TT IS DIFFICULT, perhaps Limpossible, to put the clock back, but do you remember the excitement of reading a romantic novel when the chapter ended with some such phrase as "she melted into his arms" followed by a row of asterisks ****** or the shiver of speculative wickedness when we read "d*** the b***** thing" he muttered under his breath'?!
Those were the days of the Hay's office, timing the screen lovers' kisses and measuring the heroine's cleavage, and of Lord Reith of the BBC with his list of forbidden words such as "knickers". Those were the days when an avant garde playwright such as Bernard Shaw gained notoriety at a stroke when Eliza Doolittle enunciated in her newlyacquired posh accent "not bloody likely".
We all knew about the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, although it was mercifully difficult to discover exactly what it included. In fact it would have included (includes?) almost every novel written today.
Books are forbidden, ipso jure, which "purposely narrate . . . lascivious or obscene matter", which -hold duelling, suicide, or divorce licit", which "attack or riclucule any of the
Catholic dogmas" and so on. The novel writer would be hard put to it to depict any kind of contemporary social situation and avoid these pitfalls.
However, little is heard of the Index nowadays, and the advent of additional media in the form of cinema and television enlarges the scope of the problem immeasurably. In spite of Herculean efforts we have readily available explicitly sexual material, language which is uninhibited.
We laugh at double meanings and innuendos in television situation comedies which hint at the wildest and most unnatural variations of sexual behaviour. What sort of pluralist "double-think" have we accepted and how much do we act as our own censors in these matters?
First of all, language. This, we must suppose, is rather a matter of custom and convention. The name of God taken in vain, as forbidden by the Commandments, is commonplace. "Good Lord" we say without a qualm when mildly astonished, or "Holy Mother of God" with the same lack of emphasis.
The use of what are
euphemistically darted "fourletter words" is also relatively shocking, depending on the nationality, class or sex of the speaker. In the United States, as I have learned from the plethora of American vowels which I read in the line of duty, the conventions are different. What would probably be considered obscene in Britain, is merely rather vulgar in the United States. Were we surprised when the transcripts of the Watergate tapes needed expurgating? The truth is that familiarity with so-called "bad" language diminishes the impact: for instance to describe someone as a "silly old bugger" is almost a term of endearment, and so our language is excavated to discover a new seam of suitably foul words to express horror, dislike, rage.
if, because of' education, social milieu or place of birth, the reader is disgusted by the language used in a novel, the obvious solution is to return it to the library, with or without a protest. The same, somewhat draconian, measure can be taken when the subject matter of the book is offensive. This brings me to
the reason for this article: What is permissible in a modern novel? We read of amusing incidents which make us smile, or (too rarely) laugh aloud; tragic events which move us to tears — emotional poles we can share and understand. If we are "stimulated erotically by explicit description of sexual activity" definition of pornography), should we relate this excitement to our own experience of sexual happiness and fulfilment, and enjoy it? or feel uncomfortable and embarrassed, or guilty?
Frederick Raphael's latest novel Heaven and Earth (Jonathan Cape, f8.95) has been the catalyst for these thoughts. The hero, Gideon, is "a jack of several trades. I write reviews. I do a bit of television". He, his family and friends converse in competitive repartee, a double-meaning and a literary allusion in almost every utterance. The narrator's prose is equally contrived — surely tongue-in-the-cheek, as he describes Gideon posting letters — "he fed the metal mouth a mongrel sandwich of buff and white envelopes'! More shameful is the selfindulgence he shows in passages of gratuitous obscenity. Gideon is a translator from the French and so we are treated to an entire chapter reproducing his translation of an unsavoury "lascivious and obscene" story. This episode is necessary neither to the plot nor to the development of character.
The fine dividing line between legitimate description of physical relations and unacceptable pornography is shattered. The abolition of public censorship means that we can all know about and understand what used to be called "unnatural practices".
Catholics are often quoted as having a broads-minded, unpuritanical attitude to the sins of the flesh, a reputation which does not exactly chime with the hard-line moral teachings which are promulgated. Today when "anything goes", we have to be our own censors. It is even less effort to shut the covers of the book than to reach for the switch to obliterate offensive television images. Paternalism has gone and we are, I think, unlikely to see the return of the asterisk.