Forbidden Love

LadyChatterleyBanned Book Week is upon us. In that time of year when we begin to think of spooky, scary things, the prohibition of literature naturally comes to mind. Every year I try to read a banned or challenged book for the occasion. This year I went to perhaps the jugular vein of banned books, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D. H. Lawrence. Now, I’m not a romance reader, but I was curious about this sexually explicit novel that had been banned to the point of being outlawed and was now considered a classic. Lawrence’s last novel, it tells the tale of a woman escaping a loveless marriage with the help of lover below her social class. The steamy bits are tame by today’s standards, but Lawrence does use several words that are still rarely heard in the media due to their offensiveness. From my perspective the story was a bit too drawn out, and the fawning wasfs a bit over the top. What struck me even more, however, was the fact that this novel was largely about social justice. Not that Lawrence was an activist, but his concern for the poor and discarded of the industrial revolution is quite clear throughout the novel. The privileged having affairs within their class is acceptable. The scandal is that a titled lady falls for a common gamekeeper.

I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, a franchise that has made even romance writers jealous. From the criticisms I hear, however, the concern is less the sex than it is the lack of literary value. I’m sure Fifty Shades of Grey is a banned book in some location. Still, the deeper concern for humanity that runs through Lady Chatterley’s Lover is part of its appeal. Several times I put the book down thinking, “this isn’t just surface stuff.” It is, baldly put, the search for redemption. Sir Clifford is an invalid who wants to control others. In an era when men laid claim to control of women’s sexuality this was no small demand. He also sees his coal miners as pieces in a larger game that is, it turns out, only to his own benefit.

Although the book ends with the lovers parted, and hoping for reunion, Lawrence’s final words turn toward economic oppression. Mellors (the gamekeeper) writes, “If you could only tell them that living and spending isn’t the same thing!… If only they were educated to live instead of earn and spend…” He defines Mammon as “wanting money and hating life.” No doubt, the book was a vehicle for Lawrence’s desire to see writing about sex to be part of literature and not pornography. Still, there is something deeper here. The story is more than carnality, although carnality is what brought it to fame. It is a banned book that proclaims liberty that, despite the license of contemporary society, is not really as free as it might seem. As banned book week unfolds, it is a moral obligation, I believe, to read those books that have threatened settled mindsets and raised the ire of censors. In so doing, we learn what it is to be human.


Secular Oaths

“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States,” so begins the story. With President Obama’s second inauguration so fresh in the public mind, an article in the Sunday New Jersey Star-Ledger raised the question of using Bibles for taking this secular oath. As A. James Rudin points out, not every president has laid a hand on the Bible to take the oath—John Quincy Adams preferred a law book to do the job. Rudin points out that commentators have started to question the practice of using any religious book for taking a vow for a government position. As I read this article I had to pause for a thought. It was the particular turn of phrase “the Bible, and by implication all other religious writings,” that stopped me at this brain crossing.

Washington's_Inauguration

Anyone who has taken time to study the phenomenon of religion seriously (admittedly not a large cohort) has stumbled upon the blue whale in the room: what exactly is religion? We all know, but nobody really knows. Many scientists equate religion with superstition and claim that we are evolving out of it, but we still seem preternaturally powerfully attached to it, if that’s the case. While religious writings have been around for ages, the idea of a sacred book seems to have its origins in the societal reception of the Bible. There are older religious books, but the Bible seems to have defined the category. What’s running rampant in my mind is where the line is drawn between a religious and a secular book. For some, it would seem, Fifty Shades of Grey, or Twilight would fall into that category. Some thinner, more glossy and heavily illustrated literature favored by teenaged boys might also qualify. What makes a book religious?

In current understanding, religion is a matter of belief. Not all religions insist on belief, but in the United States, in any case, it’s not properly religion without it. In our secular society belief is atomized into millions of varieties, even within the same religious family. Step outside the church, synagogue, or mosque, and the sheer varieties of religious experience would make even William James blush. “All other religious writings.” Those might include just about every pen stroke on paper (or electron on whatever it is that I’m typing this into). Those of us who venture to write know that at some level it is a sacred activity. I would swear it with my hand on my dissertation. (At graduation at Nashotah House students are hit on the head with a Bible. Perhaps this might be more appropriate to swearings in?) We lay our hands on that which is sacred, otherwise there’s no vow involved. Whether it be Bible, law book, or saucy literature, we pledge on it because all books are religious, regardless of definition.