The E train, as I remember it, was between Queens Plaza and Jackson Heights, where I would change for the GG (I believe it was called that in those days) for the Grand Avenue station in Elmhurst, where I lived on 57th Avenue.
I was reading a book and suddenly I closed it, with a sharp snap. I may have muttered something at the same time. In any event, people were staring at me. I was embarrassed and silent. I was on my way home from CCNY, where I attended the Evening Session.
The book was “Ulysses,” by James Joyce. If I recall correctly, I was on Page 26.
I was taking an elective English course. We read just three novels and wrote papers on each one, after many hours of class discussion.
The first was “Swann’s Way” by Marcel Proust. I did not like it and have not read another word by Proust.
The second was “The Magic Mountain,” by Thomas Mann, which I greatly admired. I re-read it years later and many other of Mann’s work.
I had a hard time with the teaching of our very fine professor. He was a follower of the cult of “explication of the text” (from the French) in which every minor punctuation mark, among other things, was supposed to have a meaning.
Gradually, you lost sight of the work itself, in my opinion.
I decided to try Joyce again and forget about the teaching. I found the work to be a masterpiece of lyricism and observation. I read some of it aloud. In my final paper, I defended the work and attacked the teaching method. To his credit, the professor said my analysis was well done and gave me an A-plus.
“Ulysses” had been published in separate chapters in the early ‘20s and the book version, printed in France, came out in 1924. But it was banned as obscene in the United States and the United States Post Office burned imported copies. Sound familiar?
In 1934, federal courts threw out the ban and it was printed here. Obscenity? Does anything match what we can hear on stage, screen, the Internet and TV now?
But this censorship was not unique. Even now, there may be libraries where “Huckleberry Finn” is banned. In today’s world there are censors ready to spring for their own stuff and bar the rest of us from reading or seeing some great work.
I am not a fan of John Adams (I thought “Doctor Atomic” a great bore, although there are some minutes in “Nixon in China” that are not bad) and will not pay to see “The Death of Klinghoffer,” but if the Metropolitan Opera wants to stage it and people want to see it, so be it.
It was bad enough that during World War II, when the Met would not play “Madama Butterfly,” based on a work by an American and a play by an American, with music by an Italian, Giacomo Puccini.
But — horrors! — the heroine was Japanese and very sympathetic.
However, the Met did put on many of the works of that great composer and anti-Semite Richard Wagner during the conflict. Go figure.
I do not intend to see “The Interview,” the comedy about the North Korean dictator. Not my kind of a film. But I will defend (almost) to the death the right of anyone to see it or not.
I don’t want anyone to tell me what I can or cannot choose to see or hear in the privacy of my own mind.
So, let’s hear it for “Ulysses,” “Huckleberry Finn” “The Death of Klinghoffer” and “Madama Butterfly” and so many others. Even “The Interview.”
And, try to forget that we put Japanese Americans in guarded camps after Dec. 7, 1941.
Censors, go back to your black caves of ignorance and let us gauge what is right for ourselves.
And in case I have not hammered the message enough:
I am not a joiner, but I am delighted to join millions around this planet who proudly proclaim: “Je Suis Charlie!”
Remember, the bell tolls for all of us.
See my blog, No Holds Barred, at TimesLedger.com