Wednesday 22 February 2023

Roald Dahl and the reincarnation of Thomas Bowdler


When Thomas Bowdler published the Family Shakespeare in 1807, he little realised that his name would eventually be turned into a verb, to bowdlerise. His edits and rewrites removed such puns as Hamlet asking Ophelia “Do you think I talk of country matters?” But even by 1836 when the first instance of bowdlerise occurs, such censorship and rewriting was viewed with distaste and Bowdler considered faintly ludicrous.

If even the Victorians, while supposedly screening piano legs and covering the naughty bits of classical statues with fig leaves, preferred to read Shakespeare unexpurgated, we may suppose that if given the chance they would likewise have preferred to read the original versions of Roald Dahl’s novels rather than those that of gone through the meat grinder of a sensitivity reader straight out of an English Literature class at university.

This is the essence of the problem. We have due to the malign influence of schools and universities entered a new Victorian era of censorship and prudery that makes the Victorians look like libertines. After all they rejected Bowdler while we reembrace him.

If you read Middlemarch, and you should, it is obvious that some topics will not be mentioned, or scenes shown. There are no bedroom scenes involving married couples let alone unmarried ones. There is no mention of homosexuality. There are no black people. There is no atheism nor even obvious agnosticism. But there is also no censorship. Instead, there is a depiction of a few people living in a small town that provides an insight into human nature, morality and love that is unsurpassed in English. The idea that some modern Bowdler may one day read George Eliot as he reads Dahl and strike out words and passages that might offend a modern reader fills me both with dread and disgust. But it will happen if this nonsense is not stopped.

When I went to Cambridge I went to a place where thought was free and largely non-political. If you studied philosophy or literature or theology or history you were encouraged to think for yourself, above all say something outrageous if you could justify it with reason.

This was the key difference between what I met in some other universities where what was valued was close reading of texts, with summaries and little comment but vast numbers of footnotes showing you had read lots of books.

What has happened in the years since is that originality of thought has been devalued. There are limits. There are places you may not go. Try arguing against Black Lives Matter. Try doubting that a man can become a woman. Try suggesting that it is a contradiction to suppose that a man can marry a man. You will be ostracised. You will fail your course. You will lose your job.

So, what is left is dull summary and scholarship and propaganda. For undergraduates there is no original thought left just towing the party line. This is what decolonising the curriculum involved. It bowdlerises thought. It is sterile, because it limits in a way that the Victorians were not limited.

What is the purpose of education? It is not to learn things. The things that you learn apart from in a few subjects are completely useless to your later life. It matters not one little bit if you are an accountant if you have read Hamlet. If you are a lawyer, you do not need to know about Battle of Waterloo.

What matters in education is to be taught how to think. That way you can then solve problems for yourself, and you then have learned how to learn so that you no longer need a teacher. If you are sufficiently intelligent you then may have the ability to come up with original thought and innovative solutions.

This was the purpose of learning about philosophy, history, literature and theology. It wasn’t the knowledge these subjects gave you it was that they taught you to think for yourself.

But decolonising the curriculum and the tendency to bowdlerise means you cannot think for yourself. You don’t dare question the need to decolonise anything. If you do you will fail. You don’t dare question the modern orthodoxy on trans, or homosexuality or race. It makes whole subject areas pointless.

Instead of reading George Eliot, you have to read something second rate because the author is black, or gay or left-wing. Instead of insight into humanity you only discover a political point of view that you are not allowed to criticise. Try suggesting that the result of decolonising the curriculum is that you have to read bad novels.

When your mind has gone through a school system that values orthodoxy and then a university system that doesn’t let you question what you have been taught, you end up with a worse mind than you had when you began the whole process aged five. At least a five-year-old can think for itself and can come up with unusual, even strange bits of imagination.

The result of university education is conformism far worse than Victorian times. Eliot knew that there were things she could not write about, but beyond that she was not censored. If Roald Dahl were trying to write today, he would be rejected because he is a white man and he has to be decolonised. If by some miracle he was published, he would have all that was original about him bowdlerised and made as dull and stupid as the sensitivity reader. I’d rather read the Family Shakespeare.