Too stiff for sex: a history of our moral gatekeepers
THE history of censorship, as Christopher Hitchens observed, ‘‘ has always been a struggle between the ironic and the literal mind’’, which is why looking back at the censor’s rage against the march of ‘‘ depravity’’ is always good for a laugh. But that’s not why Nicole Moore wrote The Censor’s Library, a healthy tome that uncovers ‘‘ the lost history of Australia’s banned books’’.
Moore, associate professor in English at the University of NSW, aims to illuminate Australian culture through ‘‘ a counter history of what we couldn’t read, didn’t read, didn’t know — and why we didn’t’’. Moore’s is an archeological approach to the material: she consults the voluminous records of discussion about each book banned between 1919 and 1988 in search of ‘‘ a materialised negative of 20th-century Australia ... demonstrating what was deemed to be unAustralian reading but also its obverse — what was model reading, a nation’s ideal’’.
The unearthing of the library was itself something of an archeological triumph for Moore. Donated to the National Archives in 1988, the 793 boxes of 12,000 titles and associated paperwork was stacked in a basement seven stories under the institution’s labyrinthine western Sydney records department and promptly forgotten. There it remained like some pervert’s Atlantis — dismissed as a myth by many literary historians — until Moore discovered it in 2005. Here was the totality of Australia’s banned material from most of the 20th century, works of literary gravitas and handy irresponsibility, from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to an anonymous porn classic titled The Sexual Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (which, naturally, featured ‘‘ long descriptions of masturbation and bestiality’’).
Moore’s august, academic treatment of the material at first may seem a bit of a wasted opportunity, her sober examinations and almost complete lack of amusement begging for an occasional witty roasting of the unctuous voices that bellow from the halls of officialdom. But, as one moves through the collection with her, one realises Moore’s straight-woman stance is the perfect amplifier for the stuffiness, bigotry and hilarious philistinism of our self-appointed moral gatekeepers.
Supporting the absurdity is the fact, until 1984, when censorship finally became a matter for the office of the Attorney-General, what Australia read or didn’t read was a decision for the Customs Department, literature from abroad judged by the same people whose job it was to quarantine plagues and pestilent animals. Imagine those uniformed bouncers from television’s Border Patrol passing judgment on the merits of literature rather than the perils of suitcases full of Asian beef jerky, and you get an idea of how preposterous Australian censorship was for the better part of the 20th century.
Not that ‘‘ merit’’ counted for much. In 1928, chief magistrate Sir Chartres Biron argued an ‘‘ obscene’’ book’s literary merit was not its defence but its greatest prosecution: ‘‘ It is quite obvious to anybody of intelligence that the better an obscene book is written the greater the public to whom the
While sedition and blasphemy were a consideration, it was sex, of course, that got the stiff staff of Customs even stiffer: in particular, the wrong sort of sex for white missionary Australia, a nation Moore observes to have always had a definite preference for a ‘‘ straight, reproductive model for intimacy and sexual life’’. In reviewing The Magnificent by Terence Greenidge in 1933, the Customs board was unanimous the book be banned because: ‘‘ Half the characters are homosexual, with the habit of telling their friends and acquaintances so.’’
Federico Fellini said censorship was ‘‘ advertising paid by the government’’, and there are so many examples of this maxim on display in The Censor’s Library it’s hard to single one out for the spotlight. But, for mine, the most hilariously profound is the case of Radclyffe Hall’s 1929 novel about lesbians, The Well of Loneliness, a book that had been banned in Britain for months before Australian Customs officers got a whiff of its pending arrival. Ordered to seize any copy entering the country, Customs reported back that none had been detected, so the Commonwealth Investigations Branch was employed to find a copy fast, lest the Customs board be unable to ban it for lack of a copy to peruse first. After four months of searching, an exasperated CIB inspector wrote to Customs that it was ‘‘ impossible to secure a copy in this state. When the book was prohibited in Great Britain the price advanced very considerably, and almost every copy available in Australia was sent to England for sale.’’ Customs went ahead and banned The Well of Loneliness anyway, ‘‘ sight unseen’’.
The Censor’s Library is enlightening, amusing and infuriating with every turn of the page, but Moore’s search for cultural identity reflected in this mountain of contraband was vexed from the start. Our geographical isolation meant many of the books had been banned overseas before they got here but, as Moore points out, ‘‘ a censorship system that did not ban anything was not doing its job’’.