Wednesday, January 14, 2015
The famous allegorical painting at the head of this essay, one of the great treasures of the Borghese gallery in Rome, was made by Titian around 1514. For at least the last three centuries it has been called “Sacred and Profane Love”. That is probably an accurate title. Titian is probably making an emblematic contrast between the two conceptions of love (amor) known in the old Christian ethical vocabulary as caritas and cupiditas. According to the vastly influential opinion of Augustine in his City of God, these are the “two loves that build two cities,” the metaphorical versions of Jerusalem and Babylon, the City of God and the City of Man. The ambiguities in the word “love”, when operating within the more limited and intimate sphere of individual human psychology, provide about half of the materials of Western literature.
Getting back to Titian and his much-admired painting, I would make two points. The first is that we are only pretty sure--not absolutely certain--that the subject is “Sacred and Profane Love.” The second is that among the learned art historians who have written about “Sacred and Profane Love” there has been no general agreement as to which of Titian’s beautiful babes is which! I want to stress that point. Important scholars—men and women who have spent years and decades studying Renaissance art and iconography—dispute the most essential feature of this painting’s “meaning”. Of course I know the answer, but if you think I am going to tell you for free, think again. Such point as I would claim to make has to do with the uncertainty—or as the fancy critics call it, “indeterminacy”—of iconographic representation.
I would not idly contribute to the cataract of photons that have been poured out in the last week over the fanatical murders recently perpetrated at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris—were it not for one salient fact. Unlike the large majority of American commentators I have read, I actually knew a little something about Charlie Hebdo before all this happened. I have lived in Paris for periods of time. Most weeks (“Hebdo” being short for hebdomadaire, “weekly”) I used to try to take a look at it. Its sophomoric humor appealed to me—insofar as I could grasp it. For in engaging a foreign language, satire is one of the very last cultural forms to float into comprehensibility. This paper is full of slang, dirty talk, and above all obscure political and cultural allusions that must challenge many native speakers. Its point of view is post-modern, urban, utterly secular, and flagrantly irreverent. Notice that is calls itself a journal irresponsable!
Since it scorns all pieties, it was scornful of the most hallowed ones, religious pieties. But in my experience its principal targets were cultural and above all political pretension. Oversimplifying wildly, I would say that the most glaring weakness of American politicians is limited intelligence. In France they tend to be smarter, but also more pompous. The pomposity of French politicians, indeed, seems almost to have been invented for the delectation of satirists of the sort who worked for Charlie Hebdo. And of course both in history and in current radical Islamic thought the distinction between religion and politics is hardly a bright line. Some of the implications may bemuse infidels. Just today I learned of the fatwa of a Saudi cleric declaring the building of a snowman haram! (It has been snowing of late along the Saudi-Jordanian frontier.)
In an important passage in my own Scriptures (I Corinthians, cap. 10) Paul has some advice for the Christian minority living in a pagan culture. All things are lawful, he says, but not all things are expedient. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it. How about Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons?
It’s a judgment call, but there are times when making a point is the point. The street on which I live, Hartley Avenue, is a relatively new extension of the older Faculty Road, which runs through the campus along the northwestern most banks of Lake Carnegie, linking at right angles two well traveled county roads. Faculty Road, though now serving as a fairly major traffic artery, is technically private property, owned by the University. For one day a year campus security officers close it off with barricades. This action, which on that day is annoying and inconvenient for large numbers of motorists, cements the University’s point, its legal property rights, which for three hundred and sixty-four days of the year are effectively waived.
In a pluralistic society cultural difference is inescapable, and if the difference is so great that there are some people willing to kill you for what you say, draw, or doodle, it may need a little thoughtful negotiation. Expression incapable of inviting offense or contestation needs no legal protection. On the other hand rights never exercised are utterly meaningless. Take a look at the so-called “Stalin Constitution” of 1936 some time. Charlie Hebdo thought the exercise of a fundamental civil right more important than the sensibilities of some fundamentalists.
What remains of their editorial board apparently still does, to judge from the cover on today’s edition. Titian’s example can teach us that the artist’s intention cannot always conquer the inherent ambiguity of pictorial forms, but in a preemptive exegetical interview the cartoonist himself said that his subject is the Prophet shedding a tear over the wicked folly of some self-proclaimed followers. There may, alas, turn out to be other interpretations.