- Giving Offence: Essays on Censorship by J.M. Coetzee
Chicago, 289 pp, $27.50, March 1996, ISBN 0 226 11174 1
When Andrei Sinyavsky looked up tsenzura in a Soviet dictionary of foreign words imported into Russian, it wasn’t there. ‘The word censorship was itself censored.’ Censorship is ashamed of itself. It is also ridiculous: a censor, J.M. Coetzee writes, is like a man trying to stop his penis from standing up. To censor is to give proof that one is in the grip of that which one wishes to forbid others desiring. Not even feminist critics of pornography like the philosopher Catharine MacKinnon actually want to censor pornography. ‘Censoring pornography would not delegitimise it; I want to delegitimise it.’ Besides, ‘censorship excites men a lot.’
So if not even the censorious will make a case for censorship, what is there to say about it? Why should Coetzee devote 12 essays to the subject, on topics including the Lady Chatterley trial, the persecution of Osip Mandelstam and the censorship regime in apartheid South Africa? Especially when a current survey of Coetzee’s work says that ‘it is a measure of his subtlety that none of his books have been banned in South Africa.’ If his own work went right over the heads of the dullards in the Publications Appeal Board, why should he bother with an essay on its operation during the apartheid regime?
It is self-censorship which really rivets his attention: how repression infects writers and turns even their defiance into self-mutilation. Coetzee asks us to imagine the inner world of the writer as if it were a zoo, ‘in which a multitude of beasts have residence, over which the anxious, overworked zookeeper of rationality exercises a rather limited control. At night the zookeeper sleeps and the beasts roam about, doing their dream-work.’ All writing involves the invention of a perfect reader, ‘the beloved’ whose imagined attention and regard makes all the scary work in the zoo – cleaning out the cages, taming the beasts – seem worth enduring. Consider, therefore, what can happen to writing when the beloved reader is supplanted by ‘a dark-suited, bald-headed censor, with his pursed lips and his red pen and his irritability and his censoriousness – the censor, in fact, as parodic version of the figure-of-the-father’. If the imagined reader makes the writing possible, the censor’s eruption into the inner world of the writer can destroy the bond which gives a writer the courage to write. The result is a violation: ‘working under censorship is like being intimate with someone who does not love you, with whom you want no intimacy, but who presses himself in upon you. The censor is a reader who forces his way into the intimacy of the writing transaction, forces out the figure of the loved or courted reader, reads your words in a disapproving and censorious fashion.’ No actual blue pencilling, no arrests or interrogations, no quiet but threatening chats need have taken place. The censor’s menace might only be in the writer’s mind. But once it is there, there is no getting him out. Even when a writer defies the internal censor, the defiance is deforming. After quoting the Yugoslav writer, Danilo Kis’s remark that ‘it is impossible to win against this censor, for he is like God,’ Coetzee remarks: ‘the final proof that something has, so to speak, gone wrong with writers like ... Kis is the excessiveness of the language in which they express their experience.’ Paranoia has turned the bald-headed dullard into a divinity.
Even a writer like Solzhenitsyn did not, on Coetzee’s reading, emerge triumphant from his contest with Brezhnev and his censors. After being expelled from the Writers’ Union in 1969, Solzhenitsyn wrote a letter prophesying that ‘the day is near when every one of you will try to find out how you can scrape your signatures off today’s resolution.’ Only a man capable of such magnificent self-dramatisation could have stood up to persecution, but the same self-image then blinded him when it came to finding a place in post-Soviet Russia. Censors can transform writers into heroes, then into megalomaniacs and finally into bores.
Megalomania, Coetzee goes on to argue, is the Western state’s poisoned gift to the writing profession. From Milton to Voltaire, the idea of the author as defiant moral authority was defined in a struggle with the censor. In this struggle, writers portrayed themselves with sly disingenuousness as David confronting Goliath. In reality, most writers believed that they, and not the state, would have the last word. And so it has proved. Ben Jonson’s lines are apposite:
Nor do they aught, that use this cruelty
Of interdiction, and this rage of burning;
But purchase to themselves rebuke, and shame;
And to the writers an eternal name.
This is the myth which lures writers into delusions of grandeur. What, one might ask, is so bad about delusions of grandeur? Kings and politicians seem to live by them: why shouldn’t writers have a chance? Indeed, isn’t delusion a condition of any kind of creativity on a grand scale? One might be thankful that Tolstoy had such delusions: otherwise we wouldn’t have War and Peace; one might be grateful that Voltaire deluded himself into thinking he was the conscience of his age. Otherwise, Monsieur Calas might not have had his posthumous vindication. And what Voltaire deluded himself into believing, democratic society en masse now believes: that truth is found in private conscience, not decreed by public power.
Not everyone is a Voltaire or a Tolstoy, or even a Solzhenitsyn. If every journeyman hack is their heir and beneficiary, not every hack can stand exposure to the megalomaniac temptations of their inheritance. If that was all Coetzee was saying, then it wouldn’t be much. But he seems to be saying – and one has to parse it out – that censorship has been dangerous to writing mostly because it has lured writers into believing that writing is a public, civic act. When the invisible beloved is the nation, the oppressed, all humanity – any publicly defined or civic entity – the temptation to pomposity, rhetoric, inflation and grandiosity becomes unavoidable. Publicly intended prose will produce serviceable, sometimes eloquent writing – witness Areopagitica – but great writing is private: it issues from an intensely inner dialogue with the imaginary beloved. And the imaginary beloved is language itself. A true writer is fundamentally in love with language, ultimately for the sake of language itself. Coetzee seems to be saying that the centuries-long dialectic between writer and censor has lured the writer away from the imaginary beloved – language – to furious combat with the false beloved of state power. To the degree that Giving Offence has a message, it is a quiet defence of the inwardness of writing, against the temptation to be political, civic and ultimately megalomaniacal.
To illustrate these themes Coetzee devotes a fascinating essay to Mandelstam and his ordeal by persecution. In 1933, at a private gathering in Moscow, Mandelstam recited an ode to Stalin, which began:
He forges decrees like horseshoes – decrees and decrees;
This one gets it in the balls, that one in the forehead,
him right between the eyes.
Anna Akhmatova, who was present, told Mandelstam that she thought it ‘a monumental, rough-hewed, broad-sheet character of a piece’ – in other words, a crude political lampoon. The discriminating literary critics from the NKVD who ransacked Mandelstam’s apartment in May 1934 agreed. Soon after Mandelstam’s arrest, Stalin phoned Pasternak and asked him whether Mandelstam was a ‘master’. As Coetzee explains, ‘we can be sure Stalin was not asking because he regarded great artists as above the state. What he meant was something like, Is he dangerous? Is he going to live, even if he dies? Is his sentence on me going to live longer than my sentence on him?’ Pasternak duly pronounced his difficult friend a master and Stalin dispatched him to exile in Voronezh rather than to the camps. There Mandelstam composed a second ode to Stalin, which began:
Were I to take up the charcoal for the sake of
supreme praise –
The ode’s praise of Stalin as a father, as an Atlas figure on whom the axis of world history turns, is an embarrassment to anyone who thinks of Mandelstam in the simple tropes of heroic resistance to oppression. Mandelstam’s widow later argued that her husband was mad when he wrote the second ode; and certainly during his time in Voronezh, the poet was at his wits’ end. But the disturbing feature of the second ode is that, unlike the first ode, this one isn’t a crude lampoon. It is an apparently sincere and expert exploration of the act of representing Stalin. The verb form of the ode, ‘Were I to take up the charcoal for the sake of supreme praise’, suggests an attempt by Mandelstam to investigate the registers of praise in a conditional and tentative mode, half-inhabiting, half-distancing himself from the adulatory hysteria of his time. There seems little doubt that the gravitational force of this hysteria was pulling Mandelstam under; the ode registers both the poet’s identification and his alienation. But it is not, Coetzee argues, an act of self-mutilation, as much as an exploration of what might be involved if one was to descend to such levels. Mandelstam’s performance, Coetzee maintains, was a desperate attempt to ‘fabricate the body of an ode without actually inhabiting it’ – an attempt to imagine a love poem without actually writing one.
Coetzee’s analysis of Mandelstam takes us beyond censorship as tyranny and writer as heroic resister into a darker realm in which the writer struggles both to identify with and resist the censor within. But the key word in Coetzee’s analysis is ‘inhabit’. Lesser poets might have utterly ‘inhabited’ the language of Stalinist praise; Mandelstam, in the last moment, could not bring himself to betray the tongue itself. What saves a great writer from abjection is not a sense of his own honour or the steadfastness of his political convictions, Coetzee is arguing, but his loyalty to language. It seems appropriate, therefore, if ironic, that Mandelstam was sent to the camps and died, not after the first ode, but after the second. For it was the ‘loyal’ ode, rather than the disloyal one, which revealed that Mandelstam ultimately obeyed only one master. It was this, rather than his views as such, which sealed his fate.
When one looks back at it now, the Stalin-Mandelstam story, terrible as it is, cannot fail to awaken a certain dubious nostalgia. For centuries, censorship was the deference the Western state offered to the only power which stood in the state’s way, the power of the word. Dictatorship respected the word, even as it silenced it. The freedoms which have followed the abolition of censorship in Russia and the West seem bleak: the word has lost its power. In place of the power of the word, we have the tyranny of the mediacrats and advertisers. Coetzee’s quiet and illuminating book helps us to escape the nostalgia which the history of censorship now evokes in those sated with freedom of speech. For he pins down the damage which censorship did – in the heart of the inner zoo in which a writer lives. He helps to free us from that wonderful but damaging myth, of the writer as seer, prophet, visionary, moral tribune, which produced megalomania and heroism, visionary defiance and doggerel in about equal measure. Now, with the state no longer on our backs – at least, not in most societies – writers are back where they should be: cleaning out the beast’s cage.