Beginning as a talk delivered at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, Ukraine May 17, 2017, now edited and amplified for publication in the electronic book review and the 2018 collection of ebr essays forthcoming from Bloomsbury Press.
So to begin with – even interrupt or censor myself at once – to try to pursue also what we might not agree on. Though what is that? The question is not a censor but, if instead of an active, thinking answer, it might still take us toward thoughts of censorship.
Thought threatened by censorship? Always. Not just a manic brain, however, this thought – or a democracy of powers, or the need of questioning; more a cautionary shaper, thought curiously a censorer too: this a lesser question – to hear what it sounds like. Maybe you object rightly that "censorship" is just plain bad – potentially lethal – the word pejorative. Yet as censorship in its negative will borders on criticism, it is worth a more angled look – from inside us or at us. An energy source? Us and censorship entangled. At the same time, thinking where I am; and what I’m doing here, a guest, trying to be unshielded, unfiltered.
Remembering first where I stand, a visitor glad a book of mine has just been translated into your language, a new novel in Ukrainian I would imagine. Here, in, also, an always historic Ukraine – what has happened in this country – and now again history-ridden on your eastern frontier but I mean more a once upon a time Ukraine where two edicts from the Minister of Internal Affairs of the Russian Empire in the mid-19th century prohibited the use of the Ukrainian language: first in religious publications and teacher training books and later more sweepingly in "literature." The censorship circular pretended to reduce the Ukrainian language to no more than a possibly non-existent "little Russian" created by Polish subversion and now adopted very possibly by separatists. The sweeping ban of 1876 prohibited Ukrainian in open print. I can’t speak for you. I have no experience of such a prohibition. Countless oppressions in Ukraine during the 1930s when I was growing up in Brooklyn Heights, and then World War II (famine imposed on you like a censorship if not exactly of your crops stolen from you, your use of their nourishment – which sounds like water, even a waterfall, which we use supposedly without owning) and always now borderland vigilance for a country whose name might mean "borderland" (though if as I’m told this equivalent is a partly Russian editing of the name, isn’t this adjusting a whole country, leaving "censoring" to one side? – though needing to be defined).
I know roughly where I stand. And very roughly where I am standing: a room in a university building in a neighborhood of Kiev, a city in Ukraine with a history different from mine and that of my city, New York. I say "roughly" because what I know is shot through with questions and the habit of questioning which carries in it a certainty of its need and doubts of its truth, hence criticism often to the point of canceling and deleting what I thought I would say; so what I know to say or write (writing as I speak or edited somewhat differently from how I speak on May 17) must be not only what I know but what I am learning. And holding as well the differences that come between speech and writing I try to think quite freely about censorship and from a fresh angle maybe not simply through what we agree on but questioning even it, that censorship must come from a bad place.
Even, after some curious examples, to ask uncertainly (or maybe obviously) if censorship, which we deplore and which can imprison and kill body and mind, may come also from or near our liberal and esteemed selves and be found in the roots and practice of our thought, our arts, our talents – witness the Emperor Augustus, who saw a Roman knight "transcribing his speech" at an assembly and "had him stabbed there and then," Suetonius tells us, "as taking too close an interest in the proceedings," but more to the point, Augustus the obsessive rhetorician "haunted" so "by a fear of saying … too much … if he spoke off-hand" that he wrote things down before he would risk saying them even to his wife1Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Penguin, 1989 pp. 68, 100.; so if a limiting of subject for intensified clarity and power, may censorship work as a forming, a kind or impulse of form? No, I am not seeing art as inherently propaganda; just to ask where censorship marked by often false and speechifying arts may come from – like other questions we ask that we are told (and by all manner of censorers) don’t need to be asked. We understand Wittgenstein’s request, more than a request, that a student at one of his quite private lectures to a select group in the late 1930s "stop making notes" of "‘spontaneous remarks [that] some day someone may publish … as my considered opinions." Prima facie censorship? The request was not obeyed. Wittgenstein’s further words on this occasion suggest more clearly yet somewhat ambiguously the freedoms entailed: "‘…I am talking now freely as my ideas come, but all this will need a lot more thought and better expression.’" 2Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, New York: The Free Press, Macmillan, 1990, p. 403.
Here for you (to you and to be answered) a talk more than a speech. Though about speech: the pressures on it, out loud or written down, made public; what can happen. Who or what is to stop me? (What must I leave out?) And about inner speech not written down. Though with the potential to be. This and all the rest I find myself navigating today as I visit you – all this in my, if you like, Trump-era country from one angle multiplying yet casting the shadow of subtraction, shielded from clarity or deleted like forms of censorship that turn us first to forms we study historically as censorship. But a new situation, if it is that, of questionable news, questionable but prominent word proliferating tomorrow and tomorrow (yet too often even in interviews not actual questions), I want to cut into it, slow it down and myself, or give the word to it, "censorship"; and in an onrushing era interruptible (though we must think how). How new we don’t know, to think even Socratically what censorship is: Are all lies censorship? Is euphemism?
Hazard a guess what kinds of censorship will not only prevent things from being published or even written but make up their own fictions, and then, where you may well think I’m using the wrong word, some samples of how censorship and truth overlap but then censorship and fiction. Our era seems also, or is even defined perilously by being also, invaded and flooded beyond, or possibly even instead of, the official erasure, blockage, or reduction of political realities in fact life-threatening by outside force that we associate with censorship. Degrees, I believe, of a certain lately multiplying volume and ambiguous cross-infecting of report or "word" (as in our phrase "receive word") and referencing lately amid a spread, still subtractive but newly so and exponentially beyond the folly of moods (from ridiculous to the sub-slime) witnessed in Donald Trump, of not-even-would-be information overwhelming and (I ask) possibly a mutant habit? A connecting derived through not only his but a mass narcissism possibly from not learning to think in a sometime waning but I think newly to be understood:
always among communicating if not expressly consenting Persons apparently – (can machines be censored?) – thus Forms (a Person being an opportunity for forms, not quite the emptiness Buddhists conceive, as I reach into the range of even our own intelligent erasures, withholdings, adjustings, conversational editings, corrections, our indeed creations through which in part we may find censorship clearly destructive overlapping what is art and some habitual structures of mind that are constructive.
Aware that whole societies die because finding themselves in an unfamiliar place they reason by the wrong analogy. Vikings recognizing familiar trees and landscape arriving in Norway figured the soil must be just like their own. Or metaphor we may call it – where climate science in some quarters in my country is seen as mere flash-flood propaganda designed, I hear, as a globalist take-down of U.S workers. While I try to gather sense around censorship – which is not quite the same as lies – to shape what seem closer and larger meanings for it; if not always new, this word, this idea "censorship" less easy to figure suddenly in an emergency world forecast half a century ago by Isaiah Berlin, marked less by "the struggle of one set of ideas against another than the mounting wave of hostility to all [real] ideas" as inherently destabilizing.3Isaiah Berlin,"Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century," Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford, OUP, 1969, p. 28. Censorship on my mind afresh, amid the Know-Nothingism (called Populism – as if it really were "people-ism") of the current Trump distraction, as I recall the strenuous, abstract arguments for a slave-labor- sustained economy in his pre–Civil War South by John Calhoun in the 1840s – and I feel caught, "navigating" and "flooded," in other work, a non-fiction book on water in mind in fact, in three or four places at once, compartmenting we say or its opposite, if I let water’s properties reach as they can.
In eastern Europe censorships still ready where the money is; a now less absolute but still shadowing ethos in Stalin’s own proactively engineered term for creative artists mere "engineers of human souls." Tyrannies too near we know, across your upper borders or down across the Black Sea, and in the Middle East and Africa and of words and actions, as if actions speak, though they may need words; but in the societies of the mind today and where I think I come from, and intelligent American resistance to the Trump promises, also confusions of semantically emotional scale tipping out of control while still we think questions neighbored sometimes today by shout-downs or violence. I myself am not about to be arrested or my writing burnt. But I belong to others, don’t I? How do I? Does that censor me? – make me their censor? Reporting to whom? Quickly leaving what out? If, in the welter of examples, we leave out telepathy, what about mute intuition?
Quickly what we knew yesterday, maybe not now: the Thailand government, whose censorship is curiously decentralized and seems not readily enforced, kicks up a fuss and Facebook quietly agrees to help censor posts; this, on what’s called a case-by-case basis, in fact blocking some 600 local pages, though has Facebook any need to do this? Thai history itself in an atrophied state we must come back to, if there’s time. A possibly more significant emergency than Egypt and Saudi Arabia demanding Al Jazeera broadcasting be shut down or else, there are bodies where Turkish President Erdogan scenting censure from Wikipedia bans it – having already banned 190 news orgs and as of this afternoon (May 17) blocked 127,000 websites; and, if we speak of bodies yet also the power and elusiveness of words, Turkey jailed 120 journalists. Each instance is an interruption, a population, a dozen documentaries asking to be shot, children damaged, specifics to sort but no time, issues masked such as youth unemployment, staff members of the newspaper Cumhuriyet in effect disappeared. (Distinguished independent Cumhuriyet at 93 “nearly as old as the republic itself.”) 4New York Times, July 29, 2017, p. A9 Basic rule for journalists—don't become the story. In Turkey editors and writers have become a symbol of resistance.
Trying to go slow and organize by differences, I stick to your neighbor Turkey for a moment with a second example: Authorities (you catch the shorthand label) in Istanbul confiscated two thousand books and detained the editor at the offices of the publisher, Belge Yayinlari, whose founder has been tried for decades for propaganda crimes and affiliation with human rights and terrorist, allegedly, organizations. It’s a killer, almost, a claim to read minds we see more of all the time. In crisis we witness what we can, which seems to mean first we must list informations, 1, 2, 3, no more than "the facts"; yet, How to think? The facts of that challenge also facts and not to be assumed unspoken. I find myself imagining Mr. Yayinlari’s Experience as a thing. Also in Turkey Amnesty International workers training are detained soon after the AI chairman there, Taner Kiliç, was arrested, charged with links to Fethullah Gülen, who’s accused of plotting the failed coup on 15 July last year. (This at present worst offender against journalists joined in a quick, frustrated parenthesis, implicitly also not excluding solitary confinements, by the other five that the PEN Freedom to Write Committee currently singles out: Eritrea, Iran, China, Russia [two journalists’ deaths long "unsolved"], and Mexico, where a writer fleeing murderers who disagree with his views – his life! – has been jailed just shy of the U.S. border.)
A fourth event for us to distinguish among these many "familiar" interventions the particular differences of effect or power function if we can (but must): a journalist charged with sending out coded subliminal messages to coup plotters in a television talk show July 14 last year argues he was put on trial for a crime which did not exist. Such messages even at a psychic level probably exist but how to sift from them the vagaries of lies like meaningless meanings. The Trump two months ago says he never heard of Wikileaks even though he criticized it in 2010. Who can you find on the street to talk to about that small matter? Will a novel about lies do it any more? Say something. Then something that follows from it.
Like sleep deprivation in torture, always interruptions inflicted on the "detained" (the euphemism a censorship word, as "censorship" isn’t an explicit dictatorship word) more like our own distractibility as if we’re also being told, hey, we don’t need to keep up. Except with our own quiet argument it itself tells almost without language in us: interrupted by daily zigzags of news engineered by an incorporated habit not to be traced to particular agency, is that it? – you may imagine you need to process at that speed: “The silence was just astonishing,” Robert Cox, the editor of the former English-language newspaper, The Buenos Aires Herald, recalls of the dictatorship in the 1970s when he continued to expose forced disappearances and quickly concluded “that publishing any information as quickly as possible was the best way to save lives.” 5New York Times, Aug. 28, 2017, p. A8
Item (in the current of the flood of forces at us): the new Chair of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a lawyer named Ajit Pai, is trying to kill net neutrality with a plan that would undo the enforceable rules put in place in 2015 that protect the open Internet. Without net neutrality, monopoly Internet service providers such as Comcast and Verizon will be able to start – but it feels as if they are already - interfering with our ability as Internet users to control where we go and what we do online. Though a right to do anything?
Pai himself recently a Verizon lawyer so he knows the territory. (Verizon—"verity,""horizon"—the words know each other, can Augustine have been right about our inescapable beginnings, already corrupt in the egg, in the genes as if in the beginning was the protoWord? What censorship may it be that asks me to study that?)
Power’s need to ax adverse influence simple to see though perhaps inherently abstracted from a concrete plan, as torture we now know will often go it alone slipping off from its first purpose which was to obtain information from the victim. Not simple to plot, the emergencies for mind itself both from the only so-called Trump Era’s distraction as censorship and perhaps habits of mind, I want to see afresh, still common to the traditions of censorship.
This past Thursday night (May 11) at a moment when we are reminded that the subtractions of censorship (leaving things out, prohibiting their being heard) may work their force by adding adding adding to what we must process, President Trump warned former FBI director Comey that he had better hope there were no tapes during his meetings with Comey.
To forestall Comey testifying? Censor in advance? – like the 17th century licensing act the poet John Milton wrote a great prose work against? (Areopagitica divides my attention for a moment, as politics may have divided Milton’s in the 1640s; though more than a parenthesis, if I can make time presently to revisit him.) Comey only too glad there might be tapes! But this was the President talking. No cunning like that of ignorance and incompetence.
I interrupt myself as if there is one Censorship question or what may be a new uncontrolled Multiply-by-misleading Censorship dissolving itself in mere incompetence: Navy’s aircraft carrier Vinson, which way was it going? Did Trump know? Someone did. Deliberate confusion effects; shifts of policy possibly, but not certainly shifts of program. The uncertainty of allies and other governments isn’t the same as uncertainties among thinking citizens here and the hourly, TV-enhanced entertainment effect Trump seems to project: the result a participation of the populace not without opinions constantly voiced but with a base-line passivity: which is one aim of autocratic power, not the only power, as so many of us know.
Emergencies for mind as well as nation, as for the planet so far from us often it has been taken from us that we’re still standing on. Climate warming denied; opinions enforced by force. But now (yet not only now) where information might become a minefield of course – its map mislaid, corrections ongoing somewhere. Navigating – in some sense literally navigating – I think minefields, I can think of my novel Cannonball freshly translated in Ukrainian, why I’m here in Kiev, the various fictions of which its stories of concrete things and family (where much doesn’t get said) and far away yet always in the same prose a misguided Iraq war (my drift, my truth, my angle) are built; as also, yes, with gathering risk its science and competition of swimming and springboard diving (above and delaying and needing and slipping into the essentially penetrable but displaceable water), and literally the practice of writing; and poetry and, too, this book new now in your language – indeed, other; as, in my non-fiction book about Water now nearly done (we never can stop thinking, "just in time" or even "too late," I’m navigating debatable climates layered with water’s phases, for example, emergency properties possibly shared with water, yes, which I argue are together of some reciprocal mind as well – and American necessarily global); and remembering "climate of opinion," Joseph Glanvill’s 17th-century coinage, in the plural, multiplying the metaphor as metaphor talks big but inherently guards against ("climates," meaning for him then irrational rationalizations to believe what we haven’t thought through). The climate warming Trump credits still ancienter China with thinking up.
In that vast place of places censorships quite subtly unsubtle or exhausting, today the artist Ai Weiwei finds a disease in the everyday unquestioning around him (if, granted, resistance in his enormous country as well), the passivity he points to felt, even muted, as a killing field.6"Remarks on Erasure," trans. Perry Link, in Rules for Resistance: Advice from Around the World for the Age of Trump, ed. David Cole and Melanie Wachtell Stinnett, New York: New Press, pp. 97-102. Extravagant, the censorships under Mao, for instance, if we revisit the epic swimmer and self-satisfied national poem writer, who in 1957 reversed his previous encouragement of the intricate technical analysis of the Three Gates Gorge dam being built across the Yellow River and more than silenced the criticism, indeed removed and for many years dispersed the family and destroyed the career of the engineer Huang Wanli. He had argued that this grand project would never succeed without the laborious, drab work of attacking erosion and silt upstream.
What happens when you speak the truth your boss has sought from you (my words here statement and question). Yet where else then but from a model of materialist Communism would a retort to Huang’s responsible science appear and not so much from Tao as from worship of the hero: when a sage appears the river will run clear must mean, at best ironically, to a writer like Bill McKibben that action is taken to remove the pollution. While at our remove we note, as if it were somehow the planet, the removal of peoples from farms and villages, seldom believing in the great energy futures they would never see, while propaganda as displacement of sense – thus a clear form of censorship – must work through telling the Chinese population what it wants to hear, where what might be true might serve.
Even so, if we are really free – as Buddhism sometimes can tell us free but for interior voices that deny us and intervene – free, yes, all of us as, rather, philosophers to question our way through a now life-defying culture hysterically if willfully infected with contagions of perpetrated untruth, we can also, like storytellers, like novelists, artists, fellow travelers, solitaries and communicants hoping against hope, study grounds in fiction, in other arts like science – in mind, in our strengths.
Not just imposed by governments? Not so external?
Where censorings may be found in us; if obviously different yet phenomenally originating. Someone close to me disparaging my first novel, A Smuggler’s Bible (1966), saying only, "There are things that shouldn’t be in this book."
Isaac Babel’s grandmother we believe told him, "You must know everything." And he seemed to, and was that why he was silenced? "Killed" more than "silenced." Though definitely killed, so far as we know, in prison. What was he saying that Stalin could not abide? What could not be said, you sometimes feel, he said. Yet he didn’t attack the State or expose its secrets. His story “My First Goose” did not glorify the mopping up in Poland yet, to a company of Cossack soldiers, the Babel character speaks not disrespectfully of Lenin, though bemused by his own A-student mastery of the dialectic. I have surprised my uncertainty with perhaps elements of Stalin’s disapproval built ironically into Babel’s story telling and the open secrets of those who oppress us in everyday life. But we will revisit Babel, I hope, and ultimately a work gathering into its eerie and matchless participation in the very virus that it stands apart from: Mandelstam’s Stalin Ode – which we are coming to.
Addition subtracts as well: Now Trump -- this “kleptocratic governing” 7David Leonhardt, New York Times, July 25, 2017, p. A23 -- this glut adding to what besets us until we cannot see clearly: what then? the glut is not an everything – the everything that Babel’s grandmother tells him he must know, must know as a Jew who is prevented by quotas from getting into a school unless he is the smartest. Not that everything, but an inchoate everything of conflicting claims and lies, an everything that becomes another subtraction. So we must slow down and think with less evidence perhaps…
For me, though, to arrive at minefields implied often here as other forms of censorship within which possibly we, or, as I struggle to believe, all of us in some inventive fashion potential artists work (with not only Nietzsche and Freud on our dreamwork in mind, the former believing we waste our genius there, the latter a doctor to correct us or physicist to plot forces hiding one another to displace in us both pleasure and disaster). Though you may object that these forms aren’t what we mean by censorship. It is his own work that Tolstoy blue-pencils – condemns – at two in the morning, censoring his own fundamental sentences, not somebody else’s. Though serving what social philosophy? Violating what so-called creative impulse in favor of cutting, rejecting – yes, so easy to discount as uncreative when it is care and judgment to one side of rapture and inspiration. Henry James constantly qualifying what he has just observed refines, surely, as the reader follows this model of what it is to be alive.
The censor will be glad our thoughts are scattered. Some memory quite cheap for a fiction of mine not yet written down. Almost irrelevant it seems now even to the most awful forms of it my early adolescent thrill to the secret dramas of censorship. World War II letters home from Navy sailors edited because a ship’s position or destination might be guessed. What I heard about, what I read of – yet the blacked-out lines I see are from a Saturday movie, the whole screen close-up an angled sheet of paper: the story hardly at that time putting me in a berthing compartment of that battleship (as later of my Coast Guard weather ship at the time of the Korean War) or weighing the subtraction of those indiscreet words on the 1942 sailor’s letter home. That "war-effort" memory now replaced for me by a hundred peacetime censorings familial and with blatantly subtle force, which I postpone – which is constructive editing (if you want to adjust the terminology) but my own censoring of the moment.
Constructive even in shadows that its shapes and signs cast – do I blur our theme? Looking ahead a moment, for your sake as listeners to this, imagine this proper talk in three parts, censorships we are living through or near, as if I were writing like this (quickly, if we can), and shouldn’t I have started with
First, what we think we mean by censorship, or about which we suppose we agree: official acts enforced by police prohibiting the printed word or publicly (even privately) heard voice considered offensive to a power and apparently its incuriously general policy for its own predatory survival – convicted of offense, the punishment first making word, voice, and other actions and evidences … unavailable. The adjective creeps in like euphemism too subtle for Part 1 and in New York we know the supposedly metaphorical yet decisive term in the newspaper or magazine business, "killing" a story, which may or may not be worth calling censorship on an afternoon in Kiev.
But Second, in an autocratic society (or theocracy, or ceremonial kingdom – though supposedly not yet in the Trump kleptocracy), the everyday How of censorship, its daily undramatic effects – is it here in Kiev? the feeling, anyway. (I don’t know, but wonder. You have commonly two languages, each rich and spoken, Ukrainian and Russian.) How censorship touches each citizen proxy-mate and not just in events like others’ arrests, perhaps there are none or none for a while, but in a muting effect, subtle layers, wide, coincident with inertia, subtractive. The Facebook push by the Thai government is actually against one of the government’s targets Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a historian who’s in exile. The focus on history there recently – a problem not entirely unlike what Mormon historians faced with a disquieting lack of evidence for what their holy book says happened; but at this point it’s basically impossible for anyone inside Thailand to do any real work (and there aren’t any primary documents outside the country).
While Third, now wildly plural – which brings us in my country, the administration currently in power certainly – lying, multiplying, derivative (the word will touch capital’s contagion presently), spreading without overtly meaning to conceal or prohibit or blot out (in Trump maybe merely an eruption parallel to entertainment, we may trust) – yet including, bearing curiously in it though not constituting it this other presence and problem I pose myself: the at best freeing mechanisms of argument, our art and creative invention – and contrary will – that may narrow value and its courage in their critical, here human but strange traction, and thus also censor: thus, this third branch of censorship, the multiplying; while also a kinship with creation itself and what I am trying to mean by censorship as alive in us a selective or judging or, yes, editing, even threshold of form itself.
Which reminds me standing in front of you what it is to mean something, to follow up on it, to be able to. Censorship not only destructive but a question. My thought in a sentence or two or three is my value; erasing it will not be erasing me necessarily, which is one of so many narratives sometimes seemingly contradictory built into the practice or impulse of censorship. What is taken out – kept out of a book or a statement may become unsaid – censored in that sense. Yet what is implicit or left inexplicit, thus unsaid, proves one potential leverage of a narrative, in fact what draws the reader on, to be thrown about in the belly of the beast or manipulated by the sentences juxtaposed. "Killer," the pop adjective for "excellent" years ago.
Interrupted thus by good sense, I turn back to Part 1: for censorship in its commonest meaning will enlarge or extend itself beyond the banned words to the user of them, or supposed source – the voice, the person, the family or place (though not the same as the particular words) – and may (even in the sense of permission [self-accorded]) peremptorily remove ("do away with") that person’s life even if it is only an uncertain future source of supposed offense. (Out of "earshot" – the term strikes me literally – out of sight, out of mind maybe, gone.) A population, say, half-unknown of persons just across your borders maybe to be gone, the scope expands like a thought or resting upon absence.
For the moment by contrast bloodless, subtraction multiplies when Trump’s new Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt (maybe his single most devastating appointment) removes from the EPA website not only long-standing information on greenhouse gas emissions and climate science (which Trump has attributed to China), but also people in the form of five scientists from its advisory panel. Our word "form" can see also bodies like their thoughts become evicted abstractions even subliminal. Censorship, counting on lack of experience (but with what?), turns us up byways and alleys yet despite itself challenges us to see small chinks of pattern. Sea-level rise a threat to Florida, Trump pulling us out of the Paris climate agreement reportedly nudges Gov. Scott to ban state employees from using the term "climate change."
Water’s elusiveness for those who know turns invisible for those who want not to know, which I see was (and is) a censorship of imagery but in the form of words that brought me to a long-in-motion Water Book project that, always with the quantities of politics and potential qualities of the polis, climactically bears upon art and therefore fiction, perhaps blurring perhaps denying clear lines between.8In 2004, McElroy published in ebr a chapter from this book in progress, and nearing completion at the present (5 February 2018) Does even a narrow censoring policy give water a form that can make it disappear as an emergency even while the 18th-century Japanese senryu, a hint droll yet more a valuing, advises us, "If it could be wrapped / Water would make a fine / Present from Kyoto."?
Absence turns over the rock of my Part 2 to find beneath it in an everywhere, among too much else, what people are: so the quieter day-to-day of censorship, not absurdist, theatrical, or random like Trump (if we separate him from the power that will annihilate many working people who supported him), emerges in loitering movements, effect becoming cause – optic nerve phenomena seemingly reciprocal between eye and brain yet perhaps not – no less prohibition but a less overt ban, yet against publish, speak, write, think, see – so the censorship can be interior, secretly disturbed, as gripping as more constructive experiences just as it may drive toward the seeming opposite of complex.
As censorship commonly must to disguise instinctively its intestinally wrapped logic. Precisely what Ai Weiwei witnesses being destroyed in the lives of his countrymen who, speaking or even reading, thus have reeducated themselves not to think critically, much less "speak out," no, speak; who … who manage somehow. (From another country but kin: can I put it here? – Mandelstam’s "We live, not feeling the country beneath us, / Our speech inaudible ten steps away, / …. "9Osip Mandelstam, trans. Albert C. Todd, in 20th Century Russian Poetry. Silver and Steel, ed. Todd and Max Hayward, New York: Doubleday, 1993, p. 106. The policy from above inherently ever "hostile to disinterested curiosity (which might end anywhere)" while the "anywhere" sometimes seems to have been reduced to what were once in dialectical conflict but now often "indistinguishable" – that "dreaded … freedom of choice" Dostoevsky imagines relinquished in the Grand Inquisitor chapter, and the "hard facts" acquired by "free scientific inquiry…" once acceptable because it "generates no independent ends" for life.10Berlin, op. cit., pp. 28, 33-4.
Drawn back by some minor thoroughness, I keep finding examples for Part 1 censorship. Really at random – which is what? What I read yesterday or the day before or recall I think from a year ago: an article totally censored (if there can be such a thing) because, we’re told, it criticizes the Pakistani army, and I read from a point of view probably my own (though off India TV), "In an unabashed move that proves Pakistan’s insecurity in dealing with dissent, a newspaper critique of the Pakistan Army in the local edition of the reputed New York Times was censored and replaced with a blank space."
What happened to our 1,2, 3 list? Was this itself from us a censoring to take away the case-by-case truth lest it prove overwhelming? Which is worse? – to erase with a succession of real life events out of our control or a reduction to 1, 2, 3? – a form of thought intervening; yet no, not censoring, I try to understand, my hand on a real stack of books at the same time.
Burnt so they vanish, burnt by readers for what might be in them – yet books exert a presence as objects handheld, thus remarkably burnt maybe also for their weight. And especially now, when they seem, for certain millions of readers, to exist screened from the near-nowhere of cyberspace. And book-making (not in the American sense of betting on the races) has returned to the arts; and artists where I come from are making single books that remind us of what is also singular about a book. Though to be written about too:
by Ai Weiwei, "Remarks on Erasure", a censorship essay just published (perhaps, I thought, to help promote a group installation in New York) – which I suppose bridges Part 1 and Part 2 I still bear in mind for this Talk; though if his name, as he complains, is removed from major exhibitions in Beijing and Shanghai, still his work is shown. What has been censored? Something crude or delicate to define, since the work is there to be seen. His identity, he means, and says; yet for the public.
What operations of free mind are here opened to our questions if we are philosophers or care? The work is what matters. (Forget the bio.) Yet the name on the wall perhaps more the work than stuff about him. The fantasy life of a reader – Proust so good on this – Marcel imagining himself the hero of the book. And of that particular writer’s. Thus the viewer, not finding the artist’s name, might not link the installation with that burly, lucky genius Ai Weiwei we know of.
In a book you may know, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, someone says you read a book you like, you think you can walk on water; when you want to imagine how to dismiss the power of the written word, what a stroke of imagination – or is it a blunt instrument ? – to make a key character a fireman who burns the word. Yet the erasing seems to stir into some life ideas that perhaps can’t be burnt. In the absence of the printed word, to say nothing of a bound tome, and despite the suppression of speech, ideas can retain their potentially distinct life; while it is possible selectively for memories to escape erasure. Samuel Johnson in 18th-century England observes that the mind is not engaged without memory, for we have to think about something. (Or do we?) So we would have to destroy the people who are possessed by the ideas. For ideas a physical locus in the brain has even been argued communicable as a ground or beamer of function and the psychic movements that are a kind of cellular tissue for Culture, framed and discretely identified by the neurobiologist Richard Dawkins. Thus his notion of memes, still controversial and hard to demonstrate, yet nearly old-hat popular parlance by now, having benignly slipped into our languages – our parlance. Flickering into my own writing a generation ago memes may suggest that ideas spread, if not perfectly silently, from brain to brain. A novel of mine, Plus, imagines but actually shows a brain in space orbit shorn of its body growing it seems a new one.
A question always and now, that maybe I should have begun with what would it be like to write under police surveillance? Of content, one would think this means. Yet in our experience or at least shared history at a distance, maybe surveillance more searching. We know from Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope about her life with her husband the poet Osip Mandelstam and the Stalin purges of the 1930s. A book so much more than about the purges and the dread and everyday inconveniences, as a good book has more than one subject (though is not about everything) – about her and her experienced voice, about writing and the neighborhood of danger constant and indeterminately communal, about art – but words – about and against suicide (Nadezhda’s first name means "hope"):
Two things perhaps obvious in the book (only two?) come to mind my first afternoon in Kiev, shallow of me perhaps: first, apartments broken into by the police, where you live is where the evidence is; writing things down a risk may form survival habits indeed of doing without the printed word: memorize. I recall for my own purposes from Mandelstam’s memorial poem for Andrey Bely (Nabokov’s great admiration), "Between you and the country a link of ice is forming, / so lie there and grow young, and never melt / …"11The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, trans. Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin, New York: NYRB, 2004, p. 71. Memorizing practiced by Mandelstam; still more, Akhmatova. Banned since 1922, she memorized her poems and burned the manuscripts in 1949 I learn from my favorite free-swinging Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky when her son was arrested by Stalin for the third time?12Viktor Shklovsky: A Reader, ed. & trans. Alexandra Berlina, New York: Bloomsbury, 2017, pp. 146-7 & footnote.
These writers and later (I’m no authority on this [or on my own courage], but I recall what I recall) the poet Irina Ratushinskaya, imprisoned in 1983 at 29 for anti-Soviet propaganda, "they can’t confiscate your brain," she said later, having scratched her prison poems on bars of soap with burnt matchsticks then memorized them, washed her hands and "[sent them] down the drain" 13Quoted by Sam Roberts, obituary New York Times, July 15, 2017, p. D8. – how natural a new, and not new, "work" of oral poetry! Though there, too, as, chez Mandelstam, not to be overheard reciting by the wrong person, a visitor, a neighbor. Earlier, "To A.A.A. (Akhmatova)": "Preserve my speech forever for its taste of sadness and smoke, For its resin of mutual forbearance, for its tar of conscience and work."14Trans. Bernard Meares, in Todd and Hayward, op. cit., p. 102. The famous controversial Stalin Ode Mandelstam would not hide. I see I should come back to it, it belongs here somewhere.
I recall my colleague Galway Kinnell in public reciting rather than reading because he felt like it or for the old reason of showing his love for his work and in a spirit the obverse of artifice all but pretending it came out unedited like waves breaking on the beach, the sound of the Beowulf verse line by line recited to illiterate sophisticates twelve hundred years ago. How much can you remember? Censorship even pictures you running out of time. Maybe you remember poems. Of course you do, even if you doubt it. But memorizing to save them and yourself goes beyond doubt. Think how particular words reach out or shiver.
Disappearance in Chile where I was traveling last month (April 2017) – an astonishing collection of Pinochet photographs in one museum devoted to them – we recall the new grammatical form of "disappear" that I believe emerged from that period: "disappear" this time transitive – the grammar twists my heart toward distance it resists, to disappear someone – the compression, new meaning of meaning itself. Nadezhda Mandelstam went through that when Osip was taken away. Family did not know one way or the other. Censoring designed to crush.
It goes on. Compared to other "sites," revisiting Thailand now is like a vacation maybe: in the Thai model of decentralized (even covertly unenforceable) censorship there’s not really a central list of works that’s prohibited, or so I learn via apparently free e-mail from my correspondent Dan Visel in Bangkok; instead, booksellers (and now internet providers) are expected to avoid things that could get them in trouble (being hit with a defamation lawsuit would put a company out of business). A biography of the late king, I’ve just learned, came out from Yale ten years ago; not for sale anywhere in Thailand (though bookstores in airports in Cambodia are more than happy to sell you a copy), it’s not officially banned. I don’t think anyone in Thailand has ever tried to sell it; the author (a reporter for the Wall Street Journal) is we guess not going to be allowed back in. But this government that easily takes offense can claim it’s not censoring anybody, it’s only that the merchants are "choosing" not to sell them and that it’s just the market at work. Biography in fact.
What has this to do with fiction? Little or nothing in my society unless we view publishers’ tastes and policies as favoring less philosophical or complexly imaginative writing called "difficult," though the difficulty is seldom identified. (Thinking itself?) Where such matters are shrouded in euphemism or a worse silence, Henry James’s standard or model or ideal, to be someone on whom nothing is lost, may translate into skepticism about what cannot be known. The lesson in James is partly that what needs to be understood would be lost because of the codes and social phrasings and evasions of his fascinating arena. An Austrian writer and therapist who came to a reading of mine in Santa Barbara told me that children must learn very early to believe absolutely nothing that grownups say. Thus a reverse censorship? More intricate still, a choice one of the émigré (though later returned, though not finally returned) journalist Masha Gessen’s Russian grandmothers made to be a censor robotically deleting lines from international mail rather than “[become] a history teacher in the Soviet Union [which] would require her to lie to children every day.” 15 New York Review of Books, Feb. 8, 2018, p. 4 – an essay, “To Be, or Not to Be,” developed from a talk Gessen gave Dec. 18, 2017 What do we make of a particular limited censorship of an Israeli novelist Dorit Rabinyan’s recent book, All the Rivers. Banned in high schools by Prime Minister Netanyahu, this rather obvious treatment of a love affair between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian is already being boycotted by young educated readers on the political right who don’t want to expose themselves to it – self-censorship as a way of avoiding contamination. The novel has sold 300,000 copies worldwide and will do pretty well in the United States. I remember how even reading a little of that profound fiction writer Marx’s Kapital was viewed by the grownups I grew up with (mostly never more than a little). But the book was there.
Ai Weiwei speaks out against the forcible erasure of his name beside his work, thus censoring his work, he believes. He stresses more subtle and awful things, how censorship works on the populations around him. Do I recognize this in my society or am I looking at a traditional reserve or screened politeness we suppose we perceive in Chinese custom? A society that is "saturated with pretence" created by a censorship system denying free information or "platforms for … public opinion" and sustained by the "self-censorship" of a servile majority, Ai Weiwei is alive to. It distorts judgments and group behavior toward violence, "rationality itself begins to slip away." What becomes of education? It might be the central question where I come from.
My list grows of things to look into later (but citizenship is now, though maybe not private, freely occluded from others):
Report from Just Yorkshire cites interviews with Muslim students and academics, their fears of repression by a university anti-radicalisation program. Violence and lies (Solzhenitsyn);
150-word statement against monopolies by some of the world's leading antitrust researchers and advocates praising a European Union antitrust ruling against Google moves Google to threaten to cut off funding for the whole organization in which they worked. Staff already fired.
Cambridge University Press agrees to censor 300 articles in China Quarterly on issues like Tiananmen, Tibet, the Cultural Revolution; two days later reverses its position.
Given to unconscious censoring, what censoring ought we to install? Candidate Trump would never be so curious (forget educated) as to hear of Lincoln’s early book learning, profoundly limited but profound (the Bible and Shakespeare); much less even listen up about John Milton’s 1640s essay ahead of its time but quite specialized on Censorship against forcing as yet unpublished works to pass a licensing test (Don’t be afraid to expose yourself to some new book, Milton argues, though not so welcomingly as that sounds, for all the matchless persuasion). In Trump (where the "in" ’s not easy to locate) an ignorance virtually a will, or, as Will, great as his knowledge of Napoleon in Russia is poor – or the other Napoleon designing Paris – we don’t even speak (in the White House) of Haussmann.
On a deranged scale of flood and explosion, Trump every morning exaggerating with an evanescent half-life about to bar reporters from briefings (and more recently appearing to them on screen), encourages roughing up demonstrators at one of his speeches, and more than one, knowing we might like it. A form of restraint that may not silence the voice, just fell its body, one will ask (or think) how violent the demonstrators can have been and, in the style that has possibly changed the forms (or some dimension or content) of censorship in the past few years, how suddenly epidemic in space and physical damage might a "given" demonstration become?
In the 1960s I knew a cartoonist in London. "Vicky," a Hungarian-English artist I will say, Victor Weisz, born in Berlin, his work every week – it seemed every day – acerb, astonishing and astonished, making it up, fertile and dark from the point of view of The Little Man, with dark eyebrows and hair who looked like Vicky, his fictions for Evening Standard, Mirror, News Chronicle, other papers full of truth – about Us if we saw ourselves there in his private polis. He incidentally with his inimitable Harold Macmillan unexpectedly boosted the Tory Prime Minister’s popularity. It was a time of public speeches attacking immigrants in Notting Hill Gate, elsewhere. Vicky told me he was not so sure about letting certain elements speak freely because of their racist bigotry and its potential. He meant he was sure – i.e., it was a bad idea. I was surprised, an American in my thirties; and then I wasn’t. When had I ever been a member of a targeted group? Or only because of where I lived.
Vicky a Jew, a peacemaker – in his jolting cartoons no fool; a rational, melancholy, brilliant, and quiet genius. Inside himself his profound humor no less than tragic. What he said made me think. And today reading the alt-right messaging platform Gab’s "The only valid form of censorship is an individual’s own choice to opt-out," I know this supports a "digital netherworld [that’s] also a haven for hate speech."16Seyward Darby, “The Rise of the Valkyries,” Harper’s, Sept. 2017, p.27. Why was I not surprised at Vicky’s suicide in 1966? Shocked but not surprised. What made him do that? External messages. Something like Primo Levi’s memories of the 20th century? More like some mysterious self-censorings in the man, it occurred presumptuously to me. Cancellings or relentings. Not the anxiety which Kierkegaard called "the dizziness of freedom."
We say "free speech." In Germany you can’t incite to hatred. In the U.S., on the other hand, even vile attacks on protected characteristics such as gender or race are Constitutionally protected. Thinking about censorship forces uneasy distinctions (as censorship itself is about thinking, and thinking is common and communal and about the work of citizenship, which makes it difficult, my commonplace mind runs on). We learn that Facebook (what a bizarrely apt name for this media giant!) will delete 66,000 examples of hate speech each week, the erasures nonetheless bearing still very audible dialectics of definition and consequence, questions not so easily answered; is it necessary that we not hear hate speech? Censor in me debates me.
Milton’s Areopagitica against the licensing act so thrillingly stages the moral life – "Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?" – that we may overlook what happens to a book at the time of the Cromwell Parliament in the 1640s, after it has been licensed and then judged not "good."
If there are losers – not in Trump’s senses – it will not be without the conflict which for a person, for mind and character, must be constant – as the "need of questioning" is seen by Stanley Cavell as at the heart of Wittgenstein’s philosophical practice; and Milton three centuries before, however undemocratic he might now seem to have been by our laws, voices a thought that foreshadows the later English Common Law rule against "Prior Restraint" and, in part derived from it, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling of 1931 – you can’t ban expression of ideas prior to their publication. Nixon tried to block publication of the Pentagon Papers on the principle of national security, and lost; but other wartime censorings have stood up, such as details of troop sailings – which I became aware of in Saturday afternoon movies during World War II. Whatever the limits of application in Milton’s day, his words in Areopagitica have a life we adapt: "I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race …" A poet incidentally who gave up years of his life and as it turned out his health to writing political tracts.
Where particular written words are prohibited, a writer’s work will often become the writer (a commonsense truth also untrue, or hardly the whole truth) whether the writer be an activist or a hermit; and likely not at all precise in the imprisoning of writers in Asia and eastern Europe which sometimes may really be darkly comprehensive or sweepingly punitive upon the writer for her or his very being: the disappearance of Isaac Babel into a Stalin prison and his eventually (!) verified execution (1940) – could it have turned upon the intimate art of his wildly original stories, could it? unless their beauty and humor seemed a model of danger in the State’s language of statistics, passion as free as the anarchic impulse and living observation (this stylist who in a matchless but translatable 1916 Petersburg story about translation no less and his lust for a Jewess of a certain age (originally "from Kiev [or] Poltava") whose translation of Maupassant he is asked to help her with, saying (it is Babel also to us) of the "weapons" of "style" "No iron can stab the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place"; or was it if you glance at the 1904 pogrom climaxing "The Story of My Dovecot," though could it have been the transcendent art of the schoolboy’s point of view that takes us through Jewish quotas and the longed-for dovecot as if the reality of a pogrom might never apply here? Nor is it likely Babel’s agricultural report on the 5-year-plan Russian farms was what did it. More likely his lack of publicly stated allegiance to the Writers Union but who knows? Which in turn is merely one example of the terrible penalty of not knowing, inflicted by a government. Unfortunate things said later about Babel, implying capitulation in prison, but I don’t buy the slur. Facts are threatened perhaps almost as what is meant by "citizen" must mean hard, drab work as well as passion. Does Censorship expand? With our asking what almost a censor in us murmurs doesn’t need to be asked – but does need to be – though why? What motivates the action of the functionaries, the persons, the people, imposing and thinking censorship?
Here a thought in this Talk for you and for me that maybe should come first; the last thing you decide, Pascal says (with more than revision in mind), is what to put first. Here with the person on the receiving end of censorship I think (imagining what I have not been through, or have I), What is the effect through fear or ignorance of holding things back; of not letting notions cross the soft lip-like threshold emerge from brain, mind, throat, chest and in the presence even of people we care about? What is the effect of that? – the whole effect, think again, the effect upon the wholeness of a person? Or is it only the real world in which there is conflict and competition and you must survive?
I’m writing a book about water, almost done, and wherever I am. Here trying even like a censor to organize the riddling though palpable truths of censorship and so here’s one for you, where does it go in our file? Where do we stick the news item (entertainingly awful or distinctly indicative of a play-dictator’s style), of President Trump our Minotaur proposing to cancel face-to-face briefings with the press, person to person dare we say, and instead give reporters written handouts. Differences between written and spoken? I wrote once about the impact of a letter left by a father to a son, it could be us or you, the letter discovered when the father died. Convenient. Exquisitely excruciatingly telling. What are the multiplying differences between a piece of paper handed to you and on the other hand eye to eye? Eye to eye is powerful yet vulnerable, like me here. The piece of paper gives distance, time to think; to the author it gives control. We have already seen Trump turn and leave – like a parent, is it? or an adolescent, or a lover in a bad or not so bad film.
Uniquely in the middle of things both a prolific artist in paint, metal, wood, room-occupancy and a voice in China, our Ai Weiwei, at the moment not detained, maybe you have seen films about him, we see them in art houses and on television if we remember not to avoid the box. Able to work despite endless impediments which are the Chinese government’s way of expressing a ban placed yet not quite placed upon him, he writes of his name being blotted out from work of his recently shown: "I view the labels on my work as a measure of the value I have produced – like level markers at a riverbank." Without this he lives, he says, "a virtual existence."
Permitted, is it? Because an artist in entertaining vigor, he is less important than Liu Xiaobo, whose explicit message is more dangerous than the embodied forms, precariously poised, and the indirect wit of an artist. Liu a literary scholar and critic once upon a time but drawn by difficult choice into leadership; labeled a "black hand" for inciting subversion in the 2008 charter, books banned, Nobel Peace laureate (this in fact not widely known in China), dying in hospital as we speak (May 17) under surveillance which can censor his death itself for the moment if not inadvertently turn the ten thousand signatures here or thirty-four thousand there to something more.
Even as I ask what exactly the man’s decisions quashed from his desires. And question what it may still mean, an empty chair in Oslo at the ceremony in 2010 but his words are his voice read for the world to hear a year after his statement to the court that imprisoned him: he hoped he’d be "the last victim of China’s endless literary inquisitions and that from [then] on no one [would] be incriminated because of speech."17quoted by Austin Ramzy, New York Times, July 12, 2017.
So censorship generates thought. If we think in opposition, and opposition would shut us down, can it be that censorship is necessary to thought? Necessary to citizenship. Interrupts in order to challenge whether there was anything to interrupt. If not redefined, citizenship in the best definition of democratic debate and individual education and enlightenment now finds itself rethinking the powers available to states in relation to the federal government. Calhoun in the 1840s argued for the economic and social stability of a society in the South based upon slavery; from this argument arose regional or states’ rights in opposition to the idea of a central federal union and power. Now in the Trump era and with huge pivoting toward the sustainable management of the environment and against the dangerous withdrawal of the Trump government from international climate agreements, states, California first among them, may be able to lead concrete actions against the current federal policies. There is an irony in this, or simply a use being made of legal alternatives, when Trump has already attempted to use the factor of state subsidies to undermine the working of the Obama health insurance act.
What has the above to do with censorship? It insists on public articulation of opposing views in debate.
Censorship adds worry, but a new thought or two; subtracts, but, what from what? To interrupt what? Daydream or craft or hope? Break into, rupture, what? we might seriously think. What does censor want of us then? It reduces what could have been and what is available for us to know, even what we must know, yet, as an event, stirs as well as stills energy, censorship an energy source, shoots energy how at why? Yet fiction, turning so upon conflict, reduces limitless memory in order to create experience. Is that true? Some new angles of censorship, intruding, receding, maybe not only entropic – it is not quite what it has been, but the term will do. Censorship, on my mind afresh, betrayal always an inescapable subject for fiction and its central conflicts, like lies which are the prime example rooting shallow and far within us. Yet exhibited as lies into which we are drawn as an audience in a theater, an audience for tragedy, say, and one would think not to be confused with what we name in our literatures fiction, but then as well the other arts ("fictions," too) and their peculiar potential for truth.
Though philosophy made as in the best risk-reaching sense, Nietzsche’s sense, a fiction too. And you will think of more forms of expression we must include. You hear the expansion, a risk in a time of emergency. For the planet, hence my nonfiction work on water, but for all our communal activities (even solitary). But here today it is writing we tell about, whatever all the truth may ever be, but in Emily Dickinson’s sense tell all the truth but tell it slant: the slant so often celebrating her censure [sic] of our narrow potential – maybe adding to me (as Spinoza says good art may do) though slanted already meaning (in English) suspect even polluted forms of information we try to live with and resist. So with floods of not at all always fake facts (multi-directional currents a better trope) we can identify fiction the art by its very closeness to the fraud of propaganda, as often the shiver or thrill of a phrase curiously due to its nearness (but only nearness) to colloquial cliché.
Close to me and my searches, for a moment, "Most conventional fiction, with its easy, inherited confidence, conceals the epistemological difficulty" of its "pretense of knowledge… an attempt to know and a confession of how little we know," James Wood identifies the profound, astonishingly firm center of W.G. Sebald’s themes of "unreliability …"18James Wood, “W.G. Sebald, Humorist,” The New Yorker, June 5 & 12, 2017. But beyond these exact mysteries in Faulkner, Ford Madox Ford, Proust, our everyday approach to the other nobody approaching along the street of our polis, our life, with something surprisingly true for us.
Fiction proves again the force of the real thing, true and made of facts even when not non-fiction whether Borges or the Arabian Nights. Think, too, of Chekhov, In the Ravine, the art effortless yet what an exposé unrelenting of raw, awful village life; think of Platonov later, long barred from publication though he escaped the ’30s purges, his posthumous The Foundation Pit, grimmest life under Communism yet (if muted/edited) with original weird Russian incongruities beautiful in seeing and style turning actual work and people of this depressed town intermittently as Party-surreal as their literal question Am I somebody?). Fact is not truly fact without embedding thought – without a context even of what we call fiction, which, in Oksana Zabuzhko’s Museum of Abandoned Secrets through the subtlest internal censorships and simultaneously their opposite, make fact all the more fact through fiction’s time and character’s imagination and all the invention and fantasy the writer brings.
We write (or must) out of emergency, even technical (for technique) – to me obvious, however successful or not in my novel Cannonball or a book almost completed about water, a planetary challenge steadily displaced by words drilling the sea floor or crowding the air. Often the inner emergency not so well known to readers (kept from them? disguised? who will find the writer’s real life where the writer lives and only there) – the work is what matters, and is the matter (do we need to know the artist’s name even? – wait, is plagiarism censorship?); yet I mean not really seeing the text, the reader’s need to steer away, to judge a book by what lies outside it (Thoreau helped financially by Emerson; Ezra Pound’s fugitive approval of Mussolini; am I to censor Céline impossibly but not impossibly the author of such a great truthful perilously healing book Journey to the End of the Night yet also a Nazi sympathizer and virtual activist?), this censoring a fear of difficulty like thinking for oneself.
We are caught in Part 2, hingeing still toward 3; how something happens to you day after day and you are less; or the contagions, curious richness, numbing glut of detour multiplying Part 3 in the proposed organization of my Talk. But if cut off by emigration from his native language Nabokov, who had written many novels in his beloved Russian, became an American novelist (defending himself, his two greatest novels, Lolita and Pale Fire, in narrators even signally unreliable, like Humbert) – and always in the precision and poignant surprise in the not wrongly foreign, luminously affronting quality of his English, what can we say of a people’s predicament when their own language is prohibited. A wrench to the mind? Or what? It may seem somewhat irrelevant to you, mostly young people in this room kindly attending to my inquiries, and what do I know about the subject, I can hardly imagine it; but our occasion today a publication, competitive wares and thus the ideas of all our partial truths put in competition ideally with one another (with the welcome implications of all that even if somewhat corrupted here and there by how books are chosen for publication we will see), and my being here because one of my novels has been translated freely into another language that sounds wholly different yet in itself, its grammar and vocabularies one distinct yet overflowing history while as a unitary object the language with a history (like a giant invisible being with a voice) of all that has been written in it yet too with the sweeping and stupid constraint of two 19th-century edicts of censorship against the Ukrainian language itself, let alone what might be conveyed in it.
Censorship stranger to navigate than its most common meaning – Think for us, in one low phrase, there it is; interrupting our thought, our acts, intercepting our messages even yours to yourself; take care of it for us, censor says. In Stalin’s time, an apotheosis quite precise and haunting and intelligent and stupid in its fear that a great poet’s power was superior to that of the State and, not might, would last (for this is Russia). A motive contradictory in its own gut for persisting in policies of censorship. What could such a resolution or deal ever mean? I cite examples, where to stop (or edit this habit) – slow things down at a moment – here, say, May 17, 2017, which, looking ahead, will date me – as volume of news and speed of other people’s breakneck plots rush us, news cycle to news cycle; which as a consumer you know is the seller’s tactic toward a targeted prospect. Buy now. The sell’s a bargain, economizing on your time! The buyer, someone who will buy what they say; the target, if you will.
These things may happen quite invisibly. I doubt they can happen in the U.S. without a big fuss. Which "resistance" may of course include another confusion like the confusion in our Constitutional history fostered in the Supreme Court as in family households like one of the two or three I grew up in, that whatever you may find in an article put there by framers of that document, notably James Madison, meant civil decisions never to be inflamed by religious enmity; as Jefferson, a principal designer of the Constitution, was called an atheist because he believed in the separation of church and state . (Read Cannonball to find like a toxic interlinear script this among other origins of the recent Iraq War, a false Gospel drive to appropriate foreign oil, the writer not a doctrinal Christian, angered at the use which evangelicals in his country make of the prophet (Let the sound of "profit" twist its wit finding some way back into the competitive dive of its prose that makes up its own awash arc, polluted canal, current history, current, too, in the very "originalists" breaking down separation of Christian church and imagined state.)
It’s a fight most of the way. Not for everybody. Hemingway said that in fiction "You make it up out of what you know." A bit too true? Has the man edited his description of his own method and ethos to censor out of sight how much he leaves out? He admired The Red Badge of Courage though Stephen Crane never went to the Civil War. What does Hemingway make up? Maybe a style of sentence or an arrangement of the observations. If I risk calling this a small slant of censorship remembering the Emperor Augustus obsessed to not give too much away. The subtlety of the passive aggressive. Might leaving-out be a form of digression?
Effects not shrugged off if not known about, don’t think extremes like Kafka’s The Trial. News cycle to news cycle, shall we revisit Thailand? – where, it seems, for sharing an article posted by the BBC which was a biography of the new king, someone is charged with lèse majesté – oh, and it’s a further crime to discuss what it is that they’re being charged with.
But, digression a form of censorship and censoring’s apparent opposite amplifying (which I’m doing here), which may likewise interrupt your saying what you meant – I said two things I recall about Hope Against Hope. What happens in a police state to your resolve, your mind that is your self that you live in like a body? I ask, looking at you thinking (but that’s me) it is in some way irrelevant to your concerns, you have your own trials. I ask myself first. Not even as a person accused but like the people at train stations who averted their eyes from the Mandelstams when, by boat and train, change after change, they were being taken into exile by three Soviet soldiers.19Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope: A Memoir, trans. from the Russian by Max Hayward, Introduction by Clarence Brown, New York: Atheneum, 1978, p. 54. . What is administrative and obliterating ensnares also but is ensnared– the commerce, the schools where important things are supposedly taught – by the bonds of a language to a mind – I summon from as difficult a history the beauty and humor, thought and impenetrable yet infinitely concrete precisions – for example, a character’s name which means The Place in Flowers Where Pollen Rests (a 1988 title by the Anglo-American novelist Paul West), in passing marginally evoked for the Hopi language held hostage by the poverty of time and majority American rule like an overriding voice and gulf or gap of American history where I read in the paper an implicit Christian censorship in Iowa now may call public schools "government schools." How frank and discreet, those Arizona mesa people I once farmed with in their valley, who slip into their language subtly as if the English and the social information we exchanged and even dreams I had confided in a pickup truck for a Hopi elder’s interpretation one early morning who happily had never read Freud on the dream censor were a parenthesis in a more significant talk kept from me, or was it only the reflex pleasure in their language or something else I imagine in the question, What if not truly censored?
All very much with us, though in the United States we sometimes (but who is this we?) see President Trump – I correct myself – as so changeable that he must be an incompetent, a lightweight. A month, two, three months from now, it won’t even be a question, is only one more fantasy, not a thought active in itself leading to fresh decision. Material not now even for late-night (no such thing as bad) television. Trump a man uninformed. But of what? A figure in a low form of entertainment (remember Spinoza, Art adds to me). (Donald Trump a footnote in the foreground, no more? But there no less, where his in part helpless enablers mean him to be, if with no background this morning and a capitalist show that may yet bomb.)
Yet what has happened already – or is to? Or is to have happened already before we knew it, absorbed as the case may be? A Trump hotel down the street from his White House is also a kind of casa (and for indeterminate periods [and people] a home) – not yours, though your President’s; not mine probably; overbooked with secrets censored from me just as well and with busy potential stirring the very text of this rereader’s mysterious "The Blue Hotel" (1898) out in the middle of Crane’s mysterious American nowhere. While in Trump, giant Sequoias territory about to be rented or if need be given to mining, drilling, don’t forget the sweet smell of logging. We’re to join Syria/Salvador outside the global climate. We may still need a million-roomed hotel fully booked to contain our unacted-upon (Kubrick-true) images now merely parallel to real estate generated by our leader innocent of ethical question. It has marginally, but somehow like an alert to real truths about fiction and fact, been argued that of all censorious conservatives it was Alexander Hamilton who "implanted a doubt in the minds of [great American] artists who came later [– Cooper, Hawthorne, James –] as to the innocence of wealth and large incomes."20Marius Bewley, The Eccentric Design: Form in the Classic American Novel, London: Chatto and Windus, 1959, p. 40.
Will we – late-night joke-hungry – experience Trump not as fomenting a white authoritarian state but as just a stand-in vice-wizard? Not deporting the swarthy enemy, redistricting the vote, requota-ing merit, and about to visit you and your laptop in the night or, since books obviously unread might no longer be worth burning, fire you from your life; but just a poor excuse even for an authentic fool or for a host (embracing his own parasitism) whose mere Oz never so much as a world much less planet (nor confusable with those engrossing Baum books of my childhood) hides behind colored smoke of crass unpredictability to be breathed by the likes of us. In the United States – New York, too – we have a deeply uninformed chief executive, so unpardonably uneducated, virtually censorably embarrassing his lucrative but barren businesses like sometimes diarrhea-forestalling opioids mixed with & profiting from his office as President; he and his family often distinguished by what they don’t tell him, with other fauning – faunine – polits we know an in-house censorship ever repurposed, the damages as hard to track as the laundering of multicameral moneys or lies that are their own censors.
Self-censorine without a distinct self, Trump in self-caged tweets from id- or ego-dream distances between Repressed and sort of Conscious, flaunts the signs of that pop familiar the "crazymaker." Julia Cameron picked it up a generation ago – "if they can swing it, they are the star," "enormously destructive" to people around them who pick up "their cues from the crazy-maker’s … whims," thus diverting their own energies.21Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way, New York: Putnam,1992, pp. 44-5. A quite differently plural censor deal is that, needing to concentrate on making the change that circumstances around and in you are telling you you must make, you may privately want to avoid a discipline of details under pressure, forget an ethos, so you find a deal – privately expanding a business, writing "from a true story" "a novel"; yet, encumbered curiously too and surprising yourself in an interesting mind prepared after all and tough, even a new congruence in math or a pivotal analogy in science, or a poem to the very censor who might murder you – Mandelstam’s great problem "Ode to Stalin" I speak of presently as if I had read it in Russian.
Literary you think, recalling that our word "censor" (Latin etymology "estimate") meant the Roman magistrates, two of them, in 5th and 4th centuries BC, who handled census-taking, thus the accuracy of the citizens’ report of status and property; since Censors, later an obsolete custom revived by Augustus (only one censor allowed him), could punish false reports, they often had control over public morals – and, we may be sure Trump (who maybe doesn’t matter) never heard of this, the Roman censors were often in charge of leasing buildings.
Between a lease on life and what is for some of us too huge to quite see, yet still trying, from where we stand censored by distance, scale, and our own part in and on the planet, Exponential the title measures a selection of my essays (2003) by the subsequent shadow of 9/11 along an era. The book cover a color photograph from the magazine Living Bird of a snowy owl foregrounded on the New Jersey side of New York harbor with to the east on the Manhattan side the Twin Towers (fallen, by the time the issue came out), in the photo barely visible as a background, an intuition of unbridgeable difference not quite what the photographer meant, yet a beauty caught by (even formed by) his framing, editing camera pairing the bird with heights or roots of communal imagination those buildings may dubiously suggest, a supposed exactness made prophetically diaphanous by the shallow depth of field:
Exponential an all-purpose brand, upon an unforeseeable future of open-field terror attacks – 9/11 deserving in lieu of a Nobel Peace a Koch Brothers War Prize: where very rich operators diversely profiting might run a government scripted with military means as corporate scripture. Years later a system now threatens to pivot cyber curiously privatized away from our own private keyboards. Our perhaps carelessly self-censoring governments paying not enough heed probably to certain warnings before 9/11? Years later cyber, less lethal-sounding in its silence, can shut down hospitals and patients. Witness Malware (if one can) – this past Monday – May 8 – conversely to be associated with half-unknowable White House plans to hobble the Internet by deregulating the powers of corporations like Verizon to limit the messaging and informational field it sustains. Those who thus invade what should be private informations invest this enterprise privately themselves inherently withholding information we might need. What are, or were, our needs? Are they needs of the will?
As if it were not our reaction to its doings Censorship all business asks what it is that most of us would lose after all if we lost so-called freedom of the press or speech, uncensored libraries (whatever actually they are), book publishing unmonitored and unrestricted by the government, etc.? I.e., what news and opinion if there’s a difference do you really read; and as for books, which would you choose to read, which books if you couldn’t get hold of them would you need and miss? Does being censored mark the importance of a book?
In the U.S. plenty of smart folk organize against Trump Republic sallies, gestures, acts, gross euphemism only reminiscent so far of Fascism. But in truth’s midst (or dream’s) a population spreads in America used to its very own second-rate schooling, at the ready for the latest word or news or whatever or regional stress; untrained in thinking and self-censoringly content therewith, as the Trump edicts, promissories, or even policies loom. Attrition from quite different government-imposed controls in China Ai Weiwei reports spread psychic decay, which may or may not describe such an unthinkably huge population; even passive madness, to hear him evoke his sleepwalking people. Do I believe in a group will?
What potential have we for passiveness that is wise? Subtlety of the passive, we observe. A censoring that values a "certain" reservedness of behavior in others? It may suggest clarity or charity, yet then hiding; behind the hiding maybe not only systemic (and bodily) entropy but power. We don’t just displace the unpleasant. In the polis, say – my reborn term for some unit of community representing, or representative within, a nation – repression is reinforced by a "resistance" due, beyond fear, to habits.
Yet in them I think what waits obedient as Freud lays out virtual law how dream censor keeps conscious agent and unconscious agent a distance apart, must hold so much more – as Freud knew; though still in his terms formulating that old-fashioned physics of the dream. Genius wasted, Nietzsche believed, yet the ferment, originality, preparation, energy, and even act discovered in the dream – that brief "nightly psychosis" the phrase I’ll take as Adorno’s even after (and if) he and others found it in Freud – demands we wake to it, the dream, and how it builds with potential and past, remakes finder and what had seemed lost. Compromise doubtless, but thought in the midst of censor and challenge.
Emergency divines our dreams. Energies of thought in the out-of-control dreamwork which, wild and difficult, might still distinguish between censorship which would kill the freedom to find freedom and on the other hand a leaving-to-one-side and out of further consideration thought and its facts which might compromise the power and future power of this thought. Such distances the financially potent may use to censor our common sense and their own, remiss all around to link a lease on life with the life of the planet; rocky sometime green and watery survivor more likely than its prodigal human inhabitants coping with a moraine-like environmental climate of unimaginable opinion.
Irredeemably abstract, however strangling its drive, censorship essentially (but perhaps only "essentially") knows we won’t persist. Recalling our laureate, Liu Xiaobo, what do we make of the constantly productive dissident Ai Weiwei? I revisit his words to hear what I want to hear again. This physically large and in career spectacularly resilient artist somehow surviving? Curiously fortunate? Permitted? He finds that the "moral collapse" of Chinese society resulting from servile passivity in the face of censorship may be answered only in "small actions of individual people"; still, in what he thinks may prove a historical turning point, "aesthetic values will always have an advantage." "Aesthetic"? Of no use value? (Kant) Found in the life of individuals? (Kierkegaard, Marx , both great fictionists.) Recomposing what we find or are given like speculations for life, as if a life may be an artwork?
Is it this simply that Ai Weiwei speaks in the recent essay cited above? "My art begins with … trying to show in my own small contexts how I get through life. I don’t start with a determination to resist anything; I just see what I see and look for ways to show to myself how I am getting through life and how I can measure my relationships with others. This means I need to be authentic." He is less authentic because his name is deleted from his work in a recent exhibition, he argues or complains. But the work is being exhibited. And in this exhibition if without wall text about him, the strength of the work speaks to the viewer, and word gets around. And the essay promotes a hugely pretentious "Surveillance" show he helped design at the Armory in New York.
The lesson of censorship is citizenship; here not a gathered, much less succinct or terminal, answer so much as continuing work including, even contrarily in these ruminations of mine, a more elusive if not permissive description of censorship. Work of many kinds – reading documents, encouraging the question energies of others. Work occurring in writing and in reading. Thinking is what I have in mind. A lesson to be found in progress anywhere if one looks. In philosophy and in fiction. Debates in Coetzee’s Dostoevsky novel The Master of Petersburg – and as in Dostoevsky, The Demons (and in a lurking, self-undermining history of a fluctuating group in Von Dodderer’s The Demons, and as in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom always the rethinking about, and in the turning midst of, the riddles of history -- and the American destiny of racism so conveniently censored in our myths. John Barth’s advice for fiction writers, read all fiction; I like instead (though never to exclude fiction) the advice of the American post-modernist fiction writer, Donald Barthelme, distinguished more often by his brevities than by what might be called a novel, though he wrote novels, too; mainly by a fiction toned and ruminative toward a sane lunacy like an essay fantasia, of what it might, always sensuous, be possible to think. In a dictatorship Barthelme maybe one of the smugglers who could write truth and get away with it. (As Mandelstam failed to do, in the intricately complicated “Stalin Ode” telling truth as if he almost weren’t, except to Stalin’s liking, and save himself at the same time.) To fiction writers, Barthelme said, read all philosophy. He did not mean write expositions or systems of formal thought. But to be always thinking things through in the incisive and dialectical and unsatisfied, often humorous and usually generous preparations for the day that might be said to characterize philosophy. That doubt to be found in Hawthorne, in Henry James, traces the nerve of their greatness along the passion of their energy of recomposition. The need of questioning is what Stanley Cavell called philosophy particularly as practiced by Wittgenstein, who did not debate systems exactly with his students – that was not what he meant by “talking philosophy.”
Official censorship would simplify one’s daily mind, which it and its executives Mao, Stalin, now Erdogan and such seek even via unspeakable penalties, this desire for an efficiency of silence – cancel, erase, forestall. Yet if the work is work of, or carried out with, intelligence or the hope of it, censorship is likely even against the regular dailiness of our everyday work to interrupt this habit or absorption, even devotion. Mine I suppose has been writing fiction, but to find there abundant new facts. Also, for some time a non-fiction book about elusive Water that we know and accurately imagine. How its three physical phases an apparent beginning reach experimentally into its analogical properties unfolding rootlike beyond its physical identity into the most interesting difficulties, reflections deepening through surfaces of our survival even on this planet possibly, though in the long run unlikely water’s own.
Surprised toward this project by the late art critic, fiction writer, and philosopher William S. Wilson’s remark taken seriously that I had always written about water – apt or not, half-coaxing as an insight suggesting another’s attention to the work – I found myself distracted, interrupted by will or ego censoring one interest with another phasing through half-thoughts out and down into, yet across, water and water work and at once a flow diverting me from my main job to almost displace it (unless "it" is writing and thought in no particular sequence which even delays or forestalls writing, editing anything in sight). Water’s properties even reciprocal with our own became events, thoughts – narratives about crises of scarcity and flood more than imminent far from here but then closer; emergencies of pollution, distribution, dams, aquifers, process, now again strange reciprocals between us and water translatable then into a crisis of thought itself at large of censored policy and greed; group and national habit of misuse, yet in us, and the occasional horizon of wisdom like a late or too late evolution.
Pascal’s river of will and submission, curiously complementary sources of energy – an intuitional stream only now and then, compelled by who knows what influence to accept and choose this course, I on mine maybe too often closer to Thoreau’s practice in three local rivers so much more revealing for his work as a scientist. Though as if as well from Walden, I found my course becoming tributaries, estuaries, seas, shifting coasts, climates – relations between molecule and planetary society sometimes to see ways around spending unrenewable resources and grasping the differences between capital profits and land resource, while struggling to see how our long-term economies of land and wide interconnecting sharing of more than water might find a reality arising from Nature, while – long before the poisonous unknowing paraded by a Trump and the evangelical Right – bearing a prospect of our own nature alive in its narrowed displacement.
As to finesse an opponent into thinking you’ve a card you don’t, Trump pretending the White House might have taped the conversation with then FBI director James Comey as if that would forestall testimony by Comey – who, on the same page, in fact hoped for such a transcript. One could predict that, fancying a future in which the President, a hysterical would-be censor, could pardon others or himself before a case was even brought (a helpless inverted burlesque of the preemptive censorship Milton moderately dismantled in Areopagitica attacking Parliament’s 1643 licensing act), Trump must of course cancel legal safeguards for water and air. Those actions we could foresee, like the need to repeat ourselves as good teachers must, to reread and reread a changing planetary text read differently if read at all by others, certainly misconstrued and feared by those in power.
Yet then to come upon, as we’ll see, an all but deceiving congruence or phenomenal overlap in the present disturbing inquiry into censorship, itself an interruption to the unsuspecting author’s long-in-progress water non-fiction itself chronically interrupting or, who knows?, extending an also long-in-progress novel about how we shape our own histories by disguising from ourselves or for the longest time secretly creating what was our true job all along… If deceptive, who deceived who?
How … how two centuries ago in England it was water its properties and prospects deceived even the powerful as to its wise use (though they profited then), much less its displacement in favor of steam as an energy source – and lo and behold this phase of water turned by its opposite, fire, by way of Earth’s millennial veins and deposits of coal, got us somewhere at once which concealed what was to come (though who the censorer, History? – I’m not Hegel; I don’t think like that – though somewhere in the Logic he’s saying that language is to mind as water is to matter).22Paraphrased from Theodor Adorno, Hegel: Three Studies, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993, p. 117, quotes Hegel, Logic.
My getting into water by interruption discovered again viewpoints as persistent, marketed, and tendentiously shaped as we know not always as well as we should typify also censorship shaped and sold – i.e. in a late-gasp capitalist America not apparently with overt government force:
Examples as insidiously rooting as Nestlé's incorporated lies about unsuspecting aquifers they drain to peddle water; court decisions that may worry or ignore river pollution; diversions or dams upstream ancient as Asia, now China’s often tactically shrouded from downstream nations; a recent "made" wetland in the lower Bronx River I’ve written about that became a subject close to me, as unpredictable and disordered, as its meaning feels clear as Helen Keller’s first perception of water on her hand or the vast vistas of desert I have not yet visited show and conceal: for I write in order to correct, as for a ship’s course, if I can the disorder in myself, but ours too and in terrains of space: the rhizomal spreading of water’s phases (physically, chemically, analogically mile by mile upon the so-called water planet) into translated qualities like Fluidity or Transparency, the strange and necessary Ice that, lucky for us, proves lighter than fluid water – mapping my way by metaphor and so many parallels out into the lives of living and non-living things … images we make for truth even to inspire editing out other truth. Will you grant the word "censoring" to that experience?
There is a resistance at large ever local though still perhaps "America" and as concrete and blinkeredly self-censoring. But in a divided country figureheaded for the unreliable moment by a realityshowman dangerous not just because of who and what are around him, and if less than ever seriously expected to deliver what he promised, the cruel entertainer quite adroitly encourages some of the country some of the time still (and in between elections!) to turn their free-floating resentment into votes-to-be. And for the very groups who they should know will profit from Trump’s money plans forestalling thought in fact by not foreseeing in 2017 what the planet itself embodies as prophecy short-term.
Much less at ease than the Oz Wizard. Less engaging, yet with an inside somewhere. Or somewhere deep only because, self-censoring, half aware of being ill at ease. Like that Oz Wiz, though, in being connected only to some Luna Park controls to handle, without knowing how anything works, including finance and gambling hotel and police and not even quite the imperial money laundering done in his non-name of multiple and doubling-back censoring. He has memories, let’s say; formative ones out of control. Self-censoring in an inversely wild idward fake-perform, dangerous in himself, yes, as well: leaving the truth out without half knowing he’s doing so to finesse as if he were a politician real people to vote him in as simultaneously (such a hinterland tradition in America) to hope or sort of believe instead of sort of think. As, for this awful moment, he or something or Montana coal fields and Washington State shipping terminals persuade coalminers to censor their awareness of our future environments and imagine they won’t have to move on to other jobs, other homes, other changing regions of the United (or not) States.
John Constable, who painted all things so solidly – his 1821 three-horse-drawn hay wagon almost up to the axles in the River Stour – judged J.M.W. Turner’s ship-scapes and sea atmospheres and nearly unpaintable fires as he did that Great Western Railway oil which he dismissed as "tinted steam." Hardly visible in it are the Maidenhead Bridge with Brunel’s two wide brick arches, the Thames, and the view to the east toward London. Yet if such things displaced by Turner’s chosen reality (in the paint, light and color screening themselves in wild interiors layered with dissolved labor into some prior privileged and original being) have even less to do with his work here than Ruskin’s censorious displeasure with this engine as inappropriate subject matter, the vivid difference between the hard-edged power and the atmospheric fluidity, some secrecy of both, the air thick with beautiful pollution and color abstraction through which the locomotive emerges like motion itself a sharp lumen half hidden might remind viewers despite the dense aesthetic vision in "Rain, Steam, and Speed" that steam had brought into England and Scotland by 1844 the steam engine. And with it historical agonies of factory conditions and environs epidemic with destabilizing noise and toxic waters and airs corroding lungs, minds, buildings (in fact paintings), accelerating a dangerous job hell that violent demonstrations occasionally altered by clarifying the facts though not effectively the dark and glistering and blinding disjunction Marx and Engels saw widening between labor and product, work and living, through the runaway exponent of capital profit.
In the Turner one sees steam, mist, water even in its phases, two at least, gas and fluid, almost coexisting – when, between condensation and boiling, a strange latent pause occurs (temperature change briefly suspended) characteristic of water’s unusual heat relations: here water and steam caught (though Turner wouldn’t have meant this in these terms) in an interval of time that, if I may associate physical chemistry with aesthetic experience, is both the pause and the rush of the train: of history too, the art aware of decisions in late 18th- and 19th-century England (Scotland and Wales, as well) by textile factory owners to go with coal-fired steam engines for their apparent space and time convenience. Thus to bypass abundant rivers and waterfalls, though with patience and imagination water power could have been altogether cheaper and better in the long run for Britain and very likely this pivotal industry.
The coal-fired steam engine, the millowner’s proud powerhouse, could be installed almost anywhere. Meanwhile, coal mine owners often came to own the land surrounding the pits, and rural artisans and farmers (indeed sometimes after resulting subsidence of the excavated land) found themselves displaced into the swelling populations of the cities; so, with nothing often but their labor now to sell, they went to work in strategically placed cotton mills. It was the more prosperous if not educated public to which a virtual literature apotheosizing the steam engine, savior of efficiency in production, a blessing for us all, versatile on sea and land, "a great moral power" appealed; not to laborers, victims of this imagined progress withholding what was well-known but also to the deceivers unknown and celebrated in a communal censorship of the whole truth; labor now a commodity in a transformed market, laborers virtually things.
The public to some extent brainwashed, we might say – but the eulogists too. A mind-confusing afflatus believed in like a power source in itself – the steam engine nothing less than a live organism with metabolic vitality, yet secretly abstract. Propaganda controlling information and the public mind on behalf of the exploding new mass production of cotton, this tendentious picture of coal-fueled steam engines certified their destiny and steered attention away from what cheap and clean waterpower might well have provided. Curiously, as the Swedish environmental economist and authority on coal and climate, Andreas Malm, notes in his sweeping analysis pointing toward our current global crisis, water in its properties lent itself to the exaggeration of its problems and the often tacit obfuscation of its natural economies by a "logic of private property … the mill a turf to be defended in a war of all against all within the larger war on labour."23Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming, London: Verso, 2016; p. 119; also above, p. 206, and subsequent references below. Whatever the seasonal irregularities of water flow and rainfall, the abundantly cheap reservoir systems for water power proposed and even begun in Scotland and England with ingenious self-acting sluices, cuts, wind pumps, for rivers, and additionally sea walls to impound tidal waters, were unquestionably workable and stabilizing. But with joint regulations and management planning, "reservoir systems represented a form of collectivised prime movers, the [common property in English law] of water precariously imposing its logic on wary manufacturers." Collectively – and therefore, in the closed, safely self-censoring mind of the millowners perversely and privately blind to the benefits of interdependent water cooperation probably because it would mean profit for others as well – no vision of the future seems to have been possible, nor of the present; much less, for example, of 20th-century China ("the chimney of the world") or the approaching runaway global crisis that Malm traces partly to an understanding of coal in those earlier days as a source of energy "congenial" to the "logic" of "private property": "piecemeal, splintered, amenable to concentration and accumulation, divisible"24Ibid. p. 119. – thus, to the exponential multiplication of abstract capital, arising from the necessary new medium of money joining what had been sundered – viz., producer and means of production – "a universal equivalent against which anything can be exchanged and in whose reactor all qualitative characters dissolve …"25Ibid., p. 281.
Flows of energy measured not only by physics and chemistry – yet science itself a flow of energy; intelligence, art – they continue in the presence of and in relation to the mobilizing strengths and other properties of (so-called) private enterprise as well as against its censoring, self-censoring and – aggrandizing mystifications. As early as 1770 establishing English Common Law, somewhere between "things," which can be "objects of dominion or property," and "persons," Blackstone placed water: "I can only have a temporary, transient, usufructuary property therein; wherefore, if a body of water runs out of my pond into another man’s, I have no right to reclaim it" – the first person plain and foreshadowing the civil Thoreau.26W. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book the Second, 4th ed., Oxford, 1770, p. 18, quoted by Malm, Ibid., pp. 117-18.
Water circulates through our landscapes and us, "ushered in and held back by the weather cycles, … a power created, wasted and regained by nature itself." But with coal and fire, creating steam that seems not to have struck its users as a phase of water, millowners, largely silent on these delicate deal-breakers, would not concern themselves with an owner nearby if he was only installing an additional engine.
If it had gone the other way, think only of the problems of competitors’ water-use schedules upstream or downstream. Using jointly the power of that "welcome gift of nature" would involve other people, communal regulations and agreements and constant adjustments – an energy of particular attention; "emotional energy," as Louis C. Hunter acutely identifies the nonetheless exaggerated cost of water power, speaking also of these issues in the United States from 1780 to the early Roosevelt era.27Quoted by Malm, p. 119, from A History of Industrial Power in the United States 1780-1930 vol. 1, Water Power in the Century of the Steam Engine, Charlottesville, 1979, p. 116.
After Stalin’s Great Break (1928), "Metaphysically speaking, Russian workers owned the entire economy, with the Party acting as their proxy." A more uncensored picture, "factory workers … refugees from the land … exposed to splashing molten metal and … machines that ripped off arms and legs"; "collective [passportless] farmers, in theory free, effectively returned to the serfdom of their grandfathers"; at the bottom, "prisoner-labourers of the Gulag" a demonstration for the comrade emperor that "since according to Marx all value was created by labour, slave labour was a tremendous bargain."28Francis Spufford, Red Plenty, Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2012, pp. 85-6. Censorship may live off such simplifyings. And a "proxy" will act for you. (And feed your industrial furnace.)
Stalin himself had survived tragic realities which left him, a reader and a writer, at times unsure who not to execute. Who of the writers (for Stalin killed many voices) – hence, it seems, his phone call to Pasternak after Mandelstam’s first arrest in 1934: was he "a great poet, a master"? (meaning also, "whose fame and whose representation of Stalin might outlast Stalin himself.")29J.M. Coetzee, Giving Offense. Essays on Censorship, Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press,1996, pp. 111-12; italics Coetzee’s, who makes the point that Mandelstam refused the title “master,” because he felt it had come to be associated with the state. If he were to be frank – I come in a moment to a far more interesting "If" – Stalin wanted great poetry written about him even within the awful rituals of censorship.
Clandestine or public, Mandelstam’s 1933 attack on Stalin, "never written down, but … recited to a small gathering of friends,"30 Coetzee, Ibid. p. 104. sixteen lines of grotesque, contemptuous, perhaps uncharacteristically polemic satire – "His cockroach whiskers," "thick fingers … fat like worms," his "decrees" "Like horseshoes he forges" – "Some get it in the forehead, some in the brow,/ some in the groin …" – got Mandelstam arrested perhaps because of two discarded early-draft lines the secret police did find, "All we hear is the Kremlin mountain man, / The murderer and peasant slayer."31quoted by Todd and Hayward, op. cit., p. 107.
A different matter – notorious then and now (when its courage might be a model even for us), or strangely, loosely original (as I think), or in an ambiguous, perhaps in part impenetrable field of meaning between all these, Mandelstam’s "Ode to Stalin" ventured into the minefield of that time of the Terror and the Cult of Personality to seem to praise Stalin while both not yet meaning that and finding its true subject through a conditional "If" hypothetical, riskily in the balance. If this poet were to write such a poem, how would it be done? The poem is about how, therefore imagined as preparation prior to itself perhaps.
Later called "tainted water," judged "inauthentic" as to intent and because of doubts around it before it became public;32Jennifer Baines, Mandelstam: The Later Poetry, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976, p. 177, quoted by Coetzee, op. cit., p. 106.initially solicited by the state and written in 1937 when the poet was a prisoner, ill, even, it has been alleged, deranged (the controversy goes on), Mandelstam likely not at all trying to smuggle past the impregnable censors a web of clever ironies – all of this, and to one side of the controversies about Nadezhda’s and Akhmatova’s or, speculatively, Osip’s views of it and its circumstances, leave the text a rare instance of speaking quite fully within the leader’s hagiography yet against and to a murderous totalitarian censorship; and surviving at least as a poem.
Or a poem about a poem;33Andrew Marvell’s devotional poem “The Coronet” (ca 1650) comes to mind – the snake of the artist’s compositional pride betraying itself in the wreath of humble words designed to crown the crucified Savior’s head. yet, no, or also, a work of visual art, a picture, a drawing: invoking Prometheus, who suffered when he "got his charcoal lit…" In the very first lines, a "charcoal … picture" is Mandelstam’s image for what he imagines trying to bring off. And (though only at one point) "not Stalin" he can call his ode’s subject but by his earlier name (and history, "frozen," as Coetzee puts it, "in the youth in which he was left behind"), Dzhugashvili.34Coetzee,op. cit. p. 110.
Everywhere difficulties how to approach the subject (yet thus to include mountains, woods, weather, land, the people; the builder himself, his paternal face being touched up by the artist; his speeches – "every single haystack, every barn / … strong and clean and smart... happiness’s axis").
And in an expansive if not verbose style not really Mandelstam’s (though it is his portrait-poem’s style). Mandelstam’s adopted voice, "Squeezing the charcoal in which all has converged / … I’ll crumble up the coal"; "[Stalin’s] whole enormous path" "Slow witness to the labor, struggle, and harvest"; "I learn from him to show myself no mercy." Mandelstam’s anticipated "art … bordering on daring," Stalin’s huge crowds "hillocks of heads" (in one translation) like the newsreel from Lenin’s time, yet Mandelstam likely meant (in another) as well mounds of heads Genghis Khan left outside city gates.
Reportedly the poem "was not liked." But it may have saved Nadezhda. This work, these words, imagining preparing to do the work. Which now somehow it may be doing. Have I lost my way here? Have I failed to find an ending to this talk, previously written down in notes and now written down further?
In the action which is thought, our all too abundant facts possess a reputation that may obscure their placement in context. Fiction and non- , we always hear. Yet a fiction context may make facts more truly factual; isolated in instructions, measurements, allegedly hard independent reality, they are missing what? In the absence of a real contemplative and analytic and widely implicative context, factual reports may lack an indispensable force that, we are reminded by Nietzsche but perhaps by Wittgenstein too and Chekhov and Borges and Ford Madox Ford, will carry threaded through it the contingency of our thought which underlies even the very fact of our observations. This reciprocal dependency may seem even Godel-like where he shows that accepting certain “rules of proof” as trustworthy opens new “access to certain mathematical truths that those particular rules are not powerful enough to derive.” 35 Roger Penrose, The Road to Reality, New York: Knopf, 2005,p. 377 Fiction’s truth by way of recontexted facts may feel analogously mysterious in Guy Davenport’s notion that both volumes of Nadezhda Mandelstam’s great memoirs -- first of the last four awful years of Osip’s life, but then second “a sustained digression … to the first volume” are “designed as a Formalist novel, its components arranged according to a sense of kinship among its subjects rather than according to chronology” -- the Formalists’ art banned as un-Soviet from 1932 on, in theory modeled on Tristram Shandy “as something like a cubist novel, … the architecture … more prominent than the conventional unfolding of a plot.” 36Guy Davenport, “The Man Without Contemporaries,” in The Geography of the Imagination, San Francisco: North Point, 1981, p. 302
W.G. Sebald, his life in England cut short in 2001 by a car crash, often seemed in his inimitably hybrid fictions to write around yet hauntingly near his underlying subject, the Nazi horror, repressing it but with an eccentrically remembering, even bemused documentary of people’s lives later on; and, with sometimes secret humor, a power he might otherwise not have achieved. A teapot emits "the occasional puff of steam as from a toy engine." People authentically somewhat unreal or real and in his melancholy narratives, observed landscapes, coastal for instance, unpeopled, the significantly poor photographs, snapshots often, unreliably illustrating The Emigrants and Austerlitz, may "leave the reader … standing on shifting sand, where all surety is tidally erased and replaced." Thus, James Wood, who in by far the best of the essays I have read on Sebald, evokes him by citing Walter Benjamin’s remark that "every document of civilization is also a document of barbarism."37Wood, op. cit.Someone tells the Sebald narrator "only what he could bear to tell, in [an account] honeycombed with elisions. …"
Seeking, I suppose, what has submerged or absorbed into indirection what most haunts a story, I let myself ask, What is not censorship? Knowing perfectly well the difference between state censorship and the artist’s instinctive and exacting omissions, though knowing this how well? A fullness in these Sebald lives, yet like another shadowy dimension repression shaping what has not been said. History with a gap we need to find it in ourselves to supply. As now, in 2018.
Cite this Essay:
- 1Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Penguin, 1989 pp. 68, 100.
- 2Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, New York: The Free Press, Macmillan, 1990, p. 403.
- 3Isaiah Berlin,"Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century," Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford, OUP, 1969, p. 28.
- 4New York Times, July 29, 2017, p. A9
- 5New York Times, Aug. 28, 2017, p. A8
- 6"Remarks on Erasure," trans. Perry Link, in Rules for Resistance: Advice from Around the World for the Age of Trump, ed. David Cole and Melanie Wachtell Stinnett, New York: New Press, pp. 97-102.
- 7David Leonhardt, New York Times, July 25, 2017, p. A23
- 8In 2004, McElroy published in ebr a chapter from this book in progress, and nearing completion at the present (5 February 2018)
- 9Osip Mandelstam, trans. Albert C. Todd, in 20th Century Russian Poetry. Silver and Steel, ed. Todd and Max Hayward, New York: Doubleday, 1993, p. 106.
- 10Berlin, op. cit., pp. 28, 33-4.
- 11The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, trans. Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin, New York: NYRB, 2004, p. 71.
- 12Viktor Shklovsky: A Reader, ed. & trans. Alexandra Berlina, New York: Bloomsbury, 2017, pp. 146-7 & footnote.
- 13Quoted by Sam Roberts, obituary New York Times, July 15, 2017, p. D8.
- 14Trans. Bernard Meares, in Todd and Hayward, op. cit., p. 102.
- 15New York Review of Books, Feb. 8, 2018, p. 4 – an essay, “To Be, or Not to Be,” developed from a talk Gessen gave Dec. 18, 2017
- 16Seyward Darby, “The Rise of the Valkyries,” Harper’s, Sept. 2017, p.27.
- 17quoted by Austin Ramzy, New York Times, July 12, 2017.
- 18James Wood, “W.G. Sebald, Humorist,” The New Yorker, June 5 & 12, 2017.
- 19Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope: A Memoir, trans. from the Russian by Max Hayward, Introduction by Clarence Brown, New York: Atheneum, 1978, p. 54.
- 20Marius Bewley, The Eccentric Design: Form in the Classic American Novel, London: Chatto and Windus, 1959, p. 40.
- 21Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way, New York: Putnam,1992, pp. 44-5.
- 22Paraphrased from Theodor Adorno, Hegel: Three Studies, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993, p. 117, quotes Hegel, Logic.
- 23Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming, London: Verso, 2016; p. 119; also above, p. 206, and subsequent references below.
- 24Ibid. p. 119.
- 25Ibid., p. 281.
- 26W. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book the Second, 4th ed., Oxford, 1770, p. 18, quoted by Malm, Ibid., pp. 117-18.
- 27Quoted by Malm, p. 119, from A History of Industrial Power in the United States 1780-1930 vol. 1, Water Power in the Century of the Steam Engine, Charlottesville, 1979, p. 116.
- 28Francis Spufford, Red Plenty, Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2012, pp. 85-6.
- 29J.M. Coetzee, Giving Offense. Essays on Censorship, Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press,1996, pp. 111-12; italics Coetzee’s, who makes the point that Mandelstam refused the title “master,” because he felt it had come to be associated with the state.
- 30Coetzee, Ibid. p. 104.
- 31quoted by Todd and Hayward, op. cit., p. 107.
- 32Jennifer Baines, Mandelstam: The Later Poetry, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976, p. 177, quoted by Coetzee, op. cit., p. 106.
- 33Andrew Marvell’s devotional poem “The Coronet” (ca 1650) comes to mind – the snake of the artist’s compositional pride betraying itself in the wreath of humble words designed to crown the crucified Savior’s head.
- 34Coetzee,op. cit. p. 110.
- 35Roger Penrose, The Road to Reality, New York: Knopf, 2005,p. 377
- 36Guy Davenport, “The Man Without Contemporaries,” in The Geography of the Imagination, San Francisco: North Point, 1981, p. 302
- 37Wood, op. cit.