James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Trifles for a Massacre (1937)
Franz Kafka, The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926), Amerika (1927)
This is the line. The pointless debate over cancellation and free speech we’re having really is pointless: there’s nothing new happening, and nothing’s really changed. Every society has always drawn a bright circle around the things that should be acceptable in mainstream discourse, and forbidden everything else. There aren’t really any principles at stake, just a tussle over exactly where the line should be drawn. After all, nobody really thinks you should be able to say anything without consequences (just see what happens when you get really close to one of these defenders of open liberal discourse, and whisper the word ‘Palestine’ in their ear). There’s no real threat to free speech; it’s just that some ideas that used to be mainstream are now no longer polite. Once, when conservatives were the gatekeepers, we used to forbid all kinds of silly stuff. Now, it’s liberals, and all we forbid is covert bigotry. Why would anyone want to defend that?
Sure. Fine. No disagreement here. There’s just one thing that this argument misses: throughout history, most of the really interesting ideas and the really worthwhile works of art have come from outside that bright circle—or, at the very least, strained against its limits. Everything that stays happily within its center is bound to be dull. (It certainly is today. Virtuous essays, crap autofiction; a wasteland.) These prohibitions shape mainstream culture, but they also shape its opposition. It’s why the best Marxist theory came out of the West, and the best craft breweries are in Tehran. If society decides that sex should be shameful and unmentionable, you’ll suddenly get a lot of smart young people writing secret smut.
Still, it’s true that most of the stuff being prohibited today really is basically worthless. (There are some exceptions, but only some.) Tedious conservatism. Fussy babbling about biology and natural law. Whose fault is that? The self-appointed defenders of free speech like to point out that it’s not just bigotry that can get you cancelled these days, but things like caution and reasonableness and evidence-based decision-making. They’re right too. This is a very bad development. If mainstream institutions ban moderation, you get a deeply moderate counterculture—and who wants that? A boring samizdat: culturally appropriative young-adult novels, minor insensitivity, handwringing op-eds. These people want to get back in the circle. Good! Let it have them!
Mainstream writing sucks. Oppositional writing sucks. The solution is obvious. If we want a better literary culture, we should think hard about the kind of thing we’d actually like, and then get the scolds and shrews of the world to ban that.
I’m almost entirely serious here. We need better prohibitions. We need laws worth breaking. Look at the library of forbidden works. See what you can achieve when we put a taboo on something good.
James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
Forbidden for: obscenity (then), the fetish-character in literature (now)
Everyone knows that as soon as Ulysses was published, the British and American governments immediately set about burning every copy they could get their hands on. Joyce’s characters were fully realized humans, which is to say bags of biological slop with holes, occasionally leaking; they piss and shit and spit and cum and put bits of matter into their nasty wet-rimmed mouths. This was obscenity, a mortal threat to capital and civilisation—although revolutionaries weren’t too fond of it either. Karl Radek, speaking before the Soviet Writers Congress, denounced the book as a “heap of dung, crawling with worms, photographed by a cinema apparatus through a microscope.” Even people who should have known better, like Virginia Woolf, got their kicks in—she called it “an illiterate, underbred book… the book of a self-taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are,” the work of a “queasy undergraduate squeezing his pimples.”
That was then. We know better now; we no longer ban books to prevent adult women from discovering that sometimes they, too, visit the lavatory. But nothing’s changed. Ulysses is still forbidden.
Back in 2016, former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was asked to name his favourite book. There’s a tradition here: whenever a British politician is asked this question, they’re expected to mumble something about Thackeray and then swiftly change the subject. (Americans, depending on party affiliation, are required to either name the Bible, or produce a twelve-page reading list of texts published in the last ten years, carefully weighted for race and gender.) But Corbyn said Ulysses. The response from the usual media types was incandescent. He was lying, they insisted. He hadn’t read it. Nobody can read it; it’s impossible to read. Woolf’s complaint is turned on its head: Ulysses is now the great vast untouchable sanctum of the bourgeois canon, with its protective palisade of words like “honorificabilitudinantibus” and “contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality” and “biscuitfully”. How dare someone like Jeremy Corbyn—a self-taught man, infinitely distressing—hope to understand it?
But of course Corbyn’s read it. It’s hard to think of a book that better expresses his politics. Corbyn was never really a Marxist, but he was always a consummate humanist: someone who really truly believes that the tiny human events of an ordinary day are the most important thing in the world. “Everyone we meet knows something that we don’t know, is slightly different to us in some ways.” He is Leopold Bloom: kind, quiet, well-meaning, gently perverse; not grand, not imposing, existentially cuckolded in a way that has nothing to do with whom Molly says yes to, basically existentially doomed—but kind. You can’t read the book and not see the parallel. Which is to say: not one of the people who freaked out about whether or not Corbyn had read the thing had actually done so themselves. But why would they? It’s forbidden to read.
For what it’s worth, I’ve read it. I read it ten years ago this summer, over the course of two music festivals. See the taboo in action: ugh, what kind of poncey pretentious prick of a nineteen-year-old takes Ulysses to the beach? Well, me. (“Hurray for the Goddamned idiot! Hray!”) Hungover, shirtless, the stink of mephedrone still plastering the inside of my nose, the text and the Adriatic breaking in waves of bright needle-sharp surf against my brain, I read it.
–But what, asks a friend askingly, is actually happening?
–Well, he saw a girl’s legs, and now he’s having a wank.
Glances blank at fullblock page.
–No he’s not. Mate, you’re just making it up.
Did I actually understand it? Kinda. Some. At least I worked out what Bloom was doing after he saw Gerty MacDowell, the thing that had all those censors so furious a hundred years ago. But I promised myself I’d come back to the thing one day and understand it properly, so here I am, reading it again. (“Was that I? Or am I now I?”) And: it’s good. It’s human. It’s funny. If the book has a credo, it’s an idle thought of Bloom’s: “Only big words for ordinary things on account of the sound.” This doesn’t mean we should get rid of all the big useless words. It means they’re worth it, on account of the sound.
Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Trifles for a Massacre (1937)
Forbidden for: transcendent antisemitism
Antisemites are scripturient. Other racists not so much—sometimes they’ll produce a chart of skull sizes or whatever, but mostly it’s just a slur, a gunshot, a vast programme of systemic disenfranchisement. Antisemites are possessed to write: long, bilious screeds about how awful the Jews are. Why? Just my own personal theory, but: they’re jealous; they’re trying to turn themselves into Jews. And the Jews are the people who made God into a linguistic principle, the people who always knew that the word is a substitute for a lost object and started removing bits of their dicks as a permanent reminder, the people who write. Most of all, from Jeremiah to Antonin Artaud to Philip Roth, we’re the people who write long bilious screeds about how awful the Jews are. This dynamic gets interesting when you start thinking about the long tradition of antisemitic forgeries, of which the Protocols is only the most famous example—but at root it’s always slightly sad. The original is always the best. No goy will ever be able to write as good an antisemitic rant as a Jew.
Except one. Céline, whose hatred for the Jews is so real and so raw I almost want to adopt him, induct him posthumously into the tribe. One of us. One of us. One of us.
Trifles for a Massacre is an antisemitic text without illusions. There’s always been a cottage industry of very perceptive people who put their psychiatric gloss on the phenomenon of Jew-hate: the antisemite is a loser, an idiot, they externalize their hatred of themselves… Céline is one step ahead. Right at the start of his screed, he makes the stakes clear. He wants to get laid, but the girls aren’t interested, because he’s ugly and charmless and his body is a wreck—and he blames the Jews. He’s desperate for praise from the literary establishment, but they don’t like him any more, because he refuses to stop writing hateful little books full of pus and spleen—and he blames the Jews.
There are the obligatory ramblings about Jewish control of the banks, the Jewishness of the Bolshevik revolution, Hollywood with its dribble of ‘fine Jewish shit’—but that’s not what any of this is about. Whenever Céline starts to get stuck into his diatribes, he always ends up breaking it off to heap some extra scorn on himself. He knows exactly what’s going on. He hates the Jew because the Jew is a flimsy mask worn by Louis-Ferdinand Céline.
And what hate! He snarls to the women who aren’t interested in him: “You are going to get your haemorrhoids buffeted about by that fat, doughy, waxy, famous kike!” (Imagining himself, the Jew, running free among “all of those little Aryan pussies,” in torture and delight. “Glory is an asshole!”) On his mad little rock, he thunders: “Hey there! Listen up, Jewry! So you want to cover me with garbage! I hear your tawdry surreptitions! Your riflings-through! Your screwings-over of your wastebaskets! How dimwitted and stupid you are! More flatulent! More cowardly!” Even when his hatred floods beyond language, what’s left behind is poetry. “I cannot find any adjectives which are of sufficient sliminess, of sufficient megatonnage in diarrheic propensity, in the decay of a ripening corpse, so as to illustrate for you just what this signifies: War for the pleasure of the Jews!”
This isn’t pleasant to read. Especially not when, only a few years before the Final Solution, he announces: “I’d kill them all without difficulty and up to the last one! Such is the reciprocity of Man.” But Trifles for a Massacre is the greatest expression of fury and hatred in literature: better than Turgenev, better than the Greek tragedies, better than anything. These emotions are part of ourselves, even without the complicating device of the Jew. This is a text that deserves a place in our pantheon.
It won’t ever get one. Céline is respectable again: new translations, forewords from eminent authors. But not this book. Céline didn’t want it reprinted after the war, and who can blame him? After his death in 1961, his widow maintained the taboo, suing anyone who tried to come out with a new edition. She died in 2019, but still, the only published English version is put out by a bunch of seedy French Holocaust deniers–and I refuse to give them money, for obvious reasons. Which means I’m forced to read an online version, circulated by a different bunch of seedy French Holocaust deniers. I don’t know what would happen if, say, Random House tried publishing it, but I doubt it would work out well for them. It’s a shame. Trifles for a Massacre is a spectacular work. Why should the antisemites get to keep it?
Franz Kafka, The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926), Amerika (1927)
Forbidden by: authorial intent
In The Secret Miracle—one of Borges’ best stories, but also an essential text for any theory of censorship and cancellation—we meet Jaromir Hladik. He’s a writer, and “like every writer, he measured other men’s virtues by what they had accomplished, yet asked that other men measure him by what he planned someday to do.” What he plans to do is to complete The Enemies, his vast metaphysical play. But time is running out for him: he lives in Prague, the year is 1939, and Hladik is a Jew.
Like generations after them, the Nazis have drawn up their list of unacceptable individuals, and Hladik is on it. The night before his execution, desperate and alone in his cell, he prays to God for one more year to finish his play. An impossible hope. The next day, he’s led out behind the prison and given a cigarette. The German soldiers raise their guns. Time stops. His wish has been granted. He has a year of subjective frozen time in which to finish the work, without being able to write a word of it down, only arranging the lines in his head, memorizing them all. Once the play is finished, time will roll forward again and he will die.
Questions for your book group: Is a book that nobody can ever read still a book? Does the right to free speech imply a right to be heard? Why or why not? When banking conglomerates buy up great paintings and obliterate them in safety deposit boxes, in the dark, forever, is that a stifling of artistic freedom? Most of all, is Hladik supposed to be a version of Kafka?
They’re both Jewish writers in Prague, they both live on the same street, the Zeltnergasse, and they’re both at the mercy of a deeply mysterious God. They both create works for themselves and that God and nobody else. But by 1939, Kafka was already dead.
Franz Kafka died of tuberculosis in 1924. Ordinarily, when you mourn an artist who died too young, you can try to imagine all the masterpieces they never got to create and which we’ll never get to enjoy. With Kafka, it’s different. If he had lived, he would not have lived. (His entire family were killed in the camps.) If he had lived, he would have destroyed his own novels. (Over the course of his career, he burned about 90% of everything he wrote.) In his will, he famously asked for all his manuscripts—books, diaries, letters—to be destroyed unread. Max Brod, his friend and executor, refused. He had them published, and spent the rest of his life promoting Kafka’s genius.
If we can read these books now, it’s precisely because they were forbidden. Kafka put up a fence around his work, and a sign: private, not for you, go away. If he thought Brod would break the prohibition, wouldn’t he have destroyed the papers himself? But he put his faith in forbiddance: contract, cancellation. Which means that every time we read Kafka, we betray his trust all over again. Desecrating his grave. Violating sacred ground. It’s morally abhorrent, probably the most evil thing you can do in a room by yourself. If you haven’t done it already, you should do it at once.
Sam Kriss is a writer and dilettante surviving in London.