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Posts Tagged ‘Censorship’

Philip Pullman’s latest fiction opens with a caveat.

The story I tell comes out of the tension within the dual nature of Jesus Christ, but what I do with it is my responsibility alone. Parts of it read like a novel, parts like a history, and parts like a fairy tale; I wanted it to be like that because it is, among other things, a story about how stories becomes stories.

At a press conference, he also succinctly defended his right to shock, his right to write.

Nobody has the right to stop me writing this book.

Already, Pullman is anticipating the onslaught of religious complaints, the outcries of people clamoring to have his work banned, burned, suppressed. He is, of course, no stranger to offending the religious. He is an open atheist and a great deal of his fiction supports his beliefs. He’s been quoted as saying, “I hope the wretched Catholic church will vanish entirely.”

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is another volume in the Canongate Myth series which also features Margaret Atwood’s retelling of the Odyssey’s Penelope and Jeanette Winterson’s take on Atlas and Heracles. But Ron Charles has a point, if you’re going to retell Greek mythology people are mildly amused, but “if you fiddle with Jesus, people begin collecting dry sticks.”

Pullman splits, he literally twins the abstraction of Jesus Christ into the strong leader, the charismatic preacher Jesus and the weaker, more innovative pencil-pusher Christ. Pullman’s goal is to retell the Gospels of Jesus, replacing all supernatural miracles with hyperbole and misunderstanding. For example, a man comes to Mary claiming to be an angel. He beds her then leaves. Though Mary believes him to be an angel, it is more likely he is a farmhand taking advantage of a very young, naïve married woman. This is one of many liberties Pullman takes regarding Catholic doctrine.

Jeanette Winterson reviews Pullman in the London Times, beginning with a brief précis of Gnosticism, which, she says, is a doctrine of dualism that splits the human condition into a pure, holy spirit and a corrupt, tainted body. “Salvation is through knowledge (gnosis) of this composite self.”

The once suppressed Gnostic text gone DaVinci Code, The Acts of Thomas, has Judas as Jesus’ twin. Judas who still betrays Jesus, but then Brown has him sacrifice himself in order to save his brother.

This view of Gnosticism is directly in line with Logocentricism: the search for the one Truth, the privilege of the spoken word over the written, and language as a fundamental expression of reality.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ plays with this fallacy.

We live in a binary world of opposites. We find them comforting.

(When I say we, I of course, mean some, as feminists have been in an uproar over this binary structure. And they should be.)

According to the psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan, a child splits her perception of her mother into anxious and non-anxious states. The scowling, angry, punishing mother is bad, while the good mother is caring, kind, loves unconditionally. Eventually, the child learns to predict whether the good mother or the bad mother approaches her through facial expressions, vocal intonations, etc. But in time, the child discovers that the arrival of those foreshadowing images hinges upon her behavior. This is where a sense of self evolves.

But still, often there is a dichotomy in our sense of self, and in our sense of others.

This is why the twins trope has been so prevalent in literature. Winterson:

The twin motif is a binary that allows us to look at aspects of the self within the self that are uncomfortable, contradictory or disowned. The twin motif is stretchy enough to include the Jekyll and Hyde problem, where the good self secretly harbours the bad self — the Jungian Shadow that we often deny but that must eventually be met and integrated for psychic wholeness, resolving the dualism of our natures.

As Pullman said, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is supposed to represent the dual nature of Christianity. Even though he transforms Jesus Christ as myth into a historical Jesus, one without superstition or dogma, Pullman still stresses the good message of universal love and compassion. He’s saying that the theology, the magic are what vilify the church.

This is where the “scoundrel” Christ comes in. He thinks that Jesus’ message would best be absorbed if they were to turn his teachings into a business.

I can see it so clearly, Jesus! I can see the whole world united in this Kingdom of the Faithful – think of that! Groups of families worshipping together with a priest in every village and town, an association of local groups under the direction and guidance of a wise elder in the region, the regional leaders all answering to the authority of one supreme director, a kind of regent of God on earth!

Though Jesus rejects both his brother and his ideas, Christ surreptitiously follows him and records all of his teachings. But a mysterious stranger approaches Christ and urges him to alter Jesus’ sermons for the sake of Truth. “There is time, and there is what is beyond time. History belongs to time. In writing of things as they should have been, you are letting truth into history. You are the word of God.”

This is Pullman reminding people that recording history and retelling history changes history. That one cannot tell a story without the lens of subjectivity. That magic can arise from misconstruction. Like he said, this is a story about how stories become stories. This is why, I think, Pullman chose to write this text very plainly, with Orwellian precision.

Just as Orwell wanted to present 1984 with as much objectivity as possible, Pullman stripped his prose bare of any adjectives, adverbs, devices, metaphors, allusions, convolutions, mystifications, manipulations, and disorder. His language, therefore, is simple and clear.

Winterson complains about this; she complains about a lot that I disagree with. I think she misses Pullman’s point, almost completely. It’s not to retell the Gospels of Jesus to illustrate how strong and important women really were, it’s not to consider Jesus as miracle-worker so we can all ponder the what-ifs of bending natural law. She also complains that the book isn’t literary enough, it’s not artistic enough. Pullman’s point is to show that the Gospel of Jesus is just a story. To remind that it is simply a myth. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is an atheistic representation of probability. He took the Canongate assignment and made it political.

Religion is a hot-button topic, and it should be.

Church and state are separate. The secular humanists therefore see religion as a political issue, the religious don’t even see it as an issue, they see it as a way of life. And until they agree to keep their beliefs and their opinions away from our laws, then this is a battle that we must, as a nation, encourage at every turn to debate. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is an excellent catalyst to get the discussion rolling, and I think it would be wise to make this book part of the high school canon.

*Artwork by Andrew Zig Leipzig. Who also is responsible for DH Krahn‘s bottle design, which is a spectacular gin founded by an ex boyfriend of mine.

Note: I do find it interesting that Winterson critiques Pullman so when she wrote for the same series. I’ve added Weight; the Myth of Atlas and Heracles to my wishlist, but if anyone has read it I’d love to know what you think of it.

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Ryder is a multi-voiced, multi-faceted novel, a roman à clef by Djuna Barnes about her trauma, her family, her polygamist, free-loving father, her scamming, enabling grandmother, her sexual abuse as a child, and female oppression. “It covers fifty years of history of the Ryder family: Sophia Grieve Ryder, like Zadel a former salon hostess fallen into poverty; her idle son Wendell; his wife Amelia; his resident mistress Kate-Careless; and their children. Barnes herself appears as Wendell and Amelia’s daughter Julie.” (Wiki)

Barnes' own illustration for Julie Ryder

Ryder functions as a set of Matryoshka Dolls, the Russian Dolls. Each layer nests, and masks what I think is the heart of the story, Julie. Each layer moving inward, towards the center, towards Chapter 24: “Julie Becomes What She Has Read.”

The fantastic range of styles and voices may be merely a fan dance to distract the reader from the passages concerning sexuality and sexual abuse, or the plot in general.

As mentioned, Julie is based on Barnes, but the reader is only given little bits about her, creating a tremendous amount of distance between us and the character. And in 24, it is the only time we are given a Ryder event without a beginning.

If we are to look at Ryder with a psychoanalytic lens, we can uncover the language of a traumatized child, forced to fragment and flower her prose in order to censor the content, not only from the censors, but possibly from herself. These fragmented pieces, clipped memories, which she fled from, reoccur in her mind in an emotional order, a hierarchy of impact versus a hierarchy of time.

The subject of rape gets an entire chapter. “Rape Re-pining”. To pine is to suffer a physical decline from a broken heart, but to re-pine denotes some form of hope squeezed in between each occurrence of loss. Possibly meaning, multiple rapes. And when the specific sentences are closely looked at, deconstructed, the mystery of Wendell and Julie’s sexual congress could be extracted from the text.

(Within the parentheses are my interpretations, more interpretations like this below.)

“Yesterday (the previous chapter, “Wendell is Born”) swung upon the Pasture Gate (A reference to the Garden of Eden, a child’s genitalia) with Knowledge (Sophia is Greek for knowledge) no-where (to protect her as she tried to in Ch. 24), yet is now, to-day, no better than her mother (Amelia, whom Wendell clearly sleeps with).”

Assuming that Barnes is unveiling a scene of molestation within 24, the child Julie is faced with a contradiction, she must repress or she will go mad, and she must emotionally and intellectually deal with this, speak about it, or she will die. And in order for her to accomplish this, she splits herself and becomes Arabella Lynn, who’s destined for death, but then she also safely remains Julie. Barnes is using dream sequences to dramatize how the trauma of molestation results in a splitting off and disassociation within Julie’s psyche.

Julie also does this psychic trick with her father, who is split into God and Dog. And though in the end these two symbols seem to be interchangeable, the idea is to protect the good father from contamination from the bad.

To further this feeling of dislocation, Julie dislocates the reader, makes them feel ashamed at their confusion and anger towards the break with unexpected relationship between reader and text.

But this feeling of dislocation is not reserved for Julie’s chapters alone. Because the book is wrapped in veils, in layers, the reader is constantly kept at arm’s length.

The novel opens with a Biblical opus. Genesis. The Father was there from the beginning. To a child, the parents, the family and the home are the child’s only world they know. Just as in “The Coming of Kate-Careless, a Rude Chapter,” Wendell appears to his family, to Kate, naked, astride the opening to his log’s cabin second floor, his three legs form the Holy Trinity, the tripod over the trapdoor, as he says: “Look that you may know your destiny!” From the Bible to bawdy folklore.

Ryder incorporates the sermon, anecdote, tall tale, riddling, fable, elegy, dream, epitaph, vision, parable, tirade, bedtime story, lullaby, satiric couplet, parallel structuring, ghost story, debate, sentia or aphorism, and emblem or epitome activated as epiphany.

These stylistic juxtapositions, bring about an intense irony, one that unfathers the Father, questions the allotted gender roles, and turns the traditional values of the patriarchy on its head.

Ryder was written during a time when the social construction of motherhood was deteriorating, and the ideas of mothers and child bearing were in transition. Excessive childbearing was thought to be an epidemic. 23,000 women died through childbearing in 1918 alone. Just as Sophia’s mother did, and as Amelia threatened. In 1920 Margaret Sanger published Woman and the New Race, which presents the revolt of women against sex servitude; urging the benefits of limiting reproduction by voluntary motherhood. As a result, American women who married in the 20’s produced fewer children than those marrying in any decade between the 1880’s and the 1950’s. Because Julie Ryder is the only character that changes, thinks outside of the family, she serves as a sketch for the contemporary female in revolt, one who questions the traditional roles of Mother and Father assumed so self-consciously by Wendell and Sophia.

To do this, Barnes must bring the idealized Mother and Father down to earth. She must represent these archetypes as they are, their grotesque bodies, back down to the womb and the tomb. Barnes does this by epitomizing eating and shitting, sex and pregnancy, childbirth and physical decay. This puts the body in direct opposition to the classical canon of literature, the canon that Barnes is parodying.

In chapters like “What Kate Was Not” when Kate pours her chamber pot onto a police officer, or when Dr. Matthew O’Connor pontificates on his profession and his desires, “staring down into and up through the cavities and openings and fissures and entrances of my fellowman, and following some, and continuing others, and increasing many, and them swelling and opening and contracting and pinching like the tides of the sea, and me a mortal like the sea with my ebb and flow, and my good heart, and my thundering parts and my appetites and my hungers.”

This is Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the Carnivalesque. It refers to a literary mode that subverts and liberates the assumptions of the hegemony though humor and chaos. Named because during the Annual Feast of Fools, every rite and article of the Church, no matter how sacred, was celebrated in mockery.

Barnes was always a lover of the spectacle, of the carnival and the underbelly of society, and I’m suggesting that she’s setting out to do exactly this within her prose by taking the power of the father, be it Wendell, or God, or a conflation of the two, and subverting it by bringing down the idealized sexuality of the female body to the womb/tomb metaphor.

For Bakhtin, such images convey a sense of life in a vital, holistic relation to the world. Each character would then be fully open, an incomplete body, never a closed and complete unit, but in constant connection with the earth, within its process of change and renewal. Just as Amelia talks about in the A-Dunging chapter.

This also coincides with Wendell’s desires to break down the barriers between human and animal, celebrating the abundance and fertility of the earth itself, but this is a utopian ideal. To Barnes, for the woman, the emphasis falls on decay, pain, debasement and death.

The contradictory images of birth and death, and sexuality and childbirth are concentrated in Wendell’s story of Thingumbob. The female gives herself in love and undergoes birthing and death within the same moment.

The illustration of the beast and his bride, illuminate Bakhtin’s Carnivalesque. The beast is conglomerate animal, extending from the clouds, from above, from ideals, while the female is one with the earth. He is upon her, her which is predominantly a woman body, but with ten breasts and hooves instead of feet. There is then emphasis on the maternal breasts, ten breasts, ten babies, and there is a de-emphasis on the individuality of the woman, who has no face, no eyes, no feet, and as Sophia places a great emphasis on feet: “large feet and small feet have played a great part on the history of man.”

Together, the beast, and his bride convey the porous quality of the grotesque body. He as the rain, she as the harvest, tied to the earth, part of the renewal cycle which betrays the woman, using their bodies for pleasure, maternity, physical suffering, and death.

Barnes’ language is modernism at its best: gorgeous, pregnant, obscured, and alienated: Joycian, if Joyce were a woman. Both richly veiled and devastatingly deep, it’s down right shocking that she’s isn’t more well known.

Anaïs Nin writes to Djuna, “I have to tell you of the great, deep beauty of your Nightwood . . . . A woman rarely writes as a woman, as she feels, but you have.”

Here, below, is what I think Nin means when she says this. Here, below, are more examples of the genius behind Barnes’ layered prose.

Again, within the parentheses are my interpretations.

“Arabella Lynn, coming down the cold and pillared (death by phallus) stair, past (skips) the potted, odiferous, cyclomen (A Cyclamen Woman is one who has too frequent and too profuse of menstruation with the flow of black, clotted blood.)” 132

“Yet no sooner is Arabella laid beneath the unthinking sod than the thunders roll! The rain bursts in all its fury! … The heavens crack asunder, and the valleys are inundated! The fig tree fattens on the rain, and the fruit is whelmed.” 136.

“So Danae endured, the beautiful,

to change the glad daylight for brass-bound walls,

And in that chamber secret as the grave

She lived a prisoner. Yet to her came

Zeus in the golden rain.”   -Greek Mythology

“Did I not her de-riding me?” 138

Deride. To insult. To not ride. To not be ridden. Not Ryder.

Which can only be a response to “Not I, not I, not I.”

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Both American and Canadian publishing houses have censored The Amber Spyglass.

For some reason, all the blatant atheist lines made it through the Christian filter, but a girl going through puberty, noticing a boy, is strictly forbidden.

How ironic.

They want to eradicate Lyra’s budding sexuality, just as the Church wants to in the book.

It’s almost too ironic.

Serafina Pekkala:

All the history of human life has been a struggle between wisdom and stupidity… the Authority and his churches have always tried to keep [minds] closed.

Chapter 33: Marzipan

UK version:

As Mary said that, Lyra felt something strange happen to her body. She found a stirring at the roots of her hair: she found herself breathing faster. She had never been on a roller-coaster, or anything like one, but if she had, she would have recognized the sensations in her breast: they were exciting and frightening at the same time, and she had not the slightest idea why. The sensation continued, and deepened, and changed, as more parts of her body found themselves affected too. She felt as if she had been handed the key to a great house she hadn’t known was there, a house that was somehow inside her, and as she turned the key, deep in the darkness of the building she felt other doors opening too, and lights coming on. She sat trembling, hugging her knees, hardly daring to breathe, as Mary went on:

American and Canadian version:

As Mary said that, Lyra felt something strange happen to her body. She felt as if she had been handed the key to a great house she hadn’t known was there, a house that was somehow inside her, and as she turned the key, she felt the other doors opening deep in the darkness, and lights coming on. She sat trembling as Mary went on:

Censorship really grinds my gears.

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Yale University Press removes images of Mohammed even before any threats. Disgusting.

Yale University Press announced last week that it would go ahead with the publication of the book, but it would remove from it the 12 caricatures that originated the controversy. Not content with this, it is also removing other historic illustrations of the likeness of the Prophet, including one by Gustave Doré of the passage in Dante’s Inferno that shows Mohammed being disemboweled in hell. (These same Dantean stanzas have also been depicted by William Blake, Sandro Botticelli, Salvador Dalí, and Auguste Rodin, so there’s a lot of artistic censorship in our future if this sort of thing is allowed to set a precedent.)

The emphasis on the masters is only to shock, and impress the dire need to abhor censorship at all costs. If I should decide to print or even link to images of Mohammed and then someone at WordPress were to die because of it, or even if I were to die, WordPress would be responsible. That kind of logic, as Christopher Hitchens points out, is akin to women asking for rape merely by wearing something revealing.

So here’s another depressing thing: Neither the “experts in the intelligence, national security, law enforcement, and diplomatic fields, as well as leading scholars in Islamic studies and Middle East studies” who were allegedly consulted, nor the spokespeople for the press of one of our leading universities, understand the meaning of the plain and common and useful word instigate. If you instigate something, it means that you wish and intend it to happen. If it’s a riot, then by instigating it, you have yourself fomented it. If it’s a murder, then by instigating it, you have yourself colluded in it. There is no other usage given for the word in any dictionary, with the possible exception of the word provoke, which does have a passive connotation. After all, there are people who argue that women who won’t wear the veil have “provoked” those who rape or disfigure them … and now Yale has adopted that “logic” as its own.

Yale University Press should be ashamed of itself. Completely and utterly. For being cowards, for flogging the first amendment, and for fearing an action from a religion most of them don’t even believe in. Censorship is a regression, an unthinkable step backwards into the dark, and I can’t believe any ivy league press, supposedly the best of the best of what we have to offer, would consider such a pathetic act.

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