November 6, 2014

United States v. Mark Twain

This post was commissioned last year during Banned Books Week.

United States v. Mark Twain

No such case as my title implies was ever brought, of course. The United States has no banning—that is, no centralized prohibition of books. Here, a ban has come to mean any decision to eliminate a book from a library or a school reading list.

It’s true that, until fairly recently, the Postal Service exercised a censoring function by enforcing laws against sending obscene matter through the mail. But Supreme Court decisions of the ’60s and ’70s have rendered obscenity pretty ungainly to work with as a criminal charge.

Huckleberry Finn was “banned” several times in Mark Twain’s lifetime—always by librarians. In 1885, when the book was new, the public library in Concord, Massachusetts, withdrew it, citing the characters’ “low grade of morality” and “irreverence.” Huck lies, talks dialect, is friends with a black man, steals and fails to return stolen property (the black man).

Mark Twain’s response to the ban was immediate. He told his publisher: “That will sell 25,000 copies for us, sure.” The commercial blessings of banning, in this country, are well known. Howard Hughes campaigned to ban his own film, The Outlaw, in order to get it released.

The early twentieth century saw some more Huck bans. They were short-lived; but Mark Twain’s Eve’s Diary, published in 1906 and banned by the Charlton, Massachusetts, public library, was restored to the shelves just two years ago. It was the illustrations (by Lester Ralph) that offended: They depicted Eve as a naked woman—stylized, but naked.

Today, Huckleberry Finn gets challenged, not in the name of public morals, but to protect something (the student, or the classroom atmosphere, or the school) against the unpredictable effects of the word “nigger,” which makes some students—I'm quoting from a report by the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom—“uncomfortable.”

Back in 1885, the book’s detractors feared that children would become too comfortable with Huck: with his “low” company—and, I suspect, with Jim’s. Mark Twain’s response to this criticism, in his Autobiography, was that children were already routinely damaged by a book the library kept on open shelves—the Bible:
The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old.
It was only right, he said, for librarians to escort Huck and Tom out of that book’s “questionable company.”

In my opinion, at the core of our contemporary debate over Huckleberry Finn in schools is a confusion between, on the school’s side, encountering racism and legitimating racism; and a confusion, on the students’ side, between reading words—even heavily ironized ones—and being attacked by words.

This is certain: Mark Twain wouldn’t understand our solicitousness about “comfort level.” He might have wondered what comfort had to do with school, the discomforts of which had caused him to pack out at age twelve. No “Stay in school, kids” for Mark Twain!

November 5, 2014

Einstein said that "the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious". Then why do so many of us try to explain the beauty of music, thus apparently depriving it of its mystery?
-- Leonard Bernstein, 1976
In the mid-twentieth century, the word of Einstein -- a genius who explained our universe, was against bad things, and played the violin -- was something you could take to the bank. But Leonard Bernstein didn't need any special authority for this insight, which is not his alone -- I myself had the same reflection back when I was the King of Ur, and again, some centuries later, when I was Czar of All the Russias. (It's an odd title, know, but "Czar of All the Mexicos" didn't sound right either.)

About "genius." I have meant, for long and long, to write something about Schumann. Among Schumann's most remarkable qualities was the ability to discern genius at long range and without a scope. And he never bothered himself with beating around the bush.

One diary entry -- the one that mentions the first visit to him of a young musician named Brahms -- reads simply:
"Brahms to see me (a genius)."
His review of the first works of Chopin to come to his attention begins: "Hats off, gentlemen: a genius!"

In you or me this kind of judgement would be called "hasty." It is only redeemed by the fact of its being correct. Schumann, it seems, perceived genius the way other people perceive the newness of your haircut. Shoot, something's different about you ... did you get your hair cut? Did you write the Raindrop Prelude?

Of course, I've never read Schumann's personal papers just smack through; I suppose it's possible that he was greeting the milkman, the postman, the corner prostitute, with the same cry of delighted discovery. But so far as I know his record is good.

Returning to Leonard Bernstein. If I recommend his series of Harvard lectures The Unanswered Question, and I do, it is really because one thing from it sticks in my mind. That is his "explication" of a Chopin mazurka. Bernstein characterizes the mazurka's various feints in the direction of establishing, or retreating from, some kind of tonal base. The mazurka itself is the music's protagonist, yearning for various tonalities, and variously trying them out and rudely refusing them.

What is interesting about this explication is that it is totally vulgar; that it carries no conviction; and that it nevertheless has proved to be, for me, "the way into" that piece of music.

The true critic of any art will quite rightly be troubled by the question Bernstein poses above: of whether his business is demystification or re-mystification.