Why Censorship is the Best Thing that Ever Happened to Art

Reading Slavoj Zizek’s old book “Tarrying with the negative” (1993), I came across this delightful anecdote about a Yugoslavian cut of Ben Hur, the American movie about early Christian Romans:

What we must bear in mind here is the ultimate contingency of this act of “positing the presuppositions.” In ex-Yugoslavia, the Communist censorship was neither too harsh nor too permissive. For example, films with direct religious content were allowed, but not if their subject was Christian: we saw de Mille Ten Commandments, but there were problems with Wyler’s Ben Hur. The censor resolved his dilemma (how to obliterate Christian references in this “tale of Christ” and yet preserve the story’s narrative consistency?) in a very imaginative way: he cut out of the first two-thirds the few scattered oblique references to Christ, while simply cutting off the entire last third where Christ plays the central role. The film thus ends immediately after the famous horse-race scene in which Ben Hur wins over Massala, his evil Roman archenemy: Massala, all in blood, wounded to death, spoils Ben Hur’s triumph by letting him know that his sister and mother, allegedly dead, are still alive, yet confined to a colony of lepers, crippled beyond recognition. Ben Hur returns to the race ground, now silent and empty, and confronts the worthlessness of his triumph — the end of the film. The censor’s achievement is here truly breathtaking: although undoubtedly he had not the slightest notion of the tragic existentialist vision, he made out of a rather insipid Christian propaganda piece an existential drama about the ultimate nullity of our accomplishments, about how in the hour of our greatest triumph we are utterly alone. And how did he pull it off? He added nothing: he brought about the effect of “depth,” of a profound existential vision, by simply mutilating the work, by depriving it of its crucial parts.

This reminded me of a similar case in Francoist Spain, in which I was born, but never really got to know very well (I was 2 when the Fascist dictator died).

Spanish censors in the early 1950s were confounded by the the American movie Mogambo, It was a bit racy at the time, even for the U.S., as it was centered on a love triangle, made up of characters played by Clark Gable, a rugged hunter and guide leading a bunch of Americans through an African safari; Ava Gardner, who essentially played herself, single, fast and loose; and Grace Kelly, who played a married woman who falls for Gable and hates it that he’d rather sleep with Gardner (which didn’t actually happen: Gable was sleeping with Kelly during the shooting, the reason why their two characters have zero sexual chemistry on camera).

For the Catholic censors of early Franco Spain, this was quite the abomination, a pretty extravagant breach of the sacred bonds of marriage. So they came up with an idea: the character played by Kelly, instead of being a married woman traveling with her husband, would be a single woman traveling with her brother.

This is so crazy that for a long time I thought this was an anti-Franco urban legend. Could censors really be that thick? But they were. Everyone had to put up with a pretty close sibling relationship, and a bit extra excitement.

In the scene below (from the Spanish-dubbed version that ran in Spanish cinemas), Kelly walks into Gable’s tent looking for some sexy time, and finds the hunter cavorting with Gardner. She’s enraged, and tries to shoot Gable; hearing the fracas, other men from the party walk in (including the husband… I mean, brother), and Gardner explains the situation in the most Catholic possible terms:

“So this ruffian, this jungle casanova, has been trying to get into your sister’s pants for the whole trip, but she’s in love with her boyfriend. He was drunk today, and made another pass at her and she shot him, which is the only thing any decent woman would have done.”

The husband-I mean-brother looks at Gable with the utmost scorn and responds:

“If she hadn’t shot at him, I would have done it.”

Which, in all honesty, makes the Spanish version racier, with everyone concerned about the virginal single lady, than in the original American version — in which a married woman unconvincingly claims to be defending her virtue, and the plot revolves around humdrum infidelity, like a million other movies.

Look, the temptation here is to nod and say: well, some censors got lucky perhaps. Nothing to lose sleep over. But there’s a lot more to that: many, actually most, of mankind’s greatest works were composed (often as propaganda efforts) as a way to get around moral or religious rules.

To take a simple example: everyday movies in the 1980s were full of cringey sex scenes (often with saxophone music) in which the protagonists were shown to be physically expressing their attraction, normally for between one and two minutes. In previous years, moral rules made this impossible; and now that we now it’s possible, we can pose some questions to ourselves: did we gain anything with those scenes? Were the movies any better because of them? Do we really want to see that, in every single fucking movie? Is that our real desire, which was previously thwarted by censorship?

Or, as Zizek puts it in his comment about the Yugoslavian version of Ben Hur:

This is the way meaning emerges from nonsense. These paradoxes enable us to specify the nature of “self-consciousness” in German Idealism. In his critical remarks on Hegel, Lacan as a rule equates self-consciousness with self-transparency, dismissing it as the most blatant case of a philosophical illusion bent on denying the subject’s constitutive decenteredness. However, “self-consciousness” in German Idealism has nothing whatsoever to do with any kind of transparent self-identity of the subject; it is rather another name for what Lacan himself has in mind when he points out how every desire is by definition the “desire of a desire”: the subject never simply finds in himself a multitude of desires, he always entertains toward them a reflected relationship; i.e., by way of actual desiring, the subject implicitly answers the question, “which of your desires do you desire (have you chosen).” 6 As we have already seen apropos of Kant, self-consciousness is positively founded upon the nontransparency of the subject to itself: the Kantian transcendental apperception (i.e., the self-consciousness of pure I) is possible only insofar as I am unattainable to myself in my noumenal dimension, qua “Thing which thinks.”

About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
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