Sunday, March 26, 2006

40 Days of Lent - Day Twenty-Six


I was at Kinsale Tavern last night eating a delicious chicken curry (over a bed half of which was rice and the other half french fries) and reading The Trouble With Islam by Irshad Manji. I certainly didn't think anyone is the pub would have a problem with what I was reading. I'm sure if anyone found out, I would have been treated to a half hour beer-breathed lecture on how evil the Arabs are. But no one asked. The games were on - soccer, basketball and hockey all represented on the pubs' various screens.

While traveling on the subway, an older man got on who was wearing one of those muslim-style small knitted caps. I wasn't in the mood for an argument or any attention at all, so I strategically place my hand over the book's title on the spine and continued reading. I remeber once, several years ago when I had Elaine Pagels' The Origin of Satan on the subway and someone asked me what I was reading. When I showed him the cover, he said disdainfully "why would somebody write something like that?" I didn't feel like explaining to him that it was a scholarly reading of the four gospels, tracing how anti-semitism corresponds to when the books were written and the early Christian sects were trying to separate themselves from the Jewish powers that be. He obviously thought it was either a cheesy horror novel or a born again tract (which is a horror of an other kind).

I've mentioned before how informative I've found Manji's book, but one section in particular stuck out last night. Manji has been invited to visit Israel, no small honor considering she is a Muslim woman. However, despite being an invited guest, there are conflicts and arguments at every site she wants to visit. While visiting the Al-Aksa mosque, an old man blocks her path and prevents her from entering even though she has permission and is there with a guide. Only when she demonstrates proper knowledge of the Koran does the old man relent..."with one last condition. While inside the mosque, he says, I must relinquish my camera because photographing any creature who has a soul promotes idolatry." (Italics mine.)

What is it about the image that bothers people so? Yesterday on this site I wrote about the different versions of the Ten Commandments and that the Catholic version doesn't include a law against graven images, which both the Judaic and Protestant versions forbid. According to Islamic law, you are not allowed to make pictures of any of God's creations. Why? I understand the historical context for these laws. The Jews and the Muslims were reacting against pagan idolatry. Protestants were reacting against the Catholic church. But there seems to be a distrust of images, a discomfort with the power of images.

Several years ago, I began (but haven't finished) Leonard Shlain's The Alphabet Vs. The Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image. Based on studies that show words and images being processed by different parts of the brain (simplifying for the sake of argument: words are the domain to the left half of the brain, the seat of reason, logic, linear thinking, cause and effect, stereotyped as "male" values. Images belong to the right side of the brain, along with intuition, holistic thought, associative thinking, all considered "female" traits.), Schlain examines how literacy changes societies. As writing becomes more important within society, the left half of the brain dominates and its associated attributes become the "norm," whereas the values of the right half of the brain are mistrusted or dismissed. Schlain's book is speculative - there's no way to "prove" what his thesis, but he provides enough examples to make a compelling case. (Oy, does he provide examples! That's why I'm not finished with it yet).

But it has had an effect on how I see things. This notion that images are "bad" fascinates me. This wariness is not restricted to patriarchal religions, either. One of the most famous and influential essays about cinema is Laura Mulvey's Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Mulvey argues that the inventions and products of a patriarchal society will be phallocentric and see "male" values as the norm. She applies this idea to cinema, saying it is a vehicle for the male gaze, that gaze mainly concerned with women as objects of desire. For examples, she looks at the cinema of Hitchcock. How could she not? His movies were often about looking and watching, and featured a male character's desires. Even his name is phallocentric.

Mulvey has since qualified her argument, saying she was more interested in working out her thoughts in essay form than in writing a manifesto. But a manifesto it has become and with it, a suspicion of images and their "power." Except that this suspicion comes from progressive feminist writers rather than patriarchal religious leaders.


Julie said...

I've always been interested in the theory that religions with a strong female figure are more tolerant of figurative art. Buddism might be an execption, though.

the hanged man said...

Yes, that theory is what The Alphabet vs. The Goddess is about. The link between image/tolerance of "female" values vs. word/dominance of "male" values.

In the section on Buddhism, Schlain compares cultures in which the Buddha is depicted as lean and muscular with those in which he is more rounded, curvy. Schlain's dichotomy holds true: the former are more patriarchal, the latter matriarchal.