I must be one of the few people yet to read ‘The Da Vinci Code’. So, it is perhaps strange that I should be found pontificating about it. But since when have the facts got in the way of a good story?
The best-seller has just been banned in Lebanon after complaints by Catholic leaders that it was offensive to Christianity.
Father Abdou Abu Kasm, president of Lebanon’s Catholic Information Centre, is reported to have described the contents of the book as “insulting”. “There are paragraphs that touch the very roots of the Christian religion… they say Jesus Christ had a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene, that they had children. Those things are difficult for us to accept, even if it’s supposed to be fiction,” he said.
‘The Da Vinci Code’ had sold in great numbers in Lebanon where about a third of the population are Christian.
There are many sub-sets of censorship, but one way of boiling this thorny issue down is to split secular and religious censorship. Secular censorship has often tried to protect us from ourselves, with the result being that future classics, like James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ and D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ were banned initially. It has also been used by authorities such as Napoleon III and Nazi Germany as a tool to maintain the status quo.
Religious censorship has often revolved around the notion of image. In early Christianity, for example, the feet of the saints and the Virgin Mary could not be shown bare. In the 17th Century, Bartolome Murillo, a great painter of religious subjects, suffered the wrath of the Spanish inquisition for “suggesting that the Madonna had toes”.
I suppose I have always instinctively felt that the essence of civilisation was to allow fredom of expression.
In the realm of ‘fact’ whether books, or documentaries, for example, we have a variety of laws such as libel, privacy, incitement to racial hatred to protect society. Like all laws they are imperfect, but nevertheless they are rightly there to prevent people from peddling hatred and lies.
But do we want laws to prevent the publication of self-proclaimed fiction? I’m open to argument, but I am minded to say ‘no’.
It is a difficult call. Earlier this week, Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Burma protested against a film called ‘Hollywood Buddha’ which they said degrades the religion’s founder.
“We want the release of this film stopped,” monk Mawarale Baddiya told the Associated Press.
“The film scoffs at Lord Buddha, his character and his teaching.”
Not having seen this film and not having read ‘The Da Vinci Code’, I cannot comment on their quality. But I don’t believe that the subjective judgement of quality should interfere with matters of principles.
A practical illustration of where I stand is the work of T.S. Elliot. Whilst I am repelled by his anti-semitism, I would never want to live in a society that sought to ban his books; and almost as importantly I think that such censorship would be self-defeating. In the long run, there is nothing that perpetuates antipathy more than the authorities placing themselves on some moral pedestal, and dictating to us what we can or can’t read or view.
As a footnote, I see the major problem in another genre altogether. Films and books that claim to be ‘docudramas’, or ‘based on reality’ allow themselves a freedom from the truth and simultaenously a freedom from many of our laws. They exploit a loophole so that they can present a portrait of people without actually having to be factually accurate.