Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
"The punitive gesture of censoring finds its origin in the reaction of being offended. The strength of being-offended, as a state of mind, lies in not doubting itself; its weakness lies in not being able to afford to doubt itself. "
J.M. Coetzee's Giving Offense (1996) is a collection of 12 essays about the nature and essence of censorship, its various aspects and manifestations, and its effects on the society and on the artists (the subtitle of the book says it simply: Essays on Censorship). While a profound and highly scholarly work, meticulously researched and referenced on over 50 pages, this set of philosophical and literary criticism analyses is not at all impenetrable thanks to Mr. Coetzee's unsurpassed lucidity of writing. The depth and elegance of the author's analyses are so much above my ability to explain them that I am embarrassed writing this review, feeling like an elementary school kid tasked with annotating Finnegans Wake. I will thus limit my highly unqualified comments to a few selected essays, although each of the 12 fascinating studies deserves detailed analyses by scholarly-inclined readers.
Chapter Four, entitled "The Harms of Pornography: Catharine MacKinnon", is a devastatingly sharp critical analysis of Ms. MacKinnon's writings. Mr. Coetzee points out the parochialism and limitedness of some of her central ideas, as evidenced by her sole focus on the Western world, and her lack of interest in the widespread objectification and denigration of women in the world of advertising. Coetzee is at his most forceful when he criticizes what I would call a severe intellectual fraud perpetrated by Ms. MacKinnon who relativizes truth to gender and interprets female sexuality as a "construction of male power".
Allow me a personal aside here: Coetzee's writing resonates with me so strongly because he observes the social phenomena not from the perspective of what is "right" and what is "wrong" (which, of course, depends on who defines the rightness or wrongness and when and where the definition is constructed), but purely from the perspective of logic - through examining whether the arguments are valid. Coetzee's reasoning is so resoundingly refreshing because it goes strongly against today's prevalent mode of social discourse, driven by the so-called Political Correctness movement, the mode that eschews calm, logical analysis and instead focuses on attempting to right past wrongs, thus - incidentally - introducing new wrongs.
In Chapter Six, entitled "Osip Mandelstam and the Stalin Ode", the author offers an analysis of censorship and - more importantly - of self-censorship in 1930s, the darkest, Stalinist period of the Soviet history. In the next essay, "Censorship and Polemic: Solzhenitsyn", Mr. Coetzee, among many fascinating threads of analysis, mentions both proscriptive and prescriptive aspects of Soviet censorship and - most interestingly - describes "the dynamic of spiraling mimetic violence precipitated by a collapsing of distinctions", referring to a dialectic embrace between the enemies (Solzhenitsyn vs. the regime).
Out of the remaining chapters I would like to mention one on the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, which is a little outside the main thrust of the collection. While it indeed deals with issues of censorship, it focuses more on the universal and humanistic values of Mr. Herbert's poetry and on his use of allusiveness as a "mode of humanistic affirmation", and his recognition of irony as an ethical value. In Chapter Eleven which deals with relationship between the philosophy of apartheid and the system of censorship in South Africa, Mr. Coetzee - who is a mathematician by education - introduces the "algebra of mixing blood" - a sharply ironic device to illustrate the madness of apartheid philosophy.
Giving Offense is one of the most profound books I have ever read. It took me almost 20 hours to get through the 240 pages - the effort was totally worthwhile and I am happy that the onset of my senility has so far been slow enough to allow me the enjoyment of the read.
Four and three quarter stars.
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