Gene Kerrigan: 'No alternative' to the rot shoved on us
Published 04/11/2012 | 05:00
Thank the Lord we have our betters to shield us from uglier matters of the day, writes Gene Kerrigan
Samuel Beckett, Kate O'Brien, Frank O'Connor, John McGahern, Edna O'Brien, James Joyce and Sean O'Casey. This isn't a list of some of Ireland's great writers of the 20th Century. This is a list of some of the Irish writers who had some of their work banned by the State in the 20th Century.
Not to mention Sean O Faolain, Liam O'Flaherty, Maura Laverty, Austin Clarke, Brendan Behan and Walter Macken. Among international writers officially declared indecent or obscene and deemed too dangerous to read were Hemingway, Orwell, Proust, Huxley, Koestler, Updike and Mailer. And Sartre, Steinbeck, Nabokov, Freud and Faulkner.
Not to mention Mary McCarthy, Thomas Mann and Muriel Spark, Dylan Thomas, Graham Greene, Alberto Moravia, Maxim Gorki, Robert Graves and HG Wells. That's just a sample. The list of the Legion of the Banned is mighty. We could go on all night about this. And when we've had a glass too many of Chateau Indignation we sometimes do.
It's part of what we are. Society had then and has now a thin layer of wise people who must instruct citizens about who they shouldn't read, who they ought not to listen to, what they should not watch. At times, this is given the force of law.
And always there's some very good reason given as to why such wise people must shield the eyes and ears of the public against the outpourings of writers obscene or dangerous. Such as Kingsley Amis, Margaret Mead, Christopher Isherwood, Sinclair Lewis, Iris Murdoch . . .
Last week, I'm sure the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions had good reason for burping in the direction of the producers of an eagerly awaited production, Anglo -- The Musical.
Get yourself some lawyers, you may need them, said the DPP, or words to that effect. So, the producers got lawyered up.
As a result, they've dropped a central character from the production -- the musical comedy version of the Irish economic collapse will now be told without reference to He Who Must Not Be Named (Sean FitzPatrick).
Now, given that it's written by Paul Howard, we can with some confidence predict that the show will be not only funny but will accurately skewer much that needs skewering.
The title of one of the songs, for instance, succinctly captures an important facet of Irish banking: "Put A Zero On The End, He's A Friend".
But it's disturbing how easily the law can bludgeon a work of fiction, using legal propriety as the reason.
Back in the 20th Century, things were done crudely. Books and movies were banned by the truckload. British newspapers were confiscated by customs officers and burned (they carried reports of divorce cases and occasionally mentioned contraception). The effect was to make impregnable the authority of the Catholic hierarchy and its lay cronies.
In 1942, a Senator, Sir John Keane, a British military chap with impeccable conservative credentials, stood up in the Seanad and read out passages from three banned books. How could such writings be banned?
For instance, he quoted from The Land of Spices, by Kate O'Brien. A central character in the novel is a convent Reverend Mother. She is shown recalling, in a single sentence, an upsetting moment that hugely influenced her life.
This moment was referred to in an Irish Independent review of the book, which said: "There is one single sentence in the book so repulsive that the book should not be left where it would fall into the hands of very young people."
The Censorship Board agreed, and banned the book on the basis of that sentence alone. I am now about to quote the repulsive sentence in its entirety -- you may wish to remove young people from the vicinity, draw the curtains and prepare yourself by swallowing a stiff measure of Jameson.
"She saw Etienne and her father in the embrace of love."
Given that Etienne is the French version of Stephen, you can understand why the establishment of the day was horrified. The official record of that day's Seanad proceedings was censored. The "repulsive sentence" and all else quoted by Sir John went unrecorded.
The result of all this was an inbred, unthinking, stagnant society, cut off from significant streams of thought and expression. It was not only intellectually and culturally crippled, but economically, socially and democratically.
It created one generation after another steeped in acquiescence, unthinkingly bowing to all forms of authority.
Powerful institutions could, knowing they were above scrutiny, indulge in power plays and cruelties that still echo today -- and yes, Your Grace, I'm looking at you.
Before Ireland opened up economically, in the Sixties, the stringent censorship of books had to be dismantled -- to create a society capable of competing with the rest of the world.
Of course, today, we're more sophisticated. But it's just the targets that have changed -- and the means of stuffing the ears of the citizens.
Today, that thin layer of wise people is not a censorship board, it's a loose, informal alignment of politicians, wealthy interests, lawyers and media players. The Wise Folk.
Today, we look back and wonder why the citizens allowed such a thin layer of elitists dictate the shape of society -- with such disastrous consequences. Well, explain to me why the bulk of citizens today are entirely disengaged from the decisions that will economically smother our children.
When the economy was collapsing, ordinary citizens used Liveline to discuss what was happening. The debate was quickly shut down. Imagine, in the run-up to the bank guarantee, if we had collectively engaged in a debate on banking -- what had happened to it, and what kind of banking we needed. It could have changed so much.
As it was, not even the cabinet, much less parliament, had that debate. It would be too dangerous to allow the riff-raff hear, much less engage in, matters properly the concern of the elites.
Today, the central issue of the day -- the transfer of private debt on to the backs of the citizens -- is not discussed. The Wise Folk use terms such as "bailout" and "our debt" -- entirely inaccurate and deceptive, to obscure reality.
When awkward issues are raised, the phrase "there is no alternative" is used to close down debate.
Write about certain people with deep pockets and you risk being hit with legal actions left dangling for years -- with the expected chilling effect.
The media seems curiously incurious about the absence of the byline of a journalist of Sam Smyth's calibre.
The unresolved Wikileaks controversy surrounding Eamon Gilmore was silently ruled unmentionable. When ministers claim, as they regularly do, that there was a "renegotiation" of the interest rate forced on us by the troika, it's reported as though that was true.
Daily, we follow the progress of the "debt deal" -- when a deal is something agreed by two or more parties, and what Enda Kenny is pleading for is a measure of charity from the people who have immorally extracted billions from our treasury.
Today, we can discuss to our heart's content every quiver and thrust of the "embrace of love". But there's always a law or a rule or a patriotic reason for being less concerned about other matters that are less orgasmic but every bit as earthshaking.