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439498 IOC 0 0 10.1177/0306422012439498 Grit in the EngineIndex on Censorship 2012
GRIT IN THE ENGINE
Robert McCrum considers Index’s role in the history of the fight for free speech, from the oppression of the Cold War to censorship online
In February 1663, the London printer John Twyn waited in Newgate prison for his execution, the unique horror of being hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, the place known today as Marble Arch. This medieval agony was the recently restored monarch King Charles II’s terrifying lesson to his subjects: do not write, or print, treason against the state.
Even more cruel, Twyn’s offence was merely to have printed an anonymous pamphlet justifying the people’s right to rebellion, ‘mettlesome stuff’ according to the state censor (the King’s Surveyor of the Press). No one suggested that Twyn had written this treason, only that he had transformed it from manuscript to print. Perhaps he hadn’t even read it. Never mind: he was sentenced to death.
Pressed both to admit his offence and reveal the name of the pamphlet’s anonymous author (and thereby save his own life), Twyn refused. In words of breathtaking courage that echo down the centuries, he told the prison chaplain that ‘it was not his principle to betray the Author’. Shortly afterwards, Twyn went to his doom. His head was placed on a spike over Ludgate, and his dismembered body distributed round other city gates.
12 grit in the engine
Words can be weapons, and the pen challenges the sword. Writers, and printers, ‘the troublers of the poor world’s peace’, in Shakespeare’s phrase, have always seemed a danger to the state. Across Europe, for the first three centuries of the printing press, questions of religion and politics were usually settled by the authorities of the day with rare and explicit savagery. As John Mullan has shown in his excellent monograph Anonymity, the safest course for the dissident writer was a pseudonymous or anonymous cloak of identity.
Eventually, the Romantic assertion of the heroic individual’s place in the world at the beginning of the 19th century ended this prudent convention, but slowly. The scandalous first two Cantos of Don Juan were printed without naming either Lord Byron or his publisher, John Murray. Despite the risks, the poet soon found fame irresistible. ‘Own that I am the author,’ he instructed Murray, ‘I will never shrink.’ By the reign of the fourth George, Britain’s liberal democracy was never likely to eviscerate, hang or decapitate a transgressive writer, though some terrible penalties did remain on the statute book for decades to come.
Abroad in Europe, as repressive states, notably Tsarist Russia, grew harsher, the fate of writers worsened, but hardly varied. The essential predicament was unchanged from John Twyn’s day. Putting black on white, words on the page, as accurately and truthfully as one could, would never fail to make trouble with vested interests, arterio-sclerotic authorities and evil despotisms. Dostoevsky was marched before a firing squad, but reprieved. The distinguished list of writers, before the Cold War, who died for their art includes Osip Mandelstam and Isaac Babel, possibly the greatest loss of all.
By the middle of the 20th century there was, in the words of Graham Greene, a fairly general recognition that ‘it had always been in the interests of the State to poison the psychological wells, to encourage cat-calls, to restrict human sympathy. It makes government easier when people shout Gallilean, Papist, Fascist, Communist.’ In the same essay, on ‘the virtues of disloyalty’, Greene expressed the writer’s credo in an age of growing state control. ‘The writer is driven by his own vocation,’ he said, ‘to be a Protestant in a Catholic society, a Catholic in a Protestant one, to see the virtues of the Capitalist in a Communist society, of the Communist in a Capitalist state.’ Greene concludes this celebration of opposition by quoting Tom Paine: ‘We must guard even our enemies against injustice.’
Confronted by the intractable collision of the creative individual of fiery conscience with the frozen monolith of the powers that be, there is one essential question: What Is to Be Done? In 1968, the poet Stephen Spender, sickened and dismayed by reports of literary repression in Russia,