“Saudi Arabia condemns the terrorist attack on freedom of expression in Paris …”
While millions of ordinary people marched the streets of Paris (and throughout France and the rest of Europe) to show solidarity with each other and with the victims of the necromaniac terrorist attacks there last week, they were joined by some extremely rum, opportunistic and unconvincing Charlies like Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (who has presided over a dragnet approach to arresting independent or critical journalists in Turkey), Sergey Lavrov the Russian Foreign Minister (cf. Pussy Riot imprisoned for offending the church, “promotion” of homosexuality banned, opposition politicians convicted of trumped-up charges in a climate of repression against the very idea of a free press) and Ali Bongo, the president of Gabon who has journalists threatened and arrested for exposing his own corruption and that of his family. Not to mention the usual chickenhawks, particularly in the USA and UK, who are immediately and automatically taking advantage of the situation to squawk that the answer to an attack on free speech is less freedom and less speech. Nobody can attack what isn’t there, right?
Also present was Saud bin Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia since 1975. On the 9th of January 2015, before the final rounds had even been fired during the dual hostage crises unfolding in and near Paris, the Saudi authorities had hauled out blogger Raif Badawi to be flogged in public for the so-called “crime” of running a left wing website that advocated freedom of speech. Free Saudi Liberals is now, unsurprisingly, defunct. He’s been sentenced to ten years in prison, 1,000 lashes and a fine of 1 million Saudi Arabian riyals for encouraging debate and for supposedly insulting Islam. He narrowly avoided a conviction for “apostasy” [sic], which carries the death sentence. They vindictively imprisoned Badawi’s lawyer for fifteen years, too. It’s not as bad as being murdered for speaking your mind, but being taken out and whipped for it is definitely on the same spectrum of barbarism. And to be absolutely clear it’s the government, the House of Saud and their ilk, who I’m accusing of medieval barbarism here and not the people. The fact that governments in the Arabic world are coming down so hard on the population proves that the people themselves have a consensus for progress, tolerance and secularism that threatens and frightens their unelected rulers.
The World Muslim League, who harassed Charlie Hebdo despite a court acquitting them of the (absurd) charge of “offending muslims” by pressing on with their own private prosecution even after the Paris Grand Mosque dropped it: Surprise! They’re based in Saudi Arabia. Many other activists in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region have been persecuted, exiled or imprisoned for political activism or simply for expressing an opinion. The governments of these countries unanimously hate social media, Skype and even the mildest criticism or dissent. And yet the likes of Al Saud or Lavrov have the brazen bloody cheek to walk beside the families of the murdered and the millions marching for freedom of speech, for unity and for the tolerance that’s necessary when somebody uses free speech to say things we don’t agree with and don’t like or– worse still– that make us face up to our failings. As I’ve said many times, the easiest way to avoid being told you’re a scumbag, an arsehole or a monster if you don’t like it is just to behave better and stop being a scumbag, an arsehole and a monster. Shutting down a conversation is much more bother than simply letting people talk.
I’ve been reading Postmodernist patriarch Jean Baudrillard’s book about the USA, called America (Verso 1988, new edition 2010). Although it’s occasionally mired in the kind of obscurantist, elliptical wittering that he’s rightly condemned for by some people– the gobbledygook blindly imitated to devastatingly stupid effect by many academics, critics and artists since the 1990s– it also has some incredibly sharp observations about a country and a populace that at heart he obviously enjoys a great deal. He often unfavourably compares his native France to the USA, although this is not as funny as his bullseye hits on US culture; these are not very far from what (postmodernist) native writers like Chuck Palahniuk and David Foster Wallace would be doing ten years or so later.
Writing in the mid 1980s, Baudrillard also makes some incredibly prescient and accurate observations about where Reaganism, Thatcherism and the whole greed-is-good yuppie privatisation era would lead politics, morality and society. You’ll need to read the book for those predictions, though, because they’re too long for a blog post.
Here’s some of his funnier, pithier aphorisms and observations about America instead:
Examples of the mania for asepsis
“The Getty museum where old paintings look new, bleached and gleaming, cleansed of all patina and craquelure, with an artificial lustre that echoes the fake Pompeian decor all around them.
In Philadelphia, a radical sect named ‘MOVE’, with a bizarre set of rules, including one forbidding both the practise of autopsy and the removal of rubbish, is cleared out by the police, who kill eleven people by fire and burn down thirty adjacent houses, including those (the irony of it!) of all the neighbours who had called for the sect to be removed.
… they certainly do smile at you here, though neither from courtesy, nor from an effort to charm. This smile signifies only the need to smile. It is a bit like the Cheshire Cat’s grin: it continues to float on faces long after all emotion has disappeared… It is part of the general cryogenization of emotions. It is, indeed, the smile the dead man will wear at his funeral home, as he clings to hope of making contact even in the next world. The smile of immunity, the smile of advertising: ‘This country is good. I am good. We are the best’… Smile if you have nothing to say. Most of all, do not hide the fact that you have nothing to say nor your total indifference to others. Let this emptiness, this profound indifference shine out spontaneously in your smile. Give your emptiness and indifference to others, light up your face with the zero degree of joy and pleasure, smile, smile, smile… Americans may have no identity, but they do have wonderful teeth.”
Le capitaine Costentenus
Poster for a sideshow type act at the Folies-Bergère, circa 1880s.
Recently I was at the ethnographic Musée du quai Branly in Paris. A post about some of the museum’s permanent collection of lovely, demented and/or terrifying masks will follow shortly, but the museum also currently have an exhibition on (until the middle of October 2014) called Tatoueurs, Tatoués (Tattooers, Tattooed) which is worth seeing if only to be reminded that there can be more to tattoos than spelling error tramp stamps, nonsense kanji, the ubiquitous badly drawn pseudo-tribal sleeve, and permanent disfigurements that are just plain wrong.
The exhibition has modern examples and historical images from all over Asia, Europe and Oceania, but for some reason the image that stuck with me was the one shown above, of ‘Captain Costentenus’. Maybe it’s just my general prediliction for Victoriana. He was an attraction at the Folies-Bergère, the Parisian cabaret that remains in operation to this day. The caption says “Tattooed by order of Yakoob-Beg, chief of the Tartars, with two million dots and 325 animal figures.” Did somebody actually count the dots? Maybe Costentenus did, as they were being poked into him.
Another colour lithograph, in English (below)– from the reliably kinky Wellcome Collection– gives further information about Captain Costentenus, describing him as a “Greek Albanian, tattooed from head to foot in Chinese Tartary, as punishment for engaging in rebellion against the King”… the king presumably being the aforementioned Yakoob-Beg. Chinese Tartary is an obsolete term, referring broadly to the areas such as Tibet, Mongolia and Manchuria, which doesn’t quite match up with him being Greek Albanian although I guess he could have been travelling when he committed whatever transgression caused Yakoob-Beg to mandate such an elaborate punishment. Either that, or we’re looking at what we’d call nowadays creative PR.
19th century aquaria were evidently as much sites for general oddity as they were display facilities for fish.
“… a fissure of the fundament…”
As research for something I’m writing, I recently re-read Aldous Huxley’s book The Devils of Loudun (1952), which is a very thorough, sardonic account of the 1630s outbreak of mass nymphomaniac diabolical hysteria instigated by a bunch of “possessed” nuns to get back at an unpopular local clergyman. I hate it when that happens. Nowadays the book is primarily known as the source material for Ken Russell’s salacious 1970s nunsploitation version with Oliver Reed, The Devils. Why this pertains to what I’m writing is not important to relate right now, but among the excellent background material about France in the 17th century is the following section about the general filthiness of things:
“The most grotesque of avoidable mishaps would mar the most solemn occasions. Consider, for example, the case of La Grande Mademoiselle*, that pathetic figure of fun who was Louis XIV’s first cousin. After death, according to the curious custom of the time, her body was dissected and buried piecemeal– here the head and there a limb or two, here the heart and there the entrails. These last were so badly embalmed that, even after treatment, they went on fermenting. The gases of putrefaction accumulated and the porphyry urn containing the viscera became a kind of anatomic bomb, which suddenly exploded, in the middle of the funeral service, to the horror and dismay of all present.”
* Anne Marie Louise d’Orléans, Duchess of Montpensier (1627-1693) wrote a self-pitying memoir (with appalling grammar and spelling) in which she complained that being rich didn’t make her happy. When she died childless and unmarried she left one of the largest inheritances of any woman in recorded history.
“Paris will become a winter garden; espaliered fruit trees on the boulevard. The Seine filtered and warm – an abundance of fake gemstones – a profusion of gilding – the houses lit up – the light will be stored, for there are bodies that have this property, such as sugar, the flesh of certain molluscs and Bologna phosphorus. The fronts of the houses will be made to be daubed with this phosphorescent substance, and their radiance will light the streets.”
Visions of a lovely biotech future Paris from Gustave Flaubert’s unfinished draft of Bouvard and Pécuchet, the novel he was working on when he died in 1880. I suspect he may have had more than one sip of the laudanum on the night he wrote this. If it was the 1980s instead of the 1880s I’d say Ecstasy. It has that kind of E’d up I LOVE YOU SO MUCH MAN demented glowstick exuberance.
Photo by Alistair Gentry.
A rather surreal engraving of the Eiffel Tower under construction, from La Nature, 1888.
The temptation of avarice. French edition of Ars Moriendi, 1465.
Ars Moriendi (The Art of Dying) was a book that appeared in many editions across medieval Europe. This image is from a block-book edition, i.e. the words and pictures were each carved on the same wooden blocks instead of the text being set in futuristic movable type. The demons appear to be tempting the man with visions of a new 1465 model executive horse, a nice hat, a big house with glass in the windows, and a wine cellar… though surely they’re too late if he’s on his death bed already? Step into my office, imps of Satan; your efficiency and the timeliness of your communications are severely lacking.
Seven hundred years on, this is looking a bit Muppety to me and reminding me of Labyrinth, especially the profoundly unscary demons. If David Bowie’s Goblin King get up of tights, codpiece and joke shop wig were shown here, that would be terrifying.