/ Institutions /
A favorite censorship story just came to me. If I didn’t tell it at the old censored K., I need to tell it now, part of the resurrection:
Shelley, Percy Bysshe! a radical! a Romantic! That is, a revolutionary! A poet, a great one.
painting by Severn
Newly arrived at Oxford he wrote a tract, the Necessity of Atheism! That’s not calculated to smooth feathers in the Church, not the Church of England: and Oxford was that church’s stronghold.
Anyway, blah, blah, Shelley goes to pay homage to William Godwin: the old radical. (That’s how he meets Mary, mother of Frankenstein.) Godwin hits Shelley up for spare change, gets it (Shelley, a baronet’s son, had paid for his own undoing at Oxford.) Godwin begs and sniffs, gives the young rascal his girlfriend‘s daughter! (Talk about the Rights of Women!))
Anyway, never mind, understand just this: Censorship had a long history in England (a relatively liberal kleptocracy): with an honorable history of dishonor. Censorship: the Stationer’s Register! Guys like Shakespeare would always have known where the Stationer’s Register was lurking, had an idea what you might get away with today (and might not). Godwin wrote guidebooks for the age of revolution: big books, hundreds of pages, a thousand, volume after volume. Free love … deism, atheism … boo monarchy … Monster tomes.
So how come the censors hadn’t censored him? How come he was still walking around on legs that could walk? (You wait till the guy is middle aged, has impoverished (and crucified) himself to get his big bad book out there, then cut him off at the knees: he’ll never recover: and all the good little kleptocrats will continue to light candles and think they’re bound for heaven.
Here’s what happened, it’s too delicious:
The Stationers’ Register’s gofer comes running to the Stationers’ Register (by then, the Copyright Act). Look at this filth! holds up a Godwin tome. The Stationers’ Register honcho feels the book, almost gets a hernia. What’s it selling for? asks the tool for the status quo. Ten pounds, twenty pounds … whatever the answer was. a lot of money in 1793.
Leave it alone, instructs the copyright / censor honcho.
Censors may be fools from the outset, like their kings, like their priests; but they’re not always totally stupid. The experienced ones know that the public they’re paid to keep docile can sometimes get in one’s path, cause a trip, a bruise. The king didn’t have to worry about book buyers who could spend ten pounds for a book! It isn’t the pope or the president that the porn has to be kept away from. The chief Brinks thief already knows that the loot is stolen. Don’t waste your breath telling Captain Morgan.
whoops, lost whatever image I’d had here
So: the powers beat Shelley up, and left Godwin alone. It’s so funny: Godwin was stomped on just by the public! (by the public ignoring him!!) just for being intelligent, scary-sounding.
Tiberius’ gofer-bureaucrats didn’t have to crucify Jesus. The people standing there on the hill, Golgotha, already had one thumb in their ass, and another in their ear. With more thumbs in their eyes.
Of course, God was in heaven, laughing his ass off: What? Do you think he didn’t know who he was dealing with?
I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.
Stationers’ Register, the Copyright Act (Statute of Anne)
I’ve mashed a lot of complex legal history together there, get the point anyway.
Then Cut Him Off
My favorite philosopher of censorship when I was a young man was George Bernard Shaw. Not that we agreed: he accepted censorship; I never have. But: GBS did demand that the censors declare clearly and unequivocally what it was that was to be done. So: say the censors say that you can’t spell Shakespeare the same way twice (he didn’t): say an author bankrupts himself to publish a poem with only one spelling of Shakespeare: then, yes, by all means: kill him, burn him, punish him!
But then, no matter what else he does, so long as it is not forbidden by a specific clearly-worded, universally-comprehensible commandment, you must let him!
Or, as I’ve long translated it: if you say the photographer can’t sell photos of a blond blowing a horse, then a photographer cannot sell photos of a blond blowing a horse; but a photographer can sell photos of a brunette blowing a horse: or an elephant.
Conventional “liberty” says that if it’s forbidden, then it’s forbidden; if it’s not forbidden, then it’s OK.
(I don’t believe a biosphere could long endure if that philosophy had an upper hand. We have to know God’s law, nature’s law, the truth! Man’s law is just silly. Follow it, or don’t, it doesn’t matter.)
Once upon a time, “primative” peoples had no difficulties of this kind: everyone in the group knew that you couldn’t put mayo on rye bread, or see your mother naked. It was clear, everyone understood, you didn’t need a lawyer to translate.
It didn’t matter if the taboo was insane: your only problem was to obey it: or suffer.
Even with only one draft the prose is going this way and that! It’ll have to do for the moment.