October 17, 2013
This is the cast of Rorschach Theater's production of Neverwhere. They did not realize the lewdness of the work, evidently. (C. Stanley Photography)
The cast of Rorschach Theater’s production of Neverwhere. They did not realize the lewdness of the work, evidently. (C. Stanley Photography)

A parent in Alamogordo, N.M., has created a stir and put Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere” under review, claiming that it is R-rated material that Should Not Be Foisted Upon The Young Without Parental Consent, because of all its Deeply Objectionable Content — specifically, a paragraph or two on Page 86. Specifically. (You can tell how objectionable the book is because we are able to cite the offense to the paragraph.) Now the book is off a list of supplemental reading, and it is under review for additional censorship.

Alamogordo Schools Superintendent Dr. George Straface told the Alamogordo News that “I reviewed the language personally. I can see where it could be considered offensive,” he said. “The F-word is used. There is a description of a sexual encounter that is pretty descriptive, and it’s between a married man and a single woman. Although kids can probably see that on TV anytime they want, we are a public school using taxpayer dollars.”

It is amazing how closely you have to read in order to find this scene, which is not what anyone I’ve talked to who has read “Neverwhere” found disturbing or memorable about the book. If you actually read the book and want to be disturbed, there is plenty for you there — the Night devouring people, a duel with the Beast of London, a child’s family murdered. Or you could fixate on sexual incidents glimpsed in passing on a bench. Neil Gaiman, the book’s author, noted to NPR in an e-mail that “I’m faintly baffled by this. ‘Neverwhere’s’ a book that’s been taught in schools for years: it’s an adult novel that kids love (and won the YALSA award as an adult book that Young Adults enjoy). It’s an adventure, with themes of social responsibility. I’ve not seen it described as ‘R Rated’ before, and mostly worry that anyone who buys it thinking they are in for lashings of Sex and Violence will be extremely disappointed.” He told the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund that “I’m impressed that this parent has managed to find sex and violence in ‘Neverwhere’ that everyone else had somehow missed — including the entire city of Chicago, when they made ‘Neverwhere’ the book that was read by adults and children alike all through the city in Spring 2011′s ONE BOOK ONE CHICAGO program.”

This is censorship by text search, where you look for something to be offended by and find it nestled at the bottom of page 108. If you look like that, where context is no concern, you can generally find something. On this grounds, “Moby Dick” should be forcibly flung out of schools on the ground of this passage I found hidden in chapter 94:

“Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,- Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.

Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever!”

This is widely regarded as an indelible classic of Western literature, everyone. But judge it on that passage, and I don’t think any Concerned Mother is going to keep it on the shelves.

Or consider “Jane Eyre,” in which that deviant Mr. Rochester is always ejaculating everywhere.

His face was very much agitated and very much flushed, and there were strong workings in the features, and strange gleams in the eyes.

“Oh, Jane, you torture me!” he exclaimed. “With that searching and yet faithful and generous look, you torture me!”

“How can I do that? If you are true, and your offer real, my only feelings to you must be gratitude and devotion — they cannot torture.”

“Gratitude!” he ejaculated; and added wildly — “Jane accept me quickly. Say, Edward — give me my name — Edward — I will marry you.”
(Chapter 23)

“”Mary, I have been married to Mr. Rochester this morning.” The housekeeper and her husband were both of that decent phlegmatic order of people, to whom one may at any time safely communicate a remarkable piece of news without incurring the danger of having one’s ears pierced by some shrill ejaculation, and subsequently stunned by a torrent of wordy wonderment.

(Chapter 38)

Look, you can study the forest, and you can study the trees. I don’t even think you should object to the forest. I would say that this is as ludicrous as banning “Where’s Waldo” on the grounds that one might discover a topless woman hiding in the beach scenes, but that actually happened. If you object to the tiny naughty bits concealed in good literature, you run the risk of never reading classic literature (the kind where the ratio of Earnest Discussions Of Architecture and The Structure of Parisian Sewer Systems to People Doing Things Like Having Sex Or Dying is often greater than 0) ever again.

The promise of slightly objectionable material tucked away on the bottom of a page somewhere is what gets you into the classics. Admittedly, I say this as someone whose ninth-grade history teacher tried to lure us into “The Pillars of the Earth” on the grounds that there was lewd behavior concealed somewhere in its 983 pages. It is only a slight mischaracterization to say that I read the entire “Remembrance of Things Past” on the grounds that I heard that somewhere in the fourth volume there was a brief lewd scene. (There was, but it was described entirely in floral metaphors, and it was a big letdown. But I understand the frangibility of memory a lot better now!)

Context is everything. Especially when books are concerned. But these days, context is nothing. Everything gets remixed, quoted, plucked out of the ocean of words where it was swimming around quite contentedly causing no one any offense and held up in the suffocating air until it looks like the sort of bug-eyed thing you want to keep out of your children’s lives. “Burn down the forest!” you shout. “There is a naked tree!”

Before you object, read the book? No. Who has time for that? Don’t bother with the forest. Just check the forest for the kind of trees you want to hate.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.