Page 3, 31st December 1993

31st December 1993
Page 3
Page 3, 31st December 1993 — Forbidden fruits of literature

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Forbidden fruits of literature

The modern increase in crime and violence has many calling for a return to the Index of Forbidden Books the Catholic Church's version of censorship. Read no evil, and you will do no evil, the argument goes. But what were the 4,000 tomes on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum? Will literary censorship provide the answer to our problem with law and order? James Penn traces the history of the Index.

QUESTION: WHAT DO JeanPaul Sartre, Oliver Goldsmith and Jeremy Bentham all have in common? Answer: they were all proscribed reading for Catholics up until 1966.

These three writers, and about 4,000 other authors, were all on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum a comprehensive list of books that the faithful were not supposed to read.

The list was a familiar sight at libraries and schools until thirty years ago, where it was used to decide what was legitimate reading and what not. It was also printed at the back of school text books so that Catholic youngsters could have it readily to hand when they wanted to select their bedtime reading.

Catalogued in the directory are vast numbers of forgotten writers, and vast numbers of books which have long been out of print. But beside all the obscure divines consigned to the literary dustbin for some minor heresy, there is a strong scattering of the most brilliant minds of the European world.

The book at times reads like a guide to the greatest European intellectuals since the 16th century. You name them and they are there: novelists, essayists, philosophers, critics, poets, and scientists. Boileau, Boyle, Bergson. Banned. Defoe, Descartes, Diderot. All banned. It wasn't just highbrow writers, either. Casanova, the Italian adventurer, philanderer and writer of licentious memoirs was also a no-no.

Anyone who wrote anything remotely controversial gets a mention: novels with tame seduction scenes, historical works charting the progress of the Reformation in England, turgid theological works doubting the infallibility of Papal authority or the literal truth of the Old Testament.

The ideologue of the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin, is there. Wycliffe and Luther are not, but had been more than adequately vilified in earlier years.

The punishment for being caught reading, selling or possessing such works was severe: excommunication. Intellectually omnivorous Catholics must have been glad when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith decided to abandon the Index and all its attendant punishments in 1966.

To a certain extent one can understand the logic behind the book. The Church believed it was responsible for the souls of its communicants and anything that might cause them to question their faith in God or to fall into sexual in had to be ruthlessly suppressed.

As did whatever encouraged duelling, suicide, divorce and Freemasonry. Better to be ignorant and saved rather than over-educated and damned, was the reasoning.

Censorship was certainly nothing new: it had a long and respectable tradition within Christianity. At Paul's instigation those Ephesians "who had practised magic collected their books and made a bonfire of them in public" (Acts 19).

Even so, one is still overawed by the extent of it within the Index, a book that scarcely touches the 20th century. Sartre and Andre Gide only appear in an addendum inside the front cover. One wonders what the compilers would have made of works like Ulysses and Lady Chatterley's Lover.

To give the document a brief history, it was first compiled at the instigation of Pope Paul IV in 1564 in response to the invention of printing by Guttenberg and the consequent rapid spread of new ideas.

One of the supplementary rules Paul devised even forbad the reading of the Bible in the vernacular without permission.

Two hundred years later Benedict XIV came up with the Congregation of the Index, a series of guidelines to the people and procedures that were to go hand in hand with the list.

The last revision was ordered in 1900 by Leo XIII. It was this that clamped down on that flourishing source of nineteenth century entertainment, the novel.

So Flaubert is there with Madame Bovary and Salammbo. At least some of his works get the green light, though. In contrast all Zola's books are out-lawed.

Stendhal doesn't fare much better: no love stories (which doesn't leave much left). The phrase detailing this, "ornnes fabulae amatoriae", becomes increasingly familiar as one progresses through the Index.

The farce writers Feydeau and Alexandre Dumas are also rejected for their amatory tendencies, though Dumas's approval of divorce did not assist his cause. Victor Hugo's Les Miserables and Notre Dame also get the thumbs down, even though the hunchback takes refuge in a Catholic cathedral.

As do France's answer to Alexander Pope, Nicolas Boileau, and Honore de Balzac.

Of British novelists, Laurence Sterne's Sentimental Journey through France and Italy and Samuel Richardson's Pamela or Virtue Rewarded get the thumbs down.

That strict Puritan Richardson must have been somewhat surprised by this. One imagines that the insufferably pious Sir Charles Grandison must have been more to the compilers' tastes.

Defoe is also out, perhaps more understandably. Not for his novels but for the curious History of the Devil one of the compensations of reading a five hundred page list written in various European languages is that you come across the most surprising works.

Andrew Marvell is generally known for his poetry, not An Account of the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government M England. Nor was I aware that Oliver Goldsmith had written An Abridged History of England from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Death of George II. Another book dealing with sticky question of the Reformation. Solution? Ban it.

The vast bulk of the heavyweights are English, French and German -dissident intellectuals in Italy, Spain and eastern Europe presumably lacked the necessary freedom to expound their views. The enlightenment produces hordes of them.

As for those two lynch-pins of liberal utilitarian philosophy, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill (Principles of Political Economy)... Out! So too that dangerous republican, John Milton.

From France the list is just as illustrious: Voltaire, the sceptical essayist Montaigne, the men of letters Diderot and Daudet, historian Michelet, and the exponent of creative evolution, Henri Bergson.

Being an upright Catholic was in itself not an adequate qualification: Blaise Pascal fails to make it with his Pensees, as does Jansen, his spiritual mentor.

Descartes, who relied on God to hold the shaky structure of his supremely sceptical philosophy together, is also proscribed, as is Malebranche, another French rationalist with rather dubious ideas.

In Germany Kant's Critique of Pure Reason is on the hit list, as is the Romantic poet Heine with Of Germany and Of France. Holding the banner of dissension up for Italy are Dominican friar, preacher and reformist, Savonarola, and the idealist philosopher and opponent of fascism, Bernedetto Croce. Belgium is represented by the playwright, Maurice Maeterlinck.

Other fascinating figures crop up: George Sand, Chopin's girlfriend, the French politician Taller-rand, and the 19th century Swedish philosopher, Swedenborg, who believed his soul had been permitted to travel to hell, purgatory and heaven, and who had such an impact at one time on William Blake, another visionary with strange ideas.

On the whole the Index is an admirably consistent document. But there are occasional, glaring, discrepancies.

Socialist revolutionaries Saint-Simon and Proudhon are prohibited, but not, strangely, Marx. Similarly, Erasmus Darwin is listed, but not his grandson, Charles.

One cannot say, though, that the Catholic Church was not prepared to subject its own publications to the same rigorous scrutiny as the rest of world literature: perhaps the most striking inclusion of the lot is an 1864 Encyclical on Liberty.

But what about Papal Infallibility?

We asked a number of eminent Catholics whether they would approve of the restoration of the Index and, if so, what modern books they might place on it. James Penn reports.

LORD REES-MOGG Former Editor of The Times and Former Chairman of the

Broadcasting Standards Council

WHEN I was young it was rightly regarded as a ridiculous bogey. Its most ridiculous attribute was that the writers were all listed in Latin and by their Christian names rather than surnames. I remember wondering who this person Renartus was. It was Descartes.

I think nothing could do more to make a fool of the Church than the Index. To be told not to read Rousseau and Voltaire is an insult to the human intelligence. It simply shows the worst side of ecclesiasticism. I do feel, though, that secular authorities may ban printed matter that's extremely pornographic or conducive to crime.


Librarian, Catholic Central Library

PERSONALLY, I WOULD say no. People should have freedom. I've worked at municipal libraries where the Council has tried to impose its views in a similar way, condemning stuff as racist or antiwomen. Everything should be available.

LIBBY PURVES Journalist and Author

IT'S SO DIFFICULT TO ban anything they're all licentious now; Pandora's Box is open. I really think that the judgement of the faithful should be trusted. Since Salman Rushdie censorship is not an option.

You'd have to bring in videos and films. I went to a pretty liberal Convent where we used to give ourselves a frisson by reading someone like Meister Crowley. But we studied Zola.

And we were given a copy of the Communist Manifesto and told to read it strangely, it looked rather like a prayer book. We also had lectures on Marxism and Anarchism from real Marxists and anarchists. Before that I was in a Convent in South Africa which did observe the Index. When President Kennedy was elected there was talk about whether he would have to read books Catholics were not allowed to read.

AUBERON WAUGH Editor of Literary Review

IT'S VERY RARE, isn't it? Chiefly notable for a lot of very obscure theological tracts. Charles Kingsley's Water Babies was always cited as the most absurd work on it. He wrote a few theological tracts and that was banned with them, It doesn't serve any very useful purpose.

But it is good for theologians not to prevent people reading the books but to say what was unacceptable theology; what is kosher and what isn't. Banning novels and so on is a total waste of time. I wouldn't really approve of an Index today. Let's think now... I can't really think of anything I'd like to ban.


OH HELP! I'D probably be on it myself. I was asked by a paper recently to look at works of pornography on sale. If 11 were going to censor anything I would censor those. They were violent and vile. There was not an idea to be seen in them. They were simply celebrations of evil. Mary Whitehouse, come back, all is forgiven! I'm not unequivocally against censorship: there is some stuff which I don't think should be printed. At school I was sort of aware that there were books you weren't supposed to read but I was happy with Agatha Christie don't say that or people will think I'm half-witted.

ERIC MAJOR Managing Director of Religious Publishing, Hodder & Stoughton

I DON'T THINK you can censor stuff in a multi-ethnic society. There's only one thing I'd put on it: The Watchtower magazine (the Jehovah Witnesses' publication). They always call on me when I least expect it. It's very difficult who's going to do the censoring? And after all you don't have to pick up a book if you don't want to

read it. It's even easier to avoid than television. There are lots of bad books I'd like to ban, but badness is not a reason to censor something. You've absolutely floored me.

MARTIN DOYLE Journalist on Irish Post

I'D PROBABLY BE in favour not so much of a list as of some kind of clear code on pornography.

I imagine the new Catechism will have something to say on this. Works that debase human beings or incite hatred might be censored, anti-semitic works like Mein Kampf or the Protocols of Zionism (a fabricated work plotting a Zionist take-over of the world). Even then censorship should be in the hands of the civil authorities. Whether the Catholic church should have its own list, I don't know. I can conceive of a book which, though immoral in parts, is on the whole of worth. It should be up to the individual to decide about these.

LORD LONGFORD Anti-pornography Campaigner

SOMETIMES, WHEN I see some of the ghastly things that are being printed in the newspapers especially the tabloids I am very tempted to subscribe to the idea of an Index.

But then logic steps in and I realise that it would be very dangerous to accept any form of censorship at all. And the Church, especially, should not be seen as supporting any form of censorship.

Dolt HENRY WANSBOROUGH Master, St Benet's Hall

I'd place Margaret Thatcher's Memoirs on the Index. I'm not a very condemnatory sort of person but... The only thing that is dangerous is Hans Kung. He's had his teaching post removed. The broad Church doesn't consider him a theologian. I'd like to put a label on, saying "think clearly as you read." I wouldn't put Don Cupitt on the Index, but I would put Spitting Image, because they are so uncharitable.

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