Invisible Censor


1. The Invisible Censor

Not long ago I met a writer who happened to apply the word "cheap" to Mr. Strachey's Eminent Victorians. It astonished me, because this was an erudite, cultivated woman, a distinguished woman, and she meant what she said.

A "cheap" effect, I assume, is commonly one that builds itself on a false foundation. It may promise beautifully, but it never lives up to its promise. Whether it is a house or a human character, a binding or a book, it proves itself gimcrack and shoddy. It hasn't the goods. And of Eminent Victorians, as I remembered it (having read it to review it), this was the last thing to be said. The book began by fitting exquisitely, but it went on fitting exquisitely. It never pulled or strained. And the memory of it wears like a glove.

Now why, after all, did I like this book so thoroughly, which my distinguished friend thought so cheap? For many minor reasons of course, as one likes anything-contributory reasons-but principally, as I laboriously analyzed it, because in Eminent Victorians the invisible censor was so perfectly understood. What seemed cheap to her ladyship was, I do not doubt, the very thing that made Eminent Victorians seem so precious to me-the deft disregard of appearances, the refusal to let decorum stand in the way of our possessing the facts. This to my critic was a proof that Mr. Strachey was imperceptive and vulgar-"common" the ugly word is. To me it simply proved that he knew his game. What he definitely disregarded, as so many felt, was not any decorum dear and worth having. It was simply that decorum which to obey is to produce falsification. The impeccable craft of Mr. Strachey was shown in his evaluation, not his acceptance, of decorum. He did not take his characters at their face value, while he did not do the other vulgar thing, go through their careers with a muck-rake. In vivisecting them (the awful thing to do, presumably), he never let them die on him. He opened them out, but not cruelly or brutally. He did it as Mr. William Johnston plays tennis or as Dr. Blake is said to operate or as Dr. Muck conducts an orchestra or as Miss Kellerman dives. He did it for the best result under the circumstances and with a form that comes of a real command of the medium-genuine "good form."

The essential achievement of Eminent Victorians is worth dwelling on because in every book of social character the question of the invisible censor is unavoidably present. By the censor I do not mean that poor blinkered government official who decides on the facts that are worthy of popular acquaintance. I mean a still more secret creature of still more acute solicitude, who feels that social facts must be manicured and pedicured before they are fit to be seen. He is not concerned with the facts themselves but with their social currency. He is the supervisor of what we say we do, the watchman over our version and our theoretical estimate of ourselves. His object, as I suppose, is to keep up the good old institutions, to set their example before the world, to govern the imitative monkey in us. And to fulfill that object he continually revises and blue-pencils the human legend. He is constantly at the elbow of every man or woman who writes. An invisible, scarcely suspected of existing, he is much more active, much more solidly intrenched, than the legal censor whom liberals detest.

Every one is now more or less familiar with the Freudian censor, the domesticated tribal agent whose function it seems to be to enforce the tribal scruples and superstitions-to keep personal impulse where the tribe thinks it belongs. This part of the ego-to give it a spatial name-came in for a good deal of excited remonstrance in the early days of popular Freudian talk. To-day, I think, the censor is seldom so severely interpreted. In many cases there is clearly a savagery or a stupidity which brings about "the balked disposition," but it is being admitted that the part which is regulated by the censor, the "disposition" end of the ego, may not always be socially tolerable; and as for the "balking," there is a difference between blunt repressiveness and enlightened regulation. Still, with all this acceptance of ethics, the nature of the censorship has to be recognized-the true character of the censor is so often not taste or conscience in any clear condition, but an uninstructed agency of herd instinct, an institutional bully. In the censor as he appears in psycho-analytic literature there is something of the archaic, the irrational and the ritualistic-all just as likely to ask for decorum for themselves as is the thing in us which is against license and anarchy.

In the censor for whom I am groping, the censor of whom Eminent Victorians is so subversive, there are particularly these irrational and ritualistic characteristics, these remnants of outgrown institutions, these bondages of race and sex, of class and creed. Most biography, especially official biography, is written with such a censor in mind, under his very eye. Where Eminent Victorians was refreshing and stimulating was precisely in its refusal to keep him in mind. Hovering behind Eminent Victorians we see agonized official biography, with its finger on its lips, and the contrast is perhaps the chief delight that Mr. Strachey affords. When Cardinal Manning's pre-clerical marriage, for example, came to be considered by Mr. Strachey, he did not obey the conventional impulse, did not subordinate that fact of marriage as the Catholic Church would wish it to be subordinated (as a matter of "good taste," of course). He gave to that extremely relevant episode its due importance. And so Manning, for the first time for most people, took on the look not so much of the saintly cardinal of official biography as of a complex living man.

What does the censor care for this æsthetic result? Very little. What the censor is chiefly interested in is, let us say, edification. He aims by no means to give us access to the facts. He aims not at all to let us judge for ourselves. With all his might he strives to relate the facts under his supervision to the end that he thinks desirable, whatever it may be. And so, when facts come to light which do not chime in with his prepossession, he does his best either to discredit them or to set them down as immoral, heretical or contrary to policy. And the policy that he is serving is not æsthetic.

A theory of the æsthetic is now beside the point, but I am sure it would move in a relation to human impulses very different from the relation of the censor. The censor is thinking, presumably, of immediate law and order, with its attendant conventions and respectabilities. The æsthetic could not be similarly bound. It is not reckless of conduct, but surely enormously reckless of decorum, with its conventions and respectabilities clustering around the status quo. Hence the apparent "revolt" of modernism, the insurrection of impulse against edification.

But there is more in Eminent Victorians than an amusing, impish refusal to edify. There is the instructive contrast between the "censored celebrity" and the uncensored celebrity disinterestedly observed. Disinterestedly observed, for one thing, we get something in these celebrities besides patriotism and mother-love and chastity and heroism. We get hot impulses and cold calculations, brandy and treachery, the imperious and the supine, glorious religiousness and silly family prayers. And these things, though very unlike the products of official photography, are closely related to impulses as we know them in ourselves. To find them established for Mr. Strachey's "eminent" Victorians is to enjoy a constant dry humor, since the invisible censor, the apostle of that expediency known as edification, stood at the very heart of Victorianism.

This is possibly why Samuel Butler, in his autobiographical way, is so remarkable as a Victorian. In the midst of innumerable edifying figures, he declined to edify. When people said to him, "Honor thy father and thy mother," he answered in effect that his father was a pinhead theologian who had wanted to cripple his mentality, and his mother was, to use his own phrase, full of the seven deadly virtues. This was not decorous but it had the merit of being true. And all the people whose unbidden censors had been forcing good round impulses into stubborn parental polygons immediately felt the relief of this revelation. Not all of them confess it. When they have occasion to speak or write about "mothers"-as if the biological act of parturition brings with it an unquestionable "mother" psyche-most of them still allow the invisible censor to govern them and represent them as having feelings not really their own. But even this persistence of the censor could not deprive Samuel Butler of his effectiveness. He has spoken out, regardless of edification, and that sort of work cannot be undone.

A similar work is performed by such highly personal confessants as Marie Bashkirtseff and W. N. P. Barbellion, and even by Mary MacLane. The account that these impulsive human beings give of themselves is sensational simply because it clashes with the strict preconception that we are taught to establish. But only a man who remembers nothing or admits nothing of his own impulses can deny the validity of theirs. The thing that takes away from their interest, as one grows older, is the unimportance of the censorship that agonizes them. Their documentary value being their great value, they lose importance as more specific and dramatic documents become familiar. And with psycho-analysis there has been a huge increase in the evidence of hidden life. It is the Montaignes who remain, the confessants who offer something besides a psychological document-a transcendence which is not incoherent with pain.

But these various confessions are significant. They indicate the existence and the vitality of the censor. They show that in the simplest matters we have not yet attained freedom of speech. Why? Because, I imagine, the world is chock-full of assumptions as to conduct which, while irrational and ritualistic and primitive, have all sorts of sanctions thrown around them and must take a whole new art of education to correct. Until this art it established and these assumptions are automatically rectified, it will be impossible to exercise free speech comfortably. An attempt may be made, of course, and indeed must be made, but to succeed too well will for many years mean either being exterminated or being ostracized.

It is not hard to show how each of us in turn becomes an agent of the invisible censorship. You, for instance, may have a perfectly free mind on the subject of suffrage, but you may have extremely strong views on the subject of sex. (Miss Alice Stone Blackwell, to be specific, thinks that Fielding is nothing but a "smutty" author.) Or you may think yourself quite emancipated on the subject of sex-desires and be hopelessly intolerant on the subject of the Bolsheviki. The French Rights of Man held out, after all, for the sacred rights of property-and the day before that, it was considered pretty advanced to believe in the divine right of kings. It is not humanly possible, considering how relative liberalism is, to examine all the facts or even convince oneself of the necessity of examining them, and in every case we are sure to be tempted to oppose certain novel ideas in the name of inertia, respectability and decorum. To dissemble awkward facts, in such cases, is much easier than to account for them-which is where the censor comes in.

I do not say that it is possible to do away with every discipline, even the rule-of-thumb of decorum. As a subservient middle-class citizen, I believe in the regulation of impulse. But as an intellectual fact, the use of the blue pencil in the interests of decorum is exceedingly inept. Human impulses are much too lively to be extinguished by the denial of expression. And if sane expression is denied to them, they'll find expression of another kind.

Decorum has its uses, especially on the plane of social intercourse. I admit this all the more eagerly because I have seen much of one brilliant human being who has practically no sense of opposition. If he sees something that he wants, he helps himself. It may be the milk on the lunch-table that was intended for Uncle George. It may be the new volume from England that it took nine weeks to bring across. It may be the company of some sensitive gentlewoman or the busy hour of the mayor of Chicago. The object makes no visible difference to my friend. If he wants it, he sticks out his hand and takes it. And if it comes loose, he holds on.

Associated with this aggressiveness there is a good deal of purpose not self-regarding. The man is by no means all greedy maw. But the thing that distinguishes him is the quickness and frankness with which he obeys his impulse. Between having an impulse and acting on it there lies for him a miraculously short time.

In dealing with such a man, most people begin hilariously. Not all of them keep up with him in the same heroic spirit. At first it is extraordinarily stimulating to find a person who is so "creative," who sweeps so freely ahead. Soon the dull obligations, the tedious details, begin to accumulate, and the man with the happy impulsiveness leaves all these dull obligations to his struggling friends. His lack of decorum in these respects is a source of hardship and misunderstanding, especially where persons of less energy or more circumspection are attendant. In his case, I admit, I see the raw problem of impulse, and I am glad to see his impulse squelched.

But even this barbarian is preferable to the apathetic repressed human beings by whom he is surrounded. Harnessed to the right interests, he is invaluable because "creative." And he should never be blocked in: he should at most be canalled.

The evil of the censor, at any rate, is never illustrated in his rational subordination of impulse, but in those subordinations that violate human and social freedom. And the worst of them are the filmy, the vague, the subtle subordinations that take away the opportunity of truth. Life is in itself a sufficiently difficult picture-puzzle, but what chance have we if the turnip-headed censor confiscates some particularly indispensable fragment that he chooses to dislike? On reading Eminent Victorians, how we rejoice to escape from those wax effigies that we once believed to be statesmen-the kind of effigies of which text-books and correct histories and correct biographies are full! How we rejoice to escape from them, wondering that they had ever imposed on us, wondering that teachers and pious families and loyal historians ever lent themselves to this conspiracy against truth! But the horrible fact is, Mr. Strachey is one in a million. He has only poked his finger through the great spider-web of so-called "vital lies."

Meanwhile, in the decorous and respectable biographies, the same old "vital lies" are being told. The insiders, the initiated, the disillusioned, are aware of them. They no longer subsist on them. They read between the lines. And yet when the insiders see in print the true facts-say, about Robert Louis Stevenson or Swinburne or Meredith or John Jones-these very insiders rush forward with a Mother Hubbard to fling around the naked truth. We must not speak the truth. We must edify. We must bring our young into a spotless, wax-faced world.

It means that we need a revolution in education, nothing less. It means that the truth must be taken out of the hands of the censor. We must be prepared to shed oceans of ink.