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Authors: Madeleine L'engle

Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?

BOOK: Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?
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“Do I dare disturb the universe?” asks T. S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock. It's not an easy question, and there are no easy answers. Robert Cormier, in his cautionary tale
The Chocolate War
, has his young hero ask J. Alfred's question, and because this is not a novel of realism, as many people think, but a cautionary tale, the answer is, “You'd better not dare, because if you do, you'll get hurt.” In this book, Cormier takes something which is already in existence in a small way and has it burst out into enormous proportions, in somewhat the same way that James Clavell does in
The Children's Story
, a small chill book which he was inspired to write when his daughter came home from school, having been taught by rote to say the Pledge of Allegiance, gabbling it with no understanding, and he saw how easily the tender mind of a child can be manipulated.

The writer whose words are going to be read by children has a heavy responsibility. And yet, despite the undeniable fact that children's minds are tender, they are also far more tough than many people realize, and they have an openness and an ability to grapple with difficult concepts which many adults have lost. Writers of children's literature are set apart by their willingness to confront difficult questions.

Perhaps for this reason, the content of children's books is often a matter of controversy. There are, of course, built-in restraints in the writing and publishing of a book marketed for children. Responsible editors and publishers are going to exercise these restraints by refusing to publish a book they consider pornographic, or ethnically prejudiced, or in any way potentially damaging to children. And here we come to a very fine line: what is the difference between honest editorial advice, and the manipulating of a writer?

Many years ago, when
A Wrinkle in Time
was being rejected by publisher after publisher, I wrote in my journal, “I will rewrite for months or even years for an editor who sees what I am trying to do in this book and wants to make it better and stronger. But I will not, I can not diminish and mutilate it for an editor who does not understand it and wants to weaken it.”

Now, the editors who did not understand the book and wanted the problem of evil soft-pedaled had every right to refuse to publish the book, as I had, sadly, the right and obligation to try to be true to it. If they refused it out of honest conviction, that was honorable. If they refused it for fear of trampling on someone else's toes, that was, alas, the way of the world. Finally, in John Farrar and Hal Vursell I found a publisher and an editor who did understand the book and helped me to know what I needed to do to make it more the book I was trying to write.

After a book is published, we then come to the problem of outside interference. I am very wary of those individuals who are neither writers nor editors nor even, in some cases, readers, who feel that they have the right to apply their own moral criteria to the books in public and school libraries. I have enormous respect and admiration and love for the librarians who are rising up to protest this, because they are putting their very jobs on the line.

Recently I was lecturing in the Midwest, and the head librarian of a county system came to me in great distress, bearing an epistle composed by one woman, giving her all the reasons she should remove
A Wrinkle in Time
from the library shelves. This woman, who had obviously read neither
nor the Bible carefully, was offended because she mistakenly assumed that Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which were witches practicing black magic. I scrawled in the margin that if she had read the text she might have noted that they were referred to as guardian angels. The woman was also offended because they laughed and had fun. Is there no joy in heaven? The woman belonged to that group of people who believe that any book which mentions witches or ghosts is evil and must be banned. If these people were consistent, they would have to ban the Bible: what about the Witch of Endor and Samuel's ghost?

The woman's epistle went on to say that Charles Wallace knew things that other people didn't know. “So did Jesus,” I scrawled in the margin. She was upset because Calvin sometimes felt compulsions. Don't we all? This woman obviously felt a compulsion to be a censor. Finally I scrawled at the bottom of the epistle that I truly feared for this woman. We find what we are looking for. If we are looking for life and love and openness and growth, we are likely to find them. If we are looking for witchcraft and evil, we'll likely find them, and we may get taken over by them.

On the other side of the censoring coin, there was an uproar in another midwestern city about the removal from the shelves of
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
because the word
is in the title. Do we have the right to impose our own religious beliefs, from no matter which direction they come, on the rest of the world? I don't think so.

Someone sent me a clipping from a daily newspaper containing a list of ten books to be removed from library shelves because of their pornographic content. On the list was one of C. S. Lewis's Narnia books. Also on the list was my book
A Wind in the Door.
I am totally baffled and frankly fascinated. This is the first time C. S. Lewis and I have been listed together as writers of pornography. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

We all practice some form of censorship. I practiced it simply by the books I had in the house when my children were little. If I am given a budget of $500 I will be practicing a form of censorship by the books I choose to buy with that limited amount of money, and the books I choose not to buy. But nobody said we were not allowed to have points of view. The exercise of personal taste is not the same thing as imposing personal opinion.

When my girls were in junior high school, Mary McCarthy's novel
The Group
was circulating, underground, among the students. It is a book I happen not to like, though I very much admire some of her other books. I read it because I knew the girls were going to read it, whether I permitted it or not, and I preferred reading it with them, and discussing it, to having them reading it subversively, behind my back, and perhaps being confused by it. The second chapter is a blow-by-blow account of the sexual act, and I remarked that when something so private is described so publicly it loses any possibility of being about love. To my delight—and rather to my surprise—I heard my younger daughter, on the phone to her best friend, parroting my words as though they were her own. And surely that was healthier, having it out in the open, than keeping it under cover. There's no easy solution. There were books I didn't want my children to read, at least until they were older. Thoughtless permissiveness is somewhat like offering a dry martini to a two-year-old or giving a sports car to a four-year-old.

As a writer, I have to accept that books that are marketed as Young Adult Novels are going also to be read by the ten-year-olds. But I, too, read avidly when I was ten. I read every book I could get my hands on, suitable or unsuitable. However, when I was ten I simply skipped over the parts of the books which were not within the context of my own life. The dubious sections of novels did not hurt me because I did not understand them and skipped over them, just as I skipped over the sermonizing in some Victorian novels in order to get on with the story.

And the stories I cared about, the stories I read and reread, were usually stories which dared to disturb the universe, which asked questions rather than gave answers.

I turned to story, then as now, looking for truth, for it is in story that we find glimpses of meaning, rather than in textbooks. But how apologetic many adults are when they are caught reading a book of fiction! They tend to hide it and tell you about the “How-To” book, which is what they are really reading. Fortunately, nobody ever told me that stories were untrue, or should be outgrown, and then as now they nourished me and kept me willing to ask the unanswerable questions.

I read indiscriminately, and I read what I call One-Read Books as well as Seven-Read Books. I don't think the One-Read Books did me much harm. I read them and forgot them. The Seven-Read Books—and sometimes Ten- and Twenty-Read Books—undoubtedly did influence me. And I wonder how these beloved books would fare today with those looking for excuses to ban and burn?

I must have read
Emily of New Moon
at least once a month for a couple of years.
has recently come back into print, and I read it again. It no longer had the same impact it had on me when I was ten, but there is still much loveliness in it—Emily's passionate response to the beauty of nature, for instance. But possibly some people would find this suspect, because Emily refers to the wind as The Wind Woman, and she speaks of the Flash, a moment of unexpected glory which often comes when least expected.

But of course what meant most to me in the Emily Books was Emily's determination to be a writer, her understanding of the immense work it takes to write a story, her willingness to listen to a crusty but creative teacher, to learn. Of course I identified with Emily. And Emily also had a touch of her Scottish ancestors' second sight. I suspect this would terrify those who don't take notice of ghoulies and ghosties and things that go bump in the night with the Scottish openness to the world beyond our immediate senses.

Another favorite was
The Wind in the Willows
, with its delightful humor, and its delicate sense of wonder, especially in the chapter “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.”
The Secret Garden
, too, was certainly a Seven-Read Book. As a child, I read my mother's copy. I read it aloud many years later to a group of half-a-dozen little girls on a rainy weekend. And, a generation later, I had the joy of reading it aloud once again to my granddaughters. It's a perennially loved book, because I think we all see something of ourselves in self-centered Mary Lennox, and we, too, are freed as she moves out of the prison of self into the wider world of love and friendship, for the Secret Garden is as much the garden of Mary's heart as it is the English walled garden.

But the wonder and beauty of Mole's and Rat's encounter with the great god Pan is immediately attacked as being un-Christian, and I was horrified to hear that one of the censoring groups wanted to burn
The Secret Garden
because Dickon, the Yorkshire boy, mentions the word

Someone sent me this quotation, without giving me the source: “A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face. It is one of the few sources of information left that is served up without the silent black noise of a headline, the doomy hullabaloo of a commercial. It is one of the few havens remaining where a [person's] mind can get both provocation and privacy.”

I wish we were all that open-minded in our thinking and discussing.

One time I was in the kitchen drinking tea with my husband and our young son, and they got into an argument about ice hockey. I do not feel passionate about ice hockey. They do. Finally our son said, “But Daddy, you don't understand.” And my husband said, reasonably, “It's not that I don't understand, Bion. It's just that I don't agree with you.”

To which the little boy replied hotly, “If you don't agree with me, you don't understand.”

I think we all feel that way, but it takes a child to admit it. And it's frighteningly true of those who would impose their own moral imperatives on the rest of the world, who would ban
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
for being Christian, or
A Wrinkle in Time
for not being Christian, or the Narnia books for being pornographic.

We need to dare disturb the universe by not being manipulated or frightened by judgmental groups who assume the right to insist that if we do not agree with them, not only do we not understand but we are wrong. How dull the world would be if we all had to feel the same way about everything, if we all had to like the same books, dislike the same books. For my relaxing reading I enjoy English murder mysteries, but my husband prefers spy thrillers. I like beet greens and he likes beet root. We would be a society of ants if we couldn't have personal tastes and honest differences. And how sad it would be if we had to give up all sense of mystery for the limited world of provable fact. I still can't read
The Happy Prince
The Selfish Giant
aloud without a lump coming into my throat, but I suppose that talking statues and giants are on someone's hit list.

Perhaps some of this zeal is caused by fear. But, as Bertrand Russell warns, “Zeal is a bad mark for a cause. Nobody had any zeal about arithmetic. It was the anti-vaccinationists, not the vaccinationists, who were zealous.” Yet because those who were not threatened by the idea of vaccination ultimately won out, we have eradicated the horror of smallpox from the planet.

It is hard for us to understand the zeal of the medical establishment when Dr. Semmelweis sensibly suggested that it might be a good idea if surgeons washed their hands after dissecting a cadaver, before going to deliver a woman in labor. This, to us, obvious suggestion of cleanliness was so threatening to the medical establishment of the day that they zealously set about persecuting Semmelweis. But, thanks to him, many of us are alive because doctors now wash their hands. If the zealots had won, women would still be dying of septicemia after childbirth.

Russell suggests that people are zealous when they are not completely certain they are right. I agree with him. When I find myself hotly defending something, when I am, in fact, zealous, it is time for me to step back and examine whatever it is that has me so hot under the collar. Do I think it's going to threaten my comfortable rut? Make me change and grow?—and growing always causes growing pains. Am I afraid to ask questions?

BOOK: Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?
10.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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