Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Irving Wallace's "The Seven Minutes" Thoughtfully Explores Censorship, Sex and Intimacy

Irving Wallace's novel The Seven Minutes is part courtroom drama, part suspense story, part romance and part dissertation on how a democratic society must strike a delicate balance between the ideal of freedom and the reality of necessary rules. The drama, suspense, romance and dissertation all revolve around the government's attempt to ban a book for being obscene--an attempt buoyed by the alleged role that said book played to induce a man with no previous criminal record to commit rape--and a lawyer's determination to fight for free speech even at the cost of his career, his relationship and possibly even his physical safety.

Wallace's sympathies for freedom of expression are clear but he also gives a fair portrayal of the thoughts/motivations of the well-intentioned opponents of the book's publication/distribution. In a conversation after the trial, the prosecuting attorney tells the defense attorney that even a free society must have rules and boundaries: you cannot just drive your car on any side of the road that you choose at a given moment. The prosecuting attorney sincerely believes that some books are obscene, have no redeeming artistic value and pose a danger to young, impressionable minds; the defense attorney counters that for a society to remain free ideas cannot be suppressed but must be out in the open to be considered and debated. Pure hate speech and/or incitement to violence should not be protected but otherwise artists have a right to create while the public has a right to purchase/read/view or to decline to purchase/read/view.

The book's courtroom scenes and debates between various characters highlight how difficult it is to determine what is "obscene" and what is not "obscene."

Meanwhile, various characters encounter situations that cause them to question their own personal thoughts and decisions about relationships, sex and intimacy.

I have seen reviews of The Seven Minutes that wax eloquently about how great of a book it is and I have seen reviews that dismiss it as a "potboiler." It is not great literature in the classic sense--and it could have benefited from some editing in terms of both length and writing style--but Wallace dares to thoughtfully explore issues that are central to the meaning of life, of love and of freedom, so he deserves credit for his ambition. That ambition is largely fulfilled, as Wallace provides a lot of food for thought while also weaving a tale that commands your attention and piques your curiosity.

Near the end of the book, Wallace quotes from "Last Will of Charles Lounsbury," a document that used to be widely shared among attorneys and is still worth reading more than 100 years after it was first published. The document's author, Williston Fish, drafted the fictional will as a tribute to an ancestor of his named Charles Lounsbury, a person who Fish described as "A strong, vigorous man filled with the joy of living." The piece was first published in "Harper's Weekly" in 1898 and then as a booklet in 1907 but it soon took on a life of its own, being reprinted in a variety of sources, often with numerous mistakes. Fish lamented, "Some writers can boast that their works have been translated into all foreign languages, but when I look pathetically about for some little boast, I can only say that this one of my pieces has been translated into all the idiot tongues of English."

Here is the 1897 version, which is a fitting coda to the profound themes examined by Wallace:

He was stronger and cleverer, no doubt, than other men, and in many broad lines of business he had grown rich, until his wealth exceeded exaggeration.  One morning in his office, he directed a request to his confidential lawyer to come to him in the afternoon.  He intended to have his will drawn.  A will is a solemn matter, even with a man whose life is given up to business, and who is by habit mindful of the future.  After giving his direction he took up no other matter, but sat at his desk alone and in silence.

It was a day when summer was first new.  The pale leaves upon the trees were starting forth upon the yet unbending branches.  The grass in the parks had a freshness in its green like the freshness of the blue in the sky and of the yellow of the sun - a freshness to make one wish that life might renew its youth.  The clear breezes from the South wantoned about, and then were still, as if loath to go finally away.  Half idly, half thoughtfully, the rich man wrote upon the white paper before him, beginning what he wrote with capital letters, such as he had not made since, as a boy in school, he had taken pride in his skill with the pen:

IN THE NAME OF GOD, AMEN. I, Charles Lounsbury, being of sound and disposing mind and memory, do now make and publish this, my last will and testament in order, as justly as may be, to distribute my interests in the world among succeeding men. And first, that part of my interest, which is known in law and recognized in the sheep-bound volumes of the law as my property, being inconsiderable and none account, I make no disposition in this, my will. My right to live, being but a life estate, is not at my disposal, but these things excepted, all else in the world I now proceed to devise and bequeath.

ITEM: I give to good fathers and mothers, but in trust to their children, nevertheless, all good little words of praise and all quaint pet names, and I charge said parents to use them justly, but generously, as the deeds of their children shall require.

ITEM: I leave to children exclusively, but only for the life of their childhood, all and every the dandelions of the fields and the daisies thereof, with the right to play among them freely, according to the custom of children, warning them at the same time against the thistles. And I devise to children the yellow shores of creeks and the golden sands beneath the water thereof, with the dragon flies that skim the surface of said waters, and and the odors of the willows that dip into said waters, and the white clouds that float on high above the giant trees. And I leave the children the long, long days to be merry in in a thousand ways, and the Night, and the trail of the Milky Way to wonder at; but subject, nevertheless, to the rights hereinafter given to lovers; and I give to each child the right to choose a star to be his, and I direct the father shall tell him the name of it, in order that the child shall always remember the name of that star after he has learned and forgotten astronomy.
ITEM: I devise to boys jointly all the idle fields and commons where ball may be played, all snow-clad hills where one may coast, and all streams and ponds where one may skate, to have and to hold the same for the period of their boyhood. And all meadows, with the clover-blooms and butterflies thereof; and all woods, with their appurtenances of squirrels and whirring birds and echoes and strange noises, and all distant places, which may be visited, together with the adventures there to be found. And I give to said boys, each his own place at the fireside at night, with all pictures that may be seen in the burning wood or coal, to enjoy without hindrance and without any incumbrance of cares.
ITEM: To lovers, I devise their imaginary world, with whatever they may need, as the stars of the sky, the red, red roses by the wall, the snow of the hawthorn, the sweet strains of music, and aught else they may desire to figure to each other the lastingness and beauty of their love.
ITEM: To young men jointly, being joined in a brave, mad crowd, I devise and bequeath all boisterous inspiring sports of rivalry, and I give to them the disdain of weakness and undaunted confidence in their own strength. Though they are rude, and rough, I leave them alone the power to make lasting friendships and of possessing companions, and to them exclusively I give all merry songs and brave choruses to sing, with smooth voices to troll them forth.
ITEM: And to those who are no longer children, or youths, or lovers, I leave Memory, and I leave to them the volumes of the poems of Burns and Shakespeare, and of other poets, if there are others, to the end that they may live the old days over again, freely and fully without tithe or diminution; and to those who are no longer children, or youths, or lovers, I leave, too, the knowledge of what a rare, rare world it is.

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