The Soul of the Censor

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David Levine

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

What is censorship?

If the concept of censorship is extended to everything, it means nothing. It should not be trivialized. Although I would agree that power is exerted in many ways, I think it crucial to distinguish between the kind of power that is monopolized by the state (or other constituted authorities such as religious organizations in some cases) and power that exists everywhere else in society. Censorship as I understand it is essentially political; it is wielded by the state.

Not that all states impose sanctions in the same way. Their actions might be arbitrary, but they clothe them in procedures that had a tincture of legality. One of the striking aspects of the dossiers from the Bastille is the effort by the police to ferret out clues and establish guilt by rigorous interrogations, even though the prisoners had no legal defense. Under the pressure of circumstances, trials in the British Raj returned the expected verdicts, yet they adopted elaborate ceremonies to act out the rule of British law and affirm the fiction of freedom of the press. Walter Janka’s conviction in Berlin for publishing an author who fell out of favor (Lukács) was a ceremony of a different kind: a show trial orchestrated in Stalinist fashion to launch a purge and to signal a change in the Party line. The line determined legitimacy in a system that had no room for civil rights.

Reading was an essential aspect of censoring, not only in the act of vetting texts, which often led to competing exegeses, but also as an aspect of the inner workings of the state, because contested readings could lead to power struggles, which sometimes led to public scandals. Not only did censors perceive nuances of hidden meaning, but they also understood the way published texts reverberated in the public. Their sophistication should not be surprising in the case of the GDR, because they included authors, scholars, and critics. Eminent authors also functioned as censors in eighteenth-century France, and the surveillance of vernacular literatures in India was carried out by learned librarians as well as district officers with a keen eye for the folkways of the “natives.” To dismiss censorship as crude repression by ignorant bureaucrats is to get it wrong. Although it varied enormously, it usually was a complex process that required talent and training and that extended deep into the social order.

It also could be positive. The approbations of the French censors testified to the excellence of the books deemed worthy of a royal privilege. They often resemble promotional blurbs on the back of the dust jackets on books today. Column 16 in the secret “catalogues” of the India Civil Service sometimes read like modern book reviews, and they frequently lauded the books they kept under surveillance. While acting as censors, East German editors worked hard to improve the quality of the texts they vetted. Despite its ideological function, the reworking of texts had resemblances to the editing done by professionals in open societies. From start to finish, the novels of the GDR bore the marks of intervention by the censors. Some censors complained that they had done most of the work.

Negotiation occurred at every level, but especially at the early stages when a text began to take shape. That did not happen in the Raj, where censorship was restricted to post-publication repression, nor did it affect the literature that circulated outside the system in eighteenth-century France. But even Voltaire, when he published legal or quasi-legal works, negotiated with censors, their superiors, influential intermediaries, and the police. He knew how to manipulate all the gears and levers of the power apparatus, and he was an expert in using it for his benefit. For East German authors like Erich Loest and Volker Braun, negotiation was so important that it could hardly be distinguished from the publication process. They sometimes spent more time haggling over passages than writing them. The parties on both sides understood the nature of the give-and-take. They shared a sense of participating in the same game, accepting its rules, and respecting their opposite number.

Consider Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s account of his experience in The Oak and the Calf, published in 1975, a year after his expulsion from the Soviet Union. When you open it, you expect to encounter the voice of a prophet, crying in the wilderness; and you won’t be disappointed, for Solzhenitsyn casts himself as a Jeremiah. Yet he recounts much of his story in a surprising register: shrewd, precise, ironic, and sociologically rich observations of how literature functioned as a power system in a Stalinist society. We meet him first in the gulag. During eight years of labor in the prison camps, he writes about the misery around him, and he continues writing after his release while living miserably as a teacher. He writes in isolation and with total freedom, because he knows he cannot publish anything. His words will not be read until long after his death. But he must keep them secret. He memorizes them, writes them in a minute hand on thin strips of paper, and rolls the paper into cylinders, which he squeezes into a bottle and buries in the ground. As manuscript follows manuscript, he continues to hide them in the safest, most unlikely places. Then, to his amazement, Khrushchev denounces the excesses of Stalin at the Twenty-Second Party Congress in 1961, and Aleksandr Tvardovsky, the editor of Novy Mir, the most important review in the USSR, proclaims a readiness to publish bolder texts. Solzhenitsyn decides to take a risk. He rewrites, in milder form, the work that will eventually break through the wall of silence about the atrocities of the gulag under the title “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”; and he submits it to Novy Mir.


At this point, Solzhenitsyn’s narrative turns into a kind of sociology. He describes all the editors at the review, their rivalries, self-protective maneuvers, and struggles to stifle the bomb that he has planted in their midst. Aleksandr Dementyev, the intelligent, duplicitous agent of the Central Committee of the Party, sets traps and erects barriers during editorial conferences, but Tvardovsky is torn. As a genuine poet with roots in the peasantry, “his first loyalty was to Russian literature, with its devout belief in the moral duty of the writer.” Yet he also felt compelled by “the Party’s truth.” In the end, he prevails over his own doubts and the doubters on the staff, and he goes over the manuscript line by line with Solzhenitsyn, negotiating changes. Solzhenitsyn is willing to make them, up to a point, because he understands that the text must be modified enough to pass through the obstacle course that constitutes literary reality.

The course itself is described—leaked copies, huddled conversations in corridors of power, a reading before Khrushchev in his dacha, and approval by the Presidium (Politburo). The official censors, kept in the dark, are horrified when they see the proofs. But they praise the book when it goes to press, having been informed at the last minute that it received the approval of the Central Committee. The work creates a sensation, and it could have been followed by the other books that Solzhenitsyn has prepared; but he holds them back, unwilling to make the necessary modifications—a strategic mistake, he sees in retrospect, because the window of opportunity will close when Brezhnev succeeds Khrushchev in 1964 and a new wave of Stalinization shuts down genuine literature, driving Solzhenitsyn, now notorious, into exile. For all its vivid detail, backed up by a great deal of documentation, the story does not come across as a journalistic exposé. Nor does it invoke a Western view of freedom of speech. In a specifically Russian idiom, it proclaims a prophetic view of literature as a vehicle of truth.

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David Levine

Milan Kundera

Milan Kundera writes in a different idiom—ironic, sophisticated, steeped self-consciously in centuries of European literature. He, too, confronted censorship at a moment when Stalinism opened up long enough to expose its fault lines, then closed again, eventually driving him into exile. Literature and other arts, notably film, revived in Czechoslovakia during the 1960s, despite the heavy-handedness of the Communist regime. The Party itself succumbed to reformers determined to install “socialism with a human face” in January 1968, when Alexander Dubček became its first secretary. Censorship was abolished during the wave of reforms known as the Prague Spring, and it was restored soon after the Soviet invasion in August. A year earlier, in June 1967, the Authors Union held a congress, which in retrospect looks like a prelude to the Prague Spring. Kundera and other writers used it as a forum to demand greater freedom. In his address to the congress, Kundera invoked literature as the vital force behind “the very existence of the nation,” “the answer to the nation’s existential question,” and he denounced censorship, after quoting Voltaire, in the language of natural rights:

For the truth can only be reached by a dialogue of free opinions enjoying equal rights. Any interference with freedom of thought and word, however discreet the mechanics and terminology of such censorship, is a scandal in this century, a chain entangling the limbs of our national literature as it tries to bound forward.

Could such a statement appear in print? Literární noviny, the Czech equivalent of Novy Mir, intended to publish it with the proceedings of the congress, including a resolution to abolish censorship. This was too much for the censors in the “Central Publishing Board,” which resembled the HV of East Germany. They refused to let the issue go to press and summoned the editor of Literární noviny, Dusan Hamsik, along with members of its editorial board to meet with them and Frantisek Havlícek, head of the Central Committee’s Ideological Department, the Czech counterpart to the Culture Division in the Central Committee of the GDR. According to Hamsik’s account, the meeting turned into a hard-fought struggle over every article in the issue, above all the text of Kundera’s speech. Kundera himself was present, and he wrangled with Havlícek, line by line, fighting over every clause and comma. He could not simply refuse to negotiate, because the writers wanted their manifesto to be published and to reinforce the public’s resistance to Stalinism. He won some points and lost others, insisting all the while on “the absurdity of censoring a text that protested against all censorship.” In the end, he managed to save nearly everything that he had written. But when he left the meeting, he was miserable. “Why did I knuckle under?” he complained to Hamsik. “I let them make a complete idiot of me….Every compromise is a dirty compromise.” Soon afterward, the Party Central Committee phoned to say that it could not accept the compromise after all. The proceedings were never published. And Kundera was enormously relieved.


In Hamsik’s description of this episode, Kundera appears as “a difficult customer,” a writer of such unbending commitment to his art that he felt sickened by any degree of complicity with the political authorities. When the crisis came, however, he was willing, like Solzhenitsyn, to trim his prose in order to break the Party’s hold on literature. He, too, understood literature as a force that forged the national identity, although he associated it more broadly with the rise of European civilization. It had such transcendent importance for him, in fact, that he could not stomach the negotiation and compromise that determined literary life in all Stalinist regimes. By making him complicit in its tyranny, even when he resisted, it violated his sense of his self.

The inner sense of wounded integrity also comes through Norman Manea’s account of his dealings with the censors in Communist Romania during the 1980s, when Nicolae Ceaușescu had established a totalitarian regime outside the sphere of the Soviet Union. Manea insists on the “human reality” on both sides of the power divide—corrupt and canny officials pursuing their own ends within the state and ambitious authors, trying to advance their careers in a system dominated completely by the Party. As one of the authors, Manea hoped to make a breakthrough with his novel The Black Envelope, which contained some carefully oblique criticism of the totalitarianism around him. Owing to the fiction that censorship had been abolished, he did not receive the censor’s report on his book, only a copy of the text that the censor had vetted. About 80 percent of it was marked for deletion or revision, without any accompanying explanations. Manea struggled to puzzle out the objections and rewrote the text extensively, then submitted it through his publisher, as before. The rewritten version was rejected, again without an explanation.

There seemed to be no way out of this impasse, until the publisher took a chance. He sent the text to an “outside” reader, a retired veteran of the censorship system whom he knew through his contacts in the human network that got things done behind the façades of the official institutions. Coming from a non-censor, this censor’s report could be shown to Manea. It gave a penetrating and intelligent reading of the book and proposed major changes. Painful as they were, Manea adopted the recommendations of his “shrewd censor-teacher,” for they represented his only hope of continuing to exist in the world of literature. The strategy worked, the edition sold out, and in the wake of its success, Manea was forced into exile. In 1988, he emigrated to America, where he discovered “freedom”—not an order unbound by constraints, but a complex system that required compromises of its own, including some imposed by “the harsh laws of the marketplace.” While acknowledging the hard realities of exercising freedom in a democracy, Manea insisted on the distinctions that made it fundamentally different from what he had experienced in Romania. When he looked back on the cuts he had accepted in The Black Envelope, he did not regret the excision of critical passages so much as the whole process of compromise and complicity, and the toll it took on him. In the end, he concluded, “The censor’s office won.”

Danilo Kiš underwent a similar experience in Communist Yugoslavia, although Stalinism there took a milder form. When he reflected on his attempts to cope with censorship, he stressed its invisible character—the informal pressures exerted by publishers and editors, who acted as censors while exercising their professional functions, and, above all, the pervasive power of self-censorship. The inner, self-appointed censor, he wrote, is the writer’s double, “a double who leans over his shoulder and interferes with the text in statu nascendi, keeping him from making an ideological misstep. It is impossible to win out against this censor-double; he is like God, he knows all and sees all, because he comes out of your own brain, your own fears, your own nightmares.”

When exiles from the Soviet system invoked “freedom” and “truth,” they were not appealing to the protection of the First Amendment or speaking as philosophers. They were using words to describe their experience of censorship as a force operating in specific circumstances, a force that determined the nature of literature in an oppressive political system. “Freedom of speech” served as a standard against which to measure the oppression. It did not apply to constraints of all kinds, although many kinds had weighed on the lives of the writers. Freedom for them was a principle made meaningful by the experience of its violation. Experiences varied, of course, and the variations make it hopeless to search for a general proposition that would encompass all of them, including some that have been studied up close, such as censorship under apartheid in South Africa. They also understood that literature in what Westerners called the “free world” suffered from constraints. Does their experience argue for a relativistic notion of freedom?

To take seriously the testimony of writers who were silenced or who silenced themselves under Stalinist regimes is not, however, to equate their experience with that of anyone who finds it difficult to publish a book. Nor is it to conflate twentieth-century modes of silencing with ways of stifling voices in other times and places. Historians are not equipped to tote up degrees of iniquity in different periods of the past. But we cannot avoid making value judgments, and we should be able to recognize the way our values shade our understanding, just as we acknowledge the conceptual framework that shapes it. Rather than facing either/or alternatives, I would prefer to shift the ground of the debate.

An ethnographic view of censorship treats it holistically, as a system of control, which pervades institutions, colors human relations, and reaches into the hidden workings of the soul. In studying its operations, I have learned to acquire greater respect for principles that I share with other citizens in our peculiar part of the world and our moment in history. I understand that the First Amendment does not extend beyond the jurisdictional limits of the US Constitution, but I believe in the right to freedom of speech with all the fervor of my fellow citizens, despite the scorn of sophisticates who deride “First Amendment pieties.” While attempting understanding, one must take a stand, especially today, when the state may be watching every move we make.

Adapted from the conclusion to Robert Darnton’s Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature, which will be published by W. W. Norton on September 22. Copyright 2014, Robert Darnton.

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