Too stiff for sex: a his­tory of our moral gate­keep­ers

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Jack Marx

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’’.

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