OUR HUSH-HUSH CENSORSHIP
HOW BOOKS ARE BANNED
THIS AUTUMN, after 26 years under the Canadian censor’s ban, James Joyce’s masterpiece “Ulysses” was taken off the prohibited list. The hook which has been hailed as the most influential novel of the 20th century may now, for the first time, be imported legally into Canada.
Any customs officer will gladly tell you the status of “Ulysses,” or any other hook, if you ask him. However, there has been no announcement of its removal from the list, nor is there likely to be. Such changes are not announced as a rule, for the excellent reason that the list itself is officially secret. You can get hold of a copy without too much trouble, hut not from any official source. The policy of the Canadian Government is that Canadians are not allowed to know which hooks they are not allowed • to read.
Maclean’s Ottawa Editor
Few Canadians know, therefore, that 505 books are banned from Canada on the authority, of all people, of the Minister of National Revenue. Few know that these hooks are chosen for exclusion by a little group of individuals who operate as a literary Court of Star Chamber. Few know that the list includes such classics as Sir Richard Burton’s “The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night” (“The Arabian Nights”) and Balzac’s “Droll Tales.”
Not for the Doctor’s Daughter
EVEN fewer Canadians understand how, while hooks of t his stature are banned from importation, pornographic trash of the lowest type is published in Toronto and openly sold on the newsstands. So long as the stuff is homemade the censor doesn’t care.
Fewest of all are able to grasp just why one book is excluded, another admitted. No rules, written or unwritten, determine the censor’s choice.
Take Norman Mailer’s war novel, “The Naked and the Dead.” It’s been a best seller in the United States ever since it was published last year. For 10 months it was also a best seller in Canada;
thousands of copies were imported and sold. Then suddenly, last May, it was banned by the personal order of Dr. the Hon. J. J. McCann, Minister of National Revenue.
“I didn’t read the thing through,” said Dr. McCann, “but I read the parts my staff had marked. I thought they were disgusting. I wouldn’t want my daughter to read such a book.”
As a matter of fact Dr. McCann has no daughter. The final criterion of what Canadians may or may not read is the moral sensitivity of a young lady who doesn’t exist.
Any customs inspector may hold up any book of which he is doubtful, and some of them have hairtrigger doubts. A few years ago “All Passion Spent,” Victoria Sackville-West’s fine story about the last year in the life of a woman of 94, was held up at the border. That word “passion” made the customs man prick up his ears.
Every hook so detained is supposed to be sent to Ottawa for a ruling, but not all customs officers bother with this formality. A few years ago the then examiner of publications asked one customs inspector, “Why don’t I ever get books from you for examination?”
“Oh, I decide those things for myself,” was the reply.
That was a breach of departmental instructions for which the inspector was duly ticked off. It was not a breach of the law. A customs officer can hold up any book he likes for as long as he likes. Owners may appeal to Ottawa, but few do.
In Ottawa the hooks go to the publications division of the Customs and Excise Department, a small staff headed by a principal clerk who started 22 years ago as a stenographer. Formerly their immediate boss was the examiner of publications, hut since Arthur Merriam retired from that post last year no successor has been named. His duties are absorbed by W. B. Stuart, executive assistant to the deputy minister.
Any of these people may release a detained book, but they may not prohibit one. No hook is put on the prohibited list until it has been examined by the deputy minister, David Sim, and by the minister himself. Every ban is imposed by the personal order of the man responsible to Parliament for the act. Even his ruling may be appealed to the Tariff
Board, which has authority to overrule him, although no such appeal has ever been taken.
None of these men pretends to be an authority on literature—their qualifications are those of customs administrators, not critics—but it would be unfair to blame them as individuals for the faults of Canadian censorship. Nobody is qualified to be a censor. These officials, by and large, do as liberal a job as they can.
One Canadian librarian, to whom I wrote for information and opinion about our censorship, wrote back: “I believe the less said about it the better. So far as I am aware we in Canada are fortunate in that censorship is at a minimum. I am loath to start agitation or to criticize the Government for its policy, if it has one.”
Of the 63 books added to the banned list in the first 10 months of 1949 only “The Naked and the Dead” would be defended as a serious work. The rest are trash, like the majority of the complete list—titles like “The Autobiography of a Pimp.” But the list dols include, as well, some works of world fame and accepted greatness. Usually they were prohibited years ago by officials of narrower mind or in times of more puritanical standards. One of the worst features of the Canadian censorship is that once a book is placed on the prohibited list it tends to stay there forever.
They Smuggle a Textbook
ULYSSES” is the best .example. This long, obscure, difficult book is now recognized as a milestone in the development of the English novel. Joyce was the pioneer, the inventor of a technique which has influenced most major writers in English for the past 27 years—Hemingway, Huxley, Virginia Woolf, any number of lesser figures.
When it was first published “Ulysses” was banned almost everywhere, because it does include a number of dirty words. As its magnitude and scope were realized one censor after another took the ban off. Sixteen years ago “Ulysses” was cleared of obscenity charges in the United States by a great judgment of Judge John M. Woolsey.
Among Canadians the same change of mind took place. For years “Ulysses” has been the subject of a senior course in English literature at one Canadian university. (The professor advised his students each year that they must break the law, as he had done, by going across the line and smuggling home their textbook.) Literate Canadians, like literate people everywhere, accepted Joyce’s novel as a monumental work.
But it remained on the censor’s list. The last formal request for re-examination was made in 1940
by the Macmillan Company of Canada. It was refused by an examiner of publications, now dead, who took a narrower view of his duties than any successor has done.
Actually, what finally got “Ulysses” off the banned list was the preparation of this article—not argument or persuasion, but merely the recalling of the book’s existence to David Sim, the Deputy Minister of Customs and Excise. Sim took “Ulysses” with him on his vacation and reread it for the first time in many years. He found it heavy going, as everyone does, but he could see no reason for banning it.
So it came off the list. But James Joyce died knowing that to Canada his masterpiece was a bit of obscenity to be classed with “The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk.” Re-examination may also release Sir Richard Burton’s classic, the Maupassant short stories and other books which make our prohibited list look silly. But, meanwhile, a lot of damage has already been done.
This is also true of slighter works. In 1932 Norman Lindsay wrote a book entitled “The Cautious Amorist” about three men and a woman marooned on a desert island. Lindsay’s development of this situation is perfectly logical but somewhat imperfect ly moral.
Canada’s examiner of publications banned the book. Nothing was heard of it here for 15 years. Then it was republished in a pocket edition; the new publishers asked Ottawa to re-examine it, and Ottawa decided it was just a funny story. It came off the banned list; you can buy it on any newsstand for 25 cents. But Lindsay lost all Canadian royalties on the higher-priced early editions.
Is There Freedom for Artists
SO MUCH for the errors of the past. Today’s censors have also sins of their own to answer for. One was the banning in 1946 of James T. Farrell’s novel “Bernard Clare.”
I read “Bernard Clare” while preparing this article. (Like any well-known book, banned or not, it’s available in the Parliamentary Library whose purchases are not subject to customs examination and whose librarians don’t even know which books are on the prohibited list.) Personally I found it very dull and boring, but it’s work of obvious integrity by a reputable novelist.
In a subsequent article in the Canadian Forum Farrell told of protesting to Prime Minister King against the ban. He got a formal acknowledgment from King’s secretary. From the censors he got no word at all.
“If those Canadians who have smuggled my novel
across from Buffalo are disappointed at not finding ‘obscenity,’ and feel defrauded, they must blame Mr. Sim, not me,” said Farrell.
“The silence of Canadian officials, their refùsal to answer questions, their refusal even to specify what chapters Mr. Sim considers ‘indecent’—all/ this constitutes a forecast. It reveals the attitude o*1 Canadian officials on books and on the artist’ freedom of expression.”
This is a fair indictment. It is still valid toda Our Customs Department censors owe no accour ing to anybody for their secret decisions.
Particularly obscure are their rulings on forei* language books, for which the National Revel, Department has no translation staff. These y sent to the RCMP for review by translators' the “special division,” the anti-Communism depart.^ ment. RCMP advice is also sought upon some of the books, even in English or French, suspected of being seditious. Of the 126 publications excluded from Canada in 1948, 29 were in that category.
No Ban on Lurid Trash
KCMP readers do not themselves ban any book.
They do not even make formal recommendation to National Revenue which makes its own decisions -but in these cases without full firsthand knowledge. They get full translations rfrom the RCMP of selected passages, not the entire book.
But the crowning irony of our censorship system is that many of the “banned” books can be bought at perfectly respectable newsstands for a quarter. One afternoon in Toronto, from reputable booksellers, I bought seven books still listed as prohibited publications.
Neither I nor the booksellers committed any crime. The books are prohibited from importation only; the volumes I bought were printed in Canada quite legally. They are published by a couple of small Toronto printing houses in job lots of 25,000 copies; the more popular ones are reprinted when the first 25,000 are sold. Most of them are set up from an original smuggled copy, but it’s equally simple to import the plates as “scrap metal” and print them here without even setting new type.
On the same afternoon I bought 17 other books of the same kind—lurid covers, suggestive titles, leering blurbs. They were not prohibited even from import (Ottawa has no record at all of most of them), though I’d defy anyone to guess which of my 24 specimens are banned and which are not. I’d also defy anyone to draft a law which would forbid one group and not the other.
There is a law which can be invoked against all such publications if they Continued on page 44
Our Hush-Hush Censorship
Continued from page 25
are in fact obscene. Any police officer, any private citizen can prosecute the publisher or the bookseller under Section 207 of the Criminal Code, which makes the publication or sale of obscene material a penal offense.
No one has bothered to take any of my 24 specimens into court—they aren’t worth it. Their lewd titles and cover designs are mostly a fraud on the prurient and gullible reader, like the barker’s description of a sideshow striptease. They are nasty enough (in spite of the most resolute intentions I wasn’t able to finish reading any of them) but they’re more offensive to taste than to morals.
Obscene or not, though, they are nauseous rubbish, and this brings up another point against our present censorship. Indirectly and unintentionally, but effectively, it tends to discriminate against the serious writer in favor of the hack.
The cheap trash is worth printing in Canada for the people who want such stuff. Most of the serious work is not. It’s too expensive; its appeal is too limited.
Of the prohibited books which have any stature as works of art the only one freely available in Canada is “God’s Little Acre” by Erskine Caldwell. Among the banned books I happen to have read “God’s Little Acre” is the shortest, easiest to read, most popular in its appeal—a Canadian edition of 100,000 is now sold out. It is also, by long odds, the most erotic of the lot. From a censor’s point of view it’s among the least desirable, but it’s the one you can get.
Better books are less fortunate in Canada. Not enough Canadians want, or can afford, the 16 volumes of Burton’s “The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night.” Canada hasn’t enough historians or biographers to warrant a local printing of “Chapters From My Diary,” by Leon Trotsky. Only the hard-stomached few wish to read William Faulkner’s repellent but powerful novel “Sanctuary.”
What’s the way out of this silly situation?
No country has ever devised an ideal answer, but for Canada the first step is simple: Remove Article 1201 from
the Customs Tariff and abandon federal censorship altogether. Article 1201 is as old as Confederation itself; it directs the Minister of National Revenue to exclude anything “treasonable or seditious, or of an indecent or immoral character.” That is what creates the absurd distinction between imported and homemade treason, sedition or indecency.
Innocent Till Proved Guilty
Let’s avoid, at all costs, the alternative frequently suggested that we replace the existing censors with a board of “qualified people.” No ope is qualified to be a censor, for censorship itself is an outrage and a contradiction of freedom. The essence of free speech and a free Press is that a man may say what he likes, print what he likes, and then stand responsible for it after it has been uttered.
That is the system we already have in Canada, so far as books of home manufacture are concerned. Publishers of such books can be, and frequently are, prosecuted under Section 207 of the Criminal Code; importers are equally liable.
Perhaps if the Ottawa censor was not there as a convenient whipping-boy —if it was not so much easier to write an indignant letter to Ottawa than to
lay a charge in court—the Criminal Code would be more widely used to stop such pornographic publishing.
Of course, from the viewpoint of those interested in the freedom of expression, a censorship of police court judges is not the best thing in the world either. The governing definition of “obscenity” in courts of the Commonwealth is still the one laid down by Lord Chief Justice Cockburn in 1868:
“The test of obscenity is this, whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall.”
Strictly applied that rule would purge our libraries of “Othello” and “King Lear,” half of Chaucer, most of Fielding and Smollett, and large portions of the Bible. Its saving grace is that it is not, in fact, strictly applied. And its virtue is a cardinal one—it leaves the initiative and the onus of proof on the person who lays the complaint. Our courts must presume that a man or a book is innocent until proved guilty.
Lord Macaulay once remarked, “We find it difficult to believe that in a world so full of temptations as this, any gentleman, whose life would have been virtuous had he not read Aristophanes or Juvenal, will be made vicious by reading them.”
An Ally in Ottawa
Last March, in a brilliant judgment acquitting nine well-known books of obscenity charges, Judge Curtis Bok, of Philadelphia, made the same point:
“It is impossible to say what the reader’s reactions to a book actually are. If he reads an obscene book when his sensuality is low, he will yawn over it. If he reads the Mechanics Lien Act when his sensuality is high, things will stand between him and the page that have no business there. How can anyone say he will infallibly be affected one way or another by one book or another?”
If Canada depended on courts instead of censors we too might build up a jurisprudence of that character. We have virtually none now, for oui Customs Department need give r/_ reasons to anyone, not even Parliamer. : for its yeas and nays.
But if Article 1201 were abolished and these issues left to the courts we might find Canadian judges laying down the kind of precedent with which Judge Woolsey, Judge Bok and Judge Learned Hand have fortified the right of free expression in the United States. Canadian lawyers might be able to quote such opinions as the following, from the same Bok judgment:
“In a field where reasonable precision is utterly impossible, I trust pepple more than I do the law. Legal censorship is not old, it is not popular, and it has failed to strengthen the private censor in each individual that has kept the race as decent as it has been for several thousand years. I regard legal censorship as an experiment of more than dubious value.”
To alter Canada’s censorship system would be simple enough, but not easy. Our national tendency seems to be ti.e other way.
Most of the mail and all the delegations received by the National Revenue Department clamor for more censorship, not less. But we might make some progress if those who do believe in freedom of expression were to become even half as vocal as those who do not.
They’d have at least one ally. No one would so heartily welcome the abolition of federal censorship as the officials who now carry it out. -je