In the past, I’ve written somewhat extensively on censorship and its many contemporary forms: the direct prohibition of words, the self-censoring by authors in autocratic societies, as well as the oversaturation of ‘glut censorship’ that drowns out conflicting discussion.
Concealment, however, is something quite different. I return once again to British visual artist Cornelia Parker, with her The Distance (A Kiss with String Attached) (2003). This work consists of Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss and a mile of string. Treating Rodin’s sculpture as a ‘found object,’ Parker intervenes with the work by concealing it, or to use her description, suffocating the two lovers. But this is not censorship. She is not deleting or erasing or suppressing Rodin. Parker’s contribution is precisely additive. Not glut censorship of sound and fury and noise and clamour, but a specific addition. Putting aside the obvious reference to Marcel Duchamp’s design for the 1942 First Papers of Surrealism show in New York, wherein a web of string was woven, spiderlike, throughout the exhibit, in some instances even making the works impossible to view (Duchamp also encouraged a colleague’s son to bring friends to the formal opening night, who were then given skipping ropes and balls, and instructed to respond to anyone that questioned their right to fool around with, “But Mr. Duchamp told us we could play here!”), Parker’s (re)work encourages us to rethink, reimagine, and recreate Rodin for now: the love Rodin champions can also be restrictive. Some called Parker’s covering up of Rodin’s sensuality, somewhat bizarrely, an obscenity. A group of ‘traditional’ art enthusiasts, the Stuckists, went so far as to destroy Parker’s work by taking scissors to the string. In response, Parker simply tied the string back together and strung it back around Rodin’s Kiss, creating what she calls a ‘slightly more punky version.’ The Stuckists with their scissors were not liberating Rodin, but censoring Parker.
Censorship is destructive. Concealment is not.
The various editions of Australian author Anna Funder’s Stasiland highlight this difference. Stasiland, a highly-researched novel of the East German resistance and their interactions with the secret police, was published in 2003. Following publication, Funder writes (2020) of receiving an email notifying her that a group of ex-Stasi, communist party functionaries, lawyers and others who called themselves—with zero irony—The Society for Civil Liberties and the Protection of Man was suing her German publisher. They were taking issue with details in a certain paragraph in her book about what ex-Stasi had done post-the Berlin Wall fall. A preliminary injunction in 2004 required Funder’s German publisher delete the paragraph in future German editions. In response, Funder changed publishers and insisted that the deleted paragraph be included, but blacked out, i.e. concealed. She then added a footnote that attributed the redaction to the ‘litigious ex-Stasi group.’ Here, Funder turned censorship into concealment and, in so doing, strengthened the writing significantly. Funder writes: ‘I want German readers to see the dark reach of the regime well beyond its apparent demise.’
American author Ernest Hemingway (1966) writes:
A good writer should know as near everything as possible … If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. (182–3)
Hemingway’s analogy/approach appeals: it treats (or at least strives towards the unattainable goal of) the author as an omniscient, all-knowing, unmistakable God. One hopes Funder’s redacted words, having been written ‘truly enough,’ are discernible to German readers.
Some authors, however, have fun with the intensely subjective, unknowable, and uninterpretable. As in my other blog posts, I refer to Scottish author Muriel Spark. Her novella, The Driver’s Seat (1970), is self-described as a whydunnit. At the beginning of the third chapter, Spark writes:
She [Lise, the protagonist] will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab-wounds, her wrists bound with a silk scarf and her ankles bound with a man’s necktie, in the grounds of an empty villa, in a park of the foreign city to which she is travelling on the flight now boarding at Gate 14. (31)
As the story progresses, Lise’s already erratic behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre. Motivations become increasingly opaque. Meaning becomes murkier. And yet Spark resists a complete detachment from reality. In 1971, in an interview with the Observer, Spark was asked what modern novelists she admired. Without hesitation, she answered ‘Robbe-Grillet’: the French writer and theorist of the Nouveau Roman. Yet Spark clarified, ‘though I don’t in the least accept the theory of the anti-novel’ (in Day 2007: 321). Spark’s characters often teeter on the edge of believability, but never quite stumble into Robbe-Grillet-like artificiality.
In her more ‘traditional’ short story The Twins (1954), misinterpretation and misinformation are rampant. A woman is staying with a married couple, Simon and Jennie, who have a pair of beautiful, intelligent twins. One evening, a biscuit-tin is left in the protagonist’s room by the bed, ‘thoughtfully provided’ (407), the protagonist thinks. The next morning, while Jennie is away, Simon informs that Jennie has a ‘horror of mice’ (408) and that she was upset when she saw crumbs in the protagonist’s bed. He adds that Jennie would be upset if she knew he had told the protagonist that she was upset. The protagonist is confused. A few days later, Simon and Jennie host a party for married couples and a few unattached girls, one of which is their child’s teacher, Mollie. The morning after, Simon and Jennie appear jaded. After Simon leaves for work, Jennie informs the protagonist that Simon was upset that the protagonist was hurt that she had not received reimbursement for filling up the petrol in Simon’s car. The protagonist never appears hurt. After she has left, the protagonist receives a letter from Simon: I am sorry… that you got the impression that Mollie and I were behaving improperly… Jennie was very upset. She does not, of course, doubt my fidelity, but she is distressed that you could suggest such a thing… (411)
The reader is never quite clear what actually happened. Are Simon and Jennie lying about their interactions with the protagonist? Do they actively dislike her? Is the protagonist misrepresenting what has happened? To what extent are Simon and Jennie fighting with one another? Are they even fighting? Or is it all just one big series of misunderstandings? It is not that Spark has not written truly enough. Rather, she has written truly about our inability to comprehend the things we conceal from one another. That, Spark seems to suggest, is reality, no matter how truly we write.
David Thomas Henry Wright won the 2018 Queensland Literary Awards’ QUT Digital Literature Prize and Honourable Mention for the 2019 Robert Coover Award for a work of Electronic Literature. He has been shortlisted for several other national and international literary prizes, and published in various academic and creative journals. He has a PhD (English and Comparative Literature) from Murdoch University and a Masters (Creative Writing) from The University of Edinburgh, and taught Creative Writing at China’s top university, Tsinghua. He is currently co-editor of The Digital Review and Associate Professor (Comparative Literature) at Nagoya University.
Day, A. (2007) ‘Parodying Postmodernism: Muriel Spark (The Driver’s Seat) and Robbe-Grillet (Jealousy)’, English: Journal of the English Association, Volume 56, Issue 216, pp.321–337.
Funder, A. (2020) ‘Stasiland Now’, The Monthly. Accessed https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2019/december/1575205200/anna-funder/stasiland-now.
Hemingway, E. (1966) Death in the Afternoon, London: Butler and Tanner.
Spark, M. (2011) Muriel Spark: The Complete Short Stories, Edinburgh: Canongate Books.
Spark, M. (1970) The Driver’s Seat, New York: Macmillan.