It All Goes Back to Aesop
The three words of the title of this post were separately suppressed by Myanmar’s ruling junta: “red” because of its association with Communism; “sunset” because General Ne Win’s name meant “sunrise”; and “mother” because that was the nickname of Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi.
That brings back to mind another draconian instance of censorship. In Costa-Gavras’s film Z (1969), the rightist Greek colonels in charge forbid the use of the letter Z (Zeta) in the Greek alphabet because of the protestors’ use of the Greek phrase “Ζει,” meaning “He lives.” The pronoun refers to the democratic politician Grigoris Lambrakis, who was assassinated in 1963.
What does one do when the powers that be forbid the use of certain words? Russian and Eastern European writers under Communist rule came up with the solution: use other words in their place. This is referred to as the use of Aesopian, or Aesopic, language. Just as the ancient Greek teller of fables used stories to mask political realities, writers would use metaphorical language to stand in for the proscribed language. In an article entitled “The Rhetoric of Subversion: Strategies of ‘Aesopian Language’ in Romanian Literary Criticism Under Late Communism,” Andrei Terian describes the procedure used:
Since organized dissent was absent, the ‘resistance through culture’ represented in Romania the main form of assertion of the writers’ independence from the Communist regime. Civically, it materialized through the refusal to enroll in the party’s propaganda machine, while artistically, it took place through the defense of the priority of the ‘aesthetic’ criterion in the production and reception of literary works, which generated a literature relatively autonomous from the political sphere. Nevertheless, from the perspective of maximalist ethics, the ‘resistance through culture’ is a deeply duplicitous phenomenon, which fits perfectly in the Ketman paradigm described by Czeslaw Milosz. In the Polish writer’s opinion, ‘Ketman means self-realization against something’ (The Captive Mind ….), which, in the case of totalitarian societies, is translated in a profound divergence between an individual’s private thoughts and their public expression.
I thought Milosz expressed it better in The Captive Mind—a book I urge everyone to read—but I can’t quote it because, alas, I can’t lay my hand on it at the moment.
Terian is a bit abstruse, so let me think of an example. Let us say that the Tea Party rules America as a rightist junta and bans the use of the word “abortion.” A hated Liberal writer can use another term, such as “ablution” in such a way that a censor would let it pass, despite the fact that its meaning would be clear from its context, as in “they were able to limit the size of their family with the discreet use of ablution.” Writers can and did develop an entire language of such circumlocutions under the noses of the Communist censors.
Even words as basic as “red,” “sunset,” and “mother” can find Aesopian equivalents, such as, perhaps, “rubicund,” “gloaming,” or “progenitrix” respectively—though a poet can play with the concept much as Viking poets used kennings such as “wave’s steed” for “ship” or “Freyja’s tears” for “gold.” And the Viking’s did this not because of censorship, but to help the meter of their compositions.