Burning Books, Banning Art, and the Persistence of American Puritanism

“Puritanism has made life itself impossible. More than art, more than estheticism, life represents beauty in a thousand variations; it is indeed, a gigantic panorama of eternal change. Puritanism, on the other hand, rests on a fixed and immovable conception of life; it is based on the Calvinistic idea that life is a curse, imposed upon man by the wrath of God. In order to redeem himself man must do constant penance, must repudiate every natural and healthy impulse, and turn his back on joy and beauty.”

– Emma Goldman

“The important task of literature is to free man, not to censor him, and that is why Puritanism was the most destructive and evil force which ever oppressed people and their literature: it created hypocrisy, perversion, fears, sterility.”

– Anaïs Nin

Several months ago I had a conversation about art with an American friend of mine. I consider him to be fairly left leaning, but I was puzzled when he told me he was seriously having to reconsider his “appreciation and enjoyment of certain artists” now that he knows of their “sexual abuse and sexist misogyny.” When I asked what he was referring to he mentioned Picasso and Gauguin as a couple examples. At the moment I was left nonplussed. In that short conversation I was taken aback by the swiftly moving and insidious undercurrent of puritanism still strong in American life.

What is more interesting to me is that this strain of authoritarianism is quite strong in many on the left end of the…

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