Perrin, Noel Entries

Dr. Bowdler, I presume.


I recently got a letter from Erik, one of my Norwegian penfriends, which included an incredulous rant about a censorship scandal of which we're probably all aware by now. "Have you heard of Laura Mallory?" Erik asks, incensed. "The woman who is trying to get the Harry Potter novels banned? I do not understand this! Do people in America believe in witchcraft? And what about all the magical things that Christians believe in, like turning wine into blood, and raising the dead? How is the magic in Harry Potter any different from that? I am interested in your thoughts on this." Erik often ends his passionate anti-conservative rants with the phrase "I am interested in your thoughts on this," which strikes me as extremely humorous. "I have heard that the United States represents 60% of the market for methamphetamine, a terrible drug which continues to grow in popularity. What are your thoughts on this?" "I am often filled with rage when I hear your politicians debating the war in Iraq. Don't the Iraqi people deserve some degree of self-determination? I am interested in your thoughts on this."

As it turns out, I do have quite a few thoughts on the subject of censorship, although personally, I think Mrs. Mallory's overly persistent attempts to get Harry Potter novels out of Georgia's public libraries are more ludicrous than seriously threatening. I mean, as much as I love J.K. Rowling and think anyone who wants to should be able to read Harry Potter, does Mallory really think that a kid who wants to read Rowling won't be able to borrow the book from a friend and keep it secret? I like to imagine Mallory's own children sneaking clandestine time with Ron, Hermione and Harry in the cafeteria at lunchtime, while their friends shake their heads and say again, for the hundredth time, "Your mom is crazy!" Probably the Mallorys' friends are already "over" Potter, at least pretending to be too cool for kids' books, but for the little Mallorys of my imagination, Harry and the gang have been endowed with limitless allure by virtue of their mother's Dursleyish attitude toward magic. Maybe they are even hiding illicit copies of The Order of the Phoenix under loose floor boards in their bedrooms, with the passage about Umbridge's ineffectual censorship of Harry's "Quibbler" interview lovingly highlighted.

But anyone who knows me well can tell you that the history and human urge of censorship are endlessly fascinating to me. I actually own three seperate histories directly devoted to book censorship, as well as three more having to to with the history of "obscenity" or pornography (that oft-sought-after censorable commodity), and another dealing with the history of birth control in America - birth control, which was defined as obscenity and outlawed, and any literature promoting or mentioning it was censored. I just can't get enough of stories about censorship. I'm drawn to them in the same way that people are drawn to rubberneck at the scene of a car crash, but I am also fascinated by the systems that people put in place in order to censor, the unfathomable (to me) passion that some people bring to the task of censoring, the different sources of censorship-worthy squeamishness that have existed for different cultures in different times, the inherent contradictions involved in BEING a censor (most notably, that you have to accept the hypothesis that "obscenity" is harmful to the reader, but then somebody has to read the material in question in order to see whether it's obscene), and the persistance of the censoring impulse in the face of evidence that it's never really worked. Even in intensely repressive places like modern-day China, people are finding ways around the government control of web and print media. My Russian professor Tatiana used to tell stories about trading outlawed copies of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita back in Soviet Russia. And in nineteenth-century America and England, population statistics show plain as day that people were practicing semi-reliable birth control, despite being thoughtfully "protected" from its harmful influence by their governments. So why does this urge persist?

For me, the fascination with censorship is a combination of genuine concern with maintaining free expression, and unabashed hilarity at the ridiculousness of the censorship urge. It's not that I think powerful censors can't wreak havoc, but for some reason I also find them irresistably funny. Of the specifically censorship-related histories I've read thus far, I think these two elements come together best in Noel Perrin's Dr. Bowdler's Legacy: A History of Expurgated Books in England and America. Its narrow focus (it deals only with the book-expurgation movement, not obscenity laws, outright banning of books, censorship of the mails, the pornography industry, birth control, etc.) means more entertaining anecdotes and character studies, as well as a cohesive story which has a clear beginning, middle and, somewhat disingenuously, end. Perrin's book originally ended with the quasi-sanctimonious and obviously untrue assertion that we're moving beyond such silly pursuits as chopping up and disfiguring books; he then revised it in 1992 to say, more or less, "Oops! Apparently we haven't!"

But the unduly optimistic original ending is the least interesting element of the book. In its beginning pages, we become acquainted with early expurgators like Sir David Dalyrimple, Lord Hailes, who replaced mildly improper lines in Scottish songs of Protestant propaganda with lines of asterisks that suggest much more impropriety than was ever there to begin with:

"The Parson wald nocht have an hure [whore],
But twa, and they were bony,
The Viccar thought he was pure,
Behuifet to have as many;
The parish Priest, that brutal beist,
* * * * * * * * * * * * * "

What can the parish priest have been doing? It turns out he was only "tickling" some girls: much more boring than anyone would have imagined, staring at that line of asterisks.

The reader also learns stories of latter-day bowdlerism, such as the case in the late 1960's where some anonymous hack at Ballantine Books decided to put out an expurgated edition of Farenheit 451 - yes, the seminal anti-censorship novel of the 20th century - for schoolchildren who might be irrevocably damaged by reading the word "damn" or encountering a passage where fluff is removed from a human navel (this actually was censored from the expurgated edition). Then, in 1973, probably through some kind of administrative snafu, the adult copy of the novel disappeared, and the expurgated copy became the only one available!. I love the ludicrousness of this happening because of un-noticed carelessness on the part of some secretary or other. It's just like Bradbury's novel itself: nobody cares enough to actually read the books! Nobody noticed the expurgation until 1979, at which point Bradbury himself stormed Ballantine and demanded that they restore the book to the document he actually wrote. As Perrin writes, "Ballantine meekly agreed."

In between these two stories are a whole lot of even better ones, including entire chapters on Shakespeare, the Bible, dictionaries, poetry and prose. I eat this stuff up with a spoon. In the Shakespeare chapter, for example, there is the story of expurgator Francis Gentleman, who italicized offensive passages in Othello, with the thought that ladies and youths could just skip over the highlighted text. Ladies, youths, I ask you: even with the best of intentions, who among us could help skipping straight TO the italicized text and gobbling up the juicy bits? I mean, that's what italic text DOES. It grabs the eye. Probably my favorite story from the Shakespeare section, though, is that of the version edited by William Chambers and Robert Carruthers, which attempted to mark bowdlerizations with quotation marks, rather than merely replacing Shakespeare's words with their own and leaving them unmarked. In practice, this is truly hilarious; Chambers and Carruthers turn Shakespeare into some kind of over-the-top postmodern hipster egregiously addicted to air quotes. They replace this quote from Othello, for instance,

I hate the Moor;
And it is thought abroad that 'twixt my sheets
He has done my office

with this version:

I hate the Moor;
And it is thought abroad that "with my wife"
He has done "me wrong"

By which Iago probably meant that he found a merchant selling "fresh fish" down by the "Vinny's bar." The eagle has landed, Desdemona.

My favorite story from the Bible section of Dr. Bowdler involves a brilliant ploy by a censor who put all the dirty bits at the back of the book (it must have been quite a hefty portion, considering how many dirty bits the Bible contains) and then claimed that he wished everyone to look at those chapters relegated to the back, although he feared that the reader may find them dull, as they mostly had to do with old Jewish laws and other obscure subjects. But he assures the reader that, if they have the strength of character to struggle through, they will benefit morally from the exercise. Imagine the surprise of the one person who actually decided to read one of these ostensibly ultra-dry passages, upon turning to the given page and finding an account of an old man whose daughters decide to bear children by him! Ooh la la.

Other wonderful characters include the aptly-named Mrs. Trimmer, who trimmed down the Bible so her kiddies could read it, and James Plumptre, who had grand dreams of "cleansing" all the great dramatic works of literature for the English stage and being hailed by history as a literary hero on par with Shakespeare and Johnson, but faced the minor hurdle of a total lack of interest in his project, even at the height of the bowdlerism craze. Poor Mr. Plumtre.

Of course, there are more sweeping and significant insights in Dr. Bowdler's Legacy as well, like the insight afforded by the changing standards of different cultures, the different things that make us uncomfortable. And the persistent idea that rich/educated people are "stronger" and better able to handle obscenity than poor or uneducated people. But mostly, I devour this stuff because the histories of these individuals and systems are simultaneously horrifying, fascinating and, in their own ways, enchanting.

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography