Actualizado: 17 sept 2020
Written by Juan David Ramírez Rubiano. Humanist and Sociologist.
Translated by Edward Patrick Duigenan.
History has shown us that some authoritarian political regimes have displayed immense fear of certain ideas expressed in books, works of art and all types of artistic expression that was considered dangerous to the ideology of the government. To mention two well-known cases, the burning of piles of books carried out by the Nazis (mirroring the style of a Colombian ex-attorney in his youth), among which those of Bertolt Brecht could be found, to mention one of the greatest German writers or the censuring of the Russian writer and journalist Vasily Grossman by the Soviet regime which almost wiped out his written work Life and Fate. It was written in 1959 with strong criticism of Soviet bureaucracy and totalitarianism. It was the object of censure and persecution and could only see the light of day and be published in 1980 in Switzerland. It’s worth mentioning that this work also criticized Nazism.
This practice is not only specific to totalitarian governments; it has also been taken up by religious institutions. The Catholic Church is ripe with these types of acts and in the cases where they haven´t been able to have direct censorship, they would generate scandal and cause pressure in order to distort the facts and belittle the value of the art or literature in question.
In this respect, it’s appropriate to make reference to a precedent when talking about the separating of literary work from divine restriction. Euripides, the Greek dramatic poet, captured in his writings the rupture from the sacred figure of the Olympian gods; his work satirized the gods and gave more importance to the human characters where he also praised the role of women. Although he was falsely accused of misogyny he was a forerunner in giving importance to women in literature.
In order to tackle episodes within the church and acts against the freedom of thought, it’s important to mention the atrocious and criminal assassination of the iconic Hipatia of Alejandria, a symbol of wisdom and resistance to the imposition of Christianism, which was against the freedom of thought, the arts and philosophy. Her death was produced by an enraged mob of Christian fanatics of the time.
If we take a leap in History to the XIII century, between the years 1306 and 1310, Marguerite Porete wrote “The Mirror of Simple Souls”. The book touched on themes favorable to Protestantism. For this text and Marguerite’s refusal accept the requests of the Catholics, she was captured, accused of heresy and burnt at the stake in 1310. She was also accused of being a freethinker; a tremendous crime for the church. It’s no wonder then that later writers such as Josefa Amar y Borbón spurned absolutely everything to do with the Catholic Church.
Following this, just after the death of Marguerite Porete, Boccaccio was born in 1313, who established himself as a writer with his classic piece “The Decameron”. Apart from its enormous literary value, it is full of the humanistic style and, as its main trait, it doesn´t have religious presence in the roles of the characters, making it a pioneer in vernacular writing. Although Boccaccio wasn’t a direct victim of persecution, his work was under threat of being burnt by the monk Ciani, but another great humanist author Petrarch managed to circumvent the tragedy.
Another example of artwork that caused “discomfort” to Catholicism and the mainstream authoritarianism of the time is reflected in the work of Moliere, the great French playwright. In his play Tartufo, Moliere attacks the hypocrisy of certain religious people who used their power to manipulate. The play was also censored by the Archbishop of Paris at the time. Another polemic writer who dared criticize religion was the Marqués de Sade in his 1782 Dialog between a Priest and a Dying Man, airing all his arguments against religion and enunciating his atheism. Of course, the Marques de Sade was crossed off as being immoral in general for all his writings and was even sentenced to death. Nonetheless, his death took place in an institution for the mentally insane, a fact which does not delimit his great literary contribution.
Let’s take another leap in time and come to face with Nikos Kazantzakis and his Last temptation of Christ in 1953. This work questioned the traditional image of Christ which brought strong rebuke from the Catholic Church, which also included it in its list of prohibited books. Taking the above into account, the author had already been excommunicated by the Greek Orthodox Church in 1955. Another author who had been victim of strong reproof, which even caused the leaving of his homeland Portugal for The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, was José Saramago. The writer was accused of blasphemy by Catholic groups. About this controversy, this phrase from Saramago can be called to mind: “The reactionary insolence of the Catholic Church needs to be answered with the insolence of lively intelligence, of reason, of the responsible word”.
As a final reference to all these cases it’s indispensible to quote a curious and yet brilliant play by the Irish author and playwright Samuel Beckett Waiting for Godot. The play centers on a character that never arrives. Although an extended interpretation declares it as being God, the author denies it. Nevertheless it fits the character perfectly.