“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.
Otherwise known as the now traditional lazy retrospective listicle
We all know by now don’t we my little blackguards my pretty roadside fartflowers of the friggingfields my dearest filthy fuckbirds yes we know yes yes yes oh yes that the top pages on the site are invariably James Joyce’s paeans to using the tradesman’s entrance and the translation of Hokusai’s tentacle hentai. Tens of thousands of you, constantly, from all over the world, day and night. You must have massive right arms by now (if you’re right handed).
But there is so much more to explore, and some of it doesn’t even involve sexual fetishes. I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true.
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.
“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 Mysteries of Freemasonry revealed by Léo Taxil.” Circa 1892-1897.
1890s flyer for a talk in Paris by Léo Taxil, part of a lengthy campaign in which he “exposed”– or in truth, made up– connections between Freemasonry, Satanism and other esoterica of the kind that still exercises simple-minded conspiracy theorists to this day. Taxil or his printer has appropriated occultist Eliphas Levi’s already iconic image of Baphomet (not Satan).
One pretty obvious tip-off should have been that he was already well-known as a disillusioned former Catholic who’d written satirical, mocking books about the evident absurdities, incongruities and logical errors present in Church doctrine and in the Bible, particularly if one took the Bible literally. One of his books was called The Amusing Bible. In the 1880s he alighted on some already existent conspiracy theories about Freemasonry, then spent over ten years puffing them up into grand accusations about the worship of Satan in modern Paris. He had a huge and lasting influence on popular Western culture, though unfortunately most people don’t know that he was making fun of the credulous and didn’t for one moment believe that evil fraternities ruled the world in cahoots with Satan. Taxil’s still sometimes cited in crank texts as an “authority” on occultism or Masons. The image of Baphomet was re-appropriated to Anton La Vey’s little club of genuine Satanists in the 20th century via Arthur Waite, via Taxil; many of their Satanist practices were actually made up originally by Taxil as well. Future founder of Scientology L. Ron Hubbard, Aleister Crowley and the pioneering rocket scientist Jack Parsons were also involved to various degrees in Satanism or occultism created in reality from Taxil’s fiction. I think I need a flowchart or something. Probably not until H.P. Lovecraft was there another individual who so inadvertently and yet so thoroughly provided a gateway for fiction to seep through into the real world.
Taxil was nearly lynched by a Catholic audience in Paris when he revealed that he’d been taking the mickey, thereby finding out that satire and subtlety are wasted on most people; even he had underestimated the gullibility and confirmation bias of the ostentatiously religious, and also their fury at having their pet conspiracy theories attacked with logic. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.