Day 51: Monday
Good morning Zak,
“I went to the museum where they had all the heads and arms from the statues that are in all the other museums.”
Do you ever wonder what’s with that? Like, what on earth happened to about half the limbs on these statues? Well, most of the damage can be accounted for by factors you would expect, like weather, other natural forces, accidents… But not all of it. Some of the changes to these statutes are the result of a very intentional human process: bowdlerization.
Dr. Thomas Bowdler was a physician and social activist of the 18th and 19th centuries. He’s best remembered for his 1807 publication, The Family Shakespeare. This was like the P.G. version of Shakespeare. All the offensive material had been removed, making it appropriate for children.
Since then, Bowdler’s name has been turned into a verb: to bowdlerize, meaning “to expurgate, or censure inappropriate material.” For example, the medieval church bowdlerized some classical statues by covering up or removing the private parts.
One day people will speak also of timothizing and zakifying things… I’m not sure what it’ll mean.
Anyway, here’s a question: what is the significance of bowdlerism from a purely artistic point of view? Is The Family Shakespeare just as good as the original? Or does it maybe lose something, inhibiting the full breadth of Shakespeare’s original poetic vision?
Shakespeare’s plays are of course heavily influenced by the plays of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Those guys were a little more liberal than the Christian society of Bowdler’s 19th century England… especially when it came to things like sex, violence, nudity… But sometimes we tend to think of the cultural difference too dualistically—as if the ancient Pagans were some kind of wild hippies compared to the restrained Christian society that followed.
The truth is, even the ancient Greeks had their forms of censorship. Physical violence and other obscene acts were considered an abomination to Dionysus, the god of theater, and were not permitted to take place on stage. On the other hand, Christians are not always so restrained. Occasionally in Christian literature, poets will attempt to glue the missing genitals back on to our concept of man:
“Pleasant and fitting both their use will be
When time and mode and measure do agree,
Else withering from the root all lives would fail
And that old Chaos o’er the wreck prevail.
Conquerors of Death! they fill each empty place
In Nature and immortalize the race.”
-Bernardus Silverstris, De Mundi Universitateº
Other poets too have since tried to piece together our broken form:
ONE’S-SELF I SING
One’s-self I sing, a simple separate person,
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.
Of physiology from top to toe I sing,
Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse, I say
the Form complete is worthier far, The Female equally with the Male I sing.
Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power, Cheerful, for freest action form’d under the laws divine, The Modern Man I sing.
-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
º Ed. Barach and Worbel, Bibliotheca Philosophorum Mediae Aetatis, II.xiv.155