Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship is not a systematic analysis of the modern phenomenon of censorship. Rather, it is a collection of a dozen essays which appeared in a number of periodicals such as Salmagundi, Mosaic, Neophilologus, Social Dynamics, and Raritan during the period 1988-1993. As a consequence, the volume lacks a consistency of argumentation; however, this minor flaw (if it can even be called that) is more than compensated for by a clarity of vision and a deep understanding on the part of an author who has some firsthand experience with the subject: J. M. Coetzee is a distinguished novelist and respected academician who has lived in a country which, until 1993, officially sanctioned censorship. Coetzee is passionately opposed to any form of official censorship, and the essays in this collection detail the dangers of this practice to the creative process. This is not a “history of censorship,” Coetzee insists; it is instead “an attempt to understand a passion with which” he has “no intuitive sympathy.” The book is also a tribute to the men and women who have withstood the censor’s gaze and defied official prohibitions to produce works of art which reveal aspects of the human spirit that some would rather see kept hidden from view.
Throughout his study, Coetzee deals with the philosophical and sociological implications of censorship. Relying primarily on the work of twentieth century politicians, philosophers, and literary theorists, he mines his considerable store of academic learning, bringing to bear as well the thoughts of classical, medieval, Renaissance, and Enlightenment figures who have confronted the phenomenon of censorship in their own times. Throughout, Coetzee is eloquent in his analysis of the mind of the censor and the reaction of the writer who knows he or she is being watched.
The initial chapters provide an overview of censorship in the modern world and expose Coetzee’s personal biases. A liberal in the mold of English philosopher John Stuart Mill, Coetzee argues for a free-market approach to art and literature, convinced that works with no redeeming artistic value will have little impact on the public. In these introductory chapters the author is careful to lay the groundwork for exploring the two forms of censorship with which he will deal: the suppression of so-called pornographic materials, banned as a means of preserving the moral character of a society; and the squelching of political opposition through prohibitions on publication of literature that exposes weakness or corruption in the ruling government.
Coetzee follows this overview with a sensitive and balanced analysis of one of the most celebrated cases of censorship in the twentieth century: the suppression of D. H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Relying on both the public record of the outcry against the work and the novelist’s own critique of the tale, Coetzee shows how the act of censorship is based on the naïve belief that such actions can have lasting effect. The censors are always wrong, Coetzee argues, because by their actions they assure the work a welcome among a reading public whose curiosity is heightened by the attention it has received. The endurance of Lawrence’s work is testimony to the failure of official censorship, because it illustrates a principle Coetzee sees at the heart of such actions: “The more draconically the state comes down on writing, the more seriously it is seen to be taking writing; the more seriously it is seen to be taking writing, the more attention is paid to writing; the more attention is paid to writing, the more the disseminative potential to writing grows.”
The same argument can be extended to other art forms, Coetzee argues, and in his fourth essay, “The Harms of Pornography,” he takes on a group who have been decidedly liberal in most of their political activities, but who have recently come out in favor of censorship: the feminists. Like so many others on the political Left, feminists have vehemently criticized political censorship. Beginning in the 1960’s, however, a number of feminist writers have been in the forefront of a movement to restrict production and dissemination of art, literature, and film which depicts women in demeaning ways. Coetzee deals with the issue head-on, choosing as his target the works of critic Catharine MacKinnon. Judging her argument to be simplistic, he shows how the strident rhetoric condemning the results of sexual exploitation is really overkill; in his opinion, she and her feminist colleagues overestimate the significance of pornography in shaping attitudes toward women (although he admits it is a pervasive influence in the United States).
Having rebuffed the feminists’ arguments for censorship, Coetzee abruptly shifts gears and includes...
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