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

On rent

Lacking a sizeable inheritance—those long-lost great uncles just keep on refusing to die—I cannot afford a house in this staggeringly over-priced country and so, at the age of 39, still need to rent my accommodation. Having recently moved back to Oxford, I have been searching for a new place, and this has been something of a challenge.

It’s actually been some years since I paid any formal rent anyway. I am something of a vagrant: in York I largely stayed with a friend, who charged me a generously low rate, and was fairly relaxed about me paying as and when my patchy student finances had the resources. Subsequent to that, I stayed at my brother’s house in Bath for a year, where we made ad hoc arrangements as suited us. Intervals in Brazil have largely involved cadging rooms with friends too, and since arriving back in Oxford in February yet another friend has kindly put me up with few requirements other than a few cleaning and cooking duties. But as of early May, I shall be an official tenant again and, to use the technical expression, fuck me is it expensive.

I have viewed a large number of properties, both sole rental and sharing, in this delightful city. Lodging was one possibility, but nothing seemed suitable: Mrs Sarasvati had a room in her house in the ideal district of Jericho; when I went to visit it I found her to be a charming and intelligent Indian woman with whom I had a long conversation about Sanskrit literature, all the time trying my hardest not to notice the wallpaper peeling away from the walls and the mildew glaring out from the cracks, odourously indignant that its stale solitude was to be breached. Another house with a spare room, very close to my current temporary digs, was owned and inhabited by Piers Delafontaine—one of that class of posh, miserly skanks who are clearly far too U to lower themselves to cleaning, but too tight to pay someone else to do it for them. Neither seemed suitable.

At the other end of the scale, sole rental made my eyes water and my wallet weep quietly in my pocket. A glorified bedsit on Iffley Road—nice, but so small that if you breathed in too hard there was a risk of the walls caving in—would have cost over a grand a month, and a cheaper “flat” on Abingdon Road turned out to be three unjoined rooms opening onto a shared hallway, thus necessitating a lock on each room door. My ability to lose keys, lock myself out, or—on more than one occasion—break off the key in the lock of a door ruled out this option. Being stranded, half-naked, in a cold, shared hallway because I had managed to flush my keys down the loo during a night-time visit would almost certainly be the fate awaiting me there—probably within the first month.

I have, finally, found somewhere. It is a big shared house: expensive but not gratuitous, and I shall be sharing with a two German girls, an Irish guy, and a Frenchman. A nice mix of people, and one which comes with the added benefit that the household would give Nigel Farage an aneurysm. We can but hope, at least.

A to Z blogging challenge: R

On quirkiness

There has of late been far too much reason and reasonableness here; I fear you may be at risk of forming the impression that I have become becalmed and moderate, that my irascibility has waned (would that then make me rascible?) or my intemperateness mellowed. So no more—for now, at least—of this fair-minded, egalitarian take on language. It is time for some inordinate and excessively opinionated dogmatism; the fact that it also happens to be right is merely an incidental detail.

I speak now of the word quirky, and I speak particularly of those who self-identify as such.

Let us set out what a quirk is: it is, in the metrics of personality, the tiniest, feeblest, most unambitious deviation from the mean imaginable. It is measured on the Planck scale: no smaller unit of character is possible. To boast of one’s quirks is like Holland boasting of its hills: better remain silent on the topic than draw attention to an absence.

To say “I am quirky”—almost universally qualified by a subsequent but—is little more than to say “I am almost the dullest, most stultifyingly drab individual you will ever meet. I am so thoroughly banal that even the facts that I sometimes wear odd socks and spread my Marmite a little bit thick stand out against the insipid dreariness that otherwise manifests my poor excuse for a personality. I feel, therefore, that I have to emphasize these, yet such a timid milksop am I that even then I do so half-apologetically, with a little self-deprecating titter, and quickly qualify it to assure you of my fundamental mundanity. There is nothing about me that is wonderful, ambitious, energetic, scintillating, or in any way within the widest gamut of the concept of characterful; even saying those words makes me blush with embarrassment. I am dreadful: run, you bright, shining things, run! For I am a black hole of charisma, the antiparticle of charm, the very heat death of the psyche.”

I hear, of course, a potential response. “We have been reading your blog,” the quirk-defenders say, “and we are not impressed. There is a thread that runs through it which, from your posturing about Art, through your sneering at the English countryside, to your defence of the vulgar and the uneducated in language, shows that you are a shallow and crass man incapable of appreciating the subtle, the sophisticated, and the sublime and who, being fortuitously possessed of some rhetorical weaponry—though more of the character of the blunderbuss than the sniper rifle—uses his firepower to, under the pose of intellectualism and egalitarianism, attempt to blast everyone else down to his own churlish and uncouth level. That you cannot appreciate the gentle delights of the quirk, the blameless pleasure of the foible, or the piquant sting of the peccadillo is unsurprising; your raging against them is but the sound and fury of the idiot.”

“This is an impressive argument,” I counterthrust, “but I am suspicious. Your assertion, with its nested subclauses, fondness for the rule of three, calculated and excessive splitting of an infinitive, and its deliberately casual nod in the direction of Shakespeare, looks remarkably as though it was written by none other than myself, and thus can be seen as little more than a callow ploy to spin this post out by a couple more paragraphs, and to descend into one of those bouts of smugly self-referential post-modern-schmost-modernism which seem be one of my—bah!—quirks, and that amuse almost certainly no-one but me. I cannot, therefore, take it seriously and must throw it out as an analysis of my character, however true it may ring.”

There is no answer to that, of course.

A to Z blogging challenge: Q

On punctuation

There is within me a great, raging conflict, an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, that keeps me awake at nights—neurological fuck-ups notwithstanding—and it concerns the matter of writing.

As a sociolinguist, albeit of the dismal, failed variety, I know that there is no such thing as “correct” or “incorrect” language use; that we acquire our habits of speech from our social environment; and that to assert that certain forms are truer, more accurate, or better is to impose a distasteful and discriminatory social elistism that sets the particular patterns and habits of the privileged few as an unjustifiable standard, and then uses them as a stick with which to beat people who never had exposure to these norms and cannot therefore be reasonably expected to reproduce them.

As an editor, however, I know that there is a right way to do things, and that you just did it wrong.1

The sociolinguist wins, almost all the time, but there is an interesting issue around punctuation where the waters are a bit murkier. Speech is, of course, punctuated; but the mechanisms of punctuation are very different to those of writing: pauses, gestures, facial expressions, and non-verbal cues such as (in English) tone and intensity. Written punctuation is a very different matter: it belongs entirely to the realm of literacy, and literacy is a secondary skill that supervenes upon language use and is learnt rather than acquired.

We learn a great many skills as children, some formally (such as arithmetic), other less so (such as wedgie technique). In the context of formal learning, it does not seem as egregiously unjust to propose certain favoured norms, as it is no longer the case that the naturally-acquired habits of a few are being imposed upon and in contradistinction to the habits of the majority. We all must learn the norms of literacy and, as long as the proposed norms do not surreptitiously support or reinforce the spoken behaviours of the elite, then I cannot find it in myself to object too strongly.

Punctuation, then, seems a clear position where the editor in me can flex his muscles a little. Spelling, less so: we may have standardized spellings, but these could be seen to be imposing certain pronunciations over others. But punctuation is so arbitrary and independent of lexical content that here, at least, I feel I may be entitled to allow myself a little prescriptivism.

Does this mean, then, that I decry the grocer’s apostrophe—as more than a few people think I should?

Well yes, and then again, no. I cannot deny that I wince when I see it but—cursed egalitarian that I am—I rather feel that in this class-bedevilled society certain groups of people have access to higher-quality education than others, and that members of that group with access to only the poorest level of schooling are more likely to go on to be grocers than, for instance, Old Etonians. I don’t like to see the grocer’s apostrophe, but I find it very hard to lay the blame at the door of the individual who has written the sign.2 The putatively terrifying deficit aside, we are one of the richest nations on the world and, if we are to promote cross-dialectical norms in even this one small matter, it seems a piteous failure of our society if we cannot manage to educate everyone about it.


[1] In fact, of course, “you just did it wrongly.” Case in point, however: both forms are equally understandable, and the insistence on the “correct” use of the adverbial form just results in a cumbersome and ugly locution, not to mention ruining some of the effect by terminating an humourously over-emphasized phrase on an unstressed syllable.

[2] Though when the sign was written by a member of exactly that elite who do insist that the uneducated emulate the forms of the educated, the matter is maybe slightly different.

A to Z blogging challenge: P

On offence

After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Pope Francis—until then doing pretty well, as far as medieval theocratic monarchs go—stated that “One cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith. There is a limit. Every religion has its dignity … in freedom of expression there are limits.” The presumption of religious people that they should be entitled to protection from offence, that the sincerity or depth of their belief provides them with some kind of right to protection from ridicule is hardly news. But there is an element which I think is not often stressed when this is discussed, and so I’m going to do it here.

As I’ve previously mentioned, when I indulge myself in a little poking of fun at religion, I generally choose the leaders, institutes, and dogmas as my targets, and avoid directly mocking individual believers: but this is largely because I’m a nice person, because I think the ends are better achieved by exposing the system to ridicule rather than the practitioners. But I am utterly convinced of my right to ridicule individual believers should I choose and, of course, even when I am directing my mockery at the institutions, it is not a hugely inaccurate inferential jump for willing members of those institutions to take this personally. And if you think I’m calling you a fool then you should bear in mind, for starters, that this is precisely what your religion calls me.

I’m sorry, kinda, if you’re offended. But the point of this post is to say that if you are, then you’re also kinda missing a trick: because there is, at least as far as the monotheistic creeds are concerned, nothing that I can say about them that is as offensive as what they say about me. On this side choirs of angels, on the other, the gaping maw of hell: and there can be little doubt which gate I am headed towards. That’s not a very nice thing to say, but especially not when coupled with the regular assertions of the supreme mercy and justice of God. Yet no atheist demands defense from this most abusive of insults: we are routinely condemned to deserving hellfire and damnation in churches, synagogues, and mosques throughout the world—and it is not hard to see how many have interpreted this (not without scriptural authority) historically and contemporaneously as a call to enact God‎’‎s vengeance in this world.

Your faith, my monotheistic friend, says that not only will I suffer an eternity of agony but also that, given the supreme mercy and justice of God, this is precisely what I deserve. So next time you fret that I have suggested that I think that you may be credulous, a fool, or a hypocrite; that the dogmas of your institutions are incoherent and their practices perverse; just stop a moment before crying offence: because your religion freely and repeatedly says about me—expressed not even as an opinion, but as a matter of fact—that I am so hideously, egregiously, despicably vile that even a merciful and all-loving God cannot find it in Himself to save me from perdition.

There’s not a lot, really, that I can say about you that equals that.

A to Z blogging challenge: O