Taboo Literature

To introduce this essay, a quote by Michel Foucault is perhaps a relevant and thought provoking starting point, Foucault said “Literature’s task is to say the most unsayable- the worst, the most secret, the most intolerable, the shameless”. (During, 1992: p. 121)

Foucault is suggesting that a writer is charged with the mission to question and test the boundaries of morality, to deliberately express controversial thoughts, ideas and feelings that would probably stay unexpressed because of their explicit nature, for the reason of a possible repulsion that could result from some members of society.

With this in mind, the aim of this essay is to look at three texts that challenge subjects that are considered religiously taboo, subjects which are confronted with language expressions that were and still are considered intolerable and blasphemous. The three texts in question are Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice, and Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Behzti (Dishonour). The intention is to relate all three texts to the freedom of expression in regards to the notion of causing offence by contending with topics about religiously taboo subjects with the use of blasphemous language. Subsequently, the intention is to evaluate the reaction from those relevant sections of multicultural Britain who reacted to these texts by demanding their censorship, but demanding in a manner that actually gave more weight to the right to free expression, ironically inciting the desire to read the texts that they had demanded to be censored or banned.

By examining the chosen texts, the ultimate purpose will be to produce a body of evidence that illustrates conclusively that the texts of The Satanic Verses, England People Very Nice, and Behzti (Dishonour) categorically indicate that their authors did not attempt to suppress their artistic creativity by diluting ideas that addressed several religiously taboo subjects with language that indicated they were not afraid to offend their own religions and other religious beliefs. During this essay, the works of several analytical authors will be drawn upon to support the argument, some of whom are Frank Palmer’s ideas on the relevance of fictional characters to the reality of religious belief; Stefan Collini’s idea that literature should be used in order for everyone to see the world through the eyes of others, especially if the other view gives offense, and to consider the work of Michel Foucault’s thoughts on literature’s ultimate mission to stretch the boundaries of acceptance.

To begin by looking at Foucault’s idea that ‘literature’s task is to say the unsayable’ is to toy with the idea that Rushdie, Bean and Bhatti used in their text language that they probably knew would be considered forbidden and unlawful by some members of the religious groups their language was designed to address. However, the history of attempting to censor and/or ban literature that was considered controversial indicates censoring often had the opposite effect. For instance, as a direct result of William T. Stead’s investigation into the underground trade of prostitution, the relationship between some writers and the government became fragile and defensive. “Between 1888 and the late 1930s, purity organisations and government censors pressured writers through visits and surveillance, public proclamations and warnings”. (Marshik, 2008: p. 3) From this very early example of censorship in Victorian Britain, the governing bodies attempts to dismantling a text almost guaranteed its popularity because of the controversy and the publicity that surrounded it. In the initial attempt to censor a piece of literature the author initially falls into the background, whereas at first, the words in the text take centre stage, the author’s identity or presence becomes almost insignificant until the audience illustrate the desire to know who the author is primarily because of the strength of the author’s voice, which is revealed in the language of the text. Significantly, there is a reversal of influence; normally it is the author’s reputation that sells the book, in the case of Rushdie, Bean and Bhatti, it is the meaning behind the words that first grabs the reader’s attention, and so impels the audience to look for and learn about the person behind the controversial text. As Foucault suggests, ‘Deconstruction secures literature’s immortality by its very erasure of authorial presence’. Foucault’s words endorse what Marshik implies, rather than becoming removed from the mind and the attention of the audience, censorship makes the text more appealing, and so more sought after. In effect and in reality, actually attempting to take away the sense of the person behind the voice of the text enables the author to speak more audibly to the reader because they are not meant to hear him.

The idea that Salman Rushdie utilised his imagination to challenge and ridicule the Muslim faith was an idea that was rife amongst much of the Muslim community after his Satanic Verses was published. In support of Rushdie is playwright David Edgar, who believes we as a society deserve “The right to be offended”. (Collini, 2010: p. 41) With this idea in mind, it could be said that Rushdie, Bean and Bhatti wrote their literature in the knowledge, and with the belief that the Muslim, Sikh, Jewish and Irish communities not only had the right to feel offended, but also that they were sufficiently intelligent and articulate to show their displeasure; they had the right to feel offended and react on their opinions. For example, some of the languages used in their respective text support Edgar’s opinion in various and numerous ways. In The Satanic Verses, the prophet Mohammed is conceivably ridiculed on several occasions, on one occasion that Rushdie wrote, “Mahound comes to me for revelation, asking me to choose between monotheist and henotheist alternatives, and I’m just some idiot actor having a bhaenchud nightmare”. (Rushdie, 1998: p. 109) Of course, the language used here has blasphemous connotations, the idea of Mohammed (Mahound) asking a mortal man to choose his religious preference, implying there is more than one God rather than follow the beliefs of the ‘true’ religion was probably a cause for contention, especially when the character calls himself an idiot actor, which of course suggest that Mohammed is less than an idiot.

In Gurpreet Bhatti’s Dishonour, much of the blasphemous language is utilised to indicate several contentious acts take place in the Sikh’s place of worship, the Gurdwara. The illegal and immoral act of rape occurs within the walls of the Gurdwara, the location actually increasing the implications to the sin and the controversy. After Mr. Sandhu forces himself upon Min, he re-enters the play by stopping two other female characters, Teetee and Polly who are beating up his victim. However, his choice of words is nothing less than hypocritical given his earlier action; he coolly informs Teetee and Polly that “We are not animals. Please try and maintain some level of decorum”. (Bhatti, 2004: p. 119) Of course, the act of rape is against the laws of all religions, so to place such an act of sexual abuse in the setting of a Sikh Temple is not only taboo, but Sandhu’s reaction to his heinous crime potentially shows Sikhism lacks restraint and respectability, which in itself would cause conflict between different cultural communities. There is also a sense that Sandhu’s words are arguably a comment on how Sikhs, Muslims, Jewish people and all other non-British members of society are viewed and treated. Bhatti is plausibly commenting through her characters, using her right to the freedom of expression, suggesting that non-British people of all different religions in Britain deserve to be treated with respect and propriety.

England People Very Nice offers a different perspective on contending with taboo subjects with selected language, because Richard Bean confronts racism and bigotry on a wider scale and longer time frame, which deals with the absorption of different cultures in an already abundantly multicultural Britain.

The unrelenting Irish character of pub landlady Ida expresses to the audience her xenophobic mentality on several occasions; in Act One, she refers to the French as “Fucking Frogs”, in Act Two, the Irish are called “Fucking Micks” and in Act Three, the Jewish people are called “Fucking Yids”. Because Ida is one of the main constant characters throughout the play, and her racist persona does not seem to waver, it is fair to say that her character was intended to represent the unwavering, deeply held racist attitudes of some segments of British society who resent the constant influx of immigrants.

However, Bean’s contentious play opens up a way for all those cultures he challenges through his use of strong language to answer racist, bigoted attitudes by any means they want to use. Indeed, the play is arguably an open invitation for a multi cultural Britain to react to the unfairness of immigration, Bean is arguably acting as a vent through with multicultural communities can express themselves through the liberation of voicing their opinions. In support of this idea, Kenan Malik said “We have to recognise that in a plural society it is both inevitable and important that people offend others”. (Petley, 2009: p. 173) Perhaps it is possible that Bean recognised Britain as a plural society that would inevitably offend itself and others, so the idea that his play was a deliberate invitation for multi-cultural societies to openly offend each other seems to be quite a plausible argument.

Malik goes on to say, “We should deal with those clashes in the open rather than suppress them”. (Petley, 2009: p. 173) Bean’s, Bhatti’s and Rushdie’s works obviously allow for the minorities in Britain to openly express their opinions about challenging religious and cultural beliefs that are considered taboo subjects. However, the ways in which the minority groups express their opinions actually caused a wider readership to develop, a result that was initially unintended, but actually benefited the author’s identification to the public, and drew attention to the religious and cultural arguments of the protestors.

The Satanic Verses arguably had an extraordinary bearing on the freedom of expression in literature, and on Britain’s multicultural society, Andrew Anthony, writing for the Guardian Newspaper said “after the publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel, protesters took to the streets in Bradford, the Saudis funded the United Kingdom Action Committee on Islamic affairs to maximise the pressure on The Satanic Verses, and there was a bomb in the Liberty Department store which housed a Penguin Bookshop”. (Anthony, 2009: The Observer) Various outrages to liberty and the freedom of expression followed in the wake of Rushdie’s novel, the deaths of several people occurred, which puts into perspective David Edgar’s idea that people have the right to feel offended. However, from a completely unbiased perspective, based on retrospective observations, the manner in which some members of the Muslim community in Britain reacted arguably went beyond the right to feel offended. The extremist reactions, because of their intimidatory strategies and intentions, perhaps went a long way to extinguishing any support they may have eventually been given. It would be fair to suggest that the manner in which they ‘protested’ was a humanitarian mistake, meaning; they actively hunted Salman Rushdie like he was an animal, an act that was incited by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Fatwa. Indeed, at opposite ends of the religious spectrum, while Rushdie did not curb his artistic imagination presumably because he did not consider the Islamic community as a delicate, unintelligent community, thus, he realistically allocated for any possible reasoned reaction to his text. Of course, what he received in return was a serious disapproval of his imaginative use of ideas and language regarding the religion of Islam. As Collini points out, “To consider someone to be too fragile or too stupid to bear reasoned disagreement is to condescend to them”. (Collini, 2010: p. 26) This suggests the most profound way to indicate respect is by treating others as persons capable of engaging in reasoned arguments as equals on intellectual and humanitarian terms. Of course, attempting and intending to kill someone is not the result of any reasoned argument. Rushdie, Bean and Bhatti were apparently not afraid of giving offence just because some of the bad arguments that have passed judgment on their work would inevitably pass as reasonable arguments.

Although the amount of violence associated with Bhatti’s Behzti is far less than that associated with The Satanic Verses, the impact on the Sikh community had similar repercussions. The controversy that surrounded Behzti (Dishonour) was mainly concerned with the elements of the play that portrayed rape and murder in a holy place of worship. In Birmingham, a location itself that is famously multicultural, where the play was premiered, the play was forced to close because of violent protests outside of the theatre. The Times Newspaper reported that, “Members of the Sikh Federation in Britain were pleased that Behzti had been withdrawn, confirming members of the federation had been involved in the campaign against the play”. (O’Neill, Woolcock, 2010: The Times)

In the play, during a conversation between Sandhu and Teetee, the words, “ugly old cunt” (p. 84) come from Teetee, to which Sandhu replies “Words…mean nothing”. (Bhatti, 2004: p. 84) Of course, cursing and swearing in a Sikh Temple is blasphemous and considered morally wrong, but it is Sandhu’s response that is in contrast to the Sikh reaction to the play. Bhatti’s use of the phrase “Words mean nothing” could be considered to be an opinion and message from the author to the Sikh public, illustrating her words by using the reaction of a supposedly wise and elder member of the Sikh Temple. Obviously, to some members the Sikh and Muslim communities, words mean everything.

Bhatti’s turn of phrase, spoken though Sandhu’s character, “Words mean nothing” links in with Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice, and the view of Nicholas Hytner, the director of the play and the National theatre, when he stated, “No issues are taboo for the stage, the play clearly sets out to demonstrate that all forms of racism are equally ridiculous”. (Adams, 2009: The Telegraph) Hytner’s opinion, although one to applaud, is unrealistic in its view. Obviously, in an idealistic world, there would be no taboo subjects because there would ideally be no taboos available for the author to utilise in their plays. However, in religious terms, sensitive issues have always existed, and quite possibly always will exist, but Hytner is quite correct when he states that all forms of racism are ridiculous. Nevertheless, many forms of racism and bigotry do exist, and sometimes, works such as England People Very Nice, Behzti (Dishonour) and The Satanic Verses, when they deal with taboo issues with less than sensitive language, are bound to cause a stir in those religious communities that are utilised and mentioned through the imagination of literature. Richard Bean’s play cleverly moves through four generations of immigration in Britain, and in Act four, the outlook of two people from Bangladesh are very different and are in stark contrast to each other. The characters of Mushi and Naz represent two different generations of the Bangladeshi people; Mushi is the older, more experienced character, Naz the young, brash representative of a Bangladeshi community that has suffered violent and verbal racism at the hands of their British counterparts. Mushi’s opinion, developed over several decades of living in England, is that for his Bangladeshi brethren to integrate into English society, they must conduct themselves like Englishmen, he says, “We must behave like Englishmen, march to Parliament”. (Bean, 2009: p. 97) to which Naz replies, “But I was born here! These streets is ours yeah”. (Bean, 2009: p. 97) The difference in attitudes regarding living in England is somewhat disquieting, Mushi is suggesting that the community as a whole must essentially push some of their cultural beliefs into the background in order for them to become more like Englishmen. Naz on the other hand regards himself as an Englishman because he is just as English as the white Englishman, and he is prepared to go to war on the streets to uphold his rights as an Englishman, and his right to protect his own culture, which he apparently regards as part of England.

It is relevant to suggest that both characters want to be the architect of their personal fates, and the fates of their community; conceivably, they are both artists in themselves, in that they are being true to their own opinions. Frank Palmer comments that, “the artist who lacks integrity in his work is not only deficient as a practitioner, but in his attitude towards the strivings of other men, past, present and future”. (Palmer, 1992: p. 168)

It is fair to say that Salman Rushdie, Richard Bean and Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti had sufficient integrity to say what they wanted to say despite the fear of reprisals that was to come after the publications of their works. Despite the controversy their works produced, deficiency as practitioners cannot be related to their texts.

In summary, the freedom of expression is an extremely large and controversial part of attempting to bring a piece of literature under the laws of censorship, yet as we have seen, restricting the freedom to write expressively on issues that are considered taboo can have the opposite effect,. Stefan Collini said that people have the right to be offended, so restricting the right of the author to address taboo topics with language that may incite a reaction would be very unfortunate for all concerned. Indeed, censorship seems almost a pointless exercise, a point that is more often than not proven by the extent of reaction from radical members of Islamic and Sikhism communities, who’s’ demonstrations and lobbying to demand censorship and banning often leads to more publicity for the author, and so more demand for the book to be published.

Kenan Malik suggests it is important to offend in a plural society, because to deliberately not offend is an act of disrespect, and suggests the ‘avoided’ party would not have the intelligence to react to offensive words.

The newspaper reports featured in this essay illustrate the extent of unhappy feelings regarding the controversial material contained in The Satanic Verses, Behzti (Dishonour) and England People Very Nice, at the time they were published, and the evidence of the violence in the protests against their publications completely put into doubt Nicholas Hytner’s opinion that no issues are taboo in the theatre. Hytner’s statement is arguably irresponsible in its’ naivety, illustrated by the numerous violent reactions to all three texts, and the countless texts that are censored every year throughout the modern world. In the end, it is not the literary works that are deficient in their imaginative content, but the radical minorities who are arguably deficient in their attitudes to freedom of expression.

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