In its appeal to the New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs, the Christian lobby group Family First noted that in Ted Dawe’s young adult novel Into the River, ‘the C-word is used a staggering total of nine times.’ This observation is in the grand tradition of the morally outraged cataloguing and tallying offensive words. The appeal, which asked for the R14 rating for the novel to be reinstated, was upheld, and the book was withdrawn from distribution awaiting further review.
Fear of books is an ancient phenomenon. Some 360 years ago, John Milton had what should have been the last word on the foolishness of book censorship when he published Areopagitica in 1644. Milton’s treatise on censorship seems particularly relevant to the discussion of Family First’s appeal against Dawe’s novel. How is it that Milton, a dedicated Christian – in fact a radical Puritan – could advocate ‘promiscuous’ reading (Milton’s word), while the modern Christian organisation Family First seeks to restrict access to certain books?
Most of the furore over the withdrawal of Into the River has focused on the right to free speech. This is certainly a valid argument: freedom of speech is a tool for challenging received thought and maintaining democracy. However, at least as valid is the line of argument Milton pursues in great depth in Areopagitica. Wide and adversarial reading (that is, reading what you don’t like) is critical for individual and societal progression and for the discovery of Truth (with a capital T).
Milton argues that even bad books are worthwhile. ‘Bad books … to a discreet and judicious reader serve in many respects to discover, to confute, to forewarn, and to illustrate.’ And the reverse: ‘best books to a naughty mind are not unappliable to occasions of evil.’ Into the River, one might therefore think, will be read as a how-to guide for moral depravity only by someone who is already morally depraved; and in fact, any book could serve this purpose for such a reader. Milton himself points to the Bible, which ‘ofttimes relates blasphemy not nicely’ and ‘describes the carnal sense of wicked men not unelegantly.’ Why is it that the Bible, so described by Milton (who knew both the Old and New Testaments by heart), is good fodder for young minds, while a modern YA novel, invested with similarly themed material, is to be restricted?
And further, is it right to censor a whole book on the basis of a scene or two, or because the tally of a certain word reaches a ‘staggering’ threshold (itself a subjective and arbitrary assessment)? ‘There are… books which are partly useful and excellent, partly culpable and pernicious,’ says Milton, quite rightly. Censorship is as likely to abrogate worthwhile passages as to eliminate toxic sections. In prohibiting, ‘there is not aught more likely to be prohibited than Truth itself; whose first appearance to our eyes, bleared and dimmed with prejudice and custom, is more unsightly and unplausible than many errors.’ A provocative question of Into the River might be this: are those parts which are seemingly offensive and depraved actually a new representation of contemporary Truth? Ted Dawe himself thinks so, saying that those who believe his novel is damaging to youth show ‘a gross ignorance of how things are these days.’
Milton would have us read books that try us: ‘That which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary.’ In matters of virtue and depravity, it is better to ‘see and know, and yet abstain.’ To quote Milton at length, because he makes his point so eloquently:
Since therefore the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely, and with less danger, scout the regions of sin and falsity than by reading all manner of tractates and hearing all manner of reason? And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read.
In other words, all reading – even of vice and error – makes us better people. (It must be noted that Milton uses promiscuously to mean indiscriminately. Promiscuous did not take on its sense of haphazard sexual relations until the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, Milton’s choice of word is deliciously suggestive in our modern context.)
It might be said that Milton’s arguments hold true for adults, but that a different approach is needed for children. Milton, as you might expect, has something to say on this: ‘Children and childish men, who have not the art to qualify and prepare [their minds against what is contrary], well may be exhorted to forbear, but hindered forcibly they cannot be’ (emphasis added). This encouragement to forbear sounds like the guidance of a teacher or parent, such as that which might be provided to a young reader of the Bible who discovers some unsettling passages and eye-popping directives in Leviticus or Deuteronomy.
But children cannot forcibly be made to forbear for the simple reason that censorship does not work. Since its censorship, Into the River is experiencing a period of vast success, and Dawe is enjoying a spike in royalty payments. Censorship seems futile at best and counterproductive at worst. Milton likens censorship to the actions of ‘that gallant man who thought to pound up the crows by shutting his park gate.’ There too seems something particularly self-censoring about books (which cannot necessarily be said of film or television) that makes formal book censorship almost redundant. That is, a book that requires a certain level of maturity in order to be comprehended is almost always inaccessible, either due to a failure of understanding or a simple lack of curiosity, to a person whose maturity is not of that level. However, on this point I would defer to Milton’s judgement, and he having died some 250 years before the invention of cinema he was unable to include discussion of this in Areopagitica, despite his thoughts being almost universally ahead of their time.
Milton urges us, for our own benefit, to read widely and indiscriminately. He recommends those books with content contrary to our beliefs, tastes, and instincts. Book banning is not just a matter of free speech, but a matter of integral importance to human advancement, individual virtue, and progressive societal thought. Censorship should be kept to an absolute minimum, so that collectively we may not fall into what he describes as ‘a gross conforming stupidity.’ The implication of all this seems to be that rather than restrict access to an adversarial book such as Into the River, Family First ought to be seeking it out, using it as a tool by which they can test, and perhaps modify and advance, their attitudes and convictions.
Paradise Lost is, at its heart, a defence of the ways and nature of God. And yet Milton was socially progressive (he advocated for divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable differences, hundreds of years before such grounds were accepted), he was liberal-minded (he tolerated religious sectarianism), and he vehemently asserted the importance of rigorous education (he published his own curriculum). That a Puritan poet-polemicist could have held attitudes towards book censorship so much at odds with those of a modern Christian organisation demonstrates, if nothing else, that Christianity does not have to be conservative.
Milton obviously did not have the last word in the history of book banning all those centuries ago, but at least he can have the last word here. Here he is, delivering the seventeenth century equivalent of a burn on those who would restrict access to books.
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.
And, for how to guide children through an ocean of literature, both good and bad, Milton gives this advice:
[If you were to] banish all objects of lust, shut up all youth into the severest discipline than can be exercised in any hermitage, ye cannot make them chaste, that came not hither so; such great care and wisdom is required to the right managing of this point.
It is hard not to agree.
Image: florian.b / Flickr