Better to Burn the Books
The editing of Roald Dahl shows us what comes after civilization.
Roald Dahl believed in physiognomy. This was not some phrenological gobbledygook that said the temper of a man is determined by the curve of his brow ridge. Rather, like most human beings throughout human history, Dahl (who died in 1990) believed our physical realities reflect our spiritual realities, that spiritual realities shape and illuminate the physical world, for they are a unity. And so, as he wrote in The Twits (1980):
If a person has ugly thoughts, it begins to show on the face. And when that person has ugly thoughts every day, every week, every year, the face gets uglier and uglier until you can hardly bear to look at it.
A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts it will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.
Read those paragraphs again. It is all more subtle than society today allows.
And much too complex for Puffin Books. As the Telegraph reported last week, the children’s literature giant has assumed the authority to “regularly review the language” of Dahl’s stories “to ensure that it can continue to be enjoyed by all today.” This is a self-congratulatory way of saying they partnered with diversity, equity, and inclusion grifters (an outfit called “Inclusive Minds”) to edit his beloved books for a 2022 reprinting. There are too many examples to choose from.
In The Witches (1983), that means everything from replacing a character’s line with its bald significance—“You can’t go round pulling the hair of every lady you meet” with “there are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs” beside being a witch—to trading out a woman working as “a cashier in a supermarket” for “a top scientist.” Out-of-fashion author references (e.g., Kipling) in Matilda (1988) become barely still in-fashion ones (e.g., Steinbeck), so of course these tweaks will never stop. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), Augustus Gloop is no longer fat and Mike Teavee no longer has guns. No one is crazy, or dotty, or short, and nothing is monstrous or fearful or any particular color anymore. Everything in 2022 is the same bland beige as the printed page.
I would call the Puffin edits of Dahl barbaric but that would hardly be fair to barbarians. Indeed, it would be better had the evident cretins at Inclusive Minds just told the yellow-bellied cowards at Puffin it was time to burn the books. Dahl has had more than his fair share of controversy; if we must make clear our devotion to the new religion of global homogenization let us have a proper bonfire. Even Socrates, as Plato presents him in The Republic, only advises expelling the poets from his beautiful regime—this while he is in the very act of composing a competing work of poetry, the city-in-speech itself.
And this would be the just response to literature one truly believed to be corrupting the youth: first exile or destruction, and then replacement with an alternative, allegedly superior work. But the editors of Puffin, like the Dahl estate and Netflix, which owns all the rights now, are not actually motivated by justice but by avarice; they will edit the books rather than burn them, and continue to make money off the name while earning status amongst their haggish friends.
Every society uses art to enforce the norms and mores it seeks to cultivate, and children’s literature is an auxiliary in socialization to whatever fundamental canon calls forth a people or composes a civilization. But ours is an anti-culture, dedicated in its commitment to equality to the dismantling of its own canon and the elimination of anything distinctive. Thus unmoored, the preachers of our new morality cannot offer a superior alternative to Roald Dahl; all destroyers can build is rubbish.
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So it should come as no surprise, as outrageous as it is, that they would seek to turn Dahl to their own ends. His work has a fire they have long extinguished. And broken from tradition, with no core account of humanity to uphold or received virtues to inculcate, their efforts cannot be natural acculturation. Instead of cultivating conditions for organic growth, our tastemakers seek to engineer a human type, to oversocialize. By removing offending words or phrases or concepts, by flattening description, they hope to make such thoughts unthinkable.
The editors at Puffin know what they are doing. They are professionals. These word workers, symbol manipulators, live in worlds of text, and by altering texts they can alter perceived reality. There is, of course, something to that (I am a writer after all). The edited edition of Dahl’s work has excised, as much as possible without undercutting expected sales, language that makes distinction tactile, that ties moral judgments of better or worse to physical reality or that sees the normal in the natural world.
But in our overmediated anti-culture, where we are cut off from half of the whole of things by technology and simulacra, living in our heads, overwhelmed by ideology and propaganda and advertisement, it has perhaps never been more important for children to see things as Roald Dahl presented them. Sometimes life is strange and scary, full of witches and hags, the crazy and the grotesque. Sometimes life is very ordinary, made up not of people or folks but of men and women, ladies and gentlemen, who are short and tall, fat and thin, attractive and ugly, and in their faces, when we look them in the eye and get to know them, we can even see their character.