Tag Archives: censorship

Salman Rushdie – Public Events, Private Lives: Literature and Politics in the Modern World

Rushdie_UNCA

I have a confession to make: I have not read any of Salman Rushdie’s books… yet. But this will be changing soon. Last night I went to see the author give a public lecture at the University or North Carolina – Asheville, and I have to say, he was one of the more inspiring writers I have had the privilege of hearing speak.

He touched on a lot of current issues regarding politics, social trends, and the role of literature in these changing times. He openly criticized Donald Trump, censorship, and the proliferation of misinformation, or “truthiness,” associated with the internet and the digital age. But there were two themes in his lecture that resonated with me on a deep level: the trend among students to attempt silencing ideas that challenge their established beliefs, and the role of the novel in bringing “news” to readers.

Regarding students silencing ideas, this is something about which I often think, particularly regarding the BDS movement (boycott, divestment, sanctions) directed against Israel. I have heard horrific stories about professors, speakers, artists, etc., being shouted down, threatened, and silenced on campuses for expressing their support for Israel, all under the guise of support for the oppressed Palestinians. What Rushdie asserted in his lecture is that this is essentially censorship, and it is censorship perpetrated by the group of people who should be most vehemently opposed to the censorship of ideas. Rushdie claims that it is the responsibility of artists and professors to challenge the established beliefs and to open for discussion ideas that are uncomfortable and sometimes contradictory to one’s personal beliefs. I’m paraphrasing here, but he basically said that students who claim they do not feel safe when forced to consider challenging ideas have no place in a university and should instead be in a pizza parlor, where they will be safely sheltered from having to listen to ideas that contradict their way of thinking.

The other part of his lecture I found fascinating concerned the role of the novel in presenting news to the modern reader. This puzzled me at first until Rushdie elaborated. He claimed that with the demise of print newspapers, the reading public no longer has access to legitimate news sources, that digital news sources have yet to be able to fill that gap. Instead, we get opinions as opposed to reporting. I would counter that print newspapers have historically been biased also, but I could accept that news media has become more opinion-centric as of late. Then Rushdie went on to explain how literature and the novel provide a side of the news that is lacking in usual coverage, which is the human side, the internal aspect of living in an increasingly smaller world. The way we can understand what it is like to be in situations is through literature. He used the example of The Kite Runner which provides a deeper insight into life in Afghanistan than any news story showing explosions and statistics of how many were killed. His words resonated with truth. My belief in the power of art and literature was validated and boosted.

I left the lecture excited to read, to write, and to discuss ideas. I also left with a newly bought copy of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children tucked under my arm. And while the book has been temporarily placed on my sagging shelf, I suspect that I will be reading this one before the others that have been patiently waiting for me to open their covers.

Advertisements

14 Comments

Filed under Literature

“The School-Boy” by William Blake

SchoolBoy

I love to rise in a summer morn,
When the birds sing on every tree;
The distant huntsman winds his horn,
And the skylark sings with me:
O what sweet company!

But to go to school in a summer morn, –
O it drives all joy away!
Under a cruel eye outworn,
The little ones spend the day
In sighing and dismay.

Ah then at times I drooping sit,
And spend many an anxious hour;
Nor in my book can I take delight,
Nor sit in learning’s bower,
Worn through with the dreary shower.

How can the bird that is born for joy
Sit in a cage and sing?
How can a child, when fears annoy,
But droop his tender wing,
And forget his youthful spring!

O father and mother if buds are nipped,
And blossoms blown away;
And if the tender plants are stripped
Of their joy in the springing day,
By sorrow and care’s dismay, –

How shall the summer arise in joy,
Or the summer fruits appear?
Or how shall we gather what griefs destroy,
Or bless the mellowing year,
When the blasts of winter appear?

As spring gets ready to move into summer, this poem came to life for me as I read it, and I connected with it on a deep level. My garden is alive and flourishing; there is a bird’s nest with baby birds woven into the vines of my front stoop; the kids in the neighborhood are outside playing. This all brings back the joy and excitement that was summer in my youth.

In this poem, Blake addresses the tendency of educational systems during his time to crush a child’s spirit of joy, wonder, and creativity, preparing that child for a life of conformity and the mundane. The image that comes to mind is from Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.” I would like to think that this is just a dark page from our past, but that is not the case. When I read about cuts to funding of the arts in schools, the banning of books from school libraries, the tendency to impose constant structure on children as opposed to allowing them to explore through play, I am sadly reminded that society is still attempting to impose conformity on the young.

The other night, I watched “Dead Man” with my daughter (if you are a fan of William Blake and have not seen this film, I recommend watching it). She said she liked the film but felt she didn’t get a lot of the references because she was not familiar with Blake’s poems. I’ll have to share this one with her. I suspect she will relate to it.

Thanks for reading, and here are a couple short videos that you might enjoy.


 

Pink Floyd: Another Brick in the Wall

Scene from the film “Dead Man”

Leave a comment

Filed under Literature

“Howl” by Allen Ginsberg

HowlIf you read just one poem in your lifetime, it should be “Howl.” This poem not only captures and expresses the unspoken reality of post-WWII America, but it shattered social taboos and paved the way for artistic expression that continues today. It is truly a masterpiece.

The poem is much too long to include here. You can click here to read it online; or better yet, go and purchase a copy from your local indie bookstore. Ginsberg would certainly approve of that.

The poem begins with one of the greatest poetical openings ever, in my opinion:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,

It is free-form poetry that has a distinct rhythm. I’ve heard it compared with Walt Whitman, and I can see that, but the rhythm is unique and heavily influenced by the jazz music of that period. Reading the words, the cadence makes me feel like I am in a smoke-filled basement and losing myself in hypnotic beats.

In addition to the long, winding lines of verse, Ginsberg brilliantly uses alliteration to create the musical feel of the poem. The following line is a great example of this, where he uses the “B” sound to accent the verse and drive the natural rhythm of the language.

who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo,

The 1950’s were a time of repression. Thinking and acting in a way that didn’t fit in with the social mores could be very dangerous. As a result, people began exploring new spiritual and intellectual paths. Ginsberg expresses this searching and longing in the poem.

who wandered around and around at midnight in the railroad yard wondering where to go, and went, leaving no broken hearts,

who lit cigarettes in boxcars boxcars boxcars racketing through snow toward lonesome farms in grandfather night,

who studied Plotinus Poe St. John of the Cross telepathy and bop kabbalah because the cosmos instinctively vibrated at their feet in Kansas,  

who loned it through the streets of Idaho seeking visionary indian angels who were visionary indian angels,

who thought they were only mad when Baltimore gleamed in supernatural ecstasy,

Travel and mysticism were not the only ways in which Ginsberg and his contemporaries searched for meaning in their world. They also turned to sex and drugs, and for Ginsberg, this was open homosexuality, something that was not accepted at that time. Ginsberg expresses his homosexuality with frank openness, something which led to an attempt to ban the poem as pornographic. Thankfully, the courts upheld the artistic value of the poem in one of the landmark censorship cases.

who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts,

who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,

who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,

who balled in the morning in the evenings in rosegardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may,

The poem is divided into three parts. The second part focuses on Moloch. Moloch was a god worshiped by the Phoenicians and Canaanites who required parents to sacrifice their children by fire. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moloch) Ginsberg adopts the symbol of Moloch and employs it as a metaphor for America. People were expected to sacrifice themselves and their children to a culture that demanded obedience, crushed individuality, and thought of people as nothing more than cogs in the great wheel of capitalist consumerism. It was a society where money was God.

Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!

Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!

Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smoke-stacks and antennae crown the cities!

Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen! Moloch whose name is the Mind!

The third section of the poem is all about how Ginsberg relates with Carl Solomon, to whom the entire poem is dedicated. Solomon was a writer who was influenced by Dadaism and Surrealism. He was institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital where he was subjected to shock therapy. (Source: Wikipedia) In the final section, Ginsberg uses the refrain “I’m with you in Rockland” to express solidarity, and most importantly, to assert that, like Solomon, we are all institutionalized. We are all trapped within the society that seeks to dull our minds with the continuous zapping of our thoughts. All creativity and deviation from the societal norms is systematically extinguished by a culture that demands conformity.

Again, I cannot stress enough how important this poem is. It is one of the most ground-breaking works of literature ever. While I have your attention, I’ll also recommend watching the film “Howl” starring James Franco, which has some great reenactments of the court sessions where Lawrence Ferlinghetti from City Lights Books was on trial for publishing Howl and Other Poems.

Finally, there is a “Footnote to Howl” which stands alone poetically. You can probably guess what my next post will be.

2 Comments

Filed under Literature

The Ten Most Challenged Books

BannedBooksI read a couple of articles today regarding books that are being banned from school library shelves. They prompted me to do a search to find out which books top the list as the ones that are most challenged by parents. Here is the list that I found.

  1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  2. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  3. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  4. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
  5. The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  6. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  7. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  8. Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
  9. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  10. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

I am happy to say that I have read all of these except To Kill a Mockingbird and The Bluest Eyes. I know, you can’t believe that I have not read To Kill a Mockingbird yet, but I will soon. At least I saw the film and the play.

Many of these books my children have read. In fact, the reason I read Bridge to Terabithia was because one of my kids read it and wanted me to read it also. I have to say, I think about that book a lot. Recently I was alongside a stream and the thought of crossing the stream brought back memories of the book.

As a parent, I understand the concern that other parents have about what their kids are exposed to, but I am a stanch opponent to censorship in any form. If there is something that I don’t want my child to read, I will tell my child that I don’t think the book is appropriate yet and why, but I will not presume that I have the right to make that book unavailable to other students who may be at a level where the book is appropriate.

Censorship is a very slippery slope and the support of censorship is usually a direct result of fear. So what would I do if my middle-schooler wanted read Fifty Shades of Gray? I would say that the book sucks and is not really appropriate, and that there are much better books out there. Then I would suggest some alternatives. But if my child was determined to read it, I would give permission and make myself available to talk about the book. I’d rather my kids discuss these things with me than with someone else.

6 Comments

Filed under Literature

Don’t Ban a Book By Its Cover

I read an article this morning on the Huffington Post concerning Apple’s banning of a book because the cover was deemed too “erotic” (click here to read the article). As I look at the cover, shown here, I can’t for the life of me figure out why this cover would be deemed inappropriate. In fact, I find the photograph to be very artistic. With all the questionable images on the internet that are only a click away, you’re going to ban this? I don’t get it.

While I found this was annoying, the rest of the article made me furious. The article points out that Apple has been censoring their e-books for a while now. It appears that Apple feels it’s appropriate to remove sections from such classic works as Ulysses, Moby Dick, and the Kama Sutra. I find this offensive on a very deep level. In a modern society, censorship of art is something that should not be tolerated. And please spare me the argument that it might get into the hands of an underage child. Really? Ulysses? If a child is that precocious that he or she can read Ulysses, then you really don’t have to worry about that child being exposed to sexually explicit material. Your concern should be how to intellectually challenge that child.

I’m not going to get into the debate here about whether e-books are better than printed copies, or vice versa, but I will say this, that electronic publication certainly makes censorship much easier. When all you have to do is select and click Delete to eliminate “offensive” material, you are increasing the likelihood that this will occur. That said, maybe I need to buy a new copy of Ulysses to keep on my shelf, just in case.

2 Comments

Filed under Literature