A Handful of Offense

Writing in the Catholic Herald, novelist and critic Philip Hensher considers the implications of the current movement to suppress or destroy monuments and other public expressions that give offense to the present generation. This is in an article entitled: “Many great novels are offensive. But could it be otherwise?” His prime example is the removal of Bristol slave trader Edward Colston’s statue which was of no particular artistic merit. But he wonders what might happen applying the same logic to Tiepolo’s Wurzburg frescoes which are offensive to Africans or Edward Spenser’s poem The Faerie Queen that offends the Irish.

Literature, without a doubt, is going to prove the most challenging area to exercise this debate […] A test case might be Evelyn Waugh. There is no doubt that he is a great writer; there is also not much doubt that there are pages, and possibly entire books, which are deeply offensive to current sensibilities. The treatment of Mrs Beste-Chetwynde’s lover Chokey in Decline and Fall; savage flurries of anti-semitic caricature in both A Handful of Dust and Helena; the scenes of African life in Scoop and, especially, Black Mischief; the appalling mockery of African cultures in Remote People.

The problem is that these books haven’t just become offensive as attitudes have changed. They were always offensive, and their brilliant comedy rests on just how unacceptable they were. Black Mischief culminates in a celebrated scene in which the hero is served his mistress, cooked into a stew by African cannibals. He eats her. […]

This isn’t a superficial problem that can be addressed by cutting obnoxious passages, or dropping a single author here and there. It might just be the nature of comedy, even of literature. Two of the funniest passages written in English occur in Remote People, Waugh’s account of a journey in Africa. In the first, an American professor attempts to explain what is happening at the coronation of Haile Selassie; in the second, a scout master examines a small Somali boy in Scout Law: “Both parties in this dialogue seemed to be losing confidence in the other’s intelligence.” I don’t doubt that someone could decide that these passages were racist in meaning. Comedy, however, has always been based on a keen awareness of difference, and between differences in social standing. If you decide that it’s indecent to laugh about inequalities, then we are lost.

Hensher doesn’t have a solution but recognizes the problem is one that has to be faced, as he is in the process of doing while he edits a collection of short stories which contain potentially offensive language by Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling.

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