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Ioana Ieronim


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…


I was at a poetry festival in Israel, in Galilee, in the spring of this year, with participants from various European countries, as well as our hosts, poets of Hebrew and Arabic language from all over Israel and the Palestinian areas, including a few from Gaza. As you can expect, the poets’ camaraderie and communality was particularly warm – not totally without exception, though, given the well known tensions of that area. We were there to make a statement of friendship and understanding, a spontaneous statement about the potential of literature to communicate and heal. In that area of beauty and legend, remember, missiles had fallen some months before (from Lebanon) and the noise of more conflicts in the area was building up. I can only hope that, between the moment when I am writing this and our meeting in Vilenica, wisdom and peace may prevail.
The format of that festival was such that there was no systematic translation provided from the poems presented in Arabic and Hebrew. But poetry, as we know, has much to offer beyond litteral meaning, so, a heightened sense of observation, concentration and guesswork made us, European guests, grasp something in the music of our colleagues’ verse, and all of it was a rewarding experience. While listening to a young lady poet from Galilee, who was reciting a love poem in an intense and passionate way, I jotted down a poem in Romanian dedicated to her – which I then translated into English and I read it there, in M’ghar, as a farewell gift on the last day of the festival. Here is the poem as I have finished it afterwards, for a cycle in English.


A black dress and a white scarf
your body buried in your clothes like an ancient city
- it is only your face that we can see
a wave of young light

all of you is this voice, that can change your country’s
rugged stones, flashing weapons and bombs
into soft gold dust
and spread it among peoples of bees

there is love love love in your voice
rolling over the fields of the setting sun,
Mount Tabor, beyond, is hardly a breath
caves reverberate beneath

A black dress, a white scarf
and your face: a wave of light moving in splendor

you speak : your vowels are an angel’s touch
you speak
your consonants grow into quick vertical flames
and conquer

I have underlined the fragments where I committed deliberate self-censorship, as follows: as I said, I originally wrote the poem in Romanian, in which the second line (underlined) named the long black dress as a coffin hiding the woman’s body: through contrast, the poet’s words of love were even more paradoxically alive (that contrast in fact had sparked my wish to write the poem). When I read the English version of the poem there, in Galilee, I eliminated the underlined words entirely, for fear of being misunderstood, and of hurting some of our hosts’ feelings. I did that in spite of the fact that I knew I had my heart in the right place: I was indeed impressed, respectful and affectionate towards my fellow poet. Later, when I finished my poem in English, I softened the image of the coffin, as seen above: because I did not want my poem to sound judgemental.
It may still sound judgemental. That style of black garment totally covering a woman’s body is similar to a nun’s vestment in my Church (Eastern Orthodox): the significance of monastic clothes in my culture is that the nun’s (the monk’s) body is no longer alive, for, through being ordained, their body ritually/symbolically passes the threshold into death. The Muslim poetess I refer to obviously just respected the way to appear in public that is valid in her culture. Otherwise, her culture appears to be much more welcoming towards the body in their private space, than happens in the Christian tradition. In fact, in spite of our comparative freedom, the traditional Christian dichotomy between soul (good, godly) and body (inferior, burdened by sin) has had a deep impact on our world, more or less denying part of us (with all the reactions following from it); the globalized new millenium may come to balance that.


I have referred to this instance of my self-censorship neither with pride nor with embarrassment - it may even be quite an imperfect example. But it was available to me and I think I have been affected by it. It allowed me to measure the impact of the global crisis that we are in at a personal level, even from my distance (but what do we call distance today…), and it was – it is – clear that I could not afford the luxury not to question every aspect of the effect even of my modest words in a modest place.Terrorism and war have been happening against the background of vast territories of misunderstanding, rampant preconceptions, self-righteousness, a Manichean block of too many minds. And words have kept proving their potential to generate reality: even if they are false, the reality they generate will be genuine and can lead accordingly to action. That is, violent action. Words, serving us for communication, have been turned into weapons and violence, not only once - which is the absolute denial of communication.
At this time of “global war on terror”, concern has been expressed for years about the dilution of freedom of speech and the avoidance of a discussion of “hot button” problems. This is at the level of political, media and theoretical discourse. Literature keeps its quality of possibly being a healer of any deadly either-or: for artistic approach is a strong tool in bringing nuance and signalling intelligibly across barriers, a way to not let disturbing areas be unnoticed. Literature is an avenue to change a mind that may be frozen in misconception, enmity and ideology.
A writer should unabashedly speak the truth and nothing but the truth. But there are times when it becomes indeed a challenge to do that – and to do it right – so as not to defeat the purpose of literature as a propitious terrain for transcending prejudice and make others transcend it, assuming the world’s complexities. Not allowing false, damaging answers – like gun triggers - to be given to our difficult questions. And, yes, we should believe in the healing power of our writing, be it merely through the homeopathy of our words.
Some things coming with the much ridiculed PC may thus be helpful, especially at a time of crisis, when traumatized and humiliated people are reacting, and ready to overreact. For we wish to serve the good pupose of peace and understanding, or at least not to inadvertently bring more damage, confirm such people’s complexes and suspicions – those things that fuel aggressivity. We definitely do not wish to add to the pernicious misunderstanding and underlying hatred that we witness/suffer.
The situation I know best, in my country, is that, after the constraints of communist PC, the years after came with a most welcome liberty of expression – as well as with the usual post-totalitarian manifestation of lots of shrillness and unbridled wording and display of political incorrectness of every sort. Quite a hubris. One can note an underlying trauma there, too, following the vast social humiliation of the former regime. Let us remember that Aristotle, referring to hubris, noted “men think that by ill-treating others they make their own super¬iority the greater”. That is why, all things considered, I feel inclined to agree with those who see a virtue in some aspects of political correctness, of self-control and self-censorship – beyond the excesses of over-zealous PC. For, indeed, it does matter how we talk and interact. And words are indeed thinking, and words do connect to our unconscious. It would be ideal for attitudes of civilized restraint to come from a set of sound internalized principles, of genuine respect for the others, for diversity, for values and fairness, therefore from principles genuinely attuned to democracy – and not from opportunism. Fairytales themselves try to open our eyes from the beginning to the relevance of otherness and the beauty and interest even of humble things in life.
They say that strength and integrity are needed in order to avoid the temptation of self-censorship. But strength and integrity may also be needed in applying self-censorship, when desirable.