Tuesday, December 27, 2011


I just finished a highly important and enjoyable book, two virtues that do not all that often appear in tandem. It is The Language Wars by Henry Hitchings (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Subtitled “A History of Proper English,” it is by far the best history of the English language, excitingly and amusingly told in part though striking quotations and entertaining anecdotes. It is based on extensive research, and references a vast number of impressive sources, proving in equal measure history and usage guidebook, as Publishers Weekly rightly observed. Also a splendid example of how to write informatively and wittily on a subject that should be of interest to everyone involved with the English language—by, for instance, speaking and writing it—and indispensable to anyone professionally engaged with it.

Among the innumerable fascinating data I gleaned from it, I single out here the admirable pages about censorship, which succinctly but thoroughly adduce scary and ludicrous specimens of censorship as well as taboo. (The chapter that comprises them is drolly entitles “Unholy Shit.”) That Hitchings is also a theater critic for the London Evening Standard further endears him to me. It may even induce me to seek out his earlier books.

Hitchings discusses Thomas Bowdler, whose The Family Shakespeare (1818) was a popular edition of Shakespeare’s plays that “omitted any words that ‘cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family’—stripping away anything sexual, yet retaining the violence.” A slight compensation for his extensive impoverishments is Bowdler’s one posthumous contribution to the English language, the verb “bowdlerize.” One review of the work accused Bowdler of having “castrated, cauterized and phlebotomized” Shakespeare, which got me thinking about, among other things, castration.

I perceive it as a cruel and unusual punishment, even when it is mandatorily imposed on pedophiles. These, currently very much in the limelight, what with certain low practices in institutions of higher learning, should sternly be punished. That should involve jail sentences and, afterward, preemptive measures such as electronic and other surveillance, housing restrictions, and so forth. But not castration, however much it may have formerly done for young boys’ singing voice. It is not even surefire protection against misdeeds, as it does not wholly eliminate the libido, and can prevent only penetration, but not molestation.

This brings me to the story of Abelard and Heloise, and the dreadful emasculation of the excellent man by the hired thugs of the vicious Canon Fulbert, who incorrectly believed that his niece, Heloise, had somehow been ruined by Abelard, her loving and beloved teacher (and secret husband), a great and noble philosopher and theologian.

Their story has been treated in various works of literature and theater, one of the latter, Ronald Millar’s “Abelard & Heloise,” performed on Broadway by Keith Michell and Diana Rigg in 1971. I quote from my review, as reprinted in Uneasy Stages.
                                                                                                                                                                  The play is billed as “inspired by” Helen Waddell’s novel Peter Abelard though “inspired” is hardly a word I would use in this context. All I remember of that dryish book by a fine scholar and translator but unwieldy novelist is the character of Gilles de Vannes, modeled on Miss Waddell’s beloved teacher George Saintsbury . . . the only character in the [Millar] play who has any life. Abelard and Heloise have fired the imaginations of such diverse writers as Alexander Pope and George Moore, and there are respectable but uninspired plays on the subject by Roger Vailland and James Forsyth. To these Millar’s work may be appended as the last and least.

For Millar does not convey anything to us: neither life in the Middle Ages nor the conflict of God and Eros during the heyday of the Church; neither Abelard the great dialectician and teacher, nor Abelard the masterly poet. But perhaps one could bypass all these in favor of the tragic love story (and castration is arguably more tragic than death, if only one had the language, the poetry, the fervor. But if you write lines like [here I skip three incriminating samples of dialogue], you are not fit to write a play about these lovers—at best perhaps, about the Windsors or Onassises.

The production contained a most discreet (not to say castrated) nude scene, showing the lovers only on a darkened stage, briefly, and in profile, but sufficient to elicit from me that Ms. Rigg “is built, alas, like a brick basilica with inadequate flying buttresses.” This remark has fueled comments, amused but mostly disapproving, in numerous publications, notably in Ms. Rigg’s delightful book about negative criticism, No Turn Unstoned. In it, the charming and highly literate actress observes, “I remember making my way to the theatre the following day, darting from doorway to doorway and praying I wouldn’t meet anyone I know. The cast behaved with supreme tact and pretended they hadn’t read the review.”

I now regret having written this, but at least I incurred a slight punishment. Absolutely everyone who quotes my line has it wrongly “a brick mausoleum,” whether derived from Ms. Rigg or from any of several anthologies of quotations that incorrectly include it. Now “brick mausoleum,” besides denying me the alliteration in B, makes no sense. A basilica is an early form of Christian church built on an ancient Roman model, and much simpler, chaster, narrower than the later cathedrals, and definitely devoid of anything like a flying buttress. A takeoff on the expression “built like a brick shithouse” for a bosomy woman, it has appropriately some relevance to medieval architecture, but none whatever to a mausoleum. Unfortunately, the wits or wiseacres who misquote me know nothing about a basilica, not even the word. Oh well, grander people have been misquoted in the prints: Marie Antoinette never said that thing about eating cake, and Voltaire never said that thing about fighting to the death for someone’s right to disagree with him.

One other play involving castration, a just slightly better one (play, that is, not castration) is Tennessee Williams’s “Sweet Bird of Youth.” The hero, Chance, has seduced the ingénue, Heavenly, and caused an abortion that left her sterile. He evinces what Kenneth Tynan has called “an obscure awareness” that he must let himself be castrated by the henchmen of Heavenly’s father, a beastly Southern political boss, by way of expiation of his guilt.  Moreover, as Tynan writes, he “begs us, in parting, to understand him, and to recognize ourselves in him.”

“For my part,” Tynan continues, “I recognized nothing but a special, rarefied situation that had been carried to extremes of cruelty with a total disregard for probability, human relevance, and the laws of dramatic structure.” And he goes on to make pertinent, perceptive comments, including wonder about why the action begins on Easter Sunday: “Is castration to be equaled with resurrection?”

Well, come to think of it, I can recall another play of sorts, where it is equaled with redemption, two kinds of it no less. In Yugoslavia in my high-school days, religious instruction was compulsory. One day when the instructor was late, I improvised a  little miracle play, based on a picture from one of my father’s books with the caption “Saint Origen castrating himself for the sake of the Heavenly Kingdom.” (Note: not Tennessee Williams’s Heavenly,)

So, for my playlet, I picked the prettiest girl in the class and had her kneel before me as I brandished a ruler representing a cutlass, and, turning my rapt gaze at the ceiling, loudly proclaimed, “I castrate myself for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.” The pretty blonde was supposed to supplicate me not to do it.  Just then the instructor arrived, and, though I am not quite sure about Origen (it seems the Catholic church has revoked his sainthood), I was barred from further religious instruction, which I hailed as a most welcome redemption.

That may have been the only time in dramatic and religious history when castration, even if only mimed, has proved beneficial.


  1. From Michael Billington, Theatre Critic for THE GUARDIAN, 12/27/11:

    "For any British person under the age of 50, the idea of theatrical censorship is totally alien. It's something we associate, if we think about it all, with past authoritarian regimes: with the Soviet Union and its satellites, with South Africa under apartheid, with Spain under Franco. But it's salutary to be reminded that, in Britain, it was only the Theatres Act of 1968 that finally put paid to a system of censorship that existed here for over 230 years. While we rejoice in our current freedom, we should be wary of a creeping caution that exists in the UK and other western democracies.

    "The old system of stage censorship, by which in Britain plays had to be licensed by a minor official of the royal household, was absurd, arbitrary and anachronistic. It stifled serious discussion of politics, religion and sex. It led to sporadic bans on major dramatists such as Ibsen, Strindberg and Shaw. It also prompted the Lord Chamberlain and his team of play readers to believe that they were aesthetic as well as moral arbiters. The initial report on Edward Bond's SAVED, submitted by the Royal Court for a license in 1965, described it as 'a revolting amateur play by one of those dramatists who write as it comes to them out of a heightened image of their own experience.' It was, in fact, the prosecution of the Royal Court, over its adoption of the polite fiction that an unlicensed play could be presented as a 'club' performance for members only, that did as much as anything to expose the arrogant nonsense of stage censorship and hasten its demise.

    "And yet do we enjoy total freedom today? In the 1980s, when I was a member of the Cork Enquiry into theatre, I remember an eminent director saying 'Sponsorship is implicit censorship'; and the more we move, as the current government wishes, from public to private funding on the American model, the greater the risk of external intervention.

    "Organised protest has also helped to stifle theatrical debate. In December 2004 Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's BEHZTI, which contained scenes of rape, abuse and murder inside a Sikh temple, caused massive demonstrations outside the Birmingham Rep and, in the interests of public safety, was quickly withdrawn. Since then it has been produced in France and Belgium but, aside from an unpublicised reading at the Soho theatre in 2010, has not been seen in Britain. As Robert Sharp of the English branch of PEN wrote after that one-off reading, 'BEHZTI'S continued censorship is a boil that must be lanced.'

    "Elsewhere the technique of violent protest has caught on: it happened just last month, in Paris, where an allegedly blasphemous play called GOLGOTA PICNIC prompted mass demos from outraged Catholics. What worries me is that the threat of public disturbance produces self-censorship on the part of writers and induces caution in producers. In theory, no subject is off-limits to British dramatists. But religion still remains a taboo area. And, given the protests that greeted Richard Bean's mild critique of Muslim extremists a few years ago in ENGLAND PEOPLE VERY NICE, one wonders whether anyone would dare to write or stage a play that subjected Islam, or any other non-Christian religion, to fierce scrutiny. Theatrical censorship in Britain may be dead, but total freedom of expression has yet to be achieved."

  2. Drat! I just checked my Turabian style guide and confirmed what I dreaded was the case -- namely, that a plural noun ending already in "s" should not, when formed into a possessive, take the apostrophe s, only the apostrophe; for, I was hoping to demonstrate how Mr. Simon's hilarious "Onassises" could be one-upped preposterously as the tongue-twister Onassises's.

    On a related note, while the possessive sounds funnier when the three vowel sounds (the last being implied, not written) following the "a" are pronounced as an ĭ, the name when not in the possessive has a perhaps more amusing ring when the final e is pronounced as a long e (ē) -- sort of like "Hercules" (with the added bonus thus of being fittingly Grecized).

  3. Of the Hitchings book, Mr. Simon writes: "...I single out here the admirable pages about censorship, which succinctly but thoroughly adduce scary and ludicrous specimens of censorship..."

    I haven't read the book, so I don't know if he mentions the Joyce Ulysses case. While many have probably decried the nerve of the U.S. Government to have prosecuted the case in the first place, their irately indignant focus may lead them to a myopia of the refreshingly inspiring forest for the trees it took to make the book. How is it that a mere Federal district judge (Judge Woolsey), in the Dark Ages of 1933, in adjudicating the case of determing whether the novel was "obscene" and therefore meriting censorhip, saw fit to read the book attentively and carefully -- not to ferret out what he prejudicially presumed was there, but to find the truth of the matter? As Judge Woolsey put it:

    I have read "Ulysses" once in its entirety and I have read those passages of which the Government particularly complains several times. In fact, for many weeks, my spare time has been devoted to the consideration of the decision which my duty would require me to make in this matter.

    He also felt obliged to "read a number of other books which have now become its satellites" which he explains means books "written about it".

    How is it that such a pedestrian servant of the people in those Backward Times -- and an uncouth American no less -- after thus reading the book with care, came to a remarkable appreciation of its contents and style?


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  4. [continued from previous comment]

    Quoting Judge Woolsey again:

    In writing “Ulysses”, Joyce sought to make a serious experiment in a new, if not wholly novel, literary genre. He takes persons of the lower middle class living in Dublin in 1904 and seeks not only to describe what they did on a certain day early in June of that year as they went about the City bent on their usual occupations, but also to tell what many of them thought about the while.

    Joyce has attempted — it seems to me, with astonishing success — to show how the screen of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions carries, as it were on a plastic palimpsest, not only what is in the focus of each man’s observation of the actual things about him, but also in a penumbral zone residua of past impressions, some recent and some drawn up by association from the domain of the subconscious. He shows how each of these impressions affects the life and behavior of the character which he is describing.

    What he seeks to get is not unlike the result of a double or, if that is possible, a multiple exposure on a cinema film which would give a clear foreground with a background visible but somewhat blurred and out of focus in varying degrees.

    And more broadly, how is it that a benighted America of the 1930s would have in place a legal system capable of producing -- and empowering -- a judge like Judge Woolsey who decided, after his respectful and judicious deliberation of Joyce's work, to spare it from the censorship the prosecutors sought?

    Certainly, the judge seems to take for granted to usefulness of the underlying law of censorship for "obscenity":

    If the conclusion is that the book is pornographic that is the end of the inquiry and forfeiture [i.e., censorship] must follow.

    But he did not pursue the question prejudicially nor maliciously; rather, with an admirable exercise of reason:

    The reputation of “Ulysses” in the literary world, however, warranted my taking such time as was necessary to enable me to satisfy myself as to the intent with which the book was written, for, of course, in any case where a book is claimed to be obscene it must first be determined, whether the intent with which it was written was what is called, according to the usual phrase, pornographic, — that is, written for the purpose of exploiting obscenity.


    But in “Ulysses”, in spite of its unusual frankness, I do not detect anywhere the leer of the sensualist. I hold, therefore, that it is not pornographic.

    In an ideal world -- you know, the progressive paradise we have now -- such furrowed sincerity and concern over what constitutes "pornography" in order to "detect" it on its sure way to, as the judge writes matter-of-factly, "seizure, forfeiture and confiscation and destruction" would arouse peals of laughter and chills of fear -- even if our paradise isn't perfect, with its shadows of trouble in the form of an envelope still existing to be pushed (not to mention travesties of political correctness at times as powerful, if not more so, than the Supreme Court, rendering informal verdicts on What May and What May Not Be Uttered in Polite Society at the cost of careers, reputation, fame and livelihood: a culture of self-censorship more insidious certainly, and more pathological perhaps, than the old-fashioned kind that at least implies and leaves intact the spirit of the artist being censored against his will).

    Still, whatever one may think about the regressive state of Man in 1933 compared with our Enlightened Evolution since the 1960s, a Judge Woolsey, who intelligently and calmly refused to let the wool be pulled over his eyes, is surely a gleaming silver lining to that whole affair, one would think.

    (On the Woolsey case -- http://www.sheilaomalley.com/?p=3160 )

  5. Now, most things are Bowlderized for its 'racist', 'sexist', or 'homophobic' content. To the extent that gays rule our culture, I'd say most men, especially white men, have been castrasted. They are like the dorkus in OLEANNA, that is until he's finally had enough and goes Dirty Harry on the stupid feminist bitch.

  6. "One other play involving castration, a just slightly better one (play, that is, not castration) is Tennessee Williams’s “Sweet Bird of Youth.” The hero, Chance, has seduced the ingénue, Heavenly, and caused an abortion that left her sterile."

    This can't be true. I saw Paul Newman drive away with Lee Remick at the end. Now, would she have gone off with a ball-less man, even if he was Paul Newman?

  7. The thing that has been most castrasted from the national media is the level of black-on-white rape. Liberal Jews run the media, and they peddle the neo-Victorian myth of the Magic Negro, which is rather odd since they also promote crazy gangsta rap music too. On the one hand, liberal Jews give us the crazy nigga who threatens to kick your ass, but on the other hand, liberal Jews say blacks are an angelic people.

    And if you wanna ball-less men, just look at the GOP candidates sucking up to AIPAC. Only Ron Paul has a pair of balls, but they're out to do this to Ron Paul.


  8. While I agree more or less with "Goys R Us" about the sociopolitical bias of the mainstream media with regard to issues of political correctness (chief among which is a constellation of sub-issues relating to race), I don't think this "liberal" stranglehold on our popular culture (and higher-brow culture, in many respects) is a particularly Jewish phenomenon -- since most "liberals" (I prefer to call them PC MCs, for "Politically Correct Multi-Culturalists", since the vast majority of Conservatives, Centrists and the Comfortably Apolitical share many of the same axioms and givens) are non-Jewish. One would then be forced to develop a theory by which a tiny minority of Jews are hoodwinking and diabolically controlling the hearts and minds of millions of non-Jews throughout the West -- a kind of theory that comes all too easily to too many, it seems.

    More reasonable, it seems to me, is to posit a much broader and deeper civilizational process that has occurred over the course of the past century, by which the West has undergone a sea change in worldview -- not out of the blue or thin air, but derived, in great part, and through some complicated contortions, from its four pillars of Graeco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian heritages.

  9. On Diana Riggs' buttresses, I only recall, from her popular TV show The Avengers, seeing them at best within the confines of tight-fitting turtleneck sweaters, from which it was clear to my teenage prurience they were but small round turtledoves; rather fetching to my taste, at any rate. One that has never felt the urge to lean to the buxom buttresses of actresses like Raquel Welch, Farrah Fawcett or Dolly Parton. (Which is why, on watching (in Fellini's Amarcord) the prostitute Volpina liberate her unbounded breasts for the young kid Titta to munch and lollop over like a kid in a candy store, I found that scene not so much Fescennine as comically fascinating.)

  10. Bashing Bowdler is a fool's game.

    Like father like son: Thomas Bowdler's father read Shakespeare aloud to his brood, nipping out the smutty parts. So what? What modern parent has not done something similar to shield one's children from the relentless media assault of games, video, film, comics, etc? The son's THE FAMILY SHAKSPEARE has a similar mission and is in no sense censoring but simply editing for an audience that, at that time and in that place, would have been prohibited by public mores from hearing any Shakespeare at all. From Wikipedia:

    "Each play is preceded by an introduction where Bowdler summarises and justifies his changes to the text. According to his nephew's memoir the first edition was prepared by Bowdler's sister, Harriet, but both were published under Thomas Bowdler's name, probably because a woman could not then publicly admit that she understood Shakespeare's racy passages. By 1850 eleven editions had been printed. The Bowdlers were not the first to undertake such a project but, despite being considered a negative example by some, their editions made it more acceptable to teach Shakespeare to wider and younger audiences."

    The Bowdlers should be applauded not booed for encouraging the reading of Shakespeare aloud by parents to children. Clearly the works demand to be performed, at home or on the stage, in the same way that music does. Indeed, any actor can tell you more about Shakespeare than any schoolteacher. More damage is done to the plays by the vain and verbose imaginings of one such as Herr Professor Bloom than the Bowdlers ever did. Even Swinburne is on board:

    "More nauseous and foolish cant was never chattered than that which would deride the memory or depreciate the merits of Bowdler. No man ever did better service to Shakespeare than the man who made it possible to put him into the hands of intelligent and imaginative children."

  11. "One day when the instructor was late, I improvised a little miracle play, based on a picture from one of my father’s books with the caption 'Saint Origen castrating himself for the sake of he Heavenly Kingdom.'”

    Wow, that's mighty fancy of you, Juanito. It just goes to show the extent of the cultural decline since you were in school and decades later when I was in school.
    When we were kids, we didn't even know what a Miracle Play was. We did know Miracle Whip cuz of all the commercials on TV.

    Anyway, a bunch of kids in our elementary school used to play a game too, but it had nothing to do with noble fellas sacrificing their yarbles for some damsel. Instead, it was the called 'Suck My Dick'.
    This is how it went. Two boys would compete to finish wooden block puzzles first. The loser had to 'suck the dick' of the winner. Now, no one pulled their dicks out, but the loser was supposed to rub his face in the victor's crotch.

    One time, the contest was between a Yugoslavian-American kid named Jamal and a black kid named Anthony. First Jamal lost and got a faceful of black crotch. Then they did it again and Anthony lost but he didn't feel up to rubbing his face in the groin of the Yugo kid. But the Yugo kid complained and everyone called foul, and so Anthony got on his knees. But instead of rubbing his face, he kept rubbing his nappy head against the Jamal's xyz.

  12. @Goys R Us: viv-a-vis Sweet Bird of Youth, Simon is referring to the play rather than the film, in which the castration is, in fact, bowdlerized (i.e., turned into a mere beating-up).

  13. Two afterthoughts on castration.

    One is that for quite a while now, I believe, the kinds of castration advocated in order to punish and/or control pedophiles and/or rapists is not (at least in the civilized West) the sawing (or hacking) off of members but what is known as "chemical castration", which leaves intact the dangling participle while rendering its hormonal galvanization, so to speak, null and void.

    Secondly, PC (political correctness) is a fascinating sociopolitical phenomenon; and one of its fascinations is the subtly amorphous character of some of its axioms. Here, I'm thinking of the mantra "Rape is not about sex" pronounced as solemnly and liturgically by feminists as a priest would the Paternoster. However, there are many indications that many rapists actually rape for the sex (I recall one news account that contained the detail that the rapist held his captive in the back seat of a car and simply had sex with her over 20 times in the span of 24 hours). And closely related to this is an elementary ability that seems to elude certain people -- namely, that of rubbing the stomach and patting the head at the same time. I.e., these PC feminists who rule out sexual lust as relevant in rape cannot seem to fathom, much less grasp, the possibility that the rapist may be motivated by more than one thing: both a misogynistic desire to abuse his victim, and at the same time sheer sexual libido. One would think, at any rate, that at least that prominent subcategory of the PC feminist represented by those who hate sex because they find it to be a form of male domination and humiliation of Woman would welcome an opportunity rhetorically and theoretically (and thence socially and legally) to denigrate sexual desire as an essential adjunct to rape.