Beyond Raold Dahl and Ian Fleming

From Grand Master Lawrence Block ~

There’s been a fair amount of media attention paid lately to the decisions of the estates of both Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming to make extensive edits to their respective bodies of work with an eye toward improving passages that might strike a contemporary reader as racially insensitive or otherwise offensive. I don’t feel moved to comment on either the original texts or the seemliness of changing them, but wanted to share a comparable move by an overseas publisher; perhaps because the work in question is in a language other than English, the following announcement has been largely overlooked by the linguistically insular American press:

Frankfurt, February 26: Representatives of Mehliger-Mund Verlag, the esteemed publisher, announced today the impending publication of Unsere humanitär Aufgabe, slated for reissue in early 1925, exactly 100 years after its original appearance.

“The book has stood the test of time,” said Mehliger-Mund’s spokesman, Heinrich Labberig. “Written during its author’s forced isolation after his initial emergence as a philosophical and political innovator, it has long since earned a permanent place on the shelf of German classics. But times change, and various textual idiosyncrasies, perfectly acceptable in 1925, have the unfortunate effect of alienating the reader of today.”

The challenge, Labberig explained, lay in judiciously ameliorating the author’s text without diluting its timeless message. “It is undeniable,” he said, “that the original text singled out for disparagement a particular segment of the German population. In the author’s defense, one might point out that he was doing little more than expressing the national consciousness of the time. Our attitudes on matters of race and religion have changed dramatically over the course of the past hundred years, and strict preservation of the author’s original text could make him appear bigoted—even antisemitic—in the eyes of the Twenty-first Century reader.”

In addition, the text itself has been toned down. Consider the following selection, thus in the original: “The application of force alone, without support based on a spiritual concept, can never bring about the destruction of an idea or arrest the propagation of it, unless one is ready and able to ruthlessly to exterminate the last upholders of that idea even to a man, and also wipe out any tradition which it may tend to leave behind.”

In the new edition, it’s softened somewhat: “The application of force is by no means the only way to change people’s minds and open them up to new ideas.”

When asked about the book’s new title, Herr Labberig admitted the risk in changing a phrase that had indeed become part of the world’s consciousness. Unsere humanitär Aufgabe—in English, Our Humanitarian Mission—does not readily call the original to mind. “But we felt it was an essential modernization,” he contended. “The author spoke as a lone voice, and so used the first-person singular, but he was in fact speaking on behalf of a whole people, as the plural Unsere affirms. Similarly, Aufgabe stresses that he is writing about a mission, a task, a higher purpose; a hundred years ago, given his personal circumstances, it is more than understandable that he proclaimed this to be a battle—but the word strikes today’s ear as harsher and more confrontational than one would prefer. As for the adjective, humanitär—well, given the book’s history, we felt it important to label the author’s mission as humanitarian.”

Update—Frankfurt, February 27: Heinrich Labberig, speaking on behalf of Mehliger-Mund Verlag, said it was “quite understandable” that the announcement of the impending publication of Unsere humanitär Aufgabe had occasioned a groundswell of outrage. “For many people,” he said, “the original text has taken on the aura of Holy Writ, and amending it has been likened to burning a religious scroll. But all should be assured that the original will continue to be available, and, in fact, simultaneous with the new version, Mehliger-Mund will be bringing out a deluxe leather-bound edition with the original text. And, of course, its original title, Mein Kampf.”

And so it goes.

As does Twitter, apparently. I’m in the habit of tweeting a link to each newsletter, and I know more than a few of you find it through those links rather than bothering to subscribe. That’s always been fine—but now, with Twitter evidently falling apart, I’m no longer able to tweet anything, or even to read what others tweet. I suppose this will sort itself out eventually, but in the meantime I’ll respectively request that some of you with Twitter access tweet the following: ” @LawrenceBlock March Newsletter:


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