Monday, May 3, 1999

Doug Saunders

Shock treatment

A reading about sex killer Paul Bernardo offended the audience at a benefit for free-press group PEN Canada? Good.

As I sat in the balcony that night, watching people file out of the concert hall in disgust or disapproval, I felt a rare chill of excitement. And when I, too, felt like fleeing to the relative tranquillity of the lobby, I knew we had finally hit upon something useful.

The event was a gala fundraiser for freedom-of-expression charity PEN Canada, whose evenings usually fit squarely in the worthy-but-dull category. This time, the program included a reading, bythe talented actress Liisa Repo-Martel, from Lynn Crosbie's novel Paul's Case. It is a complex literary work whose narrator, a young woman, is fascinated and repelled by the tortures and killings committed by Paul Bernardo — a subject many people in Ontario, including me, would prefer never to think about again.

So we were shocked. As the actress read selected passages — an imagined diary entry from one of the victims, and a fantasy in which prison-bound Bernardo is subjected to some of the humiliations he has earlier imposed — people began rising from their seats and making their way out the door. A left-leaning former politician shouted, "Enough!"

Afterwards, some people booed the emcee, comedian Rick Mercer. A TV producer later told me he thought the book should not have been read. He was far from alone. Some people were so offended, they said they wouldn't attend another PEN benefit. In fact, some organizers had tried to cancel the reading, until other performers threatened to withdraw.

It was an extraordinary moment: Somehow, the programmers had found something that could offend members of a press-freedom organization — an audience of very-liberal urbanites — to the point that they would object verbally and physically.

These days, that is no mean feat. Many artists have wistful fantasies about Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, which spawned riots, or Marcel Duchamp's urinal, which caused violent protests. But today's bourgeoisie is far harder to épater. Shock and taboo have moved from the fringes to the centre, to the point that the adjective "transgressive" has become a bland catchall for visual art and the "shock of the new" has become the basic tool of advertising. It really takes something to upset an audience these days.

But what, exactly? After all, these were not puritans or innocents; it was a crowd of intelligent, artistic people who want to help writers who suffer under repressive regimes. Later that evening, we listened to poet Faraj Sarkoohi's description of torture and imprisonment in Iran. It was deeply disturbing, but nobody objected. It was why we were there. It was why I volunteered to help PEN by selling souvenirs that night, and will do so in the future.

Some audience members told me they'd been offended by the pettiness of choosing Crosbie's book. Compared to the torment suffered by a Sarkoohi or a Salman Rushdie or a Ken Saro-Wiwa, they argued, highlighting a slightly controversial local novelist is trivial, an insult. But people didn't walk out on Crosbie's book because it was minor — most of PEN's entertainment could be described this way — but because they didn't approve of it.

Plenty of books, of course, contain scenes as harrowing as Paul's Case does. No doubt many in the audience had read, say, The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan, or The Gulag Archipelago, or Crime and Punishment, or even J.G. Ballard's Crash — all of which use language and images at least as brutal, and often more so. But what troubled us was the fact that Crosbie's scenes were local. They described events with which the audience was deeply familiar, ones we tend to regard as sacrosanct and untouchable.

And this seems a vital test of our commitment. It is easy to express support for freedom of expression when you're talking about faraway communities and distant events. But the real test occurs when the writer's tools cause offence closer to home. Disturbing works based on real-life events can be treated as serious literature when viewed from afar — the way Canadians view Russell Banks's The Sweet Hereafter or Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, and how foreigners will view Crosbie's book. But to people who live in the communities they portray, such books can evoke the alarming whiff of burial plots being desecrated.

That was precisely the point behind the reading. It offended us — much as the Iranian officials who tortured Sarkoohi and censured Rushdie felt offended. Much as Saro-Wiwa's Nigerian killers felt offended. That is the mandate of PEN: To support authors who deeply offend people. PEN argues that the people who are offended should not interfere with those writers.

And so, if the annual benefit is to be about principles (rather than merely a party for a good cause, which is not PEN's usual style), then it should test those principles at the local, immediate level. As it did this year.

In large measure, PEN's membership passed the test. I'd bet that even the people who walked out would fully support Lynn Crosbie's right to publish and distribute her novel. And people shouldn't be blamed for not wanting to listen: Some psychic wounds are too fresh.

But I would take this a step further: The Crosbie reading should be a precedent. If PEN means anything, its supporters should devote some time to celebrating writing that deeply offends them. True supporters of free speech, after all, must support most staunchly those works that they most detest. The principles are meaningless if they apply only to forms of expression you find agreeable.

And so, each year, the PEN organizers should offer a reading from a work likely to offend its audience, perhaps by a person who is widely detested. Ernst Zundel should read from Mein Kampf. Phillippe Rushton should read from his noxious theories on race and brain size. Child-porn advocate John Robin Sharpe should read a few of his favourite tales.

And the audience should applaud, for they are paying their money to support freedom for all writers — not just authors they endorse and enjoy, but also pamphleteers and scribblers many people, perhaps including PEN members, dislike and abhor. It would not make for an appetizing evening. At least it would not be blandly self-congratulatory, as so many such events are. It would be a useful reminder that free speech is all about giving offence, and taking it — and charity begins at home.

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Created: March 28, 2000
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