On satire

I hate you, Jorge, and if I could, I would lead you downstairs, across the ground, naked, with fowl’s feathers stuck in your asshole and your face painted like a juggler and a buffoon, so the whole monastery would laugh at you and be afraid no longer. I would like to smear honey all over you and then roll you in feathers, and take you on a leash to fairs, to say to all: He was announcing the truth to you and telling you that the truth has the taste of death, and you believed, not in his words, but in his grimness. And now I say to you that, in the infinite whirl of possible things, God allows you also to imagine a world where the presumed interpreter of the truth is nothing but a clumsy raven, who repeats words learned long ago.

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

Pope Francis’s comments on the Charlie Hebdo shootings, attempting to place limits on freedom of speech and endorsing the use of violence against those who say things that upset the religious, have already got themselves a post here, but I want to say something wider about the role of satire in religious affairs.

The Charlie Hebdo situation has frequently been likened to the Satanic Verses controversy, and I think that comparison stands, and not least now in the regrettable siding of Western religious figures with those who feel that the slaughtered and the maimed somehow had it coming to them. The Satanic Verses, as did the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, set out to undermine the Islamic conventions around the representation of Muhammed; but they are hardly the first—Dante’s Divine Comedy places Muhammad in Hell, his guts hanging out, a schismatic and a false prophet. Illustrators over the centuries have not ceased to relish this scene for visual depiction—yet there are no protests, no burnings, no gunnings down in Tuscan publishing houses.

What was extraordinary about the Satanic Verses affair was how much Christian and Jewish leaders leapt into line, not with the supporters of free speech, not with the opponents of bigotry and intolerance, but with the other camp. The then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, declared that Britain’s blasphemy laws should be extended to Islam, and that Rushdie should be prosecuted, and other Christian and Jewish leaders took a similar line (see Christopher Hitchen’s God Is Not Great for a detailed list of those non-Muslim and secular figures who enthusiastically endorsed religious censorship). A spokesman for Pope John Paul II, whilst admitting that the fatwa was excessive, denounced the book as “blasphemous,” and the official Vatican newspaper stated that “the very attachment to our own faith induces us to deplore that which is irreverent and blasphemous in the book’s contents.” That is, the heads of churches which necessarily consider Muhammad to be a false prophet and consider this a matter of fact demanded the prosecution of an author for representing Muhammad as a false prophet in a work of fiction, and then only in a dream of a madman. Why? Why did Runcie want blasphemy laws extended to “protect” all religions when to him the other religions must be blasphemous, because they deny the tenets of his? Why did the Vatican consider deplorable this minor supposed attack upon that belief which the church had spent many centuries and shed a huge amount of blood attempting to surpress? And why, now, has an otherwise intelligent and reasonable (as far as medieval theocratic monarchs go) Pope similarly fallen in with the “they brought it on themselves, you know” brigade? The answer is related to the absence of fury over the Divine Comedy: it lies in the fact that these works seek to make us laugh; and that, in our post-Enlightenment world, with a viable secular agenda for power, this laughter threatens not just who holds power, but the very concept of religious authority as a right to power.

The Catholic Church didn’t always have such a downer on mockery. The second/third century church father Tertullian, a heresiologist and one of the first theologists to grope his way towards the sacred nonsense that is the Trinity, is feted for the scathing wit with which he demolishes his opponents, and the fourth century Hilary of Poitiers—orthodox enough to earn himself a sainthood—was bitingly savage in his Against Constantius. The current Pope’s namesake, though far gentler, was himself an adept user of mockery.

Early Islam was equally happy to cohabit with satire. The savage, obscene wit of the pre-Islamic poetic style hijaʾ (lampooning) was actually utilised by Muhammad’s companions, most notably by the poet Ḥassān ibn Thābit, in vicious attacks upon the unbelieving Quraysh; attacks which one Hadith reports as having been expressly endorsed by the Prophet himself. What is notable about this is that this endorsement took place in Mecca, prior to the flight to Medina and the subsequent return in military power. Tertullian wrote prior to the Constantinian conversion, and Hilary was writing in exile against the Arianizing Emperor Constantius. Francis of Assisi, though far later, was himself an outsider figure, attempting to turn the Church away from its increasingly terrestrial trajectory.

What’s the common thread here? That humour punctuates power. That humour is a strong weapon with which to debase and expose the absurdities of presumed authority, and that—when in opposition—both Christianity and Islam were more than happy to endorse it. And then, once the tables had turned, they moved against it: the Rule of Benedict prohibits levity, and though laughter appears in the Qurʾan it is usually reporting the foolish mockery of unbelievers and contrasting it with the laughter that believers will then direct back at them when sat in their thrones on high; it is also, given Muhammad’s endorsement of hijaʾ, careful to endorse poetry when in the service of God—as for other poets: “only the deviators follow them.” No lampooning except for the Prophet’s Companions, it would seem.

Until the Enlightenment, when directed at power, satire was directed at the holder of power, not the institution, not the grounds for power. Hilary’s invective attacked the emperor for his Arian tendencies, but did not question the basis of imperial power . Dante and his illustrators may have drawn the undrawable, and named him a schismatic, but they did so in fervent support of an apostolically-justified papacy. However, it appears that, now, when it comes to the crunch, the religious close ranks to vilify the non-believer, even if it means standing shoulder-to-shoulder with people whose beliefs they explicitly reject. I would argue that this is because, since the Enlightenment, secularism (not even necessarily atheism) has become a viable narrative for “Earthly” power.

Now that the right of the religious to wield power simply for being religious is no longer a social given, mockery need no longer be targeted at the specific holders of power, but actually at the very institutional grounding of power. The satire of The Satanic Verses contrasts the absolutist claims of monotheism with the inherently interpretative requirements of textually-based dogma. The cartoons in Charlie Hebdo were not because the cartoonists disagreed with the specific claims to prophethood of Muhammad, but was mockery of the very idea that temporal authority is granted by religious adherence. The stakes have changed, the allegiances shifted, and, now, the enemy of any religion is secularism, not because it denies specific tenets of their faith—because the other faiths with whom they now stand side-by-side do so too—but because it denies the very right to legislate on the actions of other people simply by virtue of being a faith. The Muslims and the Catholics and the Church of England may disagree on who should be on the top of the pile, but they are in total agreement as to why they should be there. They require us to believe, not in their words, but in their grimness; they justify their terrestrial authority from the fervency of their own belief: and satire, denying anyone status through grimness, is a common enemy to them all.

Bring out the fowl’s feathers!

A to Z blogging challenge: Z

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