Saturday, November 26, 2005
My old boss Giovanni Ingellis used to talk about what he would do if and when he ever retired--sadly, he never lived to do so--and he used to joke that he would spend his days sitting atop the Milan Duomo with a machine gun, waiting for the first graffiti writer to try to spraypaint the famed cathedral. The image always made me smile because of its absurdity, though I liked the symbolism.
The symbolism is still relevant, I think, when we look at Europe's relations with its ever-demanding, never-satisfied Muslim minority: Today, Europe's great and unmatched legacy of art and architecture forms the demarcation line at which we can measure Europe's acceptance of or resistance to those forces that would enslave it.
Sometimes, Europe defends its art, and by extension, its continued free existence, as in the commendable reaction of Italian authorities to Muslim demands for the destruction of the Bologna fresco that depicts Muhammad being condemned to Hell. Cardinal Biffi's response was that it was “absurd to suddenly discover after 600 years that our most famous treasure is offensive to the Islamic religion”. The particularly enlightened Italian response owes something to the Italian character, and to the knowledge that Dante, Italy's greatest poet, would have to be thrown under the train as well:
- I saw one
Rent from the chin to where one breaketh wind.
Between his legs were hanging down his entrails;
His heart was visible, and the dismal sack
That maketh excrement of what is eaten.
While I was all absorbed in seeing him,
He looked at me, and opened with his hands
His bosom, saying: "See now how I rend me;
How mutilated, see, is Mahomet;
In front of me doth Ali weeping go,
Cleft in the face from forelock unto chin;
And all the others whom thou here beholdest,
Disseminators of scandal and of schism
While living were, and therefore are cleft thus.
But unfortunately, that line of culture that separates freedom from slavery has its weak points. I read this week about a production of Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great that censored significant portions of the play:
- Tamburlaine: Now, Casane, where’s the Turkish Alcoran, And all the heaps of superstitious books Found in the temples of that Mahomet Whom I have thought a god? They shall be burnt . . .
. . . In vain, I see, men worship Mahomet.
My sword hath sent millions of Turks to hell, Slew all his priests, his kinsmen, and his friends, And yet I live untouch’d by Mahomet.
There is a God, full of revenging wrath, From whom the thunder and the lightning breaks, Whose scourge I am, and him will I obey.
So Casane; fling them in the fire.
(They burn the books.)
Now, Mahomet, if thou have any power, Come down thyself and work a miracle.
Thou art not worthy to be worshipped That suffers flames of fire to burn the writ Wherein the sum of thy religion rests . . .
. . . Well, soldiers, Mahomet remains in hell; He cannot hear the voice of Tamburlaine.
All of this was excised:
Audiences at the Barbican in London did not see the Koran being burnt, as Marlowe intended, because David Farr, who directed and adapted the classic play, feared that it would inflame passions in the light of the London bombings.
Simon Reade, artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic, said that if they had not altered the original it “would have unnecessarily raised the hackles of a significant proportion of one of the world’s great religions”...burning the Koran “would have been unnecessarily inflammatory”.
The burning of the Koran was “smoothed over”, he said, so that it became just the destruction of “a load of books” relating to any culture or religion. That made it more powerful, they claimed.
Time will tell if Europe is willing to abandon its culture in the face of intimidation from its enemies.