It’s been a while since anything besides people and their weapons seemed dangerous in America. There’s a lot of attention—and a great deal of money—spent on determining where the next physical threat is, and how that threat is going to kill us, but when it comes to protecting our minds from dirty things our stance is about as liberal as it gets. Profanity, outside of mildly offending someone’s taste, seems nearly impossible. Compared to places where you can be killed for speaking out or using sacrilegious images, this freedom is a good thing, right?
I’m not so sure.
I kind of miss the idea of cultural lines that one can’t step over. One of my most memorable high school experiences was getting a permission slip signed by my parents so I could listen to an audiotape of Allen Ginsberg reading “America.” Our teacher warned us it included vulgar language and homosexuality and drugs. Something about having to break a permissive barrier to gain access to that material grabbed my teenage attention more than any of the other stuff we were made to read that year—much of which I’ve long forgotten even the most basic elements of.
But “America” stands out in my mind. And not even because I think it’s a particularly great poem, but because in some way I felt being allowed to hear it was a privilege. Before then, my reading had been waning. I was a voracious book-face child until somewhere during middle or high school, when I became terribly bored with what I was assigned. But even my 16-year-old brain could tell there was something much more volatile under the surface of “America.” From there I set off on my own, first to Burroughs and Henry Miller, and eventually to Joyce, McCarthy, etc. It took a sort of brain bomb to get me going, but once I’d started I couldn’t stop.
Looking over a list of the banned and challenged books in US history, it’s impossible to argue that some of our most important works weren’t at one point considered wrong:
Moby Dick - Banned from English classes in Texas in 1851 because it “conflicted with community values.” Plus, think of how many kids in school must be making dick jokes every time it’s taught.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Called “trash and suitable only for the slums.” Not to mention depicted race in a way that many people today wish they could forget.
The Great Gatsby - Teachers fired for teaching it; labeled “anti-white” and “obscene”; “blasphemous and undermines morality.”
The Grapes of Wrath - Pissed off a buttload of Christians because it contains the phrase “god damn.”
Ulysses - Burned and banned for more than a decade, despite how the so-called “sexy” scenes in the book are so disfigured by their own language most readers wouldn’t be able to know what’s going on.
A Clockwork Orange - One bookseller in Utah was actually arrested for selling the book, then forced to relocate his store to another city even after the charges were dropped.
The list goes on and on, including books like The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Lord of the Flies, Catch-22, Brave New World, Animal Farm, As I Lay Dying, Beloved, Invisible Man, Native Son, Slaughterhouse Five, The Jungle, Naked Lunch, The Naked and the Dead, Tropic of Cancer… Oh just go here.
It’s hard to imagine an American lit class today without those titles, right? They’ve all become so central to our literary understanding that looking back one can’t understand why they’d been called sick. And while all are important works and well constructed and important, I also can’t help but wonder if a part—even a large part—of why these books were and continue to be touted has to do with their censorship and the interest built around what could cause such a reaction, as well as the acts of preservation spurred by their suppression.
These books don’t seem dangerous now because they’ve been accepted—we have fought for them, made them ours. A thing once called profane is now a benchmark; and that’s good. It keeps us moving. It makes us aware of where we are.
So why shouldn’t we ban more stuff? How much music did the RIAA end up selling because people wanted what the cops considered bullshit? You know you never would have heard about 2 Live Crew if it weren’t for all the old ladies trying to smash it. If there’s any way weird art and fucked up text can find a glory hole into a growing young person’s brain, it’s through authority figures telling them they can’t have it. That approach works wonders compared to trying to convince anyone anything is worth their time.
I guess what I’m getting at here is that there has never been a better time to start censoring art in America. As you can see by the works listed above, the stuff we ban doesn’t even have to actually be profane—most anything could offend someone somewhere given the proper context and fuel. Make people afraid of what William Vollmann is going to say next; what damage to reality Ben Marcus has up his brain-sleeve; how hard Kelly Link is going to screw our idea of what we are. Let’s make someone scared about a sentence or a song or an image composed by someone who never leaves the house or might want to actually hurt another person. Even if it doesn’t change anything, it’d be fun to watch people burning inert objects in the streets again, screaming about God.
Previously by Blake Butler: Suck on the Monolith