Anthony Burgess, Andrew Biswell and Germaine Greer – Obscenity and the Arts (Pariah Press, 2018)
Malta in 1968 should have been a haven for Anthony Burgess. More Catholic than the Pope (Malta, like Burgess, resented Pope John XIII’s modernising reforms), a tax haven (British ex-pats were taxed only 6 pence in the pound), and filled with the kind of vibrant, sunsoaked culture he had longed for back in stodgy old Britain. If Burgess designed heaven, it would look like Malta.
One can imagine his chagrin upon arrival as he was caught up in a minor fracas over vehicle registration and a major fracas over forty-seven books from his private library. Seized by the censor for obscenities as diverse as sex, drugs, blasphemy, homosexuality and feminism, the books were sent away to be burned as Burgess, a lifelong enemy of censorship, trembled with rage.
To cap it all, his own novel Tremor of Intent would be seized by the censor under its French title, Un Agent Qui Vous Veut du Bien, and burned for its depravity, while the same book was thoroughly commended under its Dutch title Martyrenes Blod, or, “Martyr’s Blood”.
Filled with liberal zeal, Burgess began a letter writing campaign, was interviewed for the local Maltese papers and delivered with a public lecture under the juicy title “Obscenity and the Arts”. It is this lecture which is the centrepiece of Pariah Press’s new book.
Improvised in a typically Burgessian manner, the lecture itself feels like a series of polished witticisms strung together around a central theme. It lacks the unity of his written essays, but is perhaps more energetic, and more direct in its assertions as a result. His trusty thesaurus is left on the shelf.
A biographical introduction from Andrew Biswell accompanies the essay and does an excellent job not only of situating the lecture but also the importance of Malta and battles over censorship in the life of Burgess overall. This is accompanied by some nicely reproduced photographs and two interviews with Burgess taken from Maltese papers.
The second part of the book is a response to Burgess by the renowned feminist scholar Germaine Greer. As much a passionate advocate of free speech as Burgess, Greer takes the author to task for the manner of his defence. The result is a fascinating demonstration of how two writers can agree upon a position in deeply conflicting ways.
Burgess’s love of free speech is rooted in a respect for free will. By an idiosyncratic welding of Catholic doctrine onto English liberalism, Burgess decrees that to ban a book is to limit the free choice of evil, and that it is the divine possibility of choosing good that distinguishes Catholic spirituality from brute materialism. A Catholic government that bans books denies free will, and so cannot be said to be Catholic at all.
The Maltese government would certainly have disagreed with Burgess’ theologising. Such arguments are, after all, much more the line of John Stuart Mill than the Gospel According to John. This is perhaps why Burgess sets aside theory and argues by example; why not ban the bloodthirsty Shakespeare, or the purgative Swift, or the carnal Rabelais? For their obscenity has value, and moral value at that.
Burgess draws a line between the improving arts, which challenge and provoke, and pornography which has a purely mechanical function. Neither, Burgess argues, should be banned, for it is up to the individual to distinguish the one from the other: something a semi-literate clerk in the censorship office is certainly not qualified to do for us.
Here enters Greer. Greer’s arguments, to the modern reader, are equally idiosyncratic, if slightly more sympathetic than Burgess’s. She argues the counterculturalist’s case for obscenity as in-itself valuable (as Burgess swanned around Malta, she points out, the editors of Oz magazine were facing prison time for publishing cartoons) and that, done properly, obscene material can act as a kind of aversion therapy.
It is when Greer takes Burgess to task for condemning the practice of shitting on someone’s doorstep (perfectly acceptable in some countries, we are told), that Greer’s argument shows its limits. Sixties-type permissiveness, we are reminded, often enjoys its own contrarian provocations to the point of destroying its own arguments. Better to blow minds than change them.
Greer’s feminism acts as a counterbalance to this tendency in her writing, however. Condemning porn’s ready availability, she demonstrates its exploitative practices through her own outrageous treatment by her male co-editors at Suck magazine. What matters, she argues, is not the freedom to indulge obscenity, but cultivating the self-awareness necessary not to be depraved by it.
The real meat of Obscenity and the Arts is this tension between voices in agreement. Government censorship, as Biswell points out, is now largely a thing of the past. The argument for free speech has been won, largely through the negative critique of government ineptitude.
Positive critique, however, seems to have slipped by the wayside in recent years. The default position of many young people at university today is a form of soft neo-Puritanism that sees no benefit to hearing out other opinions and tolerates free speech purely because they are against the return of bans. It doesn’t help that the case for free speech is so often taken up by right wing blowhards that it has become synonymous with them in a highly regrettable manner.
This book is not a comment on these contemporary issues, but in its arguments (and Adam Griffith’s artistic responses, also included) there is a certain timeless provocation. In the face of public shaming, both the obscene and the anti-social must be defended.
I highly recommend this book. It is a beautiful object and compulsively readable. It also fits perfectly inside your jacket pocket, guaranteeing that you won’t be able put it down.