• Email
  • Print

Controlling the Writing on the Wall

Jan Kott, translated by M. Rosenzweig

Czarna Ksiega Cenzury PRL (The Black Book of Polish Censorship) Volume I

Aneks (61 Dorset Road, London W548Y England), 247 pp., $8.50

The term “Germany” is not to be used in reference to the present state of the GDR, the FRG or West Berlin; when mentioning the capital of GDR use the term “Berlin” in distinguishing it from West Berlin.

All materials (passing references, photographs, etc.) on the subject of Iran, past or present, the Shah, his family and persons connected with the Shah must be brought to the attention of the Bureau.

All total figures re road accidents, fires and drownings are to be unconditionally eliminated from the press, radio, and TV; overly alarmist forms of publications on these subjects should be toned down.

These are three randomly chosen secret instructions from the Book of Indexes and Guidelines of the Polish bureau of censorship whose official name is GUKPPiW. These seven letters stand for Central Bureau for Control of Press, Publications and Performances. The bureau is located on Mouse Street in Warsaw.

As in Kafka there is both the Bureau and the Book. The Book, Poland’s equivalent of the Russian List which Lifshitz-Losev recently wrote about in The New York Review (June 29, 1978), has been among the most diligently guarded state secrets in countries of the Soviet bloc. A censor from the bureau, Tomasz Strzyzewski, left Poland for Sweden in the spring of 1977, taking a copy of the Book with him. After obtaining political asylum, he passed it on to the Committee for Social Self-Defense / KOR (Workers Defense Committee), the representatives of the Polish dissident movement. It was published in London under the title Czarna Ksiega Cenzury PRL (The Black Book of Polish Censorship) by the émigré publishing house Aneks.

So far we’ve known censorship from the outside, as its victims, from its effects. The Black Book for the first time shows censorship in totalitarian countries as a complete system for the transformation of reality into “unreality.” The most frightening thing about it is its perverse modernity. It’s as if censorship as a system brings to its logical conclusions the post-structuralist principle that reality is only a message, which can be transformed at will according to definite rules. Censorship is the most consistent realization of McLuhan’s information theories—for censorship information is not a true or false image of reality but the sole reality.

According to the orders issued to Polish censors the “Polish-German border” does not exist; there is only the “Oder-Neisse border” or, in an extreme case, the “Polish-GDR border.” In any case there’s nothing strange about this as “one is not to allow publication of any materials on the subject of the approaching twentieth anniversary of the end of the state of war with Germany.” In the semantics of this censorship North Korea does not exist, only the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; however, South Korea does exist, even if the censors prefer “the Seoul regime” or “the puppet government of South Korea.” Of course there is no border between these two Koreas and even the expression “the line of the 38th parallel” is prohibited—only a “demarcation line” exists.

Facts do not exist for the censorship’s semantic system until published. “Information about the amount of coffee consumption annually on a national scale is not to be released in order to make it impossible to deduce the amount of coffee re-export.” “Publication of information about Poland’s sale of meat to the USSR is not allowed. The content of this prohibition is strictly for the information of censor groups.” In Poland everyone knows about the export of meat to the Soviet Union. But a true state secret covers not only facts but the very knowledge of the prohibition against their publication.

Materials concerning the actual state of pollution caused by Poland’s industrial activity within the Polish sectors of rivers whose sources are in Czechoslovakia are not to be released. However, information about the pollution of these rivers caused by industrial activity within the territory of Czechoslovakia may be released.

One’s own industry never pollutes rivers in a socialist country. The reality accepted by the censors allows only a neighboring country’s industry to pollute rivers. Of course with the exception of Russia.

Censorship as a system does not aim at protecting the socialist state against open criticism (about this one even fears to think!). As a semantic system it protects and secures from criticism not the state and the system, but rather their ideal models. Censorship is the creation of an ideal image of the state and the nation.

In this ideal model of a state there is no room, for instance, for alcoholism (Poland is one of the most alcoholic countries in the world): “Numerical data illustrating the state and growth of alcoholism on the national scale is not allowed in the mass media.” In the ideal state, plagues do not kill cattle and insects do not destroy crops. Precise instructions prohibit spreading any information about the appearance of nine specific crop diseases and nine kinds of livestock contagions. “General statements about the existence of cattle and livestock epidemics in certain areas of the country are to be eliminated.” However, one may allow publication of materials and information “representing the efforts and achievements of the veterinary personnel engaged in combating the illnesses mentioned above, as long as their existence has already either been made public or reported to the International Epizöotic Institute in Paris.” Diseases which are not revealed do not exist, of course.

In the famous Letters from Russia, published over a hundred and fifty years ago, the Marquis de Custine expressed his astonishment that in Russia all news about rapes, murders, and catastrophes was a carefully guarded state secret. Even news about natural disasters, severe winters, and spring floods was not for publication. But in an ideal socialist state even accidents never happen. “Any information about malfunctioning of Polish transport planes can be quoted in the mass media only as reported by PAP [the official Polish news agency].” In the state of universal happiness there are no mass poisonings or epidemics:

Any information about mass poisonings and illnesses (regardless of the cause) affecting large segments of the population…about food poisonings in canteens of work places, vacation resorts, or summer camps (as a result of consuming food contaminated with pesticides, among other things), about particularly dangerous illnesses (e.g., smallpox, cholera, etc.)…about the epidemics of contagious diseases in the country, including flu…can be published in the mass media only with the approval of the Ministry of Health.

In this socialist state even a flu epidemic needs prior permission to exist.

But not only the reality of one’s own country has to be adjusted to the ideal model. Disturbances in other countries, even capitalist ones, can undermine the model by the possibility of dangerous analogies. “Any materials advocating changes in the military regulations of the armies of the socialist countries (along the lines of the military regulations in the capitalist countries’ armed forces) concerning, for instance, the right to wear long hair, are to be eliminated from the mass media….” Hippies, even in America, may be a contagious example: “Any materials concerning the hippie movement in Poland presented in an approving, tolerant or light tone, etc., are not allowed. Only unequivocally critical materials can be published. Materials which deal positively with this ‘movement’ in other countries are to be checked with the Bureau.”

The Polish as well as the Russian press wrote very laconically about Watergate. So much noise and, after all,…for nothing. “Until further notice one is not to publish any of our own materials on the subject of Watergate in the United States.” Clearly, popular indignation over Watergate could prove too dangerous an example.

In the ideal model of a socialist state, industrialization results only from the efforts and the inventiveness of the nation’s working classes. At home, one can have a color TV built according to an American patent; Polish “Fiats” are cruising the streets; cranes and tractors are built according to German patents. Yet,

any information about patents purchased by Poland from capitalist countries is to be eliminated from the mass media…. An accumulation of such information might lead an average reader to form the opinion that the foundation of the path of our industrial development rests on patents purchased from the developed capitalist countries.

According to Western news agencies, Poland’s debt amounts to over twelve billion dollars, but “all materials and press notes on the subject of foreign loans and credits for Poland are to be brought to the Bureau’s attention and sent to the directorship for approval.”

Balzac wrote about the distinction between “le pays réel” and “le pays légal,” where the “legal” country is constituted by laws, administrative divisions and offices, and the “real” country by the customs and religion of its inhabitants, their opinions and worldviews. The most astonishing thing about the system of Polish censorship is that it not only eliminates “le pays réel,” but also partially eliminates information about “le pays légal.” The “legal” country, after all, is also part of reality. But because “reality” does not exist, the “legal” country must also become part of “non-reality” and adjust to the ideal model. Since “le pays légal” is only a message which has been released to the mass media, “all decisions of the Supreme Court can only be published in the mass media under the condition of the Bureau’s approval in each and every case.”

Even granting a reprieve—or rejecting it—in cases involving the death penalty is a mystery whose revelation depends solely on the Bureau’s decision: “Any notes or information about each instance in which reprieve or pardon is or is not granted by the State Council is to be checked with directors of the Bureau.”

In this perfect Orwellian system “all photographs of the First Secretary and the other members of the Central Committee are to be approved by the Bureau before publication.” Photographs of Party and state dignitaries are not their likenesses, they are icons. Icons are semantic signs which cannot vary.

Even the official rate of currency exchange between socialist countries themselves, which every citizen departing for a journey can find out about at a bank window, are prohibited as public information. “The national rate of exchange for Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Cuba, Mongolia, Romania, Hungary, USSR, and Yugoslavia in relation to the exchange currency, namely the ‘exchange’ ruble, as well as currency exchanges between these countries, are not to be published. The contents of this prohibition are not to be released outside the Bureau.”

Poland is the only country in the Soviet bloc which has had a mass emigration of intellectuals; this occurred during the war, and after the war, when they emigrated for both professional and political reasons. As personae non grata, they obtain departure visas and passports more easily than in other countries of the bloc, and often are put under pressure to emigrate. Above all, Jews or persons of Jewish origin were forced to leave and give up their Polish citizenship after 1968, in the period of the so-called “struggle against Zionism” conducted by the Communist Party. According to a very rough count over three thousand emigrants from Poland are currently lecturing at American, Western European, Israeli, and Australian universities. Most of them are part of the postwar emigration.

A good many first-rate writers are among them. In the USSR emigrants are simply “non-persons.” Within the system of Polish censorship the existence or nonexistence of émigré writers and scientists is a more complex issue. They are “non-persons” either fully, in half, or in one quarter. According to the particular instructions of censorship, which are periodically supplemented and changed, they are divided into many categories. For some, e.g., the brilliant philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, “no emphases on the name or any positive assessment of the works by the persons in question are allowed. However, one may release short informative notes about the works they publish, as well as all materials polemicizing against their work.” For others, including the greatest of Polish poets, Czeslaw Milosz, “overexaggerated praise of their work, or representing them in too positive a light is not allowed.”

For still others, such as the author of this article, “their names and notices of their works are to be eliminated from the press, radio, and TV,” but “their names and titles of their works can be released in scientific, specialized publications, bibliographies and indexes.” A great master of the aphorism, Stanislaw Jerzy Lec, wrote years ago: “The first condition of immortality is death.” For the émigré writers the first but not always sufficient condition of bringing their books back into existence and print in their country is that they die.

The writers and scientists living in Poland are classified by censorship according to various stages of existence and nonexistence in a similar but even more differentiated way. Censorship as a system controls not only the works, but the authors. Who, after all, is the author? He is the first and last name with which he signs his article, or which appears on a book cover. In a closed semantic system there is no difference between the person and his work. The person is merely a collection of information which can be censored.

A censorship order can condemn a writer to total nonexistence by a prohibition against both publishing his work and mentioning his name in print. Or he and his works might be banned only from the radio and TV, and he might be mentioned only in specialized magazines. Then again, he might be able to publish only in one provincial paper while being banned from all major publications. The size of a book’s printing and permission to reprint are also controlled by censorship in spite of a book’s popularity, and even more so when it is popular. A book may be allowed publication, while any critical notices or reviews of it are banned. An “inconvenient” film might be screened, while any further notice of it is prohibited. “On January 27, 1977, K. Zanussi’s film Barwy Ochronne [Protective Coloration] will have its premiere. One is not to release any information about this event, or allow any notices, reviews, or advertisements to appear either before or after the premiere.”

The prohibition of reviews, advertisements, and discussions does not relate merely to the items on the censors’ list; on the contrary, there are occasionally books considered too “overeager,” which naïvely reveal embarrassing tendencies of the State. No one was permitted to review Machejek’s openly anti-Semitic four-volume novel. Officially anti-Semitism “does not exist” in Poland. Not only negative reviews but even those praising the book would have had to use a word which cannot be used.

In the semantic system of censorship the word “censor” exists, but there is no word for “censorship.” Freedom of speech and press are solemnly proclaimed in the Constitution of the Polish People’s Republic. In Poland, there is no “censorship” because the word “censorship” is censored by censorship. Censorship does not even call itself censorship. Only the Bureau, GUKPPiW, exists.

Until recently there were two Polish literatures: the “free” émigré literature and the “censored” domestic one. But for the last two years there has been a third kind of literature in Poland: samizdat. At least ten samizdat periodicals are circulated in Poland today: they are mimeographed or copied by consecutive readers. Volumes of poetry and anthologies of essays and short stories withheld by censorship or never presented to the Bureau for approval at all have appeared in samizdat form.

Yet this new samizdat differs from the Russian one. These “illegal” publishers print the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of the editorial staff on the title pages. “Illegal” volumes of poetry and short stories are signed by the authors. Many of the most important writers living in Poland publish under their own names in the émigré publishing houses, the Paris Kultura and the London Aneks. The way out of the closed system of imposed semantics designed for intellectual subjugation is to openly reject it, together with the rules of the police state. Polish samizdat is an “illegal” legality—an achieved legality.

Censorship is impotent in the face of this legal-illegal samizdat. The word samizdat does not exist in the censors’ vocabulary. What is left for the Bureau to do?

In Bydgoszcz a poetry group “Parkan” [“The Fence”] was formed. The works of this group are printed on posters, pasted on advertising posts, billboards, fences, etc. Any information about this specific form of disseminating poetry is to be eliminated from all forms of mass media.

Censorship in Poland is possibly the only one which also seeks to control the writing on the walls.

translated by M. Rosenzweig

  • Email
  • Print