James Joyce’s novel Ulysses is one of the most well crafted, beautiful, and important texts in all of Western literature. On the surface, Joyce’s lyrical command of language and his prodigious vocabulary are enough to enrapture any linguaphile and to challenge even the most ambitious polyglot:
Paris rawly waking, crude sunlight on her lemon streets. Moist pith of farls of bread, the froggreen wormwood, her matin incense, court the air. Belluomo rises from the bed of his wife’s lover’s wife, the kerchiefed housewife is astir, a saucer of acetic acid in her hands. In Rodot’s Yvonne and Madeleine newmake their tumbled beauties, shattering with gold teeth chaussons of pastry, their mouths yellowed with the pus of flan breton. Faces of Paris men go by, their wellpleased pleasers, curled conquistadores.
For those who choose to dig deeper, it is a work rife with symbolism, blending the classic Greek tale of Ulysses with the modern streets of Joyce’s own Dublin. Joyce manages to craft a novel so wholly Irish that it has been said that a destroyed Dublin could be reconstructed from the pages of Ulysses, and yet he tackles humanity so thoroughly and insightfully that the themes resonate today, a century later. I would encourage everyone to give Ulysses a try, but that is not what I want all of you to consider today. During Banned Books Week, I’d like everyone to consider how lucky we are that we have the option to read this novel in America, as its publication here was disallowed for more than a decade after its 1922 publication.
The American Library Association maintains a list of banned or challenged books, which denotes books which have been challenged at various schools, bookstores, and libraries throughout their publication history. While it is rare for a book ban to become so widespread that nobody carries it, it is also not uncommon for the challenging or banning of a book in one location to raise awareness and spread the banning of that book elsewhere in the country. What makes the case of Ulysses so odd is that it was not merely removed from specific schools or not carried by certain booksellers, but became embroiled in a court case in New York, a case known as United States v. One Book Called Ulysses.
In some ways, this is a model case to look at in regards to why censorship of texts sets such a dangerous precedence. Note that the lawsuit is not against the author, James Joyce, or the publisher responsible for distributing the text in America, Random House, but rather the book itself. The purpose of this lawsuit was to prove that the text itself was so obscene that it categorically could not be published in the United States. By today’s standards, Ulysses’s obscenities might seem relatively tame, but at the time some of Joyce’s words were scandalous. Joyce heavily used stream-of-consciousness in his writing, meaning that characters’ thoughts and impressions of the world came through unfiltered and unrestrained, at times even by conventions of grammar and syntax, and this included plenty of musings that were overtly sexual and many that were considered blasphemous due to Joyce’s complicated relationship with the Catholic faith.
What makes this case so important is it shows how we in the United States began to define obscenity and how challenging our preconceived notions of what is acceptable was something that many would start to see as valuable to academic freedom. The book was ultimately allowed to be imported, as the court ruled that while passages were clearly obscene by many community standards, it was judged to have value beyond merely titillating readers. The court case serves as a laborious reminder that the knee-jerk reaction to a book (getting offended) does not take into the full breadth of value that the text contains, and ideally a judge or committee shouldn’t need to be called in order for people to see that.
For readers in 2014, I’d like to call attention to one of the three main points leveled against Ulysses, as I think it is something fruitful to meditate on during this week where we celebrate books that contain challenging subject matter. This particular complaint states that the content of Ulysses “brought to the surface coarse thoughts and desires that usually were repressed.” While writing and creating art are often some of the most pure forms of expression, I firmly believe that reading can be just as rewarding and cathartic. Readers have the right, if they so choose, to engage with texts that challenge their viewpoints and express ideas that may be “repressed” in polite society.
The decision in this case is a reminder that book lovers everywhere owe it to themselves and to fellow readers to work against the “chilling effect” that banning books causes. It helps to remember that you have a right to read what you choose, but no one has a right to not be offended. That will never stop people from being offended, and likewise challenges to offending texts will likely continue to be issued, but if we as avid readers continue to be proactive about understanding and celebrating the value in “offensive texts” we can ideally learn how to better enjoy them — or avoid them if we choose — and still allow our neighbors that same right.
If you want to know more about the history of Banned Books Week, view a list of challenged books, or learn how to help raise awareness in your community, take a trip on over to the Banned Books Week website.
I leave you today with one last quote from the great English playwright George Bernard Shaw:
“Censorship ends in logical completeness when nobody is allowed to read any books except the books that nobody reads.”