Should There Be a Censorship of Books?
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[ 263 Should There Be a Censorship of Books?1 New Green Quarterly, 1 (Autumn 1935) 197-200 This is the title for my remarks which was assigned to me, and I do not cavil at it. If you make inquiries of the Home Office, concerning the publication of a book in which you are interested, you will be told that there is no censorship in this country. That is literally true. Our Censor is any private subject, or common informer, who can find a magistrate to agree with him; and his censorship is only exercised after a book has been printed and published. I shall not attempt to touch the question of political censorship, but only the question of moral censorship. The two questions are often confused . There are many persons who assume that anything subversive of the political order is “immoral,” and there are many whose test of “immorality” iswhetheritissomethingsubversiveoftheexistingpoliticalorder.Whether the political order is better preserved by morality or immorality is not my problem. The preservation of the political order is obviously something too important to be left to the common informer and the magistrate. I shall confine myself to the question of the moral effect of books which have no apparent bearing upon politics and economics; a question which for many people resolves itself into that of sexual morality – but I shall not insult this audience by assuming that its notion of morality is limited to sexual morality. This question alone is so complex, and so far-reaching, that I shall be satisfied if, within my twenty minutes, I can show how complex and far-reaching it is. The present situation is unsatisfactory from two points of view: from that of the Christian and from that of the publisher. The two points of view are not so completely incompatible as they may at first sight appear. In fact, if there is one point upon which the Christian and the publisher can agree, it is that the present situation is unsatisfactory. I have even known publishers to regret that there is not a Censorship of Books. Let me put a hypothetical case. Let us suppose that there was a book which I regarded as a great work of art which any publisher should feel honoured to have his imprint upon, and that this book contained certain words not commonly used in middle-class company of both sexes, and Essays, Reviews, Commentaries, and Public Letters: 1935 264 ] contained passages dealing with subjects not usually discussed in such company. Let us suppose also, in order to illustrate a further complication, that this book had been previously published in another country, and that anycopiesoftheforeigneditionbroughtintothiscountryhadbeenordered to be confiscated by the Customs. Let us suppose that with the lapse of time this book had come to be recognized as a great work of art; and that so many copies had been smuggled into this country that no person with any pretence to literary knowledge and taste could admit, without shame, that he had not read it. I go to the Home Office, the official custodian of morals, to ask whether I may or may not publish that book in England. I am told, with all courtesy, that I am perfectly free to publish it. There was never anything to prevent me from publishing it. As for the Custom House, that is, in some way which I do not understand, independent of the Home Office: the Customs may confiscate books, but they cannot forbid their publication in England. But, of course, if I publish the book, I must understand that I do so at my own risk. The Home Office cannot prevent, and has no desire to prevent me from publishing it; but neither has it the power to protect me when I have published it. I am at the mercy of any Briton who sends a marked copy to a magistrate, if the magistrate agrees with the informant that the book is obscene. Being still perfectly free, I have the opportunity to appeal. But unless I have a couple of thousand pounds or more which I can spare for the purpose – and a publisher’s capital is usually fully employed – I shall not risk an appeal. For my appeal will be to legal authorities who, however eminent on the bench, however distinguished for learning and for integrity, will not necessarily be moral theologians or sages. In the present state of affairs, it is safer to publish the book which makes vice attractive, than...


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