Banned Book Week, Banned Books, body humor, Dav Pilkey, Essay, excrement, God's Little Acre, James Joyce, Jessica Roake, Literature, Mark Twain, One Nation, The Adventures of Captain Underpants, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Ulysses, Underpants
Recently I received the opportunity to read a banned book. I’m fortunate enough to attend a university in which Banned Book Week is not only a vital activity, but also a yearly one. Along with a basic introduction from librarians, as well as displays in the library following the history and practice of censorship, there is the opportunity to be filmed reading banned books. Last year I was unfortunate to discover that Banned Book had passed without my knowing and so the chance to raise a middle finger to censorship was denied to me. This year I was determined to remind censorship to go fuck itself, and so I arrived at the table ten minutes before anyone else showed up with my copy of Ulysses in tow. I was the first person of the week to read book, as per my pre-meditation. I sat before the camera and once I was given the signal began to read. After two minutes I received the signal to wrap up and so I finished. I’ve included a link below to YouTube in case you would care to watch. I’m not sure why you would, but if you feel so inclined here it is. I’ve also added a clip from two years ago when I was able to read the book God’s Little Acre.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=du-9_ClGoas (God’s Little Acre)
I felt proud in this moment for I had denied the censor the chance to stifle my voice, as well as the voice of Joyce. This was my choice.
Now the selection of Ulysses is in part due to a recent fascination I’ve had with the author and his work. Regular readers of this blog will understand this. I approached the table with a firm dedication in mind to read Ulysses or else Catch-22. What a conundrum. In fact I had brought along three books, in case I had been outmaneuvered and someone had beaten me to the punch of actually reading first. Struggling already with three different books in mind I recognized a cart of readily prepared “offensive material” and discovered a forgotten tome. Resting in the stack was a copy of The Adventures of Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey. At once I had a conflict of interest. It may surprise some, but when I was younger I had some problems with actually reading. I enjoyed films such as the Pagemaster and television programs like Wishbone that encouraged reading, but Super Mario Bros and Legend of Zelda had a way of sneaking into my day and stealing most of my attention(though in my defense I was an avid reader of Calvin and Hobbes and remain so to this day). However, about the time I reached the fourth grade I discovered a book that instilled, devotion is too pale a word so intense passion for reading will have to suffice. Captain Underpants became my entire reading life. It began with the first tome followed by the attack of The Talking Toilets, The Alien Lunch Ladies, the threat of Professor Poopy Pants, and the books continued to collect until I had a respectable library. Picking the book up the morning of my reading I read the first two chapters in a heartbeat and at once I was conflicted. I chose Ulysses in the end because it seemed unlikely anyone would bring their own copy of the book, and the novel is just too important not to be read.
Captain Underpants, much like Leopold Bloom when his own book was first published, has in recent times become a figure of controversy. In fact, the slim tome that constitutes the first volume of the multi-part series is the most banned book in America as of this writing. Consider that statement for a moment. A book designed for children about a superhero who runs around in underwear has been banned more than Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, Invisible Man, Fahrenheit 451, and the list goes on and on.
Any steady reader of this blog may begin to question why I would waste my time concerned over a book that appears, upon examination of the plot, anything but literary. Two young boys by the name of George and Harold are tricksters who enjoy making comic books about a superhero named Captain Underpants. While not making these comic books they are re-arranging sign lettering into jokes about smelly armpits and peeing on rugs (and no, that is not a Big Lebowski reference). The teachers at their school are tyrannical bullies that enjoy punishing students with homework or else torturing them with homework assignments, the worst of all is Principle Krupp. George and Harold pull off the ultimate prank by ruining the State Football championship by filling the marching Bands instruments with soap, the cheerleader’s pom-poms with pepper, and finally in an almost orgasmic dénouement they fill the football with helium sending it miles into the air after it is kicked. Of course Krupp manages to catch them in the act and blackmails them until George and Harold decide enough is enough and they hypnotize him with the 3-D Hypno Ring (a call back to parents who remember such ads in the back of magazines and comic books that promised opportunities of X-ray glasses and Superman Muscle kits). Taking back the power from Krupp they decide to have a little fun and convince the man that he is really Captain Underpants. Krupp bounds heroically from the school however and the boy, fearing for the man but mostly fearing for their own skins (they are kids after all, or perhaps human beings is more fair) they pursue him until they find themselves caught up in the plot of the nefarious Dr. Diaper, a dwarfish man with razor sharp teeth who plans with to blow up the moon with his Laser Matic 2000 and take over the world.
I believe this is enough to get my point across.
The Adventures of Captain Underpants is certainly not a masterwork of literary achievement, but the book was good enough to make me want to pick up books when I was George and Harold’s age. As was stated before despite my near obsession with reading I was actually not much of a reader as a child. I enjoyed Calvin and Hobbes, but beyond that I found reading to be a chore. The text books I was required to pick up for school promised only cold facts and reinforcement of the idea that I was JUST a child. The Adventures of Captain Underpants appears into the narrative of my life rather mysteriously. I believe it was at the school book fair that I discovered the first volume, or perhaps it was Barnes & Noble? I can’t remember. What I do remember was the impact that it made. While I did not manage to hypnotize my teacher, I did manage to collect the second, third, fourth, and fifth books as they were published and bought by my parents who were thrilled that I was reading anything and not simply trying to beat the sixth castle on Super Mario World (for the record I have beat it, but I still cannot get past the eighth castle). In hindsight however I understand why the book at first appears to be so threatening to the established quo.
Jessica Roake, in her essay One Nation, Underpants examines the novel excellently when she says:
The teachers are the real villains here: narrow-minded, cruel idiots who taunt George and Harold, throw parties upon their suspensions, and generally delight in punishing children. They are Roald Dahl’s evil adults, but even more broadly-drawn; like Dahl, Pilkey does not sugarcoat the unfairness of childhood or the petty tyrannies of adults on power trips. At Jerome Horwitz Elementary, drawn from Pilkey’s own childhood experience, teachers punish creativity and praise blind obedience. They force the students to obey soul-crushing rules, oppose independent thought, and feed them poisonous cafeteria food and aggressively mind-numbing lessons.
This gross caricature of the villainous teacher may not be appreciated by the underpaid, overworked educators who toil thanklessly to educate the nation’s children–I don’t know any teachers who actually relish the pain of children the way Pilkey’s do (except the gym teachers of my youth). But with all due respect to the dedicated teachers (and none to the gym teacher), so what? Any teacher/student power dynamic is tipped in the adult’s favor, and children need to feel like someone understands the fundamental unfairness of their world. Pilkey may be overly hard on teachers, but there can sometimes be nothing harder than a terrible teacher for a struggling kid.
And anyway, Pilkey, like Dahl, does not demand that his youthful protagonists be better than the adults who torment them. The boys sabotage the work of their fellow students (“nerds” come in for an unsettling amount of scorn from the usually underdog-rooting Pilkey) and often cross the line from pranksters to genuine terrors. Pilkey, though, is defiant in his refusal to judge the boys as anything other than good, rowdy kids ill-served by an authoritarian education system intent on medicating them into submission. Pilkey was just such a kid, and on his website writes, “I had a pretty tough time in school. I’ve always had reading problems, and I didn’t learn the same way that most of the kids in my class learned (being severely hyperactive didn’t help much, either). I was discouraged a lot, and sometimes I felt like a total failure.”
In this way I believe it is not that far off the mark to compare Captain Underpants to Leopold Bloom and Huckleberry Finn, for all three protagonists have inspired a sense of revulsion in the cruel who despise their honesty, and a refuge for those who appreciate just that.
Bloom, as I have stated in a previous essay, is a carnal being and bracingly frank. Describing the “smell of his wife” while eying the young woman on the beach that he will soon enough rub-one-out to he says:
Clings to everything she takes off. Vamp of her stockings. Warm shoe. Strays. Drawers: little knick, taking them off. Byby till next time. Also the cat likes to sniff in her shift on the bed. Knows her smell in a thousand. Bathwater too. Reminds me of Strawberries and cream. Wonder where it is really. There or the armpits or under the neck. Because you get it out of all holes and corners.
While this is hardly sling-shotting a fake dog turd under Dr. Diaper’s butt to distract him, the impact of this line could not be underestimated. Smells in the more classical or Victorian presentation would only ever be positive when referring to a man’s wife. While Bloom is not negating his wife’s particular aroma, every image presented is not necessarily flattering. “Holes and corners” would have been scandalous to an audience unaccustomed to such bracing honesty. And if my reader will indulge me I shall recite a passage I have noted before, because it is the best damn example I have:
Quietly he read, restraining himself, the first column and, yielding but resisting, began the second. Midway, his last resistance yielding, he allowed his bowels to ease themselves quietly as he read, reading still patiently, that slight constipation of yesterday quite gone. Hope it’s not too big to bring on piles again. No, just right. So. Ah! […] He read on, seated calm above his own rising smell.
Bloom’s content dumps however have not inspired the same level of ferocity as Huck Finn’s free moving lips. I have begun reading the book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn recently, slowly however. Grad School is a mean bitch that eats your life one precious day at a time (worth every second). Now I had begun my reading of the book with the understanding the text was loaded with racial slurs that was indefensible and employed only for the sake of providing white men the excuse to employ that pathetic rhetoric devise of “I’m not a racist…but.” However, upon beginning the actual text I was reminded of my usual appreciation of Twain. The story is often sold to us as a harrowing allegory of possession and racism in humanity, when in fact it is simply the narration of a fourteen year old boy who possess little luck in life. Huck Finn has an abusive Pa who reappears in his life once Huck has discovered gold in the previous text of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (a book which I will admit I don’t care too much for). Huck, wanting not to hurt the man he should have every reason to despise, fakes his own death and escapes to the River where he encounters Jim, a run-away slave who is blamed for his death.
A professor of mine discussed a portion of the novel during a meeting in her office hours, and I later learned she had written a paper over the section entitled “the Story of Sollermun’”. In it the former slave Jim discusses the passage in the Bible in which Solomon proposes to cut the child in half. Jim says:
“Who? Me? Go ‘long. Doan’ talk to me ‘bout yo’ pints. I reck’n I knows sense when I sees it; en dey ain’ no sense in sich doin’s as dat. De ‘spute warn’t ‘bout a half a chile, de ‘spute was ‘bout a whole chile; en de man dat think he kin settle a ‘spute ‘bout a whole chile wid a half a chile doan’ know enough to come in out’n de rain. Doan’ talk to me ‘bout Sollermun, Huck, I knows him by de back.”
“But I tell you you don’t get the point.”
“Blame de point! I reck’n I knows what I knows. En mine you, de real pint is down furder—it’s down deeper. It lays in de way Sollermun was raised. You take a man dat’s got on’y one or two chillen; is dat man gwyne to be waseful o’ chillen? No, he ain’t; hecan’t ‘ford it. He know how to value ‘em. But you take a man dat’s
got ‘bout five million chillen runnin’ roun’ de house, en it’s diffunt. He as soon chop a chile in two as a cat. Dey’s plenty mo’. Achile er two, mo’ er less, warn’t no consekens to Sollermun, dad fatch him!”
I never see such a nigger. If he got a notion in his head once, there warn’t no getting it out again. He was the most down on Solomon of any nigger I ever see. So I went to talking about other kings, and let Solomon slide.
Before you continue, ask yourself a question. Did you really listen to Jim, or were you just waiting for the word nigger to pop up?
So I return to the issue of a banned book and the necessity of reading them. We should encourage the reading of banned books, because they eliminate confirmation bias, the psychological condition that enforces negative or positive opinions despite the coincidence or logical correlation between two points. People searching for racism in Huck’s behavior will obviously find it once they observe the word they are looking for, but they have missed the forest for the trees. While Jim is referred to as nigger by Huck, Twain, through Jim, has observed the condition of slave ownership. It is impossible to truly love something if it is bounteous. Much like Midas would come to loathe or become apathetic to gold, so Solomon grew to children, so too many people would grow to “niggers.” Because many of the richer landholders would be able to afford great quantities of slaves, they could afford the apathy toward the sadism and injustice that could occur on their plantation. Here begins a fascinating conversation about the travesty that is the slavery institution (and before anyone suggests that slavery is over and done with the World Cup of 2022 will be held in Qatar, which is a modern day slave state).
Though we may be uncomfortable with the ideas expressed by Huck, that is no reason to abandon the conversation altogether. Both Huck, and Bloom, and yes, even Captain Underpants all have perspectives of life and humanity that need to be observed. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, like Much of Twain’s books, begins with a notice by the author which reads:
PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be pros-
ecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; per-
sons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR,
Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.
So it does in The Adventures of Captain Underpants, however Pilkey is a little more accommodating:
Sturgeon General’s Warning
Some material in this book may be considered offensive by people who don’t wear underwear.
Reading a banned book is a rewarding and depressing experience, because you are quick to discover that the books will only make you laugh, or, perhaps even worse, they will make you think.
I have included a link to the rest of the article which I would highly advise, for it is beautifully written and the most intelligent defense of the book I have yet to read.