Unprintable

"It has perhaps never been true in Europe, it is no longer true in America, that it is 'easy to distinguish art from pornography.'"

On the contrary, we have still, and are likely to have for a long lime to come, an immense reading public of extraordinary naiveté. I think it is a fact at the present time that the average American of considerable general intelligence and education still, in the simplicity of his heart, looks upon authors as a superior class, with a quasi-priestly function and responsibility. By the average man I mean, in this connection, the man or woman who habitually reads the 'best sellers' and the periodicals with a circulation of a million or so.

Incredible as it may seem to the 'blasé literati,' this average man ordinarily reads a book or magazine with the idea that it will shed some light on the problems of his inner or outer life, that it will instruct his emotions, and show him what to approve, and how to act. If the author's apparent likes and dislikes with reference to things in general harmonize pretty well with his own, he feels fortified and encouraged, and declares that it is a 'good book.'

He makes little distinction between an expository article and a work of fiction. He is so direct and simple in his responses that, if he praises a novel, he usually means that he likes the sort of people and the sort of society that the author has pictured. Ironical and satirical implications, unless they are terribly obvious, escape him. When in these pages, not long ago, I mentioned 'Mr. Hergesheimer's admirable Cytherea,' — thinking of the mordant expression he had given to the feverish boredom which now affects a certain stratum of our 'citizenry,' — a really very well-read lady, nourished on 'good old English fiction,' flew at me in wrath, exclaiming: 'How dared you call that sort of society "admirable"?' It is astonishing how general such reactions are. On another occasion, when I permitted myself in public to praise Mr. Bennett's picture of The Five Towns, it was one of our distinguished women writers of fiction who, wishing to destroy me, asked the public to consider what my judgment was worth after praise of such disgusting towns.

In these circumstances, — and these are the circumstances of American authorship, — literature is a part and a tremendously impressive part of the environment of the mind. Its influence, though incalculable, is not in the slightest danger of being exaggerated. Its influence is immense. It is daily increasing. It is rapidly becoming 'the effective voice of the social government.' Just in proportion to its effectiveness as art, it takes possession of the emotions and the imagination of men, and thus controls the dynamic part f the public mind.

Now, to modify the controllable part of environment in the interest of public welfare is one of the noblest enterprises of statecraft. To attempt it is not an 'impertinence,' when it is attempted by men who understand the materials they are working with: it is a duty. Speculative writers, from Plato to Tolstoy, clearly perceiving the intimate connection between literature and public welfare, have, in jest or in earnest, proposed it as the duty of statecraft to control with a rigor far beyond the wildest dreams of the late Mr. Comstock the publication and circulation of books.

I have argued that they, and our Platos and Tolstoys, propose the impossible. They have resorted to an improper and an ineffective instrument.

Must we then wholly abandon the attempt to modify this potent element of our environment, as quite uncon-trollable? Other instruments of control have been suggested. Mr. Bennett thinks that if suppressive societies were surpressed, and if prosecutions were left to the police, then — authors would be reasonably safe! But what about the Public? A revival of the informal censorship once managed by publishers themselves might be proposed; possibly that informal censorship is still faintly in operation; yet the old-style publishers are giving way before authors of the new style; in the last analysis, few publishers are 'in business for the fun of it'; and the supreme question asked of the average submitted manuscript must be: 'Will it sell?' A body which exists for 'the furtherance of literature and the Fine Arts,' the American Academy, might be asked to designate a committee of men of letters to pass official judgment upon questionable books; and if that body desired to diminish its popularity, this would perhaps be an effective step in that direction.

I am sure that I shall be charged with coming to a very feeble conclusion, perhaps to an impotent and hopeless conclusion, when I express my belief that the only proper instrument for undertaking the modification of the temper and character of our literature is an independent and dispassionate criticism. But if anyone declares that this instrument is more inadequate than the law, I shall retort, as Mr. Chesterton retorts to those who declare that Christianity has failed: 'It has never been tried.' Of course, the statement is not quite true, yet it is true enough to bear consideration. It is true that independent and dispassionate criticism of the so-called 'unprintable' books, criticism in the common interest of publishers, authors, and readers, is now almost nonexistent. Instead, we have violent partisan combats between champions of literature who express their contempt for public morals, and champions of public morals who express their contempt for literature. The confusion of these conflicts, in which no principle is established, will never end until a conception of public welfare that includes the interests of both literature and morality is restored and reintroduced as a mediative and conciliatory agency between the contending parties. Criticism's need of fixing that conception is as elementary as navigation's need of the North Star.

The next elementary step is to establish on firm grounds the intricate interrelationship of so--called aesthetic and so-called moral experience — to establish what one is tempted to call the essential unity of experience in the psychophysical organism. This is not a task for the police. It is not a task for suppressive societies.

After that difficulty has been disposed of, criticism, thinking of public morals, may propose to itself some such questions as these: Granting that literature has a profound influence upon conduct, are you prepared to say, with reference to any considerable number of definite cases, precisely what the nature of that influence is? Have you made, for example, any accurate discrimination between the effects produced in the psychophysical organism by the various sorts of literature in which the sex life and sexual emotion are more or less freely displayed? Are you sure that 'shocking' books are always harmful to public morals, or do public morals occasionally require to be shocked? Is it conceivable that candor, so 'brutal' that it employs words which are 'obscene,' and relates facts which are' disgusting,' maybe prophylactic — may provide, indeed, that vaccine against moral infection which reformers are seeking? Is it clear, for example, that it is less evilly inciting to young minds to refer to a prostitute as a 'daughter of joy,' as delicate euphemists refer to her, than to speak of her as a 'whore,' as Shakespeare speaks of her?

After endeavoring for a: time in these matters to see 'the thing as in itself it really is,' criticism, thinking directly of the interests of literature, and only indirectly of public morals, may propose to itself some such questions as these: Assuming that the exhibition of sex and the treatment of illicit passion are innocuous to public morals, is it in the interest of literature for authors to enter into rivalry with one another for honors in the field of pornographic art? Is it wise to create a situation in which no novel will sell which does not pungently depict illicit passion? Is there not a danger that American authors who now specialize in this subject will, as they grow older, find themselves obliged, like certain of their European colleagues, to present a 'salacious' scene at the end of every chapter, in order to hold the attention of over-stimulated and jaded readers? Is it not true that, if you turn too high a light upon passages of this sort, you kill the interest of everything else in your book, so that readers will pass over your beautiful writing with such blurred and dull vision as men turn on the loveliest landscape, after staring with naked eyes at the sun? If you habitually present what you call 'sex' as sensual passion or as disgusting animalism, are you not imprisoning yourself in an hallucination and speaking infamously of that power, which Spenser, contemplating it from another point of view, spoke of as

lord of truth and loyalty,
Lifting himself out of the lowly dust
On golden plumes up to the purest sky.

All these questions, I suspect, are a little over the head of the New York policeman. They are problems for an independent and dispassionate criticism. Unless we are prepared to answer them, we are not yet properly prepared to say what books are 'unprintable.'

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