Self-censorship is considered to be the “most corrosive and insidious’ form of censorship. Yet it appears to be inherent in us, part of our nature, whether we are aware of it or not. Self-censorship is a territory of imprecise borders and it comes in various shades and intensities. Its sources are multiple, both internal and external, possibly interrelated: a basic instinct of survival, a sense of belonging (we are social beings), adaptability, the human wish to stay within the comfort zone, assumed principles and/or internalized prejudices (the difference may not always be clear-cut) etc. Self-censorship may be tantamount to self-control, civility or conformism. Conformism also in the sense of political correctness, which is despised by many, but has an impact on all …
Self-censorship, as I have found out, can be a major challenge to a writer. It pertains, as it appears, to the very condition of an artist: I will call it an enemy, a major temptation that we have to reckon with more often than we like, and probably more often than we know.
I wish to refer to a few aspects of self-censorship, based on my own experience. And I have done my best not to let too much self-censorship stay in the way of my writing these pages as candidly as possible.
Most self-censorship, I think, is a form of innocent self-censorship, which occurs while we are unaware of it, like something instinctive and self-understood, arising from our internalized Weltanschauung and condition. We may have forgotten entirely about the moment when we decided to install in the hard disk of our minds a certain idea or attitude and not another: and we may have often done so without having thought out things thoroughly around the respective zone, or without thinking at all, just absorbing some idées reçues. That is why sometimes we react in ways that come as a complete surprise even to ourselves. Those are flashes bringing back issues that we put a lid on and are censored out of sight, out of mind, blocked and buried in our subconscious at some illo tempore of our lives. All of us are a fuzzy set of many things; one – important – part, as we know, is also that pool of ancestral natural heritage that etiologically feeds (as well as menaces) us. Someone once said that our last bit of intelligence will die at the same time with our last bit of instinct.
But creative writing is about freedom and grasping meanings, it is about asking the difficult questions, listening and probing, with liberty of mind, with courage, and no prejudice. It is about checking on the very stuff stored deep down and on self-understood values, on those things good, bad or indifferent stored inside people and ourselves; it is about questioning everything that is out there. Thus self-censorship can be utterly undesirable, keeping us as unsuspecting prisoners attached to invisible strings. In devious, insidious ways indeed, it can hinder us from fully attaining our creative-cognitive goal. I see it as an obscure force inside; some of the tension of writing may be a way of struggling against it at all times. And we can be happy about partial victories against it, but there is no promise of a definitive victory.
I come from a country in the former East European bloc, and earlier decades of my writing happened under communism, a regime of notorious censorship. It was interesting for me to discover some of my own degrees of self-censorship in those times. After having published several collections of lyrics (struggling with the official censorship in defense of various pieces and words…), in the mid-1980s I started writing a narrative book of poetry on my childhood. I was committed to being uncompromisingly truthful to my childhood experience in the community where I grew up, which was multinational: a village of Transylvanian Saxons (Germans), Romanians and Gypsies - at the time of the communist takeover in the 1950s. The severe Ceauşescu brand of national communism that we endured in those years made my stories and portraits practically impossible to publish, so I decided to write the book without the idea of publishing it. The special freedom I gained through writing-for-my-drawer was an interesting lesson for me, for I could feel myself stepping into an ample zone liberated from self-censorship, an interior geography that I had not even suspected was there. I thought that I had been freer than that, and less affected in my inner world by the censorship imposed ubiquitously in those times. The book (Triumph of the Waterwitch) was published in 1992.
Then, I also wish to mention deliberate self-censorship of things we know about, which obviously has various causes as well, either good or bad. Self-censorship has been discussed even in the field of sciences, concerning whether some kinds of research may be acceptable or not. Myth, religions and the history of culture tell us indeed about the forbidden fruit from “the tree of knowledge of good and evil”, or Faust’s pact with the devil. Man can certainly be in awe at his own power of knowledge and the consequences and responsibilities arising from his knowledge.
By the way, while writing the lines above I hesitated to use the word “man”, as I have just done and I have been looking for ways to avoid the generic use of this pronoun, “he” for both genders several times. I wonder who hasn’t, lately…