The Smiling Censor

SIGMUND FREUD and his disciples have made us all acquainted with the Censor. He is as real a person to our imagination as was the tithing man to the small boys in the Puritan meetinghouse. He is the grim guardian of the respectabilities in that anarchic region which we call the mind.

To the old-fashioned psychologist the mind was a well-ordered city, with the streets well paved and lighted and the limits of each ward well defined. Reason was the Lord Mayor, and the various mental faculties formed the Board of Aldermen. If there were any recalcitrant citizens they were promptly jailed.

But it is so no longer. The mind is revealed to us in a state of perpetual insurgency. It is nature in a state of eruption. Instincts, desires, inchoate tendencies, lawless appetites, contend for the chance for expression. It is the realm of chaos and old night, with here and there a gleam of delusive sham rationality. For, the more rational we are in our own eyes, the more we are in error. It appears that our Calvinistic ancestors minimized our inherent depravity. We are prone to do evil even as the sparks are to fly upward. But the sparks are nothing to the smoke that is produced. The subconsciousness, with its love of the forbidden, is all the time conspiring with the remote past against the peace of the present. What would happen if the subconsciousness were not interfered with we do not know. Perhaps we should enjoy that innocence which we attribute to those animals whose instincts do not interfere with our comfort. We all concede that lambs are innocent, though we have our doubts about tigers and rattlesnakes.

But it appears that our instinctive life is sadly interfered with by the Censor. Just how the Censor got his coercive power is a little doubtful to the layman, but there he is. He represents neither nature nor grace, but only an ungracious and unnatural form of social authority. He does not correspond to Wordsworth’s Duty, stern daughter of the voice of God. He is stern enough, but there is no claim that he belongs to the nature of things. He seems rather to be imposed on nature to repress it. He represents, not the vital urge for perfection, but only the rigid forms of conventional righteousness. He upholds those restrictions which the social consciousness would impose upon our subconscious selves. ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ Ancestral conflicts whose merits have been forgotten remain to trouble our nerves. Over every pleasant path the Censor writes, ‘Verboten.’

The first efforts of the individual at self-expression are thwarted. There is a vague rebelliousness against all the unpleasant things that are good for him, and a hankering after delights that are denied. For the Censor is watchful. Then follows the exciting story of the internal conflicts as the wily instincts seek to escape from the tyranny of their betters. There are all sorts of subterfuges. No detective story can compare with the account of what takes place as by symbolism, substitution, and indirection the natural man resists the attempts to improve him. He will not be moralized or rationalized if he can help it. He will not have his mind unified, but insists, like the demoniac in the New Testament, on his wild multitudinousness. ‘My name is Legion: for we are many.’ His only aim is to outwit the Censor.

In the meantime, amid all the hurlyburly, the Freudian Censor appears like the Phantasm of Jupiter in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound.

Cruel he looks, but calm and strong,
Like one who does, not suffers, wrong.

He does wrong to the instincts because he stands for an unnatural righteousness which they do not understand. Let me appeal, reader, to your experience. I shall not ask you to recall a dream in order to give me the pleasure of interpreting it. Neither shall I try to delve into the obscure memory of what happened to you at the age of three. I shall remain in the open and consider what floats on the broad surface of your waking mentality.

Have you never had a thought which at the moment coruscated in your mental firmament like a meteor? Its brilliancy dazzled you; it flattered your ego. It was so unlike the thoughts of other people that it craved instant expression. It was not to be hidden under a bushel; it was something that should be shouted from the housetops. It was a Whitmanesque thought, fit to be uttered with a barbaric yawp from the roofs of the world. And, strangely enough, it was your thought.

Did you utter it? Not at all. No, you concealed it. Why? It was not because you were afraid of public opinion. It was not because you thought it was unconventional, and so might offend. It was because you caught the eye of the quick-witted Censor in your own mind. You saw the warning twinkle, and the suspicious twitching of his lips. The Censor had appraised your unwonted thought. There was no stern rebuke. He did n’t declare that your thought was dangerous to the public, or that it was illogical or morally wrong. He simply notified you in advance that what you were about to say was utterly absurd.

And so you did n’t say it. Suddenly you saw the abyss of the ridiculous into which you were about to plunge, and drew back. No man looking at you would know how near you were to making a fool of yourself.

One who is not an adept in psychoanalytic lore has no right to deny the existence of the Freudian Censor, or to make light of the unwholesome repressions which come from the fear of his rebuking eye.

But the layman has his rights, too, and may be allowed to make his modest suggestion. The discovery of censors is a game that two can play at. There is a kind of censorship, of which there is some evidence in the working of the normal mind, that is equally effective and much more pleasant.

I should like to draw attention to a censor whose influence is altogether beneficent, but who has real power. His business is not to repress nature in the interest of conventionality, but to repress both nature and conventionality in the interest of health and happiness. I call him the Civilized Censor, as he has to do chiefly with the behavior of more or less civilized people. His only weapon is a wise smile.