According to the Walkerton Herald-Times, the parent of a grade-12 student has filed a complaint with the Bluewater District School Board calling for removal of Timothy Findley’s novel, The Wars, from the curriculum. According to the article, Carolyn Waddell, a professional counselor, alleges that there are parts of Findley’s novel which are “depraved”. She states that “The philosophy of the sexualizing of human relationships seems to be a predominant theme in this book, even when small children are involved.” She notes a condition called precarious (sic) traumatization “which means even though a person hasn’t personally experienced something, the trauma of others has an adverse affect on them.” (I assume the correct word is “vicarious”) However—and this is the kicker—even though she wants the book banned from BDSB’s curriculum, she claims that this “isn’t about censorship.”
You could set your watch to these complaints. Last season it was racism with the “n” word in Huckleberry Finn (there is one occurrence of the “n” word in The Wars, but the article doesn’t mention this fact). Last season it was anti-Semitism in Merchant of Venice. Before that, local covens were raising a stink about the portrayal of witches in MacBeth.
Let’s see what’s wrong with The Wars and then move on to this curious claim about censorship.
Written in 1977, The Wars tells the account of Robert Ross, a Toronto native who, at the age of 19, enlists in the war to end all wars aka WW I. We follow him from basic training in Alberta, to a ship across the Atlantic, to a hospital in London, to the trenches of Ypres and St. Eloi, all culminating in a dubious act of heroism which results in his court martial in absentia and subsequent death.
The devil, of course, is in the details. The first devilish detail comes during basic training when the freshly enlisted boys go to Lousetown, near Lethbridge, AB, for a visit to a brothel. The experience proves disappointing, but readers needn’t worry. Ross makes up for it later in the book. The literary brothel only ever serves one purpose: to signify the acquisition of knowledge, or at least knowledge of a particular kind. Call it knowledge incarnate. In that regard, the literary brothel is identical to the church. Knowledge comes to Ross in an unexpected way. He hears loud noises from the next room: “thumps and the sound of someone being slapped.” His prostitute shows him a spyhole, and when he looks into the next room, discovers a naked couple in full coitus: man-on-man sex. More than that, one of the men is someone Ross had hoped to emulate.
The novel also includes five occurrences of the word “breast” in reference to a twelve-year-old girl who keeps a diary and, perhaps like Ann Frank, can’t help but notice that her body is changing. The first three of these references appear in a passage which is likely responsible for the “even when small children are involved” remark. Here it is in full:
This meant putting on a dress which I hate. The smocking pinches my breasts which mother won’t admit I’m sprouting. The other day when Wilson was rubbing them with the ghastly oil she says will make them peak, mother came in and absolutely shrieked ‘What are you doing, Wilson?’ and when Wilson explained mother went into another shrieking fit and, staring at my breasts she said ‘Don’t you understand she can’t have breasts? She’s only twelve!’ Then she went down the hall and I could hear her telling Barbara and then she went and told Doctor Withrow. Now I feel like a freak.
The girl in question is Lady Juliet d’Orsey who, years later, provides much of the story’s detail by chatting with a hidden archivist who serves as the novel’s narrator. Juliet reminds me of Briony Tallis, the narrator of Atonement, and may well have served as a model for Ian McEwan’s celebrated character. Like Briony, she inadvertently witnesses her older sister engaged in sexual intercourse with a man for whom she has an immature infatuation. And like Briony, she misinterprets what she sees because she lacks the experience to understand how a sexual act, although an expression of love, can have the appearance of violence. The scene provides a nice counterpoint to, and commentary upon, the scene in the brothel.
It is worth noting that Findley was gay and living openly in a committed relationship at a time when few were willing to confront the risks. It is fair to suppose that in The Wars he was creating a syllogism for the reader: if love can happen in relationship B, and what they do in relationship B looks the same as what they do in relationship A, then love can happen in relationship A too.
However, Findley doesn’t stop there. He presents one more scene which illustrates his commitment to “[t]he philosophy of the sexualizing of human relationships” whatever that means. This is the rape scene. Having survived the horrors of trench warfare, and obviously traumatized, Ross finds himself in a mental hospital called the Désole. After taking a bath, three fellow soldiers rape him. Perhaps it is this scene which prompted Waddell’s claim that “the book goes against board policy, including a section on sexual harassment (defined as any sexually oriented remarks, material, and behaviour that may reasonably be perceived to create adverse a psychological or emotional environment).” Does the Board’s policy really go so far as to constrain the behaviour of fictional people? Really?
One can’t help but think that Waddell sees no distinction between a “depraved” book and a book that comments upon “depravity.” That seems to be the case in all such claims. The Merchant of Venice (ostensibly) portrays anti-Semitism, and so it must be an anti-Semitic work. Huckleberry Finn portrays life in a racist society, and so it must be a racist work.
An alternative rationale runs like this: “Okay, I recognize that the book isn’t really depraved; it merely portrays acts of depravity. What I’m really concerned about is the protection of susceptible youth.”
Allow me to answer by quoting the epigraph which Findley uses to open his novel:
In such dangerous things as war the errors which proceed from a spirit of benevolence are the worst. –von Clausewitz
Substitute the word “education” for the word “war” and you have my answer to Waddell. My mind is filled with a vision of a schoolyard teeming with unicorns and lollipop flowers. Yes, it would be wonderful if we could provide every child with a Disney perfect childhood. Did I say “wonderful”? Sorry, I meant “insipid”.
At the heart of Waddell’s claim is an evasion. Not avoidance, which is a counseling word. Avoidance is the refusal to address an issue, like sex or violence. Evasion is something different. It takes many forms. For example, evasion can manifest itself through a game of intellectual dishonesty which resorts to euphemisms. This is not censorship, it tells us. This is something different, like benevolent concern. Sure, we want to ban this novel. But don’t call it censorship. Censorship is something religious fanatics do. We aren’t religious fanatics. We are nice middle-class suburban professional Canadians. We do this because we care.
I smell another evasion. I smell it in the word “depraved.” Substitute the word “gay” and I think we hit closer to the mark. What makes the book objectionable is that some of its characters are gay, as is the sex that some of the gay characters engage in. But of course, in our politically correct times in our politically correct southern Ontario, we cannot complain about the inclusion of gay or lesbian issues in our educational curriculum. So we come up with euphemisms. We say that the material is “depraved”. And we say that we are doing this to protect our children. We aren’t like the religious fanatics in the American south who talk about “sin” and “evil”; all we want to do is to keep the depravity at bay.
As another of Findley’s characters observes: “Language is a strange thing, isn’t it.”