Wednesday, January 20, 2010

'satiable curtiosity

by Barbara D'Amato


"In the High and Far-Off Times, the Elephant, O Best Beloved, had no trunk. He only had a blackish, bulgy nose, as big as a boot, that he could wriggle about from side to side, but he couldn't pick up things with it. But there was one Elephant -- a new Elephant -- an Elephant's Child -- who was full of 'satiable curtiosity, and that means he asked ever so many questions."

Thus begins "The Elephant's Child" by Rudyard Kipling, one of the most charming and wittiest of tales for children. I read it to my grandchildren several times a year, and it's fun for adults as well. Some years ago, an edition appeared in which "'satiable curtiosity" was changed to "insatiable curiosity," thus entirely removing the charm. [The good news is that, as far as I can tell, that edition is no longer in print.]

Heaven forefend some innocent child might think "curiosity" was "curtiosity" or go through life saying "satiable."

This brings me, without too huge a leap, to a subcategory of censorship I'll call well-meaning paternalism.

"Out, crimson spot!"

Yes, that's one of Thomas Bowdler's "improvements" on Shakespeare. Bowdler, who gave us the eponym "bowdlerize", in fact did not fix Shakespeare himself. His sister Harriet did. But they had to publish Family Shakespeare under his name because they could not admit that a gentlewoman even understood Shakespeare's racy passages.

I've heard recently that Harlequin is going to reprint some 1940s pulp fiction--re-edited to make the scenes of women being physically abused by men more PC. As a result, not only is the work of fiction altered, but our ability to study these books and learn about the 40s is crippled.

I think you can in fairness ask a writer to be somewhat ahead of his or her time, somewhat less in thrall to the prejudices of his or her day, and disapprove of bigotry. But is not fair to ask them to be generations ahead. However, that's not my point. My point is that you, whoever you are, don't have the right to make my decisions for me.

Yes, a lot of Raymond Chandler includes homophobia.

Yes, I have a few friends who want the singing crows scene in Dumbo ["I seen a horse fly"] to be cut from the film.

Let this stuff alone.

I can figure out these issues for myself. My grandchildren can figure them out, too, and so can you and so can most people who take time to read.

It's partly the arrogance of "fixing" the words of great writers of the past that is reprehensible. Equally unacceptable is the condescending paternalism of deciding what I, or my grandchildren, or anybody else out there is able to handle. We can make up our own minds. In fact, if we're not allowed to do so, we may never learn how.

Rant over.

But if you had an example to add, I'd be interested to hear it.

19 comments:

Sara Paretsky said...

Barb, it's not exactly the same thing, but I get a lot of PC criticism. VI eats a veal chop and people write me at great length on animal cruelty. She has a drink and someone wrote, "When I saw that, I threw the book across the room hard enough to break the spine." Maybe just as well the reader didn't own a Kindle!

Lover of Books said...

The orignal Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman. I loved it as a kid never thought that the parents' name was derogatory.

Michele Emrath said...

I think it is important people have strong reactions to art. It is also important that literature from the past stand as strong reminders of what used to be (hopefully "used to!") and whow far we have come.

That being said, if something bothers you in a book, by all means start your own blog and your own rant. But isn't it somehow illegal to rewrite people's works?

Interesting, well-written rant. Thanks.

Michele
SouthernCityMysteries

Anthony D'Amato said...

Cole Porter, my (and I think Barbara's) favorite popular composer, did his best to get to the edge of racy. His 1930's title song from "Anything Goes" has the line:

Good authors too, who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
Writing prose--
Anything goes.

Now there must be no end of people who hear the phrase "four-letter words" and think nasty things, things so nasty that they're ashamed of themselves, and they don't want other people to think the same nasty things that come to their minds.

And in the Repressive Era of the 1950's, these people got inside the record companies, and went to work.

So if you heard a recording of "Anything Goes" in the 1950's -- I mean, a recording MADE in the 1950's -- you would have really and truly heard the following, which I think is the Mount Everest of Censorship:

Good authors too, who once knew better words
Now only use three-letter words
Writing prose--
Anything goes.

Mike Dennis said...

HUCKLEBERRY FINN, the itch that the PC Police can't quite scratch.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Thank you, Sara, Lover, Michele, Tony, and Mike.

Sara's comment reminds me of how dismayed I was to see Avatar criticised because Trudy Chacon--played by Michelle Rodriguez-- SMOKED. The role was small, but Chacon was one of the most well-realized characters in the film. She was a tough woman pilot of a combat helicopter! The cigarette was characterization that played into her willingness to take risks.

Sheesh!

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