Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
November 26, 1964, Vol. X, No. 6
The Bruce Conviction: A View from the Couch
By John Tarburton
An interesting article in the New York Times of November 5 recounts the conviction of Lenny Bruce on the previous day for giving “obscene performances” last April at the Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village. Two judges of a three-man Criminal Court bench voted to convict Mr. Bruce and the cafe’s operator, Howard Solomon; while the third, Judge J. Randall Creel, voted for acquittal.
Judges John Murtagh and Kenneth Phipps based their votes for conviction on the following grounds: 1. that the performances were “obscene, indecent, immoral, and impure within the meaning of the law”; 2. that they were “patently offensive to the average person in the community, as judged by present-day standards”; 3. that they lacked “redeeming social importance.”
Judge Creel, by contrast, delivered a 17-page opinion arguing the unconstitutionality of the section of the law which the defendents were convicted. He held that the vagueness of the obscenity laws and the whole question of defining “community standards” and obscenity as such indicate the need for a Federal constitutional convention to establish guideposts in these matters for the courts.
Commenting on the ambiguities of the situation, Judge Creel made a statement remarkable enough to be worth quoting in full:
“A very large measure of judicial subjectivity is inherent in the determination of obscenity by the judicial process and by judges,” he said, “and it is suggested that this phase ‘community standards’ is most probably but another robe to cloak the extent to which the judiciary, which has been forced to reshape and mold the law as to obscenity, exercises the powers of super-legislators or, indeed, of absolute monarchs.”
I doubt if the absurdity, hypocrisy, and authoritarian basis of the “community standards” rule of judicial censorship has ever been more bluntly stated — and this by a judge on the bench.
Milton, of course, pointed out its spurious character three centuries ago in his “Areopagitica.” “The state shall be my governors, but not my critics; they may be mistaken in the choice of a licenser, as easily as this licenser may be mistaken in an author…For though a licenser should happen to be judicious more than ordinary…yet his very office and his commission enjoins him to let pass nothing but what is vulgarly received already.”
No greater threat to the creative freedom and originality of artists, writers and thinkers need be feared. It is only one step from the rule of such tyranny of the majority, expressed in the judgments of its official representatives, to outright, dictatorship and thought control.
Because of his conviction, Lenny Bruce must now undergo a psychiatric evaluation by the court’s Probation Department. He and Mr. Solomon face sentences of up to a year in jail. Whatever their actual sentences turn out to be, it is clear that the vaguely defined “crime” of “obscenity” carries very real and definite sanction. The majority has power to
enforce its confusion on others.
I was one of the people in the community who saw Lenny Bruce’s performance at the Go Go. Some months earlier I had begun a study of the censorship problem, having reached the conclusion that interference with cultural freedom of expression is even today a far more serious matter than most people realize. It’s seriousness appears in the fact that censorship is the human psychic mechanism of repression, as was amply demonstrated by Freud in 1900, with the publication of “The Interpretation of Dreams.”
Here I cannot attempt to argue the case for the psychological truth of Freud’s discoveries. He accurately understood and predicted the monumental resistance that people would put up against his deepest insights. Indeed, he had to deal with this resistance — this self-deception or self-censorship — as the essential fact of every psychoanalytic session.
But if he was correct in analyzing the disturbed mental life of civilized man as a repression of unconscious realities from consciousness, then the process of censorship by which this repression operates is nothing less than the effective cause of man’s blindness to his own organic nature. Today this blind self-alienation takes the general form of a displacement of sexual energy onto the world of objects, the status system, and the machine. The natural unity of existence is systematically violated by an unconscious assertion of the logical subject-and-object distinction as if it were the existential case. By looking at the world as though it is nothing but a realm of physical objects, devoid of living intelligence or “spirit,” modern man has not only attempted to subject nature to the control of mechanistic force; he has also reduced himself to the status of an object and made a mad technological shambles of world society.
Here, I believe, is the true dimension in which we must seek to understand the censorship and punishment of efforts at public self-expression. Lenny Bruce is an artist, and a good one. Like all genuine artists, seers, and thinkers, he is trying to express the truth of his own inner vision of reality. He does this with great insight, wit, and histronic skill. His work is a sharp, unerring exposure of the vicious prejudices and self-deceits that characterize, among other things, the peculiarly Fascist mentality of our epoch…
Until these things are much better understood than they are at present, there will be no satisfactory solution to the censorship problem. Artists like Lenny Bruce will continue to be found guilty of “crimes” that exist only in the fantasy lives of repressed people. The whole effort of creative individuals is to overcome their own inner censorship, so that unconscious truth may become conscious truth may become conscious and public in the various cultural media of art and thought. Such persons will continue to suffer the burdens of authentic leadership. Only “when we dead awaken” will there be a true and full rebirth of erotic freedom, whereby the libido that powers and governs our bodily life will be able to express itself in open harmony with its original nature.
Such a triumph over our “civilized” sado-masochism cannot possibly be too soon in coming.