A Soviet biologist once wrote a monograph entitled Colonial Polyps. He brought it to a publishing house and soon afterward received a letter back from the editor saying: “Your monograph is undoubtedly of great scientific value; however, the title does not quite hold up ideologically. In the last several decades, the colonial system of imperialism has collapsed once and for all. Therefore, the term colonial is offensive to those peoples who have been liberated from imperialist oppression. We suggest that you call your book Developing Polyps.”
I have been assured that this is a true story. At any rate, I see nothing unusual in it. In the USSR, and in many other countries, as we know, there is a system of prohibitions on certain words and terms, on certain phrases, and on entire (almost all) parts of reality. It is considered not only impermissible but simply indecent to print certain combinations of graphemes, words, or ideas. Everyone is obliged to know that these combinations are offensive to peoples liberated from imperialist oppression, or insulting to the head of a friendly state, or to the Soviet people, or simply to good taste. And what is not published somehow ceases to exist—in any case, it exists to a lesser degree; it crosses over to the world of harmless phantoms. Colonial polyps are indecent; therefore, colonial do not exist. There is much else that is improper and does not exist: religion and homosexuality, bribe-taking and hunger, Jews and nude girls, dissidents and immigrants, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, diseases and genitalia. Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky, and Nabokov are offensive: ergo, they do not exist. Trotsky is offensive and never did exist. Stalin existed, but not very much.
In a recent article, the critic Efim Etkind points out justly that this predilection for linguistic taboo is a relic of a mythical way of thinking.* I could add that this mythical thinking is visible in another outwardly contradictory phenomenon. It is thought that some combinations of graphemes and words must be constantly repeated—then the phenomena they signify somehow descend from the world of Platonic ideas to the level of reality. If you keep saying over and over again that the Soviet system of agriculture is the most progressive, sooner or later not only will vodka appear on the tables but meat as well. If you repeat enough times that Mao and Brezhnev are great writers, they might finally win the Nobel Prize.
Thus totalitarian censorship is never limited to just crossing things out; sooner or later the writer will be asked to add something. We can recognize the decent writers in Eastern Europe first by the fact that they try not to add anything.
Is it possible to overcome this all-encompassing system of taboo and magical incantation? A writer who crosses over from “normal” literature to the inferno of samizdat may do so (although not necessarily). It has been remarked that every member of the official press has a kind of inner censor, a Freudian superego…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.