The Ethics of Expurgation by C Cohen
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If there is one thing the people of this country are prone to, it is the work of looking after other people's morals—which is at once an easier and a pleasanter task than looking after one's own. The benefits of the inquisition are seldom very apparent, unless one reckons conscious hypocrisy on the one side and an unconscious hypocrisy on the other a moral gain. But the fact remains that the work is taken up with avidity and pursued with enthusiasm. Whether it be a movement for suppression of vice at home, or a mission to civilise savages abroad and bring them up to the standard of our almost unapproachable British morality, the fact is equally patent. "Love thy neighbor as thyself" was the old Jewish command; the average Christian loves his neighbor better than himself—at least he is trying to bring him up to a standard of excellence seldom exemplified in his own character. The neighbor retorts, of course, with the same policy. And thus, by a wise provision of Nature, everybody is provided with employment, without anybody being affected.
If this class of people merely wrote and talked, little need be said about them. Those who were not interested would neither listen nor read. But, unfortunately, these people get into positions of power or influence, and their opinions then become crystalised in practice. And at this point everybody is concerned. Circulating libraries and large newsagents decide, without any qualms as to the reliability of their judgment, what is not suitable for their subscribers or customers to read. And these latter submit with a tameness that is eloquently suggestive of the docility of disposition engendered by a long course of Mrs. Grundyism. Public libraries are governed by exactly the same principles. Instead of being places where good and representative literature is kept for the benefit of those who pay for their maintenance, they are ruled by a committee who are often as good judges of literature as a cow is of a landscape, and who decide what is fit and proper for the ratepayers to read; and, as all is done in the sacred name of morality, they dutifully submit. Boccaccio's Jew decided that the Catholic Church must have God at the back of it, since otherwise so wicked an institution could not maintain itself; and really one might put in a plea for British greatness on the ease with which we submit to stupid regulations.
An Education Committee has just distinguished itself by placing Mrs. Gaskell's _Mary Barton_ on the list of prohibited books. Commenting on this, the Tribune remarks that there is much to be said for the practice of editing English classics for school use so as to "exclude anything to which the most scrupulous may take exception," and adds that the "firms who issue such English school texts are rendering a genuine service to education." With the wisdom of the Education Committee's decision I am not now concerned, but more with the general question of issuing expurgated editions of authors who have a standing in the history of literature. That this should be done at all is, I believe, bad enough, but that it should be done in the alleged interests of literature and morality is infinitely worse.
The practice, it must be noted, only affects classics —books, that is, that have by their general excellence established a claim to notice that is admitted by all. Poor books need not be expurgated, because they do not live. It may safely be said that no merely bad book will continue to exist. Books either live by their excellences or not at all. There may be bad things or distasteful things in the best of books; but, after all, it is the excellence of the book as a whole that secures its immortality.
Now, on what grounds is this practice of expurgation justified? In the first place, it is said, they are not suitable for young people to read. But, admitting this for the moment, is there any necessity for young people reading them? Shakespeare, Cervantes, Swift, Fielding, wrote for men and women, not children. Young people would not be likely to select Don Quixote, Gulliver's Travels, Tom Jones, or Shakespeare; or, if they did, their selection would be some little proof of ability to appreciate them. Any book that is a book may have a beneficial influence on the development of a boy or girl, but there is no one book that is absolutely indispensable to the proper education or development of anyone. We are, I think, very apt to overestimate the importance of certain books in the education of people, and, curiously enough, they are most prone to this whose knowledge of books is of the most superficial character. If it is not desirable that certain books should be read by young people, let them wait until they are old enough. But when they do have an author's work in their hands, let it be his work, and not the joint production of himself and someone else; the contribution of the someone else being made up of a villainous and unnecessary mutilation. As lief kill a man as a good book, said Milton; and I fancy this applies to mutilation as well as murder.
Is it quite certain, however, that every "young person" needs such scrupulous care-taking to keep them from contact with some of the world's best literature? The matter seems to me at least open to question, particularly as the inquiry cannot in the nature of the case be concerned with mere children. To force young people to read books of this class is one policy, and one that no sensible person would adopt. But to permit them access to good literature and allow them to select at their pleasure, is quite another and a reasonable policy. No one will accuse Ruskin of any desire to place within reach of young people either unclean or debasing books, yet here is his advice, deliberately given as to the choice of books for girls:—
"Whether novels, or poetry, or history be read, they should be chosen, not for their freedom from evil, but for their possession of good. The chance and scattered evil that may haunt, or hide itself in, a powerful book never does any harm to a noble girl; but the emptiness of an author depresses her, and his amiable folly degrades her. And if she can have access to a good library of old and classical books, there need be no choosing at all. Keep the modern magazine and novel out of your girl's way; turn her loose into the old library every wet day and let her alone. She will find what is good for her Let her loose in the library, I say, as you do a fawn in the field. It knows the bad weeds twenty times better than you; and the good ones too, and will eat some bitter and prickly ones, good for it, which you had not the slightest thought would have been so."
We are not, then, I think, called upon to expurgate good literature in the interests of the young; left alone, their instincts will be, on the whole, their safest guides; or, in cases where these instincts betray them—a catastrophe usually produced by wrong or vicious training—the remedy is to be found in a more effective education elsewhere rather than in the mutilation of a great man's work.
There is another aspect of the matter that affects both young and old. Who is it who is to sit in judgment on the world's masterpieces of literature and decide what is good for the people to read? Is it the publishers? These may be very excellent people in their way, but they are not usually possessed of the qualifications for dictating to either a Swift, a Sterne, or a Fielding. And what guide have the publishers in their selection? Their desire is to sell; their policy is to exclude anything that will hinder the sale; and thus, in the long run, it is not even the publishers, who at least have an acquaintance with books—in bulk—who are the judges, but the comparatively unthinking and comparatively illiterate general public. The prurient-minded puritan, the man whose taste for good literature has been degraded by copious courses of cheap sensationalism —religious and secular—is constituted an unofficial licenser of books by a policy that is both cowardly and dishonest. The host of "popular" novelists, who by cheap sensationalism, false emotion, unreal characterisation, and impossible ethics do really debase character, receive the stamp of approbation, while the great writers are carefully scanned for the excision of all that bigotry and moral cowardice may take exception to.
The policy of expurgation does not stop with those passages which are not in conformity with the surface of drawing-room morality. It is extended to matters of taste and opinion. At one moment it is a question of the moral effect of certain passages, at another the effect of other passages on religious belief, at some other moment something else. The policy is one that inevitably grows, and its danger increases with its scope. Many of the great writers have suffered from it, and, what is even more important, generations of readers likewise. The only writer who is safe from attack is the one whose work might be buried "fathoms deep " without loss to anybody. It is a policy that places a premium upon mediocrity and a tax upon ability and courage. It is a policy that is both cowardly and dishonest; cowardly because it of necessity only attacks the dead, and dishonest because it puts into the hands of uninformed readers a book that is not the work of the person whose name it bears. If a book is worth possessing, let us have that or nothing. No one wants—or no one ought to want—Shakespeare filtered through the mind of a Bowdler, or some other classic doctored by a publisher anxious to please the more uncultured section of the public.
The injustice to the illustrious dead is great; the injury to the living is even greater. The former suffer by misrepresentation, the latter by the creation of a whole atmosphere that is essentially unhealthy. Young people cannot grow up morally strong because their true moral strength is seldom appealed to. They cannot grow up intellectually straightforward for the reason that the type of mind that sees no injustice in producing a mangled version of a dead man's work is incapable of imparting such a lesson. The one lesson insistently inculcated by practice and precept is, that if one possesses opinions, let him be careful in expressing them, and, if they are likely to militate against one's "getting on," suppress them altogether. The result is the creation of a social environment saturated with artificiality and insincerity; a generation dreading boldness of thought and faithfulness of speech more than anything else; and a public press that can look upon the publication of mutilated editions of classical authors as "a genuine service to education." C. Cohen
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