Against Intellectual Biblioclasm II

I wrote my first manifesto “Against Intellectual Biblioclasm” over a year ago. I concluded it was time for an update when I read this earlier today:

Yet I am more persuaded by a former jihadi named Shahid Butt, who now spends his time deradicalising misguided souls in Birmingham. To him, another rioter from 1989, Rushdie is simply “a dickhead”. He says: “What kind of literary writer, academic, are you that the only way that you can get any fame is by being derogatory and by insulting billions of people. Is that the best you can do?”

Rushdie’s silly, childish book should be banned under today’s anti-hate legislation. It’s no better than racist graffiti on a bus stop. I wouldn’t have it in my house, out of respect to Muslim people and contempt for Rushdie, and because it sounds quite boring. I’d be quite inclined to burn it, in fact. It’s a free country, after all.

This may or may not be “a modest proposal” on the author’s part—Poe’s Law applies. Yet his logic, the eliminationist-totalitarian logic of #cancellation now rampant within the left-liberal literary world, is impeccable. As I wrote in my review of Albert Murray’s The Hero and the Blues last year:

[T]his [is the] time of the left-liberal literati’s retrenchment, its increasingly shrill insistence, enforced by regular social media mob actions against wreckers and traitors, on a Marxist-derived reductionist approach to human identity and a moralistic attitude toward the nature and purpose of art, the latter coupled with impatient defenses of inquisitorial censoriousness. They want to pull books from the shelves and pictures from the walls; who could possibly doubt that if, say, the Rushdie affair happened today, all of literate Brooklyn would high-mindedly excuse those calling for the “racist” novelist’s head?

When I was a teenager, I joined the political left because I understood it, in that era of the religious right’s now-almost-forgotten hegemony, to be the side that stood for freedom of thought and speech. I was warned by several older people that this was not the case, but with the certitude that can only come from youthful inexperience, I did not listen. 15 years ago, depressed and afraid, I wrote all day on Livejournal (remember that?) about how George W. Bush was going to put us in prison camps and had done 9/11 and would start a nuclear war, about how both climate change and peak oil (remember that?) would end the world within the decade, and about how only proletarian and Third-World revolution would save us.

It only took a year or two, and professional acquaintance with some fellow travelers of this creed, to show me how wrong I was about its reliability as a guide to both facts and ethics. Apocalypticism is always a racket; dystopia is an abuse of the speculative intellect, a genre fit for children, and perhaps not even for them. And if the world ends, you can’t do anything about it anyway. Chekhov said that artists should only participate in politics only enough to keep themselves safe from politics. We need to cultivate our gardens, after we secure our right to them in the first place. The autonomy of art is not incidental to secular freedom but its bedrock. It is logically, because politically, prior to almost every other right. The enslaved were not permitted to read; freedom of speech, thought, and art grounds and founds every other freedom. 

The totalitarian left as a metaphysical entity is, in contrast to secular freedom, an only very slight development of the theocratic imagination, with its anathemas, its iconoclasms, and its eschatologies. In the platonically sterile air of its cultural dominance, laughter itself, laughter per se, becomes a confession of unrighteous thought, hence the perennial necessity of purging jesters like Rushdie or, before him, Joyce. 

How did this happen? How did we, the heirs to Joyce and contemporaries of Rushdie,  become thrall to these latter-day Savonarolas, Matherses, and Zhdanovs? Ours was a literary century inaugurated by the martyrdom of Oscar Wilde, who would be #canceled today if only the present-day literati lifted their heads from whatever children’s books have not yet been pulped for insensitivity long enough to know of his pederasty, his anti-Semitism, or his Confederate sympathies, none of which justify the juridical destruction of his person nor corrupt the spirit of imaginative freedom that respires from his perfumed prose.

Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live. And unselfishness is letting other people’s lives alone, not interfering with them. Selfishness always aims at creating around it an absolute uniformity of type. Unselfishness recognizes infinite variety of type as a delightful thing, accepts it, acquiesces in it, enjoys it. It is not selfish to think for oneself. A man who does not think for himself does not think at all. It is grossly selfish to require of one’s neighbor that he should think in the same way, and hold the same opinions. Why should he? If he can think, he will probably think differently. If he cannot think, it is monstrous to require thought of any kind from him. (“The Soul of Man Under Socialism”)

And this inquisition has nothing whatsoever to do with “anti-racism,” which is just another in a long line of noble causes corrupted into an alibi for tyranny by opportunists who begin to feel insane if they go one second without controlling other people. Albert Murray would be the first to tell you. But also: Toni Morrison stood with Rushdie, Ralph Ellison mocked the Marxists, and Zora Neale Hurston knew the score 90 years ago:

Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more of less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife. (“How It Feels to Be Colored Me”)

As for “social justice,” it is practiced just as you would expect a political concept developed in the 19th-century Catholic Church to be practiced: with less respect than is presently desirable for freedom, individuality, and the imagination.

I was raised Catholic and educated in Catholic schools, so I will say what I want about the abuses within the institutions of that faith, if not about the faith itself, which is often salvific and beautiful (Wilde would agree). Perhaps many forms of feminism would make somewhat more emotional sense to me if I hadn’t heard three generations’ worth of stories, and witnessed an example or two with my own eyes, of adult women dressed all in black beating small children with rulers bound into fasces or stabbing them in the chest with ballpoint pens for their sins. My parents were married by a priest now known to be a predatory pedophile, and in my youth a different priest now known to be a predatory pedophile was frequently entertained at my family’s dinner table. So much for holiness, holy women, holy men, and holy causes. In Catholic school, long before I knew about any priest’s private predilections, long before I read Wilde (or Nietzsche), I learned that avowed morality is usually a cover for domination and brutality.

Anyone who speaks of morality while controlling or harming others does the devil’s work. It might even be true, sometimes I suspect it is, that anyone who speaks of morality ever, at all, instead of silently doing all the good that can be managed in this crooked world, is the devil’s assistant. In any case, “morality,” “justice,” and all the rest of “those big words that make us so unhappy,” make me want to vomit. These are abstractions susceptible of being twisted into this shape and that by totalitarians. Those who want to ban and burn the books of authors of color are “anti-racists” in the same way that many communist states were “democratic republics.”

By contrast, the élan vital of literature is specificity, concretion, and singularity. That is not because all writers are moral, or all works are; the very question of the morality of art is—not a childish one, because children blessedly don’t care, but precisely one motivated by all the insecurity of adults who don’t feel they have command of themselves unless they are commanding others. As one good Catholic, Simon Leys, once wrote,

It is not a scandal if novelists of genius prove to be wretched fellows; it is a comforting miracle that wretched fellows prove to be novelists of genius.

Now I write the foregoing because I know how many people agree with me. They are just unwilling to say so in public; in public, they melt into puddles if someone cries, “Think of the children!” or if some opportunist, with transparent phoniness, claims to be the single voice of a race, a gender, a class, or a sexuality, even though doing so is a form of dehumanizing essentialism in its own right because it traduces the complexity of all communities and individuals.

It has to stop. We all have to seize our courage in the face of the all-out assault on artistic freedom that is coming from within the very institutions (the press, academia, publishing) we have appointed custodians of art. There is no excuse. The time for freedom of speech and art is now and forever. Against the book banners and the book burners—against them while we’re allowed to be.


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Fredric Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent

Seduction of the InnocentSeduction of the Innocent by Fredric Wertham

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When I was younger—say in the late 1980s, early 1990s—the concept of free artistic expression was associated with the social and political left. The totalitarian states of international communism were discredited and second-wave feminism had clearly overreached in its anti-porn crusades; meanwhile, tirades against the objectionable character of both elite and popular culture were coming from the religious and racial right, with its crusades against alleged Satanism and against queer and black arts. I am thinking of the controversies over heavy metal, NEA funding, and “Cop Killer,” for example.

But when I was a kid, I didn’t listen to rap or heavy metal and I didn’t attend elite art exhibitions; instead I avidly read comic books. In those pre-Internet days, the folk memory of comic-book readers tended to elide the 1950s public outcry against comics—which led to their being tried in the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency Hearings and to the self-imposition by the industry of the absurdly censorious comics code—with the ‘80s/‘90s posturing of the religious right (and of certain New Democrat or blue dog allies, such as Tipper Gore). I had certainly heard of Fredric Wertham by the time I was 11 or 12, but, lacking good information, I pictured him as a Pat Robertson or Pat Buchanan or Bill Bennett type.

As comics have over the last generation come under increased academic jurisdiction, though, readers have noticed that Wertham was in fact far more like the type of person who would today profess comics studies: a leftist less enamored of free speech than prior generations. (See, for instance, Chris Bishop’s very engaging and informative lecture.) In the introduction to the most recent edition of Wertham’s 1954 anti-comics polemic, Seduction of the Innocent, James E. Reibman sets the record straight: “Of course, the irony in all this is that Fredric Wertham, a traditional left-wing European intellectual and product of the Enlightenment tradition, continues to be both castigated and characterized as a reactionary.”

Seduction of the Innocent, then, is in a very different genre from the Chick-tract-type screed; it is, rather, a lament over the demise of high bourgeois culture sung by an impeccably cultured exile of that culture’s European calamity. (Wertham was brought up within the humanistic milieu of the assimilated German-Jewish bourgeoisie.) It is more like Theodor Adorno than Jesse Helms.

When read with the above understanding, Seduction of the Innocent is an almost sympathetic book. The psychiatrist Wetham was a crusader for racial equality who opened a clinic in Harlem (named after Paul Lafargue) for indigent black youth; he collaborated with or earned the praise of Richard Wright, Paul Robeson, Ralph Ellison and Thurgood Marshall. That comics promote racial hatred was, not at all unreasonably, one of his chief complaints:

If I were to make the briefest summary of what children have told us about how different peoples are represented to them in the lore of crime comics, it would be that there are two kinds of people: on the one hand is the tall, blond, regular-featured man sometimes disguised as a superman (or superman disguised as a man) and the pretty young blonde girl with the super-breast. On the other hand are the inferior people: natives, primitives, savages, “ape men,” Negroes, Jews, Indians, Italians, Slavs, Chinese and Japanese, immigrants of every description, people with irregular features, swarthy skins, physical deformities, Oriental features.

He also charged comics with misogyny and the promotion of sadism. While psychoanalytically informed, he rejected Freud’s pessimism about human nature; a devoted reader of Dickens, he was a Rousseauist who did not believe in innate human aggression. No death drives or wills-to-power for him. He is at his most attractive in Seduction of the Innocent when fighting the almost eugenic contempt with which the judicial system and society at large treated young criminal offenders and their parents. He saw ordinary children and their parents as preyed upon by much larger social forces, which made it difficult for them to negotiate normative social life. As aware as he was of such oppressive forces as poverty and racism, though, he became convinced that comic books—and the industry behind them, which he viewed as a rapacious and amoral capitalist force—were an autonomous vector for cultural damage. Hence, his long and rather unfocused polemic against them.

Besides racism, misogyny, and sadism, Wetham also charged comics with poor aesthetic standards in everything from printing materials to spelling; with the promotion of crime and violence; with inspiring children to undertake all sorts of dangerous acts (jumping off the roof to try to fly like Superman, etc.); with numbing children’s sensibilities so that they could not appreciate great literature and art; and with being produced by an industry that mistreated its creators, strong-armed its distributors, and bought off off “experts” and politicians (he never states outright, but carefully implies, what we now know to be true of the early comics’ mafia connections, as elaborated by Chris Bishop in the lecture linked above).

Despite Wertham’s left-wing credentials, he shared the midcentury left’s dim view of homosexuality, seeing it as a lamentable form of maladjustment brought about by a corrupt society. For this reason, he is perhaps best remembered for his actually rather perceptive, if undeniably homophobic, attack on Batman as homoerotic text (this is another reason, I believe, that he was misremembered as right-wing by the time of my adolescence):

In the Batman type of comic book such a relationship is depicted to children before they can even read. Batman and Robin, the “dynamic duo,” also known as the “daring duo,” go into action in their special uniforms. They constantly rescue each other from violent attacks by an unending number of enemies. The feeling is conveyed that that we men must stick together because there are so many villainous creatures who have to be exterminated. They lurk not only under every bed but also behind every star in the sky. Either Batman or his young boy friend or both are captured, threatened with every imaginable weapon, almost blown to bits, almost crushed to death, almost annihilated. Sometimes Batman ends up in bed injured and young Robin is shown sitting next to him. At home they lead an idyllic life. They are Bruce Wayne and “Dick” Grayson. Bruce Wayne is described as a “socialite” and the official relationship is that Dick is Bruce’s ward. They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler, Alfred. Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown. As they sit by the fireplace the young boy sometimes worries about his partner: “Something’s wrong with Bruce. He hasn’t been himself these past few days.” It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.

Unfortunately for his credibility, he was also convinced that there were subliminal images in comics art, finding women’s pudenda and the like in the cross-hatching on a well-muscled hero’s shoulder; this is bizarre, because Wertham’s perfectly correct assessment of comics’ wretched business practices should have told him that nobody got paid enough to bother with such minutia!

And Wertham, to be fair, was not much of a totalitarian censor. His proposal was to ban the sale of “crime comics” to children under 15 (though “crime” was a pretty all-encompassing generic designation to him; he thought Donald Duck was, for all practical purposes, a crime comic). He was not for any kind of outright ban—and he was at pains to emphasize that he did not advocate any restriction on what adults could purchase and read. In his defense, one might note that the comics of the time really were wild and that today we accept without objection things like rating systems, which inform consumers without much interfering with free expression. On a more personal note, I might add that I agree with his defense of the subtler pleasures and greater intellectual demands of high culture against sensationalist mass-produced pop culture—but this, for me, is on grounds of aesthetics, not ethics or politics.

It is well and good to re-assess Wertham’s book with a greater understanding of his not totally unsympathetic intellectual position, but Seduction of the Innocent is still the product of a faulty worldview. For one thing, Wertham was in a sense not socialist enough; even if we accept that cultural objects can do mental harm to vulnerable children (and this remains an “if,” as far as I know), why blame cultural objects themselves and not the structural forces that create vulnerability in the first place? Furthermore, his Rouseauist/Dickensian picture of the unsullied innocent coming into the world to be snatched from the virtuous hands of his mother by greedy capitalists peddling smut may have been a welcome correction to some elitist and racist opinions of the innate inferiority of the poor; but even so, I don’t believe it does anyone any good in the long run to deny some of the harder truths of existence. Throughout the book, Wertham complains of Superman’s Nietzschean lineage (and if he grasped the irony that superheroes were created not by Aryan fascists but by assimilationist Jewish working-class immigrants’ sons, he does not mention it):

As our work went on we established the basic ingredients of the most numerous and widely read comic books: violence; sadism and cruelty; the superman philosophy, an offshoot of Nietzsche’s superman who said, “When you go to women, don’t forget the whip.” We also found that what seemed at first like a problem in child psychology had much wider implications. Why does our civilization give to the child not its best but its worst, in paper, in language, in art, in ideas? What is the social meaning of these supermen, superwomen, super-lovers, superboys, supergirls, super-ducks, super-mice, super-magicians, super-safecrackers? How did Nietzsche get into the nursery?

But Nietzsche is already in the nursery, as is Freud. I have no desire to let theory obliterate common sense: it is surely better not to rear children exclusively on texts and images that are poor in quality and utterly cynical about sex and violence. Still, we are born with the full panoply of human potential, including the potential for aggression, greed, hate, sadism, masochism, and all the rest; as these are ineradicable, they are best confronted. Wertham spends a lot of time attacking what I believe is, even now, a consensus position among educators and psychologists: that some fantasy violence is not terrible for children and can even be an inoculation against the real thing.

As for Nietzsche, while he certainly wrote some disturbing sentences and was obviously taken up by some worse-than-dubious admirers, one fails to learns the lessons of The Genealogy of Morals at one’s peril. Just as Wertham’s polemic against sensationalism is amazingly sensationalist (seduction! of the innocent!), so too is his moral crusade no less an exercise in power-seeking than the actions of his opponents.

While Nietzsche may slight some of our nobler drives, I accept his argument that no human pursuit, not the most artistic or the most holy or the most egalitarian, is totally free from the quest to dominate or from impulses of aggression. To deny this is to leave oneself open to dangerous delusions of righteousness. Such delusions, it seems to me, have done more damage than violent comic books or pornography. The books that have proved most corrupting have been books like the Bible, the Koran, and The Communist Manifesto; surely, more people have been slaughtered for the ideals of Rousseau than for the anti-ideals of Sade.

A final word against censorship—and censoriousness, which I also dislike. The imposition of the restrictive comics code was the end result of Wertham’s activism. And the end result of the comics code was to put EC Comics out of business. EC’s company of superb writers and artists—Harvey Kurtzman, Al Feldstein, Wally Wood, Bernard Krigstein, among others—were making thoughtful, humane, literary, beautiful comics that went some way toward correcting the flaws of comics that Wertham was most reasonable in pointing out, such as their simplistic worldview, their illiteracy, their racism, their intellectual poverty, and their low artistic standards. It would take almost thirty years for the promise of EC to begin to be realized, as the code eased off, and mainstream American comics could again pursue the creation of serious artistic work.

In short, Wertham did more damage to the artists who might have been his allies than he did to the crass and mobbed-up money-men of the industry itself, who simply adjusted, as such people always do. Feel free to take this as a parable directed at the Werthamites of today.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Why Texts Are Not Actions


(via Anthony)

With all due respect to both scholars— And let me pause, because in this case I really mean that. Felski’s Gender of Modernity is required reading for anyone interested in the socio-political history of modernism, while her recent article “After Suspicion” is crucial to developments in contemporary literary theory. As for Toril Moi, even putting her other achievements aside, her book on Ibsen is essential as a historical corrective for all those who want, at this late date, to rehash a realism vs. modernism argument; if we’d all read Moi on modernism’s development out of the late-nineteenth-century challenge to idealism—and not realism per se—our own present aesthetic debates would be wonderfully clarified.

So, with all due respect to both scholars, we surely do not know our way about.

Texts cannot be actions. For one thing—and please take this from a novelist seeking publication, so far unsuccessfully—a text is wholly inert, a totally lifeless thing, unless it is read. The action is reading, an answer to the prior action of writing; but mediating between these actions is the textual object. “Texts are actions” is a statement biased by the routine perusal of the most influential texts, whose readers have brought actions about as a consequence of their reading. But if no one had read those texts (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, say, or The Communist Manifesto), then no actions would have ensued. An unread book is in itself totally powerless, only as good for action as a rock is: i.e., you can throw it at somebody.

Moreover, if texts were actions, then they, like actions, would have one immediately observable and direct result, even a predictable and iterative result. But no text has such an effect on its readers, not even the most influential text. Don’t groups from anarchists to fascists, from Opus Dei to Quakers, find warrant for their beliefs and actions in the Bible? If I were to hit you hard enough in the face, you would cry, no matter who you are; it would be a purely physiological reaction, admitting of little to no interference from your conscious mind or your social context. If Dickens were to write a novel intended to provoke tears, many people would indeed cry, but Oscar Wilde, and those whose tastes Oscar Wilde educated, would laugh. A violent action can kill you; no text can.

Which brings me to more troubling implications. If texts were actions, then their authors would be subject to sanction as the agents of an action. If texts are actions, then a library is a legitimate military target, and opening fire on a writer as justifiable, in war, as opening fire on a soldier. Redefining texts as actions removes a whole set of legal and social protections from the authors of texts; these protections were understood to be necessary for writers—and related figures, such as scientists—to work undisturbed by the immediate imposition of social norms and political dictates in order to produce disinterested* knowledge—that is, knowledge good for all humanity, not unduly prejudiced by its discoverers’ need to pledge fealty to any particular social interest. If texts were actions, then would the Biblical literalist not be correct to understand the scientist’s written statement of the earth’s true age as a direct and literal assault upon him? We postmodernists know the critique of disinterestedness very well, of course; both Felski and Moi rely from time to time on Bourdieu in their work, and the sociologist famously said that disinterestedness has an interest, in that it was promoted by a particular social group for that group’s own advancement. But Bourdieu well understood that only the ethos of disinterestedness allowed him to say such a thing: only a social system that allows disinterested speculation can allow for the internal critique of its own bias. This is the full, rich meaning of the slogan that the answer to false or hateful speech must be more speech, true and without hate.

If texts were actions, their protection from legal and social regulation would of necessity have to expand to encompass all the types of actions now regulated; for instance, some texts will be characterized, purely and simply, as assaults. “Good!” you may say, “some texts are assaults!” Maybe so (though I doubt it), but why do you imagine that you and those who share your values will be the ones to make the judgment as to which texts? I was educated by nuns who felt no less literally assaulted by pro-abortion discourse than some others may feel by sexist religious discourse. Of course, the nuns were not assaulted; it is just an extravagant manner of speaking. But it is one with consequences for the freedoms that artists and intellectuals have fought for over many centuries now.

I don’t believe history has laws, but if it did, one would certainly be this: the trap you prepare for others will be sprung on you in the end. Redefining texts as actions was a trap prepared, not wrongly, for those who argued that texts were wholly unworldly and that their circulation was without social effect. This trap will be turned on its devisers when the regulation of texts’ supposed social effects becomes the responsibility of those devisers’ enemies.** (Witness the affair of Steven Salaita and the consequences of what some felt to be his violent speech; in this case, the left’s own emerging standards were used against one of its own members.) Much better to scale back the claim and understand texts as objects whose effects are wholly contingent upon human action and decision—upon, above all, interpretation. I know this lacks the avant-garde glamor of imagining the book that explodes, I know that it takes us back to that oh-so-uncool Grecian urn whose very muteness—i.e., inactivity—invites thought and more thought and endlessly recomplicating thought.*** But why, after all, disparage thinking?****

*That the word “disinterested” has almost entirely lost its meaning and is now in common usage a synonym for “bored” is symptomatic of our whole regression from modernity; we may yet bore ourselves to death.

**This is maybe a slight exaggeration, but it seems to me that when I was a child and adolescent (about 20 years ago), it was mostly right-wingers who thought that texts and other representations and artworks (video games, music, etc.) had direct and dangerous social consequences. This view now seems to be the property largely of the left. What happened?

***The point of Keats’s poem, I take it, is that its own ambiguity and density become a surrogate for the urn’s mute and enduring mystery. Every reading of the poem restages the speaker’s encounter with the urn. In that sense, the poem may metaphorically be said to enact its meaning, but let us not get carried away with the metaphor: in fact, it can enact nothing without the reader’s contemplation and agency. We act, not the poem. In the speaker’s sexist vocabulary, the urn/poem can only “tease,” and what within the logic of sexism is a tease but a woman who will not perform the man’s desired action? (Thus we can read the poem against the speaker’s sexism, as a caution against it.) The poem (my all-time favorite, admittedly) is a meditation on the mystery that an inert object, whether urn or poem, can provoke—precisely by doing nothing, which is to say that the word “provoke” is an imputation of agency to a non-agent—an infinitude of thought and feeling. But this is only a mystery if we understand both text and urn not to act (hence the chill of their pastoral and the silence of their music). I have described elsewhere what I believe to be the pernicious consequences of attempting, in literature, to rush past the moment of arrested thought so as to arrive at unmediated existence. 

****Without wishing to drown in the weeds of high theory, I want to clarify one thing: you may be wondering if the view above does not commit me to a rather tedious mimetic view of literature, such that texts are simply representations, more or less faithful, of existing reality or an idealization thereof. By no means; this is dreary neo-classicism by way of Stalin, and I do not support it. I am a Romantic modernist, more or less, in a tradition running from Coleridge and Keats through Pater and Wilde to Joyce and Woolf and (somewhat against his better judgement) Eliot and represented in our own time by Don DeLillo and Kazuo Ishiguro and (somewhat against her better judgment) Toni Morrison, explained here by Brad Bannon. In this tradition, the text is a heterocosm, an autonomous creation for the reader to examine and explore. For the avant-garde tradition of text-as-action, the text is a process that the reader undergoes; in my Romantic modernist tradition, the text is a place readers visit, where they may or may not undergo something or anything, according to their desires and dispositions as they interact with those of the text.