Lately, I’ve been waking from dreams in which Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia sweetly whispers in my ear: “Hey baby, avant-garde artistes such as respondents remain entirely free to épater les bourgeois; they are merely deprived of the additional satisfaction of having the bourgeoisie taxed to pay for it. It is preposterous to equate the denial of taxpayer subsidy with measures ‘aimed at the suppression of dangerous ideas.’ That’s right, épater les bourgeois, I know French baby. ”
Okay, so I haven’t really been dreaming that… Well, maybe a little.
With the Supreme Court in session I’ve found myself listening to excerpts and reading transcripts of the cases on health care reform and life without parole for juvenile convicts. The sheer eloquence of the Justices and the counselors trying the cases is captivating. There is an auditory eros in hearing the English language, in an age where it’s butchered by every means imaginable, used so perfectly in rhetorical debates where there is no vehemence or mudslinging, only philosophical thought put into play. It’s almost like being front row to the dialogues of Plato, listening to Socrates as he sounds out his party’s beliefs.
I’ve been getting an additional fix online at the Oyez Project of the Chicago-Kent College of Law, a multimedia archive of the Supreme Court since October 1955. It is fascinating to listen to the arguments posed over the last half-century and find how many have some import to freedom of speech and obscenity. There have been countless novels that have been deemed obscene, many of which are now considered canonical. While Banned Books Week isn’t until the last week of September, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded how perilously close we’ve come to being deprived of important works of literature.
On a related note, back in February Barney Rosset passed away. His Grove Press introduced the American readers to authors ranging from Samuel Becket and Octavio Paz to Tom Stoppard and Henry Miller, and published unexpurgated copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and Naked Lunch. Rosset and Grove Press battled in the Supreme Court for the right to publish works deemed obscene in cases like Grove Press, Inc. v. Gerstein, (decided in Miller v California) and Grove Press v Maryland State Board of Censors. His literary magazine the Evergreen Review published works by the likes of Nabokov, Bukowski, Sontag and Malcolm X, and, to bring things full circle, it even carried a controversial piece by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.
Who knows? Maybe tonight I’ll dream of Justice Douglas propping up his feet to read one of Grove Press’ editions of the Marquis de Sade, and hollering at me, “Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.”