By Stan Persky | January 23, 2002

J.M. Coetzee, Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship (University of
Chicago, 1996)

My most recent brush with something akin to the spirit of censorship–which occurred about the same time that I was belatedly reading South African writer J.M. Coetzee’s 1996 essays on the subject–had nothing to do with the traditional ogres who clamp down on thought. The little incident I’ll relate involved neither an authoritarian state, like the former Soviet Union or apartheid South Africa, nor home-brew or foreign religious nuts. In fact, my experience wasn’t quite one of censorship, but rather ideological chastisement of my writing by a political colleague eager to keep me in line. Here’s what happened.

I published an article about Bangkok’s homosexual scene, "Sex Tourist Sutra," in Canada’s Geist magazine in autumn 2001. The essay gave a narrative account of what goes on in the "go-go boy" bars of Thailand’s capital and described various gay Western "sex tourists" there. Although I made it clear that I wasn’t simply a detached witness of the events I was describing, but rather a participant-observer, as the social science phrase has it, nonetheless my account was neutrally descriptive in style and tone, pretty much devoid of salacious details, and intentionally de-sensationalized. In this, I was following Czech novelist Milan Kundera’s notion that writing involves interrogating morality rather than prescribing it. My description of sex-tourists, red-light districts, and public performances of sexual intercourse, however, was contextualized in a recognition of the dubious politics, the widespread poverty, and the somewhat exotic (to us) spiritual beliefs of Thai society, which features a mixture of ornate Buddhism and animism. I left it to readers to determine for themselves what to make of the phenomena I was describing, taking account of the fact that Geist’s readership is, broadly-speaking, "left-liberal" and politically literate. Insofar as there was a "moral" to the story, my moral was that the phenomena–which I saw as a dialectic of desire and its cessation–were complex and interesting rather than a simple instance of exploitation that invited explicit "moralising."

That wasn’t good enough for Canadian poet and feminist Karen Connolly. My article inspired an offended, lengthy letter from Connolly, herself a knowledgeable traveler to Thailand, who had written a book about her adventures there, and who found my report "facile." She wished aloud that I had said more about my "personal experiences" in the Bangkok sex trade since, as she sardonically noted, they provided a "rare opportunity" to learn from an "articulate, well-informed foreigner" what it was like to "buy sex in poor countries." (Ouch.) She cited some of her own encounters visiting Bangkok’s heterosexual prostitution scene as a source of her feminism and as an inspiration to question "all forms of power and privilege," especially one’s own. She wanted to know if I had pondered any "moral quandaries," if I had felt "guilt," and wondered if I was becoming "addicted" to this form of "consumption," briskly dismissing any notion that "desire" was involved. In short, Connolly didn’t really want to know about my experiences. What she wanted was a penitential confession that conformed to the ideological grid provided by the particular version of feminism she espouses. She wanted autobiography only insofar as it self-critically denounced "exploitation," "oppression," "racism," and the rest. Nothing less
would do. ‘Fess up or else.

Geist offered me the traditional opportunity to reply to Connolly’s letter and I duly did so within the prescribed available space, and the matter, as it does in liberal democracies that provide freedom of speech, formally ended with our "exchange." Of course, Connolly wasn’t attempting to silence me, she was merely criticising me and my article for moral failings, and I don’t want to make more of this trivial incident than it deserves. On the other hand, there was enough of a whiff of fire and brimstone in her missive to make me imagine that if circumstances were otherwise–that if the brand of feminism she favoured ever achieved institutional power–Connelly might be quite comfortable in the office of the censor.

Certainly, the North American campus "speech-code" debates of the early 1990s, where a version of feminism did have a degree of power in some academic institutions, provides sufficient evidence of the chilling results of ideological fervor. And I’ve been a political Leftist long enough to know firsthand the psychological pressures and social ostracism that eventuate from "deviations" from the "correct line." If J.S. Mill famously described the "tyranny" of the opinion of the majority, I knew something about the tyranny prevalent within an ideological minority. For all the dishonesty in the political Right’s contempt for "political correctness," it’s been too seldom recognized that there really was a terrifying, enforced orthodoxy within the Left in the 20th century. The operations of that orthodoxy in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere had real "sticks and stones" consequences, and not merely the "names can never hurt you" wounds inflicted by the West’s relatively powerless Leftist groupuscules on straying members and fellow travelers.

At the same time, I don’t want to make any of this simpler than it is. That’s why I’m so taken with J.M. Coetzee’s Giving Offense, the best book I’ve read about "an attempt to understand a passion with which I have no intuitive sympathy, the passion that plays itself out in acts of silencing and censoring." Coetzee, for those who don’t know him, is a renowned novelist, two-time winner of the Booker Prize–for Life and Times of Michael K and Disgrace (1999)–a professor of literature at the universities of Cape Town and Chicago, and more importantly, a first-rate mind whose subtlety and intelligence inform every page of his essays on censorship. Moreover, as a South African citizen during apartheid, Coetzee has direct knowledge of the subject, and devotes several essays to the workings of the former Publication Appeals Board, the ultimate tribunal in South Africa’s system of censorship.

Coetzee immediately notices some peculiarities about the censorship business. For example, although we might expect there to be a world of difference between political and artistic censorship, Coetzee observes that "the same censors patrol the boundaries of both politics and aesthetics." Thus, he follows "the censor as he tracks ‘the undesirable,’ the category under which he uneasily and even haphazardly assimilates the subversive (the politically undesirable) and the repugnant (the morally undesirable)."

Yet, the concept of the undesirable, Coetzee points out, is a curious one. Unlike such adjectives (in English) as "inexplicable," which means "not able to be explained," the word "undesirable" certainly does not mean "not able to be desired." On the contrary, what the censor seeks to curb is the eager appetite for the books, pictures, and ideas under scrutiny. "What is undesirable," Coeztee shrewdly says, "is the desire of the desiring subject."

Coetzee will make more of the relations between desire and the undesirable, but I cite this prefatory remark simply as an indicator of an approach that quickly moves us beyond the obvious condemnations of censorship that all right-thinking liberal-minded people share. In fact, Coetzee is as interested in the denunciation of, collaboration with, and ambiguous resistance to censorship as he is in the crude operations of the silencing mechanism. His examples of ambiguous resistance include Russian poet Osip Mandelstam’s "Ode to Stalin," South African activist-writer Breyton Breytenbach’s apologies to the powers-that-were, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s slightly too triumphalist polemics with his Soviet masters. Coetzee takes it that the obvious evils of censorship are indeed obvious–just as I took it that the evils of exploitation in commercial sex scenes didn’t have to be spelled out for left-liberal readers–and that something else is needed if the analysis is to be interesting.

What I like about Coetzee is his gentle disinclination to offer "strong theory." He positions himself this way: "The punitive gesture of censoring finds its origins in the reaction of being offended. The strength of being-offended, as a state of mind, lies in not doubting itself; its weakness lies in not being able to afford to doubt itself. To the self-certainty of the state of being-offended I apply an Erasmian critique whose strength and weakness lies in that it is an uncertain critique–not wavering, but not certain of itself either." In short, he proposes a stance that’s precisely the opposite of Connolly’s or anyone else’s moral certitudes. To the extent that Coetzee’s critique of the censor is uncertain–he confesses that "I am not sure, for instance, what to think about artists who break taboos and yet claim the protection of the law"–his book is dominated by the spirit of the 16th century thinker, Erasmus. Coetzee’s essay about Erasmus, a man uneasy about the competing certainties of both Luther and the Pope, is a centrepiece of Giving Offense.

In the book’s near-title essay, "Taking Offense," which sets out the parameters of his investigation, Coetzee recognizes that, of course, "taking offense is not confined to those in positions of subordination or weakness." It is, in the first instance, the powerful who are offended and, worse, they can really do something about it, unlike the powerless. "Nonetheless, the experience or premonition of being robbed of power," he says, "seems to me intrinsic to all instances of taking offense."

Coetzee quickly locates the position of "rational, secular intellectuals" (like ourselves), who "are not notably quick to take offense." Such intellectuals have well-developed theories of the emotions which they self-consciously attempt to apply to their own feelings. "The combination of a close, rational watch over the emotions with sympathy for the underdog tends to produce a twofold response to displays of outrage on the part of other people." While intellectuals see outrage as pre- or ir-rational, even on the part of subordinated people, nonetheless the intellectual is prepared to emphathise with the outrage of the powerless even while privately deeming such feelings to be dangerously self-serving. Though Coetzee scrupulously refrains from romanticizing victims of power, he recognizes that "the intellectual is prepared to respect and perhaps even defend other people’s taking offense, in much the same way he or she might respect someone’s refusal to eat pork, while privately feeling the taboo is benighted and superstitious."

This tolerance on the part of intellectuals, Coetzee says, "depending on how you look at it, is either deeply civilized or complacent, hypocritical, and patronizing–a consequence of the security intellectuals feel about the rational secularism within whose horizons they live." From the outset, then, Coetzee highlights the ambiguities of our or any other seemingly more certain position on the issue of offensiveness. Since intellectuals "encourage criticism of the foundations of their own belief systems… [and] particularly welcome accounts of their enterprise that attempt to relativize it, read it within a cultural and historical framework," the intellectual paradox here is that "for someone who does not respect his own being-offended, it is hard to respect in the deepest sense other people’s being offended."

Most of the individual essays in Giving Offense were written in the early 1990s, and even by the mid-decade publication of the book, Coetzee allows that the context in which he’s working has shifted, primarily affected "by two historical and perhaps even historic shifts in the political landscape." First, there was the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites and their respective censorship apparatuses, and second, there was the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa and the falling into virtual disuse of its state censorship mechanisms. At the same time, "the liberal consensus on freedom of expression that might once have been said to reign among Western intellectuals… has ceased to obtain. In the United States, for instance, institutions of learning have approved bans on certain categories of speech, while agitation against pornography is not limited to the Right."

Reading Coetzee’s book a further half-decade after its publication, another contextual shift has occurred. The high tide of the campus speech code campaign–which was promoted by feminists as a dubious feature of a legitimate campaign against sexual harassment of women–has considerably receded. A string of cases in which ideological excesses were glaringly visible undermined much of the credibility of the attempt to piggyback prohibitions against offensive speech onto the campaign against objectionable acts of harassment. While proponents of the speech codes griped that they were victims of a reactionary "backlash," in fact, significant numbers of people supportive of the campaign against acts of harassment were among those who came to the conclusion that the speech code push was indefensible. For me, the particular straw that broke the camel’s back occurred when a crowd of feminists armed with noisemakers successfully silenced an attempted lecture at McGill University’s medical school about "recovered memory syndrome." The protesters decided that the giving of the lecture posed such an offensive challenge to women who had recalled alleged instances of sexual assault that the lecture should be prevented, even though there was now considerable evidence that many of the sexual abuse memories were false and had been induced by well-meaning (and perhaps not-so-well-meaning) therapists. When I saw my friend Judy Rebick on TV defending the protesters’ actions, that’s when I quietly got off that particular bandwagon.

Similarly, reading about the anti-pornography debate a decade after the controversy was at its height has a slightly nostalgic quality. Perhaps the best essay in the book is Coetzee’s very thoughtful, fair-minded presentation of the ideas of the leading anti-porn feminist, Catherine MacKinnon. Reading it, I have to admit to a twinge of longing for a time (only ten years ago!) when people passionately cared about these matters, as well as a sense that the issues themselves were never properly resolved. Like so much else in our intellectual landscape, the amnesia of the ’90s slogan "let’s put it behind us, and move on" stood in for solutions. "Closure" replaced coming to conclusions.

In real life there were–just to cite the Canadian context–both de facto and de jure conclusions. In law, the 1992 R. v. Butler case, in which MacKinnon had been a prominent and successful intervenor, left us with an utterly muddled piece of Canadian jurisprudence that said (and still says) that a sexual representation can be judged obscene if it is thought to lead to bad attitudes that can lead to bad acts. (I won’t even try to describe the Supreme Court of Canada’s contorted logic in coming up with that bizarre ruling. Interested readers can take a look at a recent book I co-authored with John Dixon, On Kiddie Porn, where we offer an extended account of the Butler case.)

In de facto real life, the porn industry continues to mass produce its pornocopia, but the only significant artifacts scooped up in the wake of Butler were homosexual erotic representations, a target probably far from the minds of the original feminist campaigners who were primarily opposed to egregious forms of heterosexual pornography. This outcome was something of an ultimate irony. Although there weren’t any homosexuals complaining about homo porn (in the way that women were complaining about hetero porn), and although (male) homo porn by definition did not degrade women, nonetheless it was homo porn that got censored by various state agencies, purely as a spin-off of the Canadian Supreme Court’s decision that (hetero) porn could be "harmful" to women. But as I’ve said, we’ve now "moved on." For anyone still interested in what the pornography debate was about, I can nonetheless recommend Coetzee’s superbly intelligent account and intentionally "uncertain" critique of the major arguments.

I’m trying to save myself the chore of providing an extended precis of Catherine MacKinnon’s assertions and Coetzee’s questions about her claims, something that involves a tour of a good deal of post-modernist thinking. But I can at least say why all of the fuss about dirty pictures mattered then and, to my mind, still does. It mattered because it was not solely a debate about objectionable representations and whether they should be censored. Rather, what MacKinnon and other feminists were challenging was not simply pornography, but the very foundations of a liberalism that offers protection to most forms of (offensive) speech and pictures. MacKinnon charged that the self-proclaimed neutrality of liberal principles was actually a mask for, and defense of, the power relations that systematically subordinated women. Liberalism, rather than being our historically-derived best-guess set of principles was merely one more moral perspective, and a dubious one at that. As she put it, "in the ingrained mannerism of her polemical style" (says Coetzee), "Sexual liberation in the liberal sense frees male sexual aggression in the feminist sense. What looks like love and romance in the liberal view looks a lot like hatred and torture in the feminist view." Similarly, in my contretemps with Connolly, what looks to me like complex desire escaping the margins of stereotypical sexual scenes, looks to Connolly a lot like straightforward consumption, oppression, and racism. What I think Coetzee is saying in his essay about MacKinnon is that her challenge to intellectual foundations ought to be of interest to intellectuals like us who welcome "criticisms of their own belief systems." That is, whether MacKinnon is right or wrong (I think the latter), and whether or not she’s terribly one-sided, her questioning of our comfortable "rational seculism" is fundamentally interesting.

In addition to the pornography question, there’s one historical moment in the history of Soviet political and artistic censorship that haunts Coetzee. It’s the Osip Mandelstam case and Coetzee not only refers to it several times in the course of his book, but devotes a brilliant essay to Mandelstam in Giving Offense.

In 1933, Mandelstam, then 42, composed a brief, powerful poem about a tyrant who, as Coetzee says, "orders executions left, right, and center, and relishes the deaths of his victims like a [man] munching raspberries." Mandelstam’s crucial concluding lines are: "He forges decrees like horseshoes–decrees and decrees; / This one gets it in the balls, that one in the forehead, him right between the eyes. // Whenever he’s got a victim, he glows like a broadchested Georgian munching a raspberry." Though the tyrant is not named, the reference is clearly to Stalin, who came from the Soviet republic of Georgia. The poem was never written down, but Mandelstam recited it several times to gatherings of friends.

The following year, Mandelstam’s home was raided by security police, presumably looking for the blasphemous poem. Although they didn’t find it, since it only existed in the minds of the poet and his friends, Mandelstam was arrested. While he was under arrest, the prominent poet and novelist Boris Pasternak got a phone call from Stalin. Who is Mandelstam, Stalin wanted to know? In particular, is he a master? As Coetzee puts it, "Pasternak correctly inferred the second half of the question: Is Mandelstam a master or is he disposable? Pasternak replied, in effect, that Mandelstam was a master, that he was not disposable." As a result, Mandelstam, rather than being executed was sentenced to internal exile in the remote city of Voronezh. But the story doesn’t end there. While Mandelstam was living in exile, as Coetzee reports, "pressure was brought to bear on him to pay tribute to Stalin by composing a poem in his honour. Mandelstam gave in and composed an adulatory ode." The "Ode to Stalin," by the way, did not save Mandelstam from rearrest or from subsequent death in a Siberian camp in 1938 though, it’s speculated, it may have saved his wife, Nadezdha, whose surviving memoirs (Hope Against Hope) provide us with what knowledge we have of a poet who might otherwise have been erased from memory.

Coetzee draws two preliminary conclusions, or isolates two moments, from this tale: "the moment when Stalin asks whether Mandelstam is a master, and the moment when Mandelstam is ordered to celebrate his persecutor." Coetzee correctly infers that Stalin was not asking if Mandelstam was a master "because he regarded great artists as above the state. What he meant was something like, Is he dangerous? Is he going to live, even if he dies? Is his sentence on me going to live longer than my sentence on him? Do I have to be careful?" As for forcing Mandelstam to write his ode, Coetzee says, "Making the great artists of his day kowtow to him was Stalin’s way of breaking them, of making it impossible for them to hold their heads up–in effect, of showing them who was master, and of making them acknowledge [Stalin] as master in a medium where no lie, no private reservation, was possible: their own art."

But, again, this is not the end of the story. We know about the blasphemous "raspberry" poem, but what about the "Ode to Stalin"? For a long time, it was thought that the ode had not survived Mandelstam’s death in the camps and, at least, Mandelstam’s memory was spared the embarrassment of his humiliated text. But in 1975, the poem was unexpectedly unearthed. What’s more, there was evidence, contrary to the claims of Mandelstam’s wife, Nadezhda, and poet Anna Akhmatova, that Mandelstam had not been particularly ashamed of the ode, but in fact had several times read it to gatherings of people. These circumstances form the starting point of Coetzee’s reading of the ode. Without reprising his subtle analysis, the point of Coetzee’s essay is to ask, irrespective of whether or not Mandelstam drove himself into a sort of madness in order to write the poem, as his friends claimed, is this poem-under-the-censor’s-duress an inauthentic work of art, as might be expected, or is it a real poem, as Mandelstam himself seemed to imply? And, if it is a real poem and not mere submission to the dictates of the censor, how is it possible to write a real poem in such conditions? The answers Coetzee suggests are fascinating.

Finally, a brief remark about Coetzee’s essay, "Erasmus: Madness and Rivalry." The piece is primarily an analysis of the post-modernist writings of Foucault, Derrida, Lacan and Rene Girard about the issue of madness and rationality. It’s also an essay about the 16th century author of In Praise of Folly. Erasmus, says Coetzee, "found it hard to commit himself to the side of the Lutheran radicals in their conflict with the Papacy." Although Erasmus was sympathetic to many of the ideals of reforming a thoroughly corrupt Roman Catholic church, "he was nevertheless disturbed by the intolerance and inflexibility of the actual reform movement," and he tried to maintain a distance between his critique of the church and that of Luther. Urged by the Pope to denounce Luther’s heresies, Erasmus replied, "I would rather die than join a faction." Says Coetzee, "Privately, he deemed the reform controversy insane in its fanaticism. In his view, the escalating violence of their rivalry made the two sides more and more alike, even as
they more and more loudly asserted their difference." Those readers who have tried to maintain their ability to think rather than merely engage in rhetoric during the recent events concerning terrorism will find the discussion of Erasmus familiar and fruitful subject matter. Although Coetzee himself doesn’t endorse it, he cites one view (that of Stefan Zweig) that sees Erasmus and his work as the problem of writing texts "about the plight of the intellectual in times of madness."

Coetzee’s own perspective is revealed in his essay on Solzhenitsyn–an anti-censorship hero who turned out to be a fairly strange Slavophile spiritualist himself–when he says, "My interest is… in the belligerence that tends to be generated in any field ruled over by censorship." While certainly not impartial between the Soviet literary censorship and certain Russian writers (some 70,000 bureaucrats to cover 7,000 writers!–a ratio often forgotten), Coetzee wants to steer a course between "the Scylla of denouncing either the house of the censors or the house of Solzhenitsyn, or indeed, in the name of ‘intelligence’ as opposed to ‘stupidity,’ both houses together; and the Charybdis of denouncing denunciation itself and the rhetoric of the denunciatory mode." Well, perhaps, it’s a little too subtle by half, but it’s a stance that makes for interesting reading.

Last word: I’m deeply tempted by the censor’s passion myself. My temptation is not Connolly’s Vulgar Feminism with its chidings of, Not Left enough! Not disapproving enough! Rather, my censoring passion has to do with the productions of contemporary Western culture. Formal censorship, it seems to me, has been rendered obsolete in the modern capitalist world. The market has little need to fear subversive thoughts because it can overwhelm them with popular entertainment. Sure, there’s the occasional fuss about kiddie porn or the danger of making weapons-of-mass-destruction information available over the Internet. But for the most part, the system in which we live doesn’t even have to fear critical discussion of itself (the very thing that kept the Soviet censors burning the midnight oil) because it can be relatively sure that an insignificant number of people has the ability or interest to pay attention to such criticisms.

Instead, a steady cultural diet of TV (from X-Files to Survivor); endless computer games (the 10-year-old at the next terminal over in the Internet shop is busily blowing things up in the Harry Potter game); a relentless stream of "action" films (all beautifully manufactured, all cynical beyond belief); and the latest warblings of Britney Spears and the rest of the music video universe, ensures the state of mindlessness necessary to the maintenance of the mall. My censor’s passion is similar to Plato’s urge to ban poetry in The Republic. I want to ban a lot of entertainment. Alas, other benevolent dreamers before me have already tried it on the well-paved road to totalitarian perdition.

4281 w. Uploaded January 23, 2002


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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