Dirty Words

In 1929, Joseph Stalin read a story and didn’t like it. He put down Andrei Platonov’s short story “Doubting Makar” and declared it an “ambiguous work.” It wasn’t a compliment. Ambiguity in literature is dangerous–any lack of clarity in art opens up opportunities for interpretation, and thus criticism. While the state press churned out more heroic accounts of Soviet projects, Platonov’s story languished in the drawer.

In Russian, the word nelzya means both impossible and forbidden. Though it was not impossible for Platonov to write a story that did not follow the Party talking points, it was simply and unequivocally forbidden to publish it.

I studied in St. Petersburg this summer, and while I was there I noticed that Platonov’s controversial works are openly read on metro cars and in cafés. Literary critics now place him in league with Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, and entire college courses are devoted to his writings. But on a more popular level, Platonov’s stories are resurfacing and gaining fans: I once saw a high school student sitting across from me on a crowded trolley crack open a formerly banned edition. The revival of interest in Platonov’s ideas and artistry points to the failure of censorship to change minds. Along these lines, Platonov’s contemporary and fellow writer Maxim Gorky reportedly comforted him when yet another of his stories was rejected by censors by saying, “Don’t be angry, don’t be bitter. All will pass, and the truth alone will remain.”

I returned from Russia to a country that has heralded free speech as a core value since its inception. While some agencies set regulations on which words can appear on television and how much blood is too much blood in kids’ video games, the government of this country doesn’t tell us directly what we can and cannot read, watch, or listen to. The thing is, they don’t have to–we do a good enough job of it on our own.

Each year, parents, church leaders, and political interest groups speak out against books on library shelves and class curricula. According to the American Library Association (ALA), last year 490 book challenges were reported to the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF). Objections are made for many reasons, but according to the OIF, most challenges are made when material is seen as sexually explicit, or containing offensive language, violence, homosexuality, or age-inappropriate content. Over the past nine years, 109 other texts were challenged because they expressed “anti-family” ideas, and another 269 were disputed for their “religious viewpoints”. My high school English teacher had to stand before the Board of Education of our small New England town and defend herself against the charge of “teaching witchcraft” for her decision to keep Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” on our 10th grade syllabus.

Just because a book is challenged doesn’t mean that it is banned outright. Censorship is not the same thing as concerned parents calling attention to difficult subject matter in a book their children are assigned to read. On the contrary, they have the same right to voice their concerns about a story as the author had to write it. Good books rouse thought, spur debate. The trouble only comes when pressure mounts so that the discussion abruptly ends and controversy gives way to silence.

In a famous case in 1960, administrators of a Tulsa, OK public school fired a teacher for assigning J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” to her class. The novel, which the ALA reports is “a favorite of censors,” was considered vulgar–Holden Caulfield’s now-classic catchphrases (“In my mind, I’m probably the biggest sex maniac you ever saw”) then caused quite a stir. The book portrayed the confusion of adolescence with unusual candor, and moody, cussing Holden threw some punches at grown-up society that actually stung. After an appeal, the Tulsa teacher was reinstated, but “Catcher in the Rye” stayed off the syllabus, and has continued to grace the ALA’s top ten list of most challenged titles.

But another book was chosen to take its place. Generally, that’s how censorship works in America (the significant, if isolated, exception is book burning). In a democracy of ideas, the powers that be don’t hand us a definitive list of forbidden works. But some stories simply don’t get heard–they are passed over and something safer is selected as a replacement. I think there’s a lesson there. In an essay on censorship, J.M. Coetzee wrote, “If representations, mere shadows, are indeed so dangerous… then surely the appropriate countermeasures are other representations, counterrepresentations.” A G-rated image to cover a pornographic one, a book to replace another book; the best way to kill a book is not to burn it up, but to drown it out.

Last year, the Brooklyn Public Library pulled a copy of “Tintin au Congo” from its stacks and placed it in a vault. The 80-year-old comic describes Tintin’s adventures in the Belgian Congo, and its portrayal of Africans has been condemned as racist. A librarian filed a complaint that “the content is offensive to black people,” an interesting example of multiculturalism interfering in the pluralism of ideas. Following its removal, Tintin could be viewed by appointment only. But does moving a book into a special collection count as banning? What does it mean for us to ban a book? And, more importantly, what is at stake if we do?

With Tintin in a vault, the library shut conversation out. The problems the story presents could be used as discussion starters about colonialism and typecast images of Africans. Instead, the decision to pull the book lent even more force to the feeling that those stereotypes are still too real for us to talk about. Mistrust of the public’s ability to understand a difficult idea becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Our most ambiguous books, the ones that don’t fit comfortably with our ideas about our world and ourselves, are also our most powerful and most enduring. Stalin is gone, and Russia is a very different place, but Platonov is on more and more bookshelves. Gorky’s advice is as true as ever: “Don’t be angry, don’t be bitter. All will pass, and the truth alone will remain.”