University Censorship, 16th Century Edition

In recent years I’ve found that I have ever greater cause to reflect on just how much our political culture has changed in the last decade or two. Things I read about years ago in history books – things that I assumed would stay in history books – are now to be found in the news. Here I want to present one example of this phenomenon, from one of my favourite books, Iberia by James Michener (a must-read for anyone interested in or travelling to Spain). The story he tells in the paragraphs below begins with a description of a place you can still visit at the University of Salamanca…

“…a stone-arched classroom left pretty much as it must have been on that day in December, 1578, when Fray Luis de Leon returned after an absence of some years. The rude benches without backs remain the same and the small windows in the outer walls. The lectern with its canopy is the same as the one at which the professor stood that eventful day. The room was crowded, not only because Fray Luis was the most famous of the Salamanca lecturers, a wise, gentle elderly man of sweet understanding and compassion, but because he had accomplished something that few men of his day could parallel.

In 1572, at the height of a brilliant career as Spain’s leading theologian and humanist, he was attacked by jealous persons in the university, who whispered to the Inquisition, ‘We all know that Fray Luis is half Jewish, so he’s suspect to begin with. But he has now translated King Solomon’s Song of Songs into the vernacular. He invites even the most ordinary man in Salamanca to read it. And that is heresy.’ Especially serious was the additional charge that often, after studying the original Hebrew version of the Bible, he would question the accuracy of the Latin. Fray Luis was apprehended and for several months was under interrogation, after which he was thrown into jail at Valladolid, where he heard only silence. At the end of a year he pleaded to be told what the charges against him were and who his accusers, but he heard nothing. His trial was intermittent and clandestine; all he knew was that he had committed some serious crime bordering on heresy, but its definition he never knew. Finally, after nearly five years of this, he was set free and, what was the more miraculous, allowed to return to his post in Salamanca…

This was the morning of his reappearance, and notable persons came to the university to hear his reaction to his long persecution. As he made his way from his rooms, his gown slightly askew in his usual careless manner, the university plaza was crowded with silent students. Fray Luis walked with his eyes straight forward, not daring to acknowledge the furtive glances of approbation which greeted him. As he entered the cloisters and elbowed his way through the crowd he came at last to the room in which he had taught for so many years, and when he saw its familiar outlines, with his friends perched on the narrow benches, and when he knew that among them must be those whose rumors had caused his imprisonment and who would surrender him again to the Inquisition within a few years (he was to die in disgrace at Madrigal de las Altas Torres), he must have wanted to lash out against the injustice he had suffered and would continue to suffer as a Jew and a humanist. Instead he stepped to the rostrum, took his place behind the lectern, grasped the lapels of his robe, and smiled at the crowd with the compassion that marked all he did, and said in a low, clear voice, ‘As we were saying yesterday…’ And he resumed his lecture at the precise point of its interruption five years before.”

I first read this passage in the 90’s, when it seemed to describe a past that had gone forever. In time I was able to visit the room at the University of Salamanca that Michener describes, and I thought of the story of Fray Luis with the same sense of peering into a long-disappeared world that I had felt looking at the forum in Rome or the cave paintings at Les Eyzies de Tayac. But twenty years later, the case of Fray Luis seems immediately relevant in a way I would not once have believed possible. Who today could possibly say that similar things cannot happen now? Who today could deny that they already do?

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Active Participation

In the past week, as the US presidential election drew near, perhaps bringing catastrophe with it, I found myself thinking again and again of Sebastian Haffner’s book, Geschichte eines Deutschen. (The title means “Story of a German,” but the English translation is sold under the unfortunate title Defying Hitler, there evidently being an imperative to get the word ‘Hitler’ into a book title: Jesus saves, but Hitler sells). The book is a memoire of Haffner’s life growing up in WWI and Weimar Berlin, and then in the early years of the Nazi regime. Together with Haffner’s study of Hitler, it is the best thing I have ever read on Hitler and the Third Reich.

I read Haffner’s memoire more than a decade ago, but a number of particularly vivid passages have long stuck in my mind. Among these is a scene in which Haffner’s father finds himself obliged to express his support for the new Nazi government. I’m going to quote it at length, because it seems to me to touch on something relevant to our own times.

My father himself had retired long ago. He had no official powers any more and he could have done nothing to harm the Nazis, even if he had wanted to. It seemed as though he was out of the line of fire. But one day he too received an official letter. It contained a detailed questionnaire. ‘Under Clause X of the Law for the Re-establishment of the Civil Service, you are required to answer the following questions truthfully and in full… Under Clause Y, refusal to answer will entail loss of pension…’

There were a lot of questions. My father had to state which political parties, organisations and associations he had ever belonged to in his life, he had to list his services to the nation, explain this and excuse that and finally sign a printed declaration that he ‘stood behind the government of national uprising without reservations.’ In short, having served the state for forty-five years, he was required to humble himself again in order to continue to receive his well-earned pension.

My father stared silently at the questionnaire for a long time.

Next day I saw him seated at his desk, the form in front of him. He was staring past it.

‘Are you going to fill it in?’ I asked.

My father looked at the questionnaire, grimaced and said nothing for a long time. Then he asked, ‘Do you think I should?’

Silence.

‘I wonder what you and your mother would live on?’ he said at last.

‘I really don’t know,’ he repeated after a while. ‘I don’t even know,’ and he tried to smile, ‘how you will be able to go to Paris to write your thesis.’

There was an uneasy silence. Then my father pushed the questionnaire aside, but he did not put it away.

It lay on his desk for several days. Then one afternoon as I entered the room I saw my father filling it in, slowly and laboriously, like a child writing a school essay. Half an hour later he went out himself and took it to the letter box before he could change his mind. He showed no outward change in his manner and spoke no more excitedly than usual, but it had none the less been too much for him. With people who are used to restraint in word and gesture, some part of the body is invariably affected by severe mental stress. Some have heart attacks in such cases. My father’s weakness was his stomach. He had hardly sat down at his desk again when he jumped up and began to vomit convulsively. For two or three days he was unable to eat or keep down any food. It was the beginning of a hunger strike by his body, which killed him cruelly and painfully two years later.

Why, you ask, do I find myself thinking about this particular passage?

Item: a bakery run by Christians in Northern Ireland was taken to court for its refusal to produce a cake with the message, “Support Gay Marriage.” The court case recently came to an end, and the bakery lost: by refusing to make the cake, they committed a crime.

Item: a professor in Canada is being persecuted at present because of his objection to new pronouns (ze, zim, zer, and others) which are supposed to replace ‘he’ and ‘she.’ “I won’t mouth the words of ideologues,” he says, “because when you do that you become a puppet for their ideology.”

Needless to say, there has been an abundance of commentary on these two items, on either side, but I don’t think any of it has really gotten to the heart of the matter, and I think the Haffner passage I quoted does. In the case of both items, the demand is not that dissenters be required to tolerate others with different opinions, nor is it that they must refrain from criticising the dominant ideology. No, the demand is that people must be compelled to participate actively in support of an ideology they reject.

The question of whether we agree with each end in question is beside the point (me, I’d be happy to produce the gay-marriage-cake, but not to switch pronouns). The fact that these two items line up in the decisive respect with Haffner’s tale from the Third Reich is, I think, a window into a problem of our times. Progressive activists are not usually wicked people, and they act as they do out of a desire to bring about something good. Their myopic focus upon their own ends is to be expected of activists. What should concern us is rather the failure of society more generally to assert the right to dissent from what the majority believe. To the extent that we forget that right, we quickly find ourselves in some very poor company.