Are You Afraid of The Soft Machine?


Here they go again: Art is bad for children.

Turkey’s Prime Ministerial Board for Protection of Children from Harmful Publications is seeking to punish the publisher of a new translation of William S. Burroughs’ 1961 novel, The Soft Machine.

As posted in KadmusArts’ daily culture news feed, Hürriyet’s Daily News & Economic Review is covering the controversy between the Turkish government and the Turkish publishing house, Sel. The Turkish version of The Soft Machine, translated by Süha Sertabiboglu, was published in January 2011.

Of course, there aren’t many people inside or outside government that would think of Burroughs as a children’s author. Other than his playful approach to life, I doubt the Beat generation author thought of himself as a kid-lit writer.

So why exactly is a government applying a standard designed to protect children to art created by and for adults? Is this really about protecting children? Or, is it about punishing yesterday’s art and today’s artists?

According to BIA News Center, this Turkish ministerial board has stated that “from the primitive life till today in the whole world and in every society the covering of the regions of sexual organs and the privacy of sexual intercourse became an indispensable rule”.

Oh. Who knew?

In the one hundred forty page book, the Board has found twenty specific examples of sentences and paragraphs that make the novel “obscene.” However, the government’s literary critic wannabes do not stop there. In what will surely be a new standard for evaluating art, the Board also attributes the following negative characteristics to Burroughs’ novel:

- “incompliance with moral norms”
- “hurting people’s moral feelings”
- “lacking unity in its subject matter”
- “incompliance with narrative unity”
- “using slang and colloquial terms”
- “the application of a fragmented narrative style”
- “attitudes that were permissive to crime by concentrating on the banal, vulgar and weak attributes of humanity.”

Burroughs would be very proud, yes?

The good news is that the same publisher was previously acquitted for publishing Guillaume Apollinaire’s The Exploits of a Young Don Juan.

The bad news is that there are still governments that believe preventing access to art is the key to creating a better society.

The Turkish government’s Board might be better off studying history instead of literature. There are plenty of examples where a government’s ban of artistic expression and control of audiences were part of a culture of degradation, imprisonment, and silence.

No doubt, The Soft Machine is not an easy read. However, there’s also no doubting the place William S Burroughs holds in modern literature. The Sunday Times’ review of the book’s first publication noted, “What Burroughs has tried to do, here as in other books, is to blend the reality of an addict’s experience with his fantasies, and to create from this mixture a world compounded of myth and science fiction in which freedom and order are eternally opposed. Out of the dirt, the excrement, the couplings, Burroughs makes a disgusting, exciting poetry.’

Here’s hoping the government bureaucrats discover the excitement. Hard politics are much more dangerous than a Soft Machine.

- Bill Reichblum

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