Burnt books smell good, save wood

By on October 2, 2003

What goes on in the human brain during the creative process? Where do our thoughts come from? Could these thoughts be potentially dangerous? What can be expressed and what is locked within?

Let me attempt, at least, to answer that last question. For example, this article began as something else, a vehicle for an idea, perhaps.

As I sat to type it I realized it had become something else altogether and I couldn’t figure out why it had done so. Such a question is ridiculous, of course. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Forgive my false start. Let me begin with the title of this article, an explanation is due. Now I admit I have never attended a book burning, which I imagine to be quite an event- nor do I know if banned literature is truly a competent substitute for firewood or if it emits a pleasing odor when burned. Statement sans substantiation? Yes, but maybe there is some other motivation. These were sentences born in my mind, somewhere in that convoluted network of terra cotta cobwebs that stealthily navigate through the corridors of the brain-the same organ, which allows man to comprehend abstract, thought and give birth to ideas.

Where these ideas come from is not my concern here; it’s where they go from there that interests me. My motives here are purely malicious, it is true; but let us not disregard their merit just yet. I still have more space to fill here.

Censorship has become something of an institution; a reactionary response to unwanted stimuli.

Somewhere between thought and expression, art and meaning, the signals have become crossed. With all these thoughts flowing freely through the contours of my brain, what happens when they find voice in the public domain? Are there good thoughts and bad thoughts? And if there are, what are the criteria by which they are measured? Who is to make these evaluations and what are their qualifications? Surely, this must be a job for the thought police-crusader of the common good, arbiter of what is acceptable and what is not. A laborious task, it is certain.

Now you caught me being cynical, but indulge me for a moment and you will see the seriousness of my contempt. Censorship seems to be a most appropriate first topic for my column (or for any serious writer or patron of the arts for that matter), although it comes as a consequent and not as precedent. This article would not exist, of course, if there were not cause to provoke it – and I would like to examine that provocation for a moment. As one thought inspires the next, it would seem artificial and utterly counterproductive to obstruct the ebb and flow of openly exchanged ideas. Censorship assumes a stance that is inherently self-defeating and preposterous. Its proponents shake a loud and mighty fist on firmly stood ground, but if they were to examine the premises upon which that stance was built, they might find the ground beneath them shakier than the pulse of a fault line.

Cowards have hidden for ages behind various masks, banners and rhetorical spins, but time has a tendency to reveal them for exactly that.The moral imperative that lurks behind censorship movements purports the suppression of ideas in favor of ‘common decency,’ a term so vague and confused that it could be the subject of its own essay (note to self.)

The questionable stance of moral decency is obvious, and likewise untenable, but the true offense lies in the imposition of these “morals” on a populace. The question is not, “Who are you, Henry Miller, to masquerade your pretentious pornography as art?” but, “Who are you, nameless advisor of the common good, to say that it is not?”

The question is easily thrown back, but never is it satisfactorily replied. It is simply ignored. In such circumstances, the subjective and objective realms merge in a cocktail shaker that produces a tonic both unpleasant and bitter to the taste.

Plato once argued that all artists are dangerous and the first duty of any king would be to exile them all. He felt that dramatists appeal to emotion, a powerful, inspiring force that ignores the reason of philosophical dialectics.

This sounds like tyranny to us now, but is it really any different from the committee that removes Mark Twain from the school curriculum? It is ironic that this same ability to reason is also, perhaps, our greatest asset as a species. (That, or opposable thumbs, depending on your politics.)

But what is it that Plato, and the mindless followers we face today, protecting us from?

Allow me to provide a hypothetical example to illustrate the point. Let us say that a college student wrote an article for a student-run paper on the contemporary practice of bloodletting, long since decreed as quackery, and outlandishly advocated its use as a treatment for, among other things: bed-wetting, drug addiction, suicidal tendencies and premature ejaculation.

Granted, not everyone is born with their tongue firmly placed in cheek, but is it too much to assume that a college audience cannot recognize satire? When Alexander Pope wrote “A Modest Proposal”, did he really expect the Irish to cannibalize their children to resolve the potato famine?

The article is offensive, yes, but to wit: it is all method, no madness. As Gertrude Stein once said, ‘all great art is irritation’. The apparent risk to printing such a scandalous piece, argue the thought police, is that the advocacy of bloodletting could inspire an outbreak of cultish self- mutilation and general debauchery when unleashed upon a na


About S. Flavius Mercurius