The folly of reading the mind of the reader

Thursday, May 18, 2000

Gershon Legman was a man of great accomplishments and interests, best remembered as the blood enemy of censors and their collaborators.

He coined the slogan, “Make love, not war.” He was a self-taught scholar. He wrote an acclaimed two-volume study of erotic folklore. And while a writer in residence at the University of California at La Jolla in 1965, he was labeled “the conscience of American cultural criticism.”

Gershon Legman suffered much at the hands of the censors. During his travels about the United States to lecture on birth control, he was jailed several times for violating local anti-obscenity laws. The post office refused to deliver mail to his apartment in the Bronx because authorities claimed it was obscene. Publishers turned down his book, Love & Death: A Study in Censorship, which was unflinching in its defense of sexual expression.

No doubt, all this played a large role in his decision to leave the United States to live on the French Riviera, where scholars from around the world came to consult him on a wide range of topics until his death a year ago.

While he was alive, he gave the censors as good as he got.

He lashed writers who ducked and dodged the censors rather then taking them on directly. Such a writer “gibbers, he capers, he thumbs his nose and fires off popguns, but the truth is not in him,” Legman wrote in Love & Death, which he borrowed money to publish himself in 1949.

He railed against the “professional moral elements,” who, “busying themselves with censorship, prefer to believe that sex can be replaced by physical and emotional exertions measurably less violent than itself, such as calisthenics, cold baths, and bingo. The sinister absurdity of this pious hope is everywhere obvious.”

He didn’t let ordinary folks off the hook, either. Americans had internalized censorship, he said. “The men & women in the street carry it around with them in their heads. They are the censor.”

A few weeks ago, a friend who deals in antique and rare books sent me a copy of Love & Death. It is a slim volume with a soft red cover. I handle it gingerly because Legman had the cover ink treated with a special dye that supposedly colors the hands of readers who might start “sweating with guilt.” But it is the writing, careening from riff to rant, from the lurid to the lyrical, that informs and inflames.

Legman wrote with passion, eloquence and an encyclopedic knowledge. He was incensed that sexual expression was suppressed and penalized while violent expression was rewarded and glorified: “[W]e are faced in our culture by the insurmountable schizophrenic contradiction that sex, which is legal in fact, is a crime on paper, while murder — a crime in fact — is, on paper, the best seller of all time.”

He targeted violence in books and pulp fiction but especially in comic books, anticipating Frederick Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, the congressional hearings that decimated the comics industry in the ’50s, and modern guardians of civility and discourse, such as Sen. Joseph Lieberman and decency czar Bill Bennett.

Today’s media moralizers trot out tortured studies of how many instances of violence a child sees on television, borrowing a page from Love & Death, in which Legman quantified children’s “exposure” to comic-book violence.

“With rare exceptions,” he wrote, “every child in America who was six years old in 1938 has by now absorbed an absolute minimum of eighteen thousand pictorial beatings, shootings, stranglings, blood-puddles, and torturings-to-death, from comic (ha-ha) books alone, identifying himself — unless he is a complete masochist — with the heroic beater, shooter, strangler, blood-letter, and/or torturer in every case.”

Violent expression is base, coarse and harmful, in Legman’s view. If we had more sexual expression, we would have less of the violent variety. “There is no mundane substitute for sex except sadism,” he wrote.

Thus we have the internalized censor in even the most avid opponent of censorship. Being human, we all have some speech we just can’t find it in our hearts or minds to abide.

Gershon Legman reveals the confusion and conflict that arise when we think we can predict the effect of certain kinds of expression. In fact, his writings raise eerie antecedents to the rhetoric we hear today in the service of limiting what we can read, view and hear. (Legman obviously would have been dismayed to find that the caretakers of culture today want to resolve the whole situation by banning both sex and violence in the media.)

But sex being essentially subdued, the target of choice for censors and their apologists these days is violence in the media. They are so anxious to suppress it that they misstate the social science, misrepresent the reality of falling violence while media consumption rises, misapprehend human nature and the unpredictable impact of expression, misconstrue the value of protecting even offensive speech, and misdirect national attention and resources.

What a wondrous exercise in spavined logic. As if listing depictions of violence on television were a valid predictor of violence in life. As if the common existence of real violence and media violence were proof of cause and effect. As if good parenting, media literacy, and a focus on the real causes were not better remedies than censorship.

Legman’s work represents something more natural and enduring in the human being than low taste and perverse desires — and that is the urge to make all others see the world as he sees it. In that impulse, the censor and the artist are not much separated. But where the artist chooses to revere and liberate expression, the censor chooses to loathe and degrade it.

Today’s moralizers and censors will find, as their predecessors did, that despite their predictions of social cataclysm brought on by “offensive” expression, children manage not only to survive but to thrive (even though a certain number will become censors themselves).

The passionate voice of Gershon Legman from half-a-century ago reminds us that there’s nothing new when it comes to censorship. In each of us a bit of the censor dwells. That’s why we must not forget that the censor’s lot is a sad one. He just knows he is the master of what the writer says and the reader feels. He just knows he can secure the safety of society with a blue pencil. What he doesn’t seem to know is that his analysis is flawed, his conclusions false, and his hubris misplaced.

In the end, the censor settles for fleeting victories in his own time, only to suffer derision in his children’s time.

Even so, the censor pretends he can read the minds of readers in order to direct the words of writers.

The result of his arrogance is that speaker and listener alike are trapped in the censor’s cage while the wings of truth and freedom beat vainly against the bars.

We tolerate the censor to our lasting shame, not because he will destroy society in the name of saving the children — humankind has a way of absorbing such self-righteousness — but because we allow someone else to define our world and limit our freedom.

How dare we let the censor plague our conscience with his demons?

Paul McMasters may be contacted at