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  • The Persecution of Writing: Revisiting Strauss and Censorship
  • Georges Van Den Abbeele (bio)

In the 1542 edition of Pantagruel, Rabelais’s narrator terminates a long tirade extolling the Gargantuan Chronicles’ extraordinary virtues (curing toothaches, relieving the pain of treatments for syphilis, and so on) with the proviso that he will maintain the absurd truth of these claims “jusques au feu exclusive (to any point short of the stake)” [215]. This clause, absent from earlier editions, while implicating the comic cowardice of the narrator also adumbrates a tragic sense of prudence. In the early years of the sixteenth century, not just Rabelais but the rest of his Renaissance world had come increasingly to know the heavy hand of censorship and persecution. Bookburning, of course, had lost its traditional source of terror with the invention of the printing press: no longer could a single bonfire extinguish all versions of a single manuscript. Instead, Church and State authorities had in the course of the Renaissance to invent new practices for controlling and regulating the circulation of dangerous words: bans on publication, excision of offensive passages prior to printing, indices of prohibited books, and so on. When left with no other alternative, however, one could still burn not just sample copies of the book but the offending author too, such as in the case of Giordano Bruno, whose auto-da-fé menacingly lit up the skies in the very first year of the seventeenth century. 1

Today, with the advent of electronic media and the virtual extirpation of texts from the materiality of print and paper, it is even more difficult to abolish or even regulate the spread of refractory discourses. In the last decade, though, we have seen renewed attempts at censorship, not just of modern visual, aural, and electronic modes of representation (as is commonly recognized and debated), but also of that reputed cornerstone of liberal democratic rights, the printed text. And while in the contemporary American context it may seem that the debate over censorship has “become an argument almost exclusively about pornography and obscenity” [McGrail 51], there is also a critical need for reflection on the renewed onslaught today in virtually every part of the planet against the freedom of writers and that of the press per se. The gravity of the situation best emblematized by the case of Salman Rushdie should not blind us to the parallel stories of Taslima Nasrin, Wole Soyinka, Farag Fuda, Nawal el Saadawi, and others sadly too numerous to list. 2 [End Page 3]

In this context, Leo Strauss’s 1941 essay “Persecution and the Art of Writing” retains a remarkable currency on the subject and remains a crucial point of departure from which to reflect on the contemporary crisis of censorship and the writer. Written at a time, over half a century ago, when another wave of explicit attacks on writers shocked the intellectual world, Strauss’s essay, on the one hand, struck a hopeful chord by evoking the kinds of techniques available to writers in their efforts to evade or foil censorship, that is, by demonstrating that no censorship can fully succeed in terroristically bringing about an end to heterodox forms of expression. On the other hand, he posits at least the possibility for every text that it has an inexorable core that is esoteric. No censorship can be total, but there is also no such thing as a pristine state of letters prior to censorship. As Michael Holquist has written in a more recent venue, “censorship is” [16], and all discussion must begin from that understanding if we are ever to approach the magnitude of the contemporary debacle.

It is perhaps no small irony, too, that a certain Straussianism begs the question of censorship, complaining about the strictures of “political correctness” while seeking to restore a canon that not only would deny many forms of alternative discourse but also the very historicity of such constructs as canons and approved reading lists as well as indices of “forbidden books.” A useful approach might be to consider whether more recent forms of censorship have historically exceeded the terms of Strauss’s argument or whether the Straussian version of history is not itself an...

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