Posted 3/8/22

WOODWORKING Hidden things garner more attention When are we Americans going to embrace a tiny pinch of sanity? I refer to being bombarded with the recent news that do-gooders are once again banning …

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Hidden things garner more attention

When are we Americans going to embrace a tiny pinch of sanity? I refer to being bombarded with the recent news that do-gooders are once again banning books — to protect children from learning filthy stuff like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel “The Scarlet Letter.”

If you haven’t read this “piece of trash,” don’t run out and buy a copy, thinking you’ll get a thrill from its salacious material. Forget that. Here’s a quick summary: In colonial Boston, Hester Prynne has an intimate affair with the village Parson Dimmesdale (all of which has taken place before the novel begins), which results in a baby, whom Hester names “Pearl,” as in “pearl of great price.” The price Hester pays is to be imprisoned until the child is born, and required thereafter to display a large scarlet “A” (for adulterer, of course) on every piece of clothing forever— across her breast of course.

Scandalous? You bet your laced-up boots, especially if you don’t want your kids to know that a man of the cloth is as capable as the next guy of committing the Big “A.”

Salacious? Not if you consider the moral of the story, which is “’A’ does not Pay.’” Hester is bedeviled throughout her life by nasty Mr. Chillingworth (the husband who was supposed to join her in Boston shortly after she arrived there, but only showed up years later to find Scarlet and Pearl meagerly existing alone.) When Chillingworth roots out the identity of Pearl’s father, he begins relentless harassment that eventually leads to Dimmesdale’s death. “A does not pay.”

It's not just in the Deep South where classic literature is being assaulted. I well remember that during my callow youth Minneapolis was scandalized by firing a teacher for introducing George Orwell’s “1984” in his high school’s senior English curriculum. The reason? The book warns against the erasure of historical truths. That happened in the 1950’s.

A decade later news broke that an administrator at Waldorf College (western Iowa) closed down a student production of Noel Coward’s play “Blithe Spirit,” in which the hero’s deceased wife returns as a ghost to attend her husband’s second marriage. The problem? The college made it clear that ghosts have no place in Lutheran theology. Britain must have shuddered at the news about the work of their most popular dramatist.

A year later United Press International ran a story about that administrator from Waldorf being arrested by Des Moines police for attempting to solicit a prostitute.

Of course, the Brits aren’t perfect when it comes to censorship. They were heir to the shenanigans of a 19th century parson, the Rev. Bowdler, who edited the work of Will Shakespeare, so it would be suitable for decent audiences. He famously replaced the word “strumpet” from a line in “Antony and Cleopatra” so that it read “A trumpet played in the bed of Caesar.”

Even a place as conservative as Italy produced the movie “Cinema Paradiso,” which pokes fun at those who foster censorship. It is set in a small southern Italian town where the only entertainment available is an occasional movie from the US. Unfortunately, the village priest previews all the films and clips out “offensive” passages, like Rhett Butler kissing Scarlet O’Hara and saying right out loud on screen, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” The projectionist undermines his efforts by splicing together all the celluloid that winds up on the floor to display in “private showings.”

That act could be a clue to those who would keep us from “corruptive” material: That which is hidden garners more curiosity than that upon which light is cast. When it’s in the open, we can discuss and debate its merits. When it’s hidden, we’re more likely to see the “salaciousness” in it. Or in the famous words of George Orwell: “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two equals four. If that is granted, all else follows.”