Cen­sors at Work: How States Shaped Lit­er­a­ture by Robert Darn­ton, W.W. Nor­ton & Company, 304 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — James McGrath Mor­ris

Each year a group of Amer­i­can civic-minded or­ga­ni­za­tions cel­e­brates the free­dom to read with Banned Books Week that pub­li­cizes the top 10 books whose pres­ence in schools or in li­braries is chal­lenged by fret­ful cit­i­zens. In 2013, the books in­cluded Cap­tain Un­der­pants; Fifty

Shades of Grey; and Bless Me, Ul­tima (by New Mex­ico’s Ru­dolfo Anaya). The fact that as part of the an­nual com­mem­o­ra­tion, gov­ern­ment­funded pub­lic li­braries dis­play the books un­der as­sault is a sure enough in­di­ca­tor that cen­sor­ship on a large scale is not much of a threat in the United States.

But Robert Darn­ton, the Carl H. Pforzheimer Univer­sity Pro­fes­sor and di­rec­tor of the Univer­sity Li­brary, Har­vard, thinks we may be let­ting down our guard too soon. “In the early days of the In­ter­net, cy­berspace seemed to be free and open,” he writes in the in­tro­duc­tion to Cen­sors

at Work: How States Shaped Lit­er­a­ture. “Now it is be­ing fought over, di­vided up, and closed off be­hind pro­tec­tive bar­ri­ers. Free spir­its might imag­ine that elec­tronic com­mu­ni­ca­tions could take place with­out run­ning into ob­sta­cles, but that would be naïve.”

To un­der­stand what is hap­pen­ing now, as well as what could hap­pen, Darn­ton de­cided to study the his­tory of cen­sor­ship to see if there might be some use­ful guide­posts. Specif­i­cally, he looks at three in­stances from the past.

The first is in Bour­bon France, when au­thors were im­pris­oned and books by writ­ers such as Voltaire and Rousseau were reg­u­larly banned. Next he turns to Bri­tish In­dia, where a colo­nial power sought to re­strict sedi­tious texts but found it­self in con­flict with its own be­liefs in free speech. The fi­nal case study that Darn­ton of­fers, the most fas­ci­nat­ing in the book, is that of Com­mu­nist East Ger­many.

In each in­stance, Darn­ton un­cov­ered his­to­ries far more com­pli­cated than one might ex­pect. Be­gin­ning with France, he found that it was not merely a case of cen­sors (evil and anti-demo­cratic) re­press­ing the rights of au­thors (dar­ing and demo­cratic). Rather, the sys­tem of cen­sor­ship, which did work to keep cer­tain ideas from gain­ing cur­rency, also had a sup­port­ive side to it. Those works the gov­ern­ment found mer­i­to­ri­ous gained a royal en­dorse­ment for their ex­cel­lence.

“Cen­sor­ship was not sim­ply a mat­ter of purg­ing here­sies,” he ex­plains. “It was pos­i­tive — a royal en­dorse­ment of the book and of­fi­cial invitation to read it.”

Darn­ton re­lates the case of James Long, an An­glo-Ir­ish mis­sion­ary work­ing in Ben­gal who was tried and jailed for pub­lish­ing an English trans­la­tion of a play that sym­pa­thet­i­cally por­trayed the hor­ri­ble con­di­tions faced by work­ers on indigo plan­ta­tions and crit­i­cized the Bri­tish over­lords who kept work­ers in slave­like em­ploy­ment. It was, by Darn­ton’s ad­mis­sion, the most dra­matic case of cen­sor­ship in Bri­tish rule over In­dia.

The in­ci­dent il­lus­trates the cen­tral dilemma for the Bri­tish Raj, as the English rule was called. To put away peo­ple for writ­ing was con­trary to the Bri­tish-taught be­liefs in free­dom of speech, so the rulers turned to a sys­tem of surveil­lance and elab­o­rate ma­nip­u­la­tion of courts to re­press dan­ger­ous ideas. “Lib­eral im­pe­ri­al­ism was the great­est con­tra­dic­tion of them all,” Darn­ton notes. “So the agents of the Raj sum­moned up as much cer­e­mony as they could, in or­der to pre­vent them­selves from see­ing it.”

While Darn­ton’s tales of cen­sor­ship in Bour­bon France and Bri­tish In­dia make for good read­ing, it is the sec­tion on Com­mu­nist Ger­many that is worth the price of the book. East Ger­many was no­to­ri­ous for the ex­tent of its cen­sor­ship of books and its at­tempt to con­trol all as­pects of lit­er­a­ture and cul­ture. The fall of the Berlin Wall not only opened the coun­try to the West but brought an end to the to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism un­der which its cit­i­zens lived.

A mere seven months later, Darn­ton ob­tained an ap­point­ment to in­ter­view the two lead­ing cen­sors who, as the au­thor writes, “sat at their desks with noth­ing to do, try­ing to make sense of it all and to ex­plain their ex­pe­ri­ence to a naïve out­sider, when I showed up in their of­fice at 90 Clara-Zetkin-Strasse.”

Again, as the au­thor dis­cov­ered in Bour­bon France, the Ger­man tale turned out to be com­pli­cated. The func­tionar­ies charged with cen­sor­ship did not see their work as re­press­ing writ­ing but rather an at­tempt to sub­ju­gate the art form to the ser­vice of so­cial­ism. Darn­ton de­tails at con­sid­er­able length the ne­go­ti­a­tions and fights among au­thors, ed­i­tors, and the gate­keep­ers not dis­sim­i­lar to those be­tween writ­ers and their ed­i­tors else­where.

With­out ques­tion, how­ever, there were things those charged with cen­sor­ing could not brook. The cen­sors, out of power when Darn­ton in­ter­viewed them, told how they chased down words such as ecol­ogy, as pol­lu­tion was only a prob­lem in cap­i­tal­ist na­tions, and Stal­in­ism, as mis­takes are never made in com­mu­nist sys­tems. Yet at the same time they also per­mit­ted much in print that the rulers would have un­doubt­edly not wanted. How­ever, the lit­tle lit­er­ary cracks in the wall of re­pres­sion were hardly a threat when the East Ger­man regime was at the height of its power.

At the end of his work, Darn­ton draws an im­por­tant con­clu­sion from his re­search, one that is par­tic­u­larly rel­e­vant when one con­sid­ers the ex­tent of cen­sor­ship in places like Iraq, North Korea, and China. It mat­ters greatly to the fu­ture what the cit­i­zens of those na­tions can and can­not learn.

Some be­lieve that cen­sors are by na­ture stupid, he says, be­cause they seem in­ca­pable of fer­ret­ing out mean­ing be­tween the lines. “The stud­ies in this book prove the op­po­site. Not only did cen­sors per­ceive nu­ances of hid­den mean­ing, but they also un­der­stood the way pub­lished texts re­ver­ber­ated in the pub­lic.

“To dis­miss cen­sor­ship as crude re­pres­sion by ig­no­rant bu­reau­crats is to get it wrong. Although it varies enor­mously, it usu­ally was a com­plex process that re­quired tal­ent and train­ing and that ex­tended deep into the so­cial or­der.”

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