We are not great iconoclasts in Britain. It has been quite unusual, in recent centuries, for offensive images and statuary to be thrown down by force in this country. At most, we might find a little light editing. The inscription on the Monument to the Great Fire in London blamed, for nearly 150 years, “Popish frenzy” for that holocaust. Alexander Pope, himself Roman Catholic, was born near where, he wrote, “London’s column, pointing at the skies/ Like a tall bully, lifts the head, and lies.”
When the Bristol statue of the slave-trader Edward Colston was torn down and thrown in the river last month, one thing that made the debate simpler was that no one had ever claimed any artistic merit for the thing. You would have searched long and hard to discover that it was the work of the Irish-born Manchester sculptor John Cassidy.
There are plenty of great works of art, however, which despite their worth, have quite objectionable meanings. Tiepolo’s frescoes at Würzburg may be the greatest European paintings of the whole 18th century; but what they say about Africa and America is, to use a favourite modern word, “unacceptable”. Should we destroy them?
Literature, without a doubt, is going to prove the most challenging area to exercise this debate. There were calls last month to remove the statue of Oliver Cromwell from outside the Houses of Parliament, because of Cromwell’s brutality in Ireland. What, then, do we do about Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, which celebrates the crushing of the Irish? Ban it? Just decide not to read it? Read it, but explain its wickedness? Read it alongside some Irish accounts, nobly suppressing the uncomfortable thought that Spenser is a magnificent poet, and the counter-narratives are not, actually, very good as literature?
A test case might be Evelyn Waugh. There is no doubt that he is a great writer; there is also not much doubt that there are pages, and possibly entire books, which are deeply offensive to current sensibilities. The treatment of Mrs Beste-Chetwynde’s lover Chokey in Decline and Fall; savage flurries of anti-semitic caricature in both A Handful of Dust and Helena; the scenes of African life in Scoop and, especially, Black Mischief; the appalling mockery of African cultures in Remote People.
The problem is that these books haven’t just become offensive as attitudes have changed. They were always offensive, and their brilliant comedy rests on just how unacceptable they were. Black Mischief culminates in a celebrated scene in which the hero is served his mistress, cooked into a stew by African cannibals. He eats her.
It was published in 1932, shortly after Waugh had been received into the Catholic Church. The editor of The Tablet, Ernest Oldmeadow, wrote in an editorial that it was “a work outrageous not only to Catholic but to ordinary standards of modesty”. And so it is.
Should it have been removed from circulation in 1932 on grounds of immodesty? Or now, on the grounds of casual racism? Some dubious works of literature now exist almost entirely in the classroom, and their life can be controlled by the syllabus, and by serious elucidation of error. Waugh is a problem for the arbiters of taste, because he doesn’t appear on syllabuses, but is read in substantial numbers by ordinary, appreciative readers, who are not easily controlled.
This isn’t a superficial problem that can be addressed by cutting obnoxious passages, or dropping a single author here and there. It might just be the nature of comedy, even of literature. Two of the funniest passages written in English occur in Remote People, Waugh’s account of a journey in Africa. In the first, an American professor attempts to explain what is happening at the coronation of Haile Selassie; in the second, a scout master examines a small Somali boy in Scout Law: “Both parties in this dialogue seemed to be losing confidence in the other’s intelligence.” I don’t doubt that someone could decide that these passages were racist in meaning. Comedy, however, has always been based on a keen awareness of difference, and between differences in social standing. If you decide that it’s indecent to laugh about inequalities, then we are lost.
I don’t think anyone is seriously proposing the banning of books just yet. But this has been on my mind because I’m about to publish a Penguin anthology of the British short story between 1890 and 1914. It begins with Kipling; it includes Conrad. Both wrote fiction which we have to regard as racist. Conrad’s Typhoon is a breathtaking piece of virtuoso writing; it also contains passages about the “Chinamen” on board which can now only disgust. Yet to proscribe it would be to lose something important.
At the moment, we are talking about the arts in this context as if they were all message. If this debate is going to go anywhere, we will have to start thinking about what art and literature actually consist of.
Philip Hensher is a novelist, critic and journalist