Observations: Other Voices

Censorship by left-oriented editors is becoming an unfortunate reality in the American book market. A recent example that comes to mind is the wall of silence surrounding the work of Kingsley Amis. Amis wrote a brilliant dystopian novel, Russian Hide and Seek, in 1980, three paperback editions of which were sold out in Penguin in Britain. However, the book was not even mentioned by the intellectual media in America. This is due, I think, to the contents of Amis’ book: Its assumption is an England of the future enslaved by Russia, in which the natives are reduced to full serfdom. It makes one suspect that, had Orwell written his 1984 40 years later, his masterpiece would have been as sedulously suppressed (or perhaps labeled as “Fascist”) as Amis’ book by the very intellectuals who throughout last year desperately tried to convince us that Orwell was writing not about or against Communism but against the free world. Was this a fluke instance?

How about Robert Heinlein, the most widely read and respected author of science fiction in America, who had to change publishers because his Job (subsequently on the best-seller list) did not toe the ideological line of his editor? (One can easily imagine how this kind of censorial abusiveness could make or break the career of a young author.) How about the attempts to take Mark Twain out of school libraries because he is a “racist?” Or how about the obstinate harassment of Michael Cimino, perhaps the most brilliant of America’s younger cinematographers, for portraying objectively (and masterfully) the drama of American heroes in Vietnam, in his Deerhunter? Kingsley Amis was again victimized (or almost) when Stanley and the Women, his probing and pitiless description of the darker realities of male-female tensions was seen as falling short of the Procrustean imperatives of modern dogmatic feminism. (This particular situation did raise some indignation and was brought up in Newsweek, Times Literary Supplement, New Republic and other media, and the latest work of one of England’s two or three leading writers was finally published with considerable delay.) These cases seem to indicate a pattern of radical censorship. Its mechanisms are complex and many an enterprising reporter could find a fascinating area of work investigating it.

True, such a manipulation of ideas and of their dissemination is still some way from gaining anything like an absolute monopoly. If we want to maintain an open and lively field for the discussion of ideas, it is imperative that such cases receive a thorough airing whenever they occur. But there is another side to the same story. All too often there is no positive reinforcement of valuable American writing by any kind of awareness that related or relevant work is produced in Europe and elsewhere. Wide coverage is given, say, to Hans Kung, or to assorted eccentric and strident opponents of tradition. In fields such as literary criticism, philosophy or history, followers of materialist determinism from abroad have good chances of being translated, quoted or commented upon in America publications. An impression is thus created that somehow the points of view of the sociopolitical left and of materialist reductionism are the only ones accepted the world over, with the corollary that alternative views inside America must be silenced because if allowed to prevail they would isolate us too much in the intellectual landscape of the world.

This tactic should be easier to defeat than “negative” censorship, simply because the facts are in the open and the suggestion of a monolithic leftist way of thinking outside America is too far off the mark to resist scrutiny. This is clear from a few interesting new French books, chosen almost at random among a much richer crop. One of these is Fr. Juan Miguel Garrigues, L’eglise, la societe libre et le communisme (Paris: Julliard, 1984). The thesis of the book is much like that of Michael Novak about the homology between the patterns of the free market and the moral-spiritual substance of Christianity. There are however differences in argument and examples and a translation of this book (or at least the kind of thorough discussion that I cannot provide here) would enrich the texture of conversation on the economic and political preconditions for the functioning of Christianity. (Fr. Garrigues is a specialist in patristics and has written on Maximus Confessor and also has a book on the nature of evil.)

Jean-Luc Marion is a young man, under 40, teaching college in Poitiers and Paris, and already well in the limelight of French intellectual life. His doctoral work on Descartes (and in particular his intriguing attempt to deduce a “blank” or “white” theology out of the theories of the great seventeenth-century rationalist) gained him a lot of professional respect. Marion regards himself as a disciple of Hans Urs von Balthasar and is a cofounder of the French version of the quarterly Communio (in which he often publishes). He achieved a broad appeal with his books L’idole et la distance (Paris: Grasset, 1977) and Dieu sans l’etre (Paris: Communio-Fayard, 1982) in which he demonstrated with almost uncanny virtuosity how concepts of the patristic and scholastic tradition (Maximus Confessor, Pseudo-Dionysius, St. Augustine, Aquinas) overlap with, predate and actually overwhelm the modern philosophy of “absence” (Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida). Among his many brilliant and provocative ideas are the analysis of God as a “category” broader than and superior to mere Sein (reality, existence), as well as the meticulously elaborated distinction between idol (as one avenue of imagistic approach to divine and transcendent experience) and icon (as an alternative that manages to incorporate and represent God even as distance or negativity). To me one of the most interesting things about Marion’s theological boldnesses is that far from abutting on liturgical and dogmatic laxity they direct him towards rigor in these matters and impel him to an energetic and keen defense of orthodox tradition (see the last chapter of his Dieu sans I’etre). At any rate, it is discouraging to note that this author is ignored although his intellectual stature would make him a much worthier subject of agreement or disagreement than the many theological banalities that find their way into the media.

Phillippe Muray is another very young French author who has already distinguished himself as a novelist and literary critic. His new work Le 19 siecle a travers les ages (Paris: Denovel, 1984) is ambitious and bulky, but also brilliant and witty. It is an attack against Romanticism of such virulence and energy that it reminded me of Irving Babbitt. Romanticism and its sequels in the 19th and 20th century (hence the surprising title of the book) is treated as an attempt to displace transcendence and to rig up a system of social and emotional imminence. The latter is composed according to Muray chiefly by socialism and the credulous embrace of the occult (appeals to the dead, morbidity and the like). With much sardonic gusto, Muray dismantles the work and life of Hugo, Comte, George Sand, Michelet and many a lesser luminary to show how social grandiloquence and infantile superstition collaborate in the overt or hidden desire to combat religious traditions.

I draw attention to such works in the hope they will be read or perhaps even published in translation. At this moment such an interaction is of the essence. There is, perhaps in all of us a kind of regard for otherness that works very effectively. American works (such as those of Milton Friedmann or, if you will, William Faulkner) exerted a tremendous influence in France or in some South American countries. In turn the analyses and warnings of Revel were well received here. The greatest example of all may be that of Solzhenitsyn. The facts brought up in his works were known, by and large, through the painstaking work of specialized scholars and agencies. Nevertheless, their artistic revelation by a voice from “inside the whale” had an explosive effect because it came from the “other,” and provided outside confirmation. I think that a similar attention to the voices from abroad mentioned above will enrich the quality of our intellectual debates in decisive ways.

  • Virgil Nemoianu

    Virgil Nemoianu (born 1940) is a Romanian-American essayist, literary critic, and philosopher of culture. He is generally described as a specialist in “comparative literature” but this is a somewhat limiting label, only partially covering the wider range of his activities and accomplishments. His thinking places him at the intersection of Neo-Platonism and Neo-Kantianism, which he turned into an instrument meant to qualify, channel, and tame the asperities, as well as what he regarded the impatient accelerations and even absurdities of modernity and post-modernity. He chose early on to write within the intellectual horizons outlined by Goethe and Leibniz and continued to do so throughout his life.

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