Can Literature Still Be Dangerous in the Western World?

“The truly anarchic thing about literature is that you can’t control how it is read. The author must surrender control of the art.”

Tomorrow (November 15th) is the International Day of the Imprisoned Writer. Initiated in 1981, its purpose is to support, and raise awareness about, writers who have suffered persecution as a result of freely expressing their views. Each year it highlights the plight of five particular individuals who are currently in prison or undergoing sentencing. This year these are: Dieudonné Enoh Meyomesse from Cameroon, Gao Yu from China, Mahvash Sabet from Iran, Azimjon Askarov from Kyrgyzstan, and Nelson Aguilera from Paraguay. With this day in mind, Durham University English Society hosted a panel discussion on Thursday to consider the question of whether or not literature can still be considered dangerous in the Western World. On the panel, Professor Peter McDonald of St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, joined Professor Stephen Regan and Dr Samuel Thomas of Durham’s English Department. The starting point for the discussion was Stephen Kellman’s article ‘When Literature Was Dangerous’, in which he claims: ‘The victory of Ulysses helped create a culture in which literature lacks urgency.’ The titular question was then proposed: can literature still be classed as dangerous?

In short, yes. Speaking first, Regan stressed the importance of differentiating between types of danger, since moral and political issues are often conflated where perhaps they should be seen separately. McDonald argued that the discourse of freedom of expression in itself often involves ‘flag-waving’. The concepts of censorship and freedom of expression have obviously shifted dramatically from the early twentieth century and the uproar caused by Ulysses, particularly due to advancements in technology. He suggested that we hold the responsibility if we assume that the state alone has the power to assess literature according to its own definition of dangerous. However, the pressure to censor often comes from non-state groups, those who are directly offended by the content, and this can be accompanied by threats of violence, which must be placated. He pointed out that generally freedom of expression is defended more often than censorship is implemented. Thomas contributed a quotation from Thomas Pynchon who, in the wake of the controversy of The Satanic Verses, thanked Rushdie for reminding writers of their ‘duty as heretics’. However, Thomas pointed out the conflict with Gravity’s Rainbow, which acknowledges our complicity in a system that might lead to a writer being imprisoned. He also discussed the importance of the conception of literary awards, and state-initiated creative writing programs, which, according to Mark McGurl, are ‘the most significant development in post-war fiction.’

DUES Host Curtis Runstedler raised the issue of technology, asking if this was a threat to literature as we know it. McDonald discussed the unique position in which we currently find ourselves, where the internet has enabled the globalization of literature. However, he argued that although we now have the likes of Twitter Short Stories, we still have traditional literary forms being published in abundance. Thomas suggested that digitalization could be dangerous in that it enabled vast quantities of content to be disseminated in a short amount of time, and that nearly everything is now public knowledge. However, Regan argued that regardless of its form, literature is a latent power, which we don’t always fully appreciate until after publication.

The conversation then turned to examples of works which have been considered as ‘dangerous literature’. Regan began with the literature of the Romantic period, which was an extraordinarily revolutionary era. He cited examples of Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy, which was banned for thirty years, and Leigh Hunt’s imprisonment for his writings on the Prince Regent. He criticized Kellman’s article for suggesting that following the 1933 ‘United States v. One Book Called Ulysses’ case, freedom of expression in writing was commonplace. Regan argued that this was a narrow-minded view, pointing out that in Ireland, John McGahern’s novel The Dark was banned for several years. McGahern was consequently dismissed from a teaching post during the supposed ‘golden age’ of acceptance: the 1960s. Thomas agreed, saying that the article implies a completely unregulated system for censorship, which is not at all true. Among other structures still in place, UK authorities can deem books inappropriate for the national curriculum, while books are still being banned in the US. In certain parts of the world, writers stake their lives on such matters.

Runstedler next proposed the topic of religion. Regan stated the obvious example of the reception of Ulysses in Catholic Ireland. McDonald took us slightly further afield, citing the reaction to The Satanic Verses in South Africa in particular. The book was banned before it entered the country in response to lobbying by Muslim groups. In 2002, the ban was technically lifted due to the workings of the original legislation, but the same Muslim groups then lobbied for the ban to be re-imposed. The South African constitution is radically progressive, but even so there is no pure freedom of speech. The inclusion of a proportionality clause means that there is no absolute right in the constitution, so the government settled for a restriction. The book is only available to those who are aged eighteen or over, and to those who specifically request it, as it is forbidden for it to be advertised or even displayed. Regan looked back further to the figure of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who in 1968 burnt his own works of poetry, believing at the time that poetry was an illicit pleasure which he couldn’t reconcile with religion; a form of self-censorship. Thomas commented on an example much closer to home, with his own module, Fictions of Terrorism. A few years ago, concerns were raised about the inclusion of the autobiographical Persepolis, which was marketed as a freedom narrative in ‘the West’. This highlighted the fact that one account cannot be representative of a religion or race, but perhaps it can be dangerous if it is taken as so.

Conversation inevitably turned to politics, with Regan raising the issue of literature which was banned in Russia when Stalin was in power. Much of it was not particularly anti-Stalinist, but it was considered enough that they weren’t openly supporting him. This counted as danger; ‘lyric-impulse’ was enough. Much more ‘dangerous’ were the pamphlets of Slavoj Žižek, which circumvented the system by over-identifying with the party line. These were truly subversive, being overtly cynical yet maintaining the principle of deniability. This highlights the concept of oppositionality, with literature written specifically as a product of the system, in order to be as ‘anti’ as possible.

The Kellman article assumes that dangerous literature is good literature, which is not necessarily true. However, the irony is that censorship systems imply literature has great power; if something is censored or banned, people think it is worthy of attention. Thomas took the discussion to a critical theory level, flagging up the roles of author and reader. “The truly anarchic thing about literature is that you can’t control how it is read. The author must surrender control of the art.” McDonald concluded by remarking that he believed Finnigan’s Wake to be the most dangerous book in the world, “we just don’t know how to read it yet.”

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