Giving Offense: Essays on Censorshipby J. M. Coetzee
Winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature.
J. M. Coetzee presents a coherent, unorthodox analysis of censorship from the perspective of one who has lived and worked under its shadow. The essays collected here attempt to understand the passion that plays itself out in acts of silencing and censoring. He argues that a destructive dynamic of belligerence and
Winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature.
J. M. Coetzee presents a coherent, unorthodox analysis of censorship from the perspective of one who has lived and worked under its shadow. The essays collected here attempt to understand the passion that plays itself out in acts of silencing and censoring. He argues that a destructive dynamic of belligerence and escalation tends to overtake the rivals in any field ruled by censorship.
From Osip Mandelstam commanded to compose an ode in praise of Stalin, to Breyten Breytenbach writing poems under and for the eyes of his prison guards, to Aleksander Solzhenitsyn engaging in a trial of wits with the organs of the Soviet state, Giving Offense focuses on the ways authors have historically responded to censorship. It also analyzes the arguments of Catharine MacKinnon for the suppression of pornography and traces the operations of the old South African censorship system.
"The most impressive feature of Coetzee's essays, besides his ear for language, is his coolheadedness. He can dissect repugnant notions and analyze volatile emotions with enviable poise."—Kenneth Baker, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
"Those looking for simple, ringing denunciations of censorship's evils will be disappointed. Coetzee explicitly rejects such noble tritenesses. Instead . . . he pursues censorship's deeper, more fickle meanings and unmeanings."—Kirkus Reviews
"These erudite essays form a powerful, bracing criticism of censorship in its many guises."—Publishers Weekly
"Giving Offense gets its incisive message across clearly, even when Coetzee is dealing with such murky theorists as Bakhtin, Lacan, Foucault, and René; Girard. Coetzee has a light, wry sense of humor."—Bill Marx, Hungry Mind Review
"An extraordinary collection of essays."—Martha Bayles, New York Times Book Review
"A disturbing and illuminating moral expedition."—Richard Eder, Los Angeles Times Book Review
As a noted South African writer under apartheid, Coetzee (The Master of Petersburg, 1994, etc.) long suffered the stifling shadow of the censor. Indeed, almost half of the essays in this collection concern South Africa's particular brand of censorship and how it was leveled at fellow writers such as André Brink and Breyten Breytenbach. Broadening his examination, Coetzee also looks at Solzhenitsyn's struggles with the Soviet state, undercuts Catherine MacKinnon's dogmatic anti-pornography stance, deconstructs D.H. Lawrence's belief in breaking taboos, and closely reads the works of several writers operating under censorship conditions. Those looking for simple, ringing denunciations of censorship's evils will be disappointed. Coetzee explicitly rejects such noble tritenesses. Instead, drawing on the works of modern theorists such as Lacan, Foucault, and Girard, he pursues censorship's deeper, more fickle meanings and unmeanings. In his essay on the South African Publications Appeal Board, for example, he reveals the unreasoning paranoia that governs even the most "enlightened" censorship. In other words, censorship can never be a wholly rational act. Almost every page is thick with such provocative insights and ideas, but Coetzee does not always do his arguments justice. Unlike his lucid, elegant fictions, here he is often unnecessarily opaque and obscure. He has the South African intellectual's fatal fondness for academic jargon (though not the usual accompanying cant), and his logic occasionally short- circuits.
But his erudition and intelligence remain truly formidable throughout. And as Coetzee's own experience has shown, censorship ultimately fights a losing battle: "The artist, if he is patient enough and persistent enough, always wins, or at least emerges on the winning side."
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Essays on Censorship
By J. M. Coetzee
University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2003
University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Writing does not flourish under censorship. This does not mean that the
censor's edict, or the internalized figure of the censor, is the sole or
even the principal pressure on the writer: there are forms of repression,
inherited, acquired, or self-imposed, that can be more grievously felt.
There may even be cases where external censorship challenges the writer in
interesting ways or spurs creativity. But the Aesopian ruses that
censorship provokes are usually no more than ingenious; while the
obstacles that writers are capable of visiting upon themselves are surely
sufficient in number and variety for them not to invite more.
Nevertheless, for the common good, for the good of the state, apparatuses
of regulation and control are from time to time set up, which grow and
entrench themselves, as is the wont of bureaucracies. It is hard for any
writer to contemplate the scale of such apparatuses without a disbelieving
smile. If representations, mere shadows, are indeed so dangerous, one
reflects, then surely the appropriate countermeasures are other
representations, counterrepresentations. If mockery corrodes respectfor
the state, if blasphemy insults God, if pornography demeans the passions,
surely it will suffice if stronger and more convincing countervoices are
raised defending the authority of the state, praising God, exalting chaste
This response is wholly in accord with the teleology of liberalism, which
believes in throwing open the marketplace to contending forces because in
the long run the market tends to the good, that is to say, to progress,
which liberalism understands in a historical and even metaphysical light.
It is wholly at odds with the outlook of the more austere branches of
Islam, Judaism, and Protestant Christianity, which, detecting a seductive
and devilish force at the root of the power of representation, and thus
having no reason to expect that, in a war of representations, a war
without rules, good representations will triumph, prefer to ban graven
We have here reached the entry-point into a debate about the rights of the
individual as against the rights of the collectivity which is familiar
enough not to need extended rehearsal and to which I have nothing to
contribute except perhaps a caution against the kind of moral vigilance
that defines vulnerable classes of people and sets about protecting them
from harms whose nature they must be kept blind to because (the argument
goes) merely to know the harm is to suffer it. I refer here primarily to
children, though the same argument has been made in respect of so-called
simple believers. We are concerned to protect children, in good part to
protect them from the consequences of their limitless curiosity about
sexual matters. But we should not forget that children experience control
of their explorations-control which by its own premises cannot spell out
exactly what it is that is forbidden-not as protection but as frustration.
From the measures adults take to deny the satisfaction of children's
curiosity, may children not legitimately infer that their curiosity is
censurable; and from the explanations with which they are provided for
being constrained-explanations riddled with holes-may they not infer that
they are not respected as moral agents? May the ethical wrong done to the
child in the process not be more durable than any harm it may suffer from
following wherever curiosity leads?
This is neither an argument for keeping sexually explicit materials away
from children nor an argument against it. It is a reflection on how harms
weigh up against each other, on balancing imponderables, choosing between
evils. In making such choices we might include in our reckoning the
consideration that to a small child the things that adults do with or to
each other's bodies are not only intriguing and disturbing but ugly and
funny too, even silly; the consideration, too, that whether or not the
child succeeds in blocking the thought that what the people do in the
picture its parents may do too, it is hard for the parent not to project
this thought upon the child, and, reexperiencing it through the child, to
be embarrassed, ashamed, and even angry. Nor should we forget who is most
embarrassed when to the candid gaze of a child spectacles of gross adult
nakedness are exposed. The moment is a complex one; but included in our
desire to keep such sights from the child may there not be a wish not to
descend, by association, in the child's esteem, not to become the object
of the child's disgust or amusement? Max Scheler distinguishes between the
nakedness of an Aphrodite sculpted with such awe that she seems to have a
veil of modesty about her, and the "deanimation," or loss of soul, that
occurs when primitive or childish wonder is lost, and the naked body is
seen with knowing eyes. He links deanimation to what he calls the
"apperceptive breaking out" of the sexual organs from the body: no longer
seen as integral with the body, nor yet as "fields of expression of inner
and passionate movements," the sexual organs-particularly, one might note,
the male apparatus, with its appearance of extruded viscera-threaten to
become objects of disgust. It is not strange that we should wish to
preserve the childhood of children by protecting them from such sights;
but whose sensibilities are we in the first place guarding, theirs or our
The sexual organs, observes Saint Augustine, move independently of the
will. Sometimes they respond to what we do not want them to respond to;
sometimes they remain "frozen" when we want to employ them. From this
disobedience of the flesh, mark of a fallen state, none are exempt, not
even the guardians of our morals. A censor pronouncing a ban, whether on
an obscene spectacle or a derisive imitation, is like a man trying to stop
his penis from standing up. The spectacle is ridiculous, so ridiculous
that he is soon a victim not only of his unruly member but of pointing
fingers, laughing voices. That is why the institution of censorship has to
surround itself with secondary bans on the infringement of its dignity.
From being sour to being laughed at for being sour to banning laughter at
what is sour is an all-too-familiar progression in tyranny, one that
should give us further cause for caution.
In the above similitude, I need hardly point out that the one who
pronounces the ban does not have to be male. The one who pronounces the
ban by that act lays claim to the phallus, but the phallus in its mundane
form as penis. Taking up the position of censor, this one becomes, in
effect, the blind one, the one at the center of the ring in the game of
blind man's buff. For a time, until the blindfold that at the same time
marks him, elevates him, and disables him can be passed on, it is his fate
to be the fool who stumbles about, laughed at and evaded. If the spirit of
the game, the spirit of the child, is to reign, the censor must accept the
clownship that goes with blind kingship. The censor who refuses to be a
clown, who tears off the blindfold and accuses and punishes the laughers,
is not playing the game. He thereby becomes, in Erasmus's paradox, the
true fool, or rather, the false fool. He is a fool because he does not
know himself a fool, because he thinks that, being in the center of the
ring, he is king.
Children are not, qua children, innocent. We have all been children and
know-unless we prefer to forget-how little innocent we were, what
determined efforts of indoctrination it took to make us into innocents,
how often we tried to escape from the staging-camp of childhood and how
implacably we were herded back. Nor do we inherently possess dignity. We
are certainly born without dignity, and we spend enough time by ourselves,
hidden from the eyes of others, doing the things that we do when we are by
ourselves, to know how little of it we can honestly lay claim to. We also
see enough of animals concerned for their dignity (cats, for instance) to
know how comical pretensions to dignity can be.
Innocence is a state in which we try to maintain our children; dignity is
a state we claim for ourselves. Affronts to the innocence of our children
or to the dignity of our persons are attacks not upon our essential being
but upon constructs-constructs by which we live, but constructs
nevertheless. This is not to say that affronts to innocence or dignity are
not real affronts, or that the outrage with which we respond to them is
not real, in the sense of not being sincerely felt. The infringements are
real; what is infringed, however, is not our essence but a foundational
fiction to which we more or less wholeheartedly subscribe, a fiction that
may well be indispensable for a just society, namely, that human beings
have a dignity that sets them apart from animals and consequently protects
them from being treated like animals. (It is even possible that we may
look forward to a day when animals will have their own dignity ascribed to
them, and the ban will be reformulated as a ban on treating a living
creature like a thing.)
The fiction of dignity helps to define humanity and the status of humanity
helps to define human rights. There is thus a real sense in which an
affront to our dignity strikes at our rights. Yet when, outraged at such
affront, we stand on our rights and demand redress, we would do well to
remember how insubstantial the dignity is on which those rights are based.
Forgetting where our dignity comes from, we may fall into a posture as
comical as that of the irate censor.
Life, says Erasmus's Folly, is theater: we each have lines to say and a
part to play. One kind of actor, recognizing that he is in a play, will go
on playing nevertheless; another kind of actor, shocked to find he is
participating in an illusion, will try to step off the stage and out of
the play. The second actor is mistaken. For there is nothing outside the
theater, no alternative life one can join instead. The show is, so to
speak, the only show in town. All one can do is to go on playing one's
part, though perhaps with a new awareness, a comic awareness.
We thus arrive at a pair of Erasmian paradoxes. A dignity worthy of
respect is a dignity without dignity (which is quite different from
unconscious or unaffected dignity); an innocence worthy of respect is an
innocence without innocence. As for respect itself, it is tempting to
suggest that this is a superfluous concept, though for the workings of the
theater of life it may turn out to be indispensable. True respect is a
variety of love and may be subsumed under love; to respect someone means,
inter alia, to forgive that person an innocence that, outside the theater,
would be false, a dignity that would be risible.
Excerpted from Giving Offense
by J. M. Coetzee
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
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