed in all other sectors of life and in ordinary intercourse with others, is now disappointed even in the erotic, its last and best hope, and so erupts in violence – and in that very violence which is commensurate with the orgiastic violence in the best days of the old erotic age – i.e., war?

Lost in the cosmos indeed, and for such a long time too. Vose is a Professor of History at St. Thomas University, Canada, and is a specialist in the medieval period relating to issues of control and controversy. As his exemplary outlaw registry study of forbidden books clearly indicates, for more than four hundred years, the Catholic Church’s Index Liborum Prohibitorum struck terror into the hearts of authors, publishers and booksellers around the world, while arousing ridicule and contempt from many others. Biased, inconsistent and frequently absurd in its attempts to ban books of every description – with often fatal consequences – the Index also incidentally reflected the learning of hundreds of contributors over the centuries of its evolution. Index of Forbidden Books is the first study of its kind to be published in English and it carefully and thoughtfully examines the ‘reasons’ behind the Church’s attempts to censor religious, scientific and artistic works. He also considers why a most egregiously sustained campaign such as this failed and what lessons can be learned from today’s debates over freedom of expression.

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 (Wellcome Collection)

It’s useful in this regard that so-called ‘cancel culture’ has been an odd term applied to supposedly liberal representations, when actually the true origins of cancel culture were largely in the historical annals of orthodoxy and conservatism. After all, remember that even today, certain evangelical groups in America want to ban any books that honestly address slavery or indigenous genocide, as well as those that address our deepest emotional concerns over what kind of society we want to live in. What kind? The kind that actually bans Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird or Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Really? Strangely enough, demonstrations of extreme joy, rapture or even just deep speculative thought in our culture are almost more frowned upon than those of violent coercion. But why? Censorship has followed the free self-expressions of men and women like a shadow throughout history.

In ancient societies censorship was considered a legitimate instrument for regulating the moral and political life of the population. The origin of the term censor can be traced to the office of censor established in Rome in 443 B.C.E. In Rome, as in the ancient Greek communities, the ideal of good governance included shaping the character of the people. Hence censorship was regarded (originally) as an honourable task, a vocation of protection. We can easily explore the strange evolution of censorship throughout all the arts and culture fields in history: visual, literary, theatrical, cinematic, and political. Perhaps the first act of censorship was the ancient Greek condemnation of the philosopher Socrates, and maybe the most recent could be the malign fatwas against author Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses. In between, it seems that we have long been told by the powers that be just what we can read or watch. We will therefore ask the simple questions: why are certain things not allowed? And who gets to decide on our behalf what is good or bad for us?

The rationale for censorship has been different for various types of information censored: moral censorship is the removal of materials that are obscene or otherwise considered morally questionable. Pornography, for example, is often censored under this rationale, especially child pornography, which is rightfully illegal and properly censored in most jurisdictions in the civilized world. Moral censorship in the United States grew out of anti-obscenity movements in the years after the Civil War. Efforts to thwart obscene materials in some instances became federal law, and even more so in the form of stricter state laws. Private organizations were formed to target those who produced and traded obscene materials and worked to send violators to prison in numbers. Censorship of libraries is by no means a recent practice. On the contrary, libraries have been the targets of censorship since ancient times. History is littered with facts of destroyed library collections, and libraries themselves have far too often become flaming pyres. As early as 221 B.C.E., the deliberate burning of a library was recorded in China.

Although the destruction by fire of 400,000 rolls in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in 47 B.C.E. was by all accounts accidental, the burning of the entire collection of the University of Oxford library in 1683 was on direct orders from the king. And as Heinrich Heine ominously pointed out in 1821, "where books are burned, in the end people will burn." Censorship has still been criticized throughout history for being unfair and hindering progress. In a 1997 essay on internet censorship, social commentator Michael Landier claimed that censorship is counterproductive as it prevents the censored topic from being discussed. Landier expands his argument by claiming that those who impose censorship must consider what they censor to be true, as individuals believing themselves to be correct would welcome the opportunity to disprove those with opposing views. 

Consider, then, the subtle distinction between censorship and prohibition, between prevention and security, between freedom of expression and control. As always we’re best to begin with basics. Noun: prohibition, 1. the action of forbidding something, especially by law; a law or regulation forbidding something; plural noun: prohibitions. Usually that which contravened the power brokers’ nebulous “community standards.” Whose community, and what standards? Censorship is the suppression of free speech, public communication or other information which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, politically incorrect or inconvenient as determined by governments, media outlets, authorities or other groups or institutions. It’s what Vose’s book illustrates was done for frightfully scary centuries by the oppressive Vatican mindset. Closely wedded to censorship, propaganda is the logical consequence: by preventing the spread of certain ideas or books deemed dangerous, they automatically promoted their own preferred paths. 
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Ippolito Salviani’s banned snake. (Wellcome Collection)

Remember, propaganda is a modern Latin word relating to spreading and propagating, derived from an administrative body of the Catholic Church congregation created in 1622 as part of the Counter-Reformation and called the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, or Congregation for Propagating the Faith. Only subsequent to the 1790s, the term began being used to refer to propaganda in secular activities. The term then began taking on a pejorative or negative connotation in the mid-19th century, when it was used in the political sphere, and it has been most obviously used of late among many right-wing extremist conservative, religious and hate groups, most notably by certain cable television networks. Vose’s insightful, incisive and nerve-wracking book should be read by anyone who truly wants to understand the origins of human intolerance, and the lengths that institutionalized thinking will go to control our private narratives.

For me, the author of another one of the scariest books on repression ever written said it best, subsequent to the controversy surrounding her dystopian masterpiece The Handmaid’s Tale (which many church groups have also banned, or tried to): "Freedom to write, freedom to publish, freedom of speech: all are still being fought for in many countries in the world. Their martyrs are numerous. With so many so willing to die in its name, why have citizens in many western countries been willing to surrender their hard-won freedoms with barely more than a squeak? Usually it’s fear. And fear can come in many forms.” Hear, hear, Margaret Atwood. And kudos also to Robin Vose. Both are vital voices extolling the virtues of freedom of expression in a dangerous time of reactionary movements designed to turn back the clock of liberal progress and tolerance, and indeed, they often seem like they want to turn that clock back all the way to about the year 1600, when they burned the pantheist Giordano Bruno at the stake on the steps of the Campo di Fiori, in Rome. His crime? Claiming that the universe was infinite and that it probably contained an infinity of other worlds just like our own. In 1889, a statue honouring Bruno was erected to a man who may well have been the first modern thinker, long before such a thing as modernism was even imagined, and practically at the same location where he was publicly executed.

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Ettore Ferrari’s sculptural tribute to Bruno, 1889. (Wellcome Collection)

Many have wondered what so wise a man’s last words may have been. However, he had no last words, since a metal clamp kept his mouth closed in order to prevent him from speaking. Such was the degree of fear he instilled in the inquisitorial managers of the Church’s Liborum Prohiborum, who dreaded that he might reveal that there was more to being human than they were able or willing to accept. Yet, almost as if by accident, he is now widely considered to be a founder of the frame of mind we identify as humanism, and some thirty-three years later, a certain Galileo Galilei came along and invented the telescope, which proved that Bruno had been quite correct in his conjectures. The Pope and his cardinals refused to look through the telescope when the inventor presented them with the heavens spread out for everyone to see, and instead consigned him to house arrest.

Meanwhile, what is it that the figure in the Giordano Bruno sculpture is clutching so preciously in his arms? A stack of books, of course. In the end, a book will always win, whether it be Origin of Species and the Descent of Man by Charles Darwin, Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence, Ulysses by James Joyce, or the classic Beat poem Howl by Allen Ginsberg. But lest we imagine that this long nightmare of suppression was located mostly in antiquity, we would do well to remember that in the 20th century the battle was still raging, with Clarence Darrow defending a Tennessee high-school teacher named John Scopes, who was being persecuted for teaching the principles of evolution versus creationism. But try as they might, and try mightily they do, the forces of fear, ignorance and superstition will always run out of ammunition eventually when faced with the simple glory of a well-crafted sentence. 

 Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, as well as the biographies Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, 2018, and Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner2020, and a book on the life and art of the enigmatic Yoko Ono, Yoko Ono: An Artful Life, released in April 2022. His latest work in progress is a new book on family relative Charles Brackett's films made with his partner Billy Wilder, Double Solitaire: The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder.


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