I have no idea whether Sherry Jone’s novel The Jewel of Medina originally deserved to be published, and I’m not quick off the bat to scold Random House, the publisher which decided at the last minute to not publish the novel after they were warned that it may cause offence to Muslims. Publishing is a subjective business, where risk, merit, and commercial promise must be weighed up – for every book a publisher chooses to go ahead with, there are presumably a whole range of books that they choose not to.
The name-calling and chest-beating about censorship and freedom of speech that followed seemed, at least prior to the firebombing of the home of publisher Martin Rynja, to be as misplaced as the prospective ‘outrage’ of ‘muslims’. Stanley Fish had a point when he said:
“what Random House did was not censorship. (Some other press is perfectly free to publish Jones’s book, and one probably will.) It may have been cowardly or alarmist, or it may have been good business, or it may have been an attempt to avoid trouble that ended up buying trouble. But whatever it was, it doesn’t rise to the level of constitutional or philosophical concern.”
The firebombing of Rynja’s house does, though, change the position. I, like many others, now feel obliged to staunchly defend a novel that by all accounts (apart from Irshad Manji – hardly a literary critic) is a tacky historical-drama bodice ripper. I’ll take to the barricades to defend Sherry Jones’ right to publish and sell the novel – with the proviso that nobody forces me to read the thing.
Jones’s novel, seems, from this distance, to have incredibly slight shoulders to carry the weight of any serious philosophical debate over freedom of expression. Does it have the power or literary depth to make either those who support its right to be published, or those who would like to see it pulped change their minds or positions? With all due respect to Ms Jones, I’ve a suspicion that the novel is simply a flag of convenience for both those – like myself – who believe that writers should be free to write about whatever and whosoever they choose, and those who believe that there are taboo subjects that should be protected from artistic examination. The Jewel of Medina will quickly be superceded by whatever the next book/cartoon/record etc that’s deemed too provocative by some shady self-elected group of moral guardians.
A far more interesting, and problematic case of literature and censorship is that of George Steiner’s The Portage to San Cristobel of A.H.. Interesting and problematic because the censorship involved was/is real, partial, and self-imposed by the author.
The novel imagines a world where a mossad team, after years of false leads and tantalising glimpses, manages to track down Adolf Hitler. They capture him in the wilds of South America, and are forced to set up an impromptu trial when it becomes clear that neither they, nor he, have the strength required to make it back to the rendevouz point at San Cristobal.
The novel’s key discussion point is a lengthy defence speech given to the trial by Hitler – a speech that is rich in argument, philosophy, and rhetoric, and as a result deeply troubling for many readers. More troubling still is the fact that the novel ends abruptly after this speech, with no chance for rebuttal, When the novel was staged as a play in London (with crowds of protesters outside), the audience’s enthusiastic applause was subject to scrutiny, with the fear that it may have been an applause for Hitler (Steiner)’s arguments rather than for the artistic work or theatrical execution.
Steiner’s book forces us to approach the censorship debate from a radically different angle. From the serious literary intent of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, through to the films of Theo Van Gogh, the Danish cartoons, and latterly Ms Jones’s book, the frame of reference when discussing censorship has, in recent years, almost exclusively centred on the right to offend/be offended. Which, in itself, for a liberal democracy, is an easy one to resolve. If you don’t like a book, don’t read it. Steiner’s book, though, frames the discussion on the power of words, and the power of rhetoric.
The central problem posed by The Portage of A.H to San Cristobal is not that the reader may be offended, but rather that the reader may be soothed, thrilled, and misguided by the arguments of a hate-mongering mass murderer.
In the novel, when the team report to their distant commander that they have captured A.H, he gives them instructions by radio:
“LIsten to me. You must not let him speak, or only few words. To say his needs, to say that which will keep him alive. But no more. Gag him if necessary, or stop your ears as did the sailor. If he is allowed speech he will trick you and escape. Or find easy death. His tongue is like no other. It is the tongue of the basilisk, a hundred-forked and quick as flame. As it is written in the learned Nathaniel of Mainz: there shall come upon the earth in the time of night a man surpassing eloquent. All that is God’s, hallowed be his name, must have its counterpart, its backside of evil and negation. So it is with the Word, with the gift of speech that is the glory of man and distinguishes him everlastingly from the silence or animal noises of creation. When He made the Word, God made possible also its contrary. Silence is not the contrary of the Word but its guardian. No, he created on the night side of language a speech for hell. Whose words mean hatred and vomit of life. Few men can learn that speech or speak it for long. It burns their mouths. It draws them into death. But there shall come a man whose mouth shall be as a furnace and whose tongue as a sword laying waste. He will know the grammar of helland teach it to others. He will know the sounds of madness and loathing and make them seem music. Where God said, let there be, he will unsay. “
The speech refers to the power of the spoken word, but the argument seems valid for the written word as well, at least to Steiner who for many years has forbidden the translation of the novel into either Hebrew or German. In Ron Rosenbaum’s excellent Explaining Hitler*, Steiner explains the motivation for the partial censorship he has imposed:
“The moment I finished it,” Steiner told me, “I pledged to myself that neither in Hebrew nor in German would I allow it to be translated. I’m not going to have the Germans hear that [Hitler’s speech] in their own language”.
“It is antimatter. He is one of the greatest masters of the language. As are [Martin] Luther’s pamphlets asking that all Jews be burned. German language has – all languages can hav it – but in the German language, Hitler drew on a kind of rhetorical power which, in a way that is perhaps a little bit peculiar to German, allies highly abstract concepts with political, physical violence in a most unusual way … and [Hitler] was easily a genius at that, absolutely no doubt about it.”[Pg 301-303, Explaining Hitler by Ron Rosenbaum
I’m not sure how much I agree with Steiner’s arguments against publishing the book in German (man has been stirred to massacre in plenty of languages), but it’s without doubt a thornier issue than the Jewel of Medina case. It’s one thing to appropriate a religious/historical figure for your drama, it’s another thing completely to attempt to reproduce a language and logic of violence, and it’s onto this ground that the debate over free speech should usefully be switched.
For what it’s worth, I think that Steiner’s novel works on his own terms. The moral centre of the novel is firmly fixed in an eloquent and moving monologue from Leiber which recounts the horror of the Shoah. In closing, it’s opportune to point out what Steiner intended, as outlined by an Afterword written by him in 1999 for a new edition of the novel:
“… A.H’s derisive claim that his was ‘small game’ compared to Stalin’s record, compared to that titanic monster who died amid sumptuous tributes and as the sometime indispensable ally of the West, may be more indecently apposite today than it was when this fiction first appeared. But when one tries to think through these unthinkable paradoxes, when barbarism mouths statistics beyond our imaginings, let alone reasoned explanations, the mind sickens and grows numb.
This, I venutre, is the point.
The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H is a parable about pain. About the abyss of pain endured by the victims of Nazism. Endured by those being ‘ethnically cleansed’ in a ravaged habitat in Amazonia. It tries to instance language, and with it the fragile chances of truth, when words are racked into rhetoric and madness. First and foremost, this fable engages the pain of rememberance, the imperative but unendurable pain of recall. It was written in pain. It will have failed if this fact is not palpable to its readers.”
*There’s another interesting literary aspect in Rosenbaum’s book, as he examines the theories that use Kafka to explain Hitler.