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How scandalous is your reading list?

It’s #Banned­Book­sWeek! Pre­pare to get hot, heady, and deeply both­ered. You may even smell of char­coal and get your sen­si­bil­i­ties singed by week’s end.

My rec­om­men­da­tion for #Banned­Book­sWeek? Read a book banned or chal­lenged, his­tor­i­cally or cur­rently. The more con­tro­ver­sial and the more taboo, the better. Resist thought-policing alto­gether, even if such lib­er­ality lets through things that make you uncom­fort­able, that under­mine your inter­ests. Dryden said, in what I think remains a worth­while sen­ti­ment, that “the truth has such a face and such a mien, as to be loved needs only to be seen.”

For ref­er­ence, try to find a copy, per­haps at your local public or uni­ver­sity library, of “Banned Books,” Facts on File, Library of World Lit­er­a­ture, 2006: Vol. 1, Lit­er­a­ture Sup­pressed on Polit­ical Grounds (ISBN 0−8160−6270−6); Vol 2., Lit­er­a­ture Sup­pressed on Reli­gious Grounds (ISBN 0−8160−6269−2), Vol. 3, Lit­er­a­ture Sup­pressed on Sexual Grounds (ISBN 0−8160−6272−2); Vol. 4, Lit­er­a­ture Sup­pressed on Social Grounds (ISBN 0−8160−6271−4).

It may be a sign of an unwhole­some psy­cho­log­ical pre­dis­po­si­tion of mine against any sort of overt con­trol, but the moment I learn that a form of media — espe­cially books, but also the visual arts, music, and film — has been chal­lenged or banned in a way that smacks of thought-policing and mob-con­trol, I go out of my way to read, to listen to, or to watch it.

This nec­es­sarily means that I’ve been far more worldly in my con­sump­tion than many would deem appro­priate. It’s how I encoun­tered Cleland’s Mem­oirs of a Woman of Plea­sure, de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, Wilmot’s col­lected verse, Baude­laire in accu­rate trans­la­tions, The Color Purple and short sto­ries of Alice Walker; or Thomas De Quincey, Georges Bataille, Got­tfried Benn, Rudolf Schwarzkogler; the films of Bernardo Bertolucci or more recently Lars Von Triers; the art of René Magritte or Marcel Duchamp. Even when I was a Roman Catholic (Baaa…), I used to scan through the old vol­umes of the Index Librorum Pro­hibitorum at St. Bonaven­ture Uni­ver­sity and use it as a card cat­a­logue for my to-be-read list.

I won’t pre­tend that I enjoyed even half of it, but if con­fes­sional lit­er­a­ture is the new norm, that’s my con­fes­sion. Mis­erere mei, Deus. It’s also prob­ably why I have such a hard time judging people for trans­gressing what were once nor­ma­tive moral con­ven­tions, but equal dif­fi­culty not judging those who con­tinue to enforce them. I am myself ennui-induc­ingly con­ven­tional in my mores, but so rabid in my com­mit­ment to open cul­ture, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, infor­ma­tion exchange, etcetera, that I’ve exposed myself to things that are not natively appealing and which might shock and dismay my more reserved acquaintances.

By the way, so-called lib­erals are just as bad as their con­ser­v­a­tive coun­ter­parts, although they seek to dis­hon­estly excise what they deem to be the “sins of our fore­fa­thers,” the very things con­ser­v­a­tives seek to uphold. I’m in favor of let­ting every­thing stand as it is, to be judged indi­vid­u­ally and col­lec­tively for its merit, whether moral, aes­thetic, what­ever. This may be the one instance where I’m in favor of the com­pletely unreg­u­lated flow of some­thing, ideas and images and experiences.

If we censor the bad, how­ever poten­tially inju­rious, we estab­lish a prece­dent that pro­hibits the full and unmit­i­gated man­i­fes­ta­tion of the good. My com­mit­ment to indi­vid­u­alism begins and ends here, in the arena of expres­sion. Finan­cial mar­kets, for instance, are not as well-pro­vi­sioned in my philosophy.

Sex, it is worth­while to note, is espe­cially taboo and char­ac­ter­istic of so many banned or chal­lenged media. Call me crazy, but I think we should be less ter­ri­fied of our biology and more broadly accept, in the words of John Henry Newman, that

It is a con­tra­dic­tion in terms to attempt a sin­less Lit­er­a­ture of sinful man.

Newman goes on to explain,

You may gather together some­thing very great and high, some­thing higher than any Lit­er­a­ture ever was; and when you have done so, you will find that it is not Lit­er­a­ture at all. You will have simply left the delin­eation of man, as such, and have sub­sti­tuted for it, as far as you have had any thing to sub­sti­tute, that of man, as he is or might be, under cer­tain spe­cial advan­tages. Give up the study of man, as such, if so it must be; but say you do so. Do not say you are studying him, his his­tory, his mind and his heart, when you are studying some­thing else. Man is a being of genius, pas­sion, intel­lect, con­science, power. He exer­cises these var­ious gifts in var­ious ways, in great deeds, in great thoughts, in heroic acts, in hateful crimes. He founds states, he fights bat­tles, he builds cities, he ploughs the forest, he sub­dues the ele­ments, he rules his kind. He cre­ates vast ideas, and influ­ences many gen­er­a­tions. He takes a thou­sand shapes, and under­goes a thou­sand for­tunes. Lit­er­a­ture records them all to the life,

Quic­quid agunt homines, votum, timor, ira, voluptas, Gaudia, dis­cursus (trans. every­thing humanity does, its hope, fear, rage, plea­sure, joys, business)

He pours out his fervid soul in poetry; he sways to and fro, he soars, he dives, in his rest­less spec­u­la­tions; his lips drop elo­quence; he touches the canvas, and it glows with beauty; he sweeps the strings, and they thrill with an ecstatic meaning. He looks back into him­self, and he reads his own thoughts, and notes them down; he looks out into the uni­verse, and tells over and cel­e­brates the ele­ments and prin­ci­ples of which it is the product. Such is man: put him aside, keep him before you; but, what­ever you do, do not take him for what he is not, for some­thing more divine and sacred, for man regenerate.

Let us remember, too, the words of Milton in the Are­opagitica,

And though all the windes of doc­trin were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do inju­ri­ously, by licencing and pro­hibiting to mis­doubt her strength. Let her and Fal­s­hood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the wors, in a free and open encounter.