LONDON, ONTARIO – I was sickened to learn yesterday about the on-stage attack on author Salman Rushdie by a knife-wielding Muslim hothead at the Chautaugua Institute in upstate New York where, ironically enough, the Bombay-born author had just begun a presentation in which he was going to talk “about the United States as a sanctuary for exiled authors and a home for freedom of expression.” It was estimated that he received more than a dozen stab wounds in the horrific assault. A medical report late in the day said he was expected to live even though he was hooked up to a ventilator, his liver was badly damaged and it was pretty well certain that he would lose an eye.
Salman Rushdie was first targeted for not-so-holy assassination on Valentine’s Day of 1989 when, following the publication of his critically acclaimed, Islam-provoking novel The Satanic Verses the previous fall, a fatwah was placed on his head for blasphemous mockery by the then supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Kohemini. In countries all around the world the resultant notoriety pushed sales of Rushdie’s novel through the roof . . . though it’s questionable whether a majority of those copies were actually read. I took a run at my father-in-law’s copy at the time of the scandal and found it pretty heavy sledding; undoubtedly a courageous, ambitious and well-written book but set in a milieu and a culture that were quite beyond my ken.
For the next thirteen years Rushdie was compelled to live in carefully guarded seclusion with round-the-clock security assigned to him by the British government. Though the fatwah was formally lifted after the death of Kohemeni, the threat of some freelance avenger acting on his own remained all-too-possible. For more than thirty-three years Rushdie has had to endure a suffocating circumspection of movement and association which anyone – let alone an artist – would’ve found a soul-grinding trial.
Almost forty years after my first encounter, I recently re-read Hesketh Pearson’s 1942 biography of George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) which is still the most insightful and succinct account we have of Shaw’s long life and career and the once-enormous impact he had on the thinking of his day; an influence which is unquestionably beginning to evaporate today.
It’s telling to compare my own enthusiasm while leafing through the promotional booklets of the two major summertime theatre festivals in our region. With the Stratford Festival, I first of all want to know what Shakespeare scripts they’re producing and then I’ll consider their other fare. (This year, I hear that their Richard III is tops.) With the Shaw Festival, I’m far more intrigued by their non-Shaw fare; unless they’re producing Saint Joan.
In revisiting Pearson’s bio, I was impressed anew by the old fox’s canniness to learn that in the early 1920’s, Shaw badly wanted to write a play about Mohammed. He saw the founder of Islam as a ‘militant saint’; a dynamic combination of holiness and action which he longed to portray on stage. British and American censors of the ‘20s would not allow theatrical depictions of Christ and there was an even sterner prohibition regarding Mohammed. Shaw knew that if any company tried to produce such a play, not only would their theatre be instantly shut down but the play’s author would more than likely become the target of Muslim assassins. How, I wondered, could Rushdie not have known what Shaw figured out sixty-five years before him? That messing around with Mohammed is likely to incur the wrath of true believers?
Shaw was famously willing to upset apple carts but wasn’t willing to literally risk his neck. So, setting aside Mohammed, Shaw zeroed in on another historical figure who combined the roles of prophet, visionary and soldier, and he wrote Saint Joan instead. Sensible Shaw. Until I finally read Saint Joan, I hadn’t cared much for Shaw. I found his plays heavy on desultory chatter (some of it, admittedly, amusing) and disconcertingly light on character, plot and passion. I always adored Don Marquis’ quip – he of archy & mehitabel fame – when asked what he planned to do in his retirement: “I intend to dramatize the plays of George Bernard Shaw.” (In 1926, by the way, the Catholic Marquis produced his own ‘passion play’ script, The Dark Hours, which, bowing to the prohibitions of the time, represented Christ only in a very occasional, offstage ‘voice from beyond’.)
But Saint Joan stands quite alone in the Shavian canon. Here the old atheist pulled off a far more insightful, respectful and sympathetic account of religious conviction than I would have dreamed possible. The great mystery novelist and Christian scholar, Dorothy L. Sayers deduced that what set Saint Joan apart from the rest of Shaw’s dramatic contrivances was that this time the plot came “ready-made” and the historical record had to be adhered to. “Saint Joan is protected by history from his habitual last act perversities,” Sayers pronounced.
I remember being particularly impressed by a speech Shaw gives to Joan’s comrade-at-arms, Dumois, when he tells her: “I think that God was on your side, for I have not forgotten how the wind changed, and how our hearts changed when you came. But I tell you as a soldier that God is no man’s daily drudge, and no maid’s either. If you are worthy of it, He will sometimes snatch you out of the jaws of death and set you on your feet again; but that is all: once on your feet you must fight with all your might and all your craft. For He has to be fair to your enemy too: don’t forget that. He set us on our feet through you at Orleans, and the glory of it has carried us through a good few battles here to the coronation. But if we presume on it further, and trust to God to do the work we should do ourselves, we shall be defeated; and serve us right.”
Here in the West we long ago lifted any bans on even the vilest, the shallowest and the most witless depictions of Christ and his saints in literature, theatre, movies or art. This certainly gives rise to an occasional flashpoint of offense taken; a book burned, a canvas defaced, a theatre picketed and sometimes even fisticuffs exchanged. But Christians pretty universally hold back from going all Johnny Berserker on even the most obnoxiously blasphemous artists.
In 1987 the publicly funded National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in the United States gave artist, Andreas Serrano, $20,000 for his transgressive work of art entitled, Immersion (Piss Christ). The piece – heavy on concept if not artistry – is pretty much as described by its title. Mr. Serrano peed into a drinking glass, dropped in a cheap plastic crucifix and snapped a photograph of it which he then blew up to sixty by forty inches. If you didn’t know the work’s title, it is at first glance a striking if somewhat kitschy image.
In what almost seems like a Cecil B. DeMille-type trick of the light, the contours of this strangely hovering crucifix are somewhat softened by the golden radiance of its surrounding atmosphere. I expect it must’ve been Serrano’s first piss of the morning; it takes several hours of uninterrupted sleep for the bladder to distill a batch of urine with that varnish-like richness of tone. And, even knowing the title, it is still possible – for this Christian at least – to find aspects of the work unexpectedly poignant. The tacky cheapness of the holy figurine somehow expresses Christ’s willingly assumed vulnerability in a way that a better rendered figurine might not. And the overarching outrage of the piece itself – literally immersing Christ in piss – is not one jot worse than what we actually did to Him on that first Good Friday.
Many Christians, however, were not inclined to cut Serrano’s artwork that much slack. Protesters turned out to demonstrate at galleries where Piss Christ was exhibited and also lodged complaints with the NEA for buying it in the first place. A few years later, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani voiced his objections when The Brooklyn Museum hosted two similarly offensive exhibitions. In 1999 he objected when that gallery showed Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary – a multi-media depiction of the mother of Christ which utilizes pornographic images clipped from magazines and hard-caked elephant poo (a work I saw and quietly loathed in 2014 at the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania). And in February of 2001, Giuliani complained again when the same museum displayed Renee Cox’s crude photographic pastiche of a Da Vinci masterpiece, Yo Mama’s Last Supper, which features a full length photo of a nude Ms. Cox standing at the centre of the table in the place of Christ.
In all these cases the protesters were dismissed as uncultured rubes and lectured to by the press and the cognoscenti. In rejecting Giuliani’s call for some sort of decency panel to oversee the selection of works to be exhibited in publicly funded galleries, the Supreme Court, invoking the primacy of the First Amendment, ruled: “Work like Ofili’s and Cox’s takes a particular, critical view of Catholicism. To some the critique may appear pertinent, to others it is disagreeable. Confronted with a forcefully expressed viewpoint that stands in opposition to their deeply held beliefs people often react emotionally by being offended. In accordance with the U.S. Constitution, however, those who disagree are free to express their outrage, but cannot impose their viewpoint on everybody else.”
The court’s judgement here was absolutely correct. Freedom of speech and artistic expression are rendered meaningless if they can be upheld in this case or withheld in that case, depending on who complains or the vehemence with which they do so. But what a radically different song we hear from our social and intellectual gatekeepers regarding artists of any kind who dare to depict the prophet Muhammad in a less than respectful way. Indeed most artists - like Shaw a hundred years ago - are too timid to provoke that particular beast. But if there's one group of artists who doesn't seem to have received the same cautionary memo as the rest of them, it's cartoonists.
The first great flare-up occurred in September of 2005 when the Danish newspaper, Jylands Posten, published twelve cartoons, most depicting Muhammad in an unflattering way, as push-back against what they perceived as self-censorship inspired by fear of violent reprisal by Muslims. The newspaper’s point was soon proven when violent demonstrations broke out in Denmark and throughout the world (killing, it is estimated, more than two hundred people) and fatwas were imposed on the twelve cartoonists who all – Salman Rushdie-like – had to go into hiding.
Canadian born columnist Mark Steyn has been a fearless advocate in railing against the Islamist onslaught on free speech in the West and called for cartoonists, publishers and editors to form a united front: “The minute there were multi-million dollar bounties on those cartoonists’ heads, The Times of London and Le Monde and The Washington Post and all the rest should have said, ‘This Thursday we’re all publishing the cartoons. If you want to put bounties on all of our heads, you’d better have a great credit line at the Bank of Jihad. If you want to kill us, you’ll have to kill us all’.”
That didn’t happen. Canada’s Western Standard and the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris were among the few publications that showed solidarity with Jylands Posten, and republished the cartoons. A lot of people first learned about Charlie Hebdo’s existence in January of 2015 when Al-Qaeda jihadists stormed their office and murdered eleven cartoonists, writers and editors, and one policeman. Two days later when police were closing in on them, the jihadists holed up in a nearby kosher market and murdered another five people just because they were Jews. In the wake of the Charlie massacre, The National Post was the only Canadian newspaper with the guts to republish a whole array of the weekly’s covers, showing in the process that Charlie was an equal opportunity offender, merrily mocking Christians and Jews as well as Muslims.
In May of that same year the American wing of PEN (a literary fraternity that works to uphold freedom of speech throughout the world) decided to give Charlie Hebdo a special award and six of their higher profile members – including, disappointingly enough, Canada’s Michael Ondaatje – boycotted the ceremony. One of the past presidents of PEN – a certain Salman Rushdie, no less – beautifully skewered PEN’s weak-kneed deserters as, “Six authors in search of a bit of character.”
A couple weeks after the PEN disgrace – and again in homage to Charlie Hebdo – free speech activist Pamela Geller held her Muhammad Art Exhibit & Contest in Garland, Texas. That event was stormed by two more jihadi hotheads who (may I be excused for thanking the merciful Christ?) only managed to plug one bullet into a security guard’s foot before they were both taken out by a sixty year-old officer with the Garland Police. The commentary about that assault in the blue chip American papers was uniformly depressing. The Washington Post’s shameless headline read: “Event Organizer Offers No Apology after Thwarted Attack in Texas.” This craven idea that we need to be sensitive to the feelings of just this one religion’s adherents can best be translated like this: “If we deny our most precious civil freedoms and keep quiet about your psychopathic inability to take a joke, will you let us keep our heads?”
It just so happened that in the Arts & Culture section of the same internet news aggregator where I first learned about the appalling attack on Salman Rushdie, there was a gushing press release from London England regarding the Globe Theatre where they’ll be premiering a brand new play on August 25th about . . . wait for it . . . Joan of Arc. I, Joan, they promise us, will be “this big, sweaty, queer, rebellious festival of joy”. We are told that in this bold re-imagining of this long-revered saint’s life, Joan will be announcing that her preferred pronouns are “they / them”. Doesn’t that sound exciting and daring?
The playwright, Charlie Josephine, seems to be quite smitten with her new script though I do have to wonder if she’s quite captured the essence of a saint who saw it as her primary purpose in life to be obedient to the will of God. “Joan was this working-class young person who was transgressing gender at a time when it was really dangerous,” he/she tells us. “And that just felt, like, instantly relatable to me. Like, I was assigned to be male at birth. I’m non-binary. I’m from a working class background and I’ve often felt like I have something to say and haven’t been given permission to say it. To get this opportunity to write the play about a character who’s also trying to do that . . . Oh, it’s too good to be true, really. It’s a huge thing that I want to get right and I really care about.”
What’s so maddening about all this is that no 15th century life is more extensively documented than Joan of Arc’s. We have all the records recounting how this uneducated, seventeen year-old peasant girl, acting on instruction from God, did the impossible (and wholly unconventional) thing and led the deposed Dauphin to the throne of France in a three month military campaign of unprecedented audacity. We have the special coronation medals that a grateful Charles VII of France struck, bearing Joan’s emblem (a hand holding a sword) and the inscription, “Strong in the counsel of God.” We have the extensive transcripts from her trial for witchcraft in which she defends herself to no avail with great courage and wit and is burned at the stake at the age of nineteen. And we have the Church documents from her Trial of Rehabilitation twenty-four years later when this heroine, once condemned, is radically reconsidered and put on the road to sainthood.
There’s another little item that turns up in the documentation that I perhaps find most touching of all. In gratitude for Joan’s miraculous service to France, a perpetual tax exemption was granted to Joan’s home town. For centuries in the official record books, the tax collector wrote beside the name Domremy: “Nothing – for the sake of the Maid.”
What a fine pass we’ve come to when a forgotten tax collector’s scribble expresses more reverence and awe for one of the most remarkable women who ever lived than this play which bills itself as an “expansion of a historical figure” by stripping away Joan’s identity, defaming her memory and tarting her up as a non-binary clown on the most famous stage in the English-speaking world. Luckily for everybody involved, Christians are made of tolerant stuff and will give I, Joan all the attention it deserves. We’ll ignore it.
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