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I read Douglas Glover’s novel Elle when it came out in 2003, and over the years I’ve continued, now and again, to read a few pages at random. It’s an excellent book – it won Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Award – with a remarkable narrator heroine and a curious plot, but I go back to it simply because I enjoy the story teller’s voice. The novel is based on an actual event in Canada’s history when a French noblewoman was abandoned on the Isle of Demons in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1542.
The history is simple. In 1541 Jean-François de La Rocque de Roberval, a nobleman privateer, was made Lieutenant General of New France. He set sail from the old to the New France that same year and along with him and the other colonists in his charge he had his cousin, or maybe it was his niece or his sister – the record is confused – but in any case she was Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval. For some unknown reason Lieutenant General Roberval became infuriated with Marguerite and as the ship entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence he had Marguerite, plus her lover and her maidservant, put ashore on a small unpopulated island, providing them with scant hunting and fishing gear. A few years later Marguerite was rescued by Basque fishermen and by then her lover and an infant who Marguerite had given birth to had died, as had the maidservant.
Marguerite returned to France and her story became known, maybe even well known. The chronicle of Marguerite’s adventure was first put into writing by Queen Marguerite of Navarre, and other elaborated versions by other writers have followed. Douglas Glover, limiting himself to the skimpiest handful of facts, has written the most spirited and strangest story of all.
Glover’s novel opens with this three-sentence paragraph:
Oh Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I am aroused beyond all reckoning, beyond memory, in a ship’s cabin on a spumy gulf somewhere west of Newfoundland, with the so-called Comte D’Epirgny, five years since bad-boy tennis champion of Orleans, tucked between my legs. Admittedly, Richard is turning green from the ship’s violent motions, and if he notices the rat hiding behind the shit bucket, he will surely puke. But I have looped a cord round the base of his cock to keep him hard.
Clearly, this is a Marguerite de La Rocque we haven’t heard from before. What has always intrigued me about Marguerite’s voice isn’t her charming salacious tongue, but her amazing leaps of thought. Douglas Glover is a skilled writer and one of the things I admire in his work is the unobtrusive way he packs his paragraphs. Most writers, following the instructions of their high-school English teachers, use each paragraph to perform one step, do one thing; Glover can write a paragraph that does a lot of different things at once. He gets his characters and the reader located “in a ship’s cabin on a spumy gulf somewhere west of Newfoundland” and at the same time engages the reader by presenting a dramatic sexual encounter just as it struggles toward a climax. Indeed, the dull expository fact of place – a gulf west of Newfoundland – is camouflaged by being part of the sexual scene, for the sea is “spumy” and the ship is rolling and heaving even more than the lovers – a conceit that is carried on between the lines as the scene progresses.
Both Marguerite and her lover Richard are in commonplace unheroic pain. Richard is about to throw up from seasickness and Marguerite has a colossal toothache. “My tooth feels bigger than my head, bigger than a house. My tooth has colonized the world.” So in the midst of this bout of lovemaking Marguerite prays to St. Apollonia, the patron of “toothache cures.” (Apollonia was martyred by a mob who smashed all her teeth, and such terrible tortures excite Marguerite sexually.) Marguerite can’t quite get to the climax she’s seeking and Richard, violently ill with his seasickness, has stuffed his fists into his mouth, and can’t use his hands to help her get there. “I recall, not for the first time,” Marguerite tells us parenthetically, “that the learned Democritus described coitus as a form of epilepsy.”
This story follows a woman into solitude and readers are fortunate that she has an exceptionally wide ranging and lively mind. In the midst of this sexual scene she pauses to tell us that “In Orleans, in 1542, there are forty-three tennis courts. Perhaps this is not the time to bring this up, but it makes you think. There are only thirty-seven churches. Yet we burn Protestant heretics (also horse thieves, book publishers, books themselves and the occasional impolitic author when we can get one) and not maladroit tennis players. What one is to make of this odd circumstance, I cannot say.” (That note about publishers and writers is the first of a scattering of similar remarks about books throughout the novel.) Happily for Marguerite, she remembers a certain apostate nun she saw burned the previous summer and that memory drives her to her orgasm “and I come, shouting Hail Mary.”
Not only does no one know why the historical Marguerite was among those sailing to New France under the command of General Roberval – whatever his family relationship to her – also, no one knows what caused him to abandon her with her lover and her maid on a desolate island. As happens in one of the earliest accounts of this event, Douglas Glover has her lover, Richard, leap from the ship to the small boat carrying her ashore. In this version the ardent Richard misses the boat and plunges into the water, but emerges to share her fate, which was his intention.
The author invents freely and believably the circumstances of her being among those colonists in a chapter called What Do You Do with a Headstrong Girl? in which Marguerite describes herself as not only headstrong, but too sensual, too curious, too brave, too forward, and especially as having a too great an interest in books. Her exasperated father wanted to be rid of her and she wanted to escape her home; her going was a convenience for both of them.
Marguerite doesn’t suggest any reason for her punishment beyond bad behavior. As for the nature of the punishment, she says at one point “I am particularly reminded of the Greek princess Iphigenia, whose father Agamemnon put her to death on a lonely beach on the shaky theory that this act would ensure decent sailing over to Troy, where he hoped to win back his brother’s runaway wife Helen (another woman led astray by her heart in a world of men). It’s a male thing, I suppose, not to be persuaded from murder by the threat of revenge, pangs of conscience, pity, justice, the tug of family affection, not to mention the purely unscientific basis of the premise that killing a virgin will cause sunshine and warm, westerly breezes.”
Other aspects of this novel that set it apart are its fascinating surreal passages. Very few novels depicting historical events are also, in part, surrealist fictions. I recall a novel by Curzio Malaparte, La Pelle, that came out shortly after the second world war, a novel in which the real horrors of the war joined easily and smoothly with surreal passages. Douglas Glover makes similar moves in Elle, transitioning from the factual terrors of being marooned on a small island in a merciless Canadian winter to Marguerite’s hallucinations to the presence of a real magical bear – or maybe it’s a real bear.
By the way, the surrealism in Douglas Glover’s novel isn’t just another name for authorial invention. In an earlier brilliant and underappreciated novel, The Life and Times of Captain N., published back in 1993, the author presents a horrific vision of battles in Mohawk Valley during the American Revolution, but the nightmarish visions in that book are nailed to the commonplace world of human violence in realist fashion. In both novels, Glover mangles and distorts the facts to get at the truth.
Douglas Glover is a Canadian writer, but Canada isn’t far from the United States and if you live in a Northern state it’s quite close. Glover resides on both sides of the US-
Canada border and teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier. Our paths crossed many years ago when we were both teaching in upstate New York. That was so many years ago I cannot recall actual dates, but I was on the faculty of the State University of NY at Albany and Doug was hosting The Book Show, a weekly half-hour literary interview program. If it’s possible to remain in contact with another writer simply by reading his books – even when you haven’t seen each other for years — then I can say we’ve remained in touch.
In this little essay I’ve quoted a lot from the opening pages of Elle, because I know of no equally sensuous way to convey the voice of this narrative. Of course, the voice in Elle belongs to Marguerite and is merely transcribed by Doug Glover who has his own voice. And, naturally, it varies from novel to novel and from one short story to another. Though it may be impossible to find the writer’s own personal voice in his fictions, you can meet his literary mind directly in his non-fictional book on Cervantes, The Enamoured Knight. To be precise, the book isn’t about Cervantes but about his novel, Don Quixote – and, actually, and it’s not so much about that novel, as it is rather on Glover’s theory and craft of fiction writing. In addition to writing and teaching, Doug Glover also is the editor of the online literary magazine Numero Cinq which, despite it’s name, is in English. Finally, I must add that Douglass Glover is obscure. Let me quote from the masthead of Numero Cinq:
Douglas Glover’s obscurity is legendary; he is mostly known for being unknown. He has been called “the most eminent unknown Canadian writer alive” (Maclean’s Magazine, The National Post). But for sheer over-the-top hyperbole, nothing beats the opening of a recent piece about him in Quill and Quire in Toronto, which elevates his lack of celebrity to the epic: “Certain mysteries abide in this world: the Gordian Knot, the Holy Trinity, and the literary obscurity of Douglas Glover.”
We’re happy to reprint the following essay by Robert Gray which appeared in Shelf Awareness, the online journal essential to critics and booksellers.
A Day for Eugene Mirabelli
You think that their
dying is the worst
thing that could happen.
Then they stay dead.
–From “Distressed Haiku” by Donald Hall
Grief is a funny thing. I thought about beginning this column with the previous sentence, then decided not to, then decided I would after all because grief is funny, as in perplexing and mystifying and singular. Anyone who has experienced deep personal loss understands this, but an occasional reminder somehow always has the power to stun and haunt anew. This happened to me recently during a bookstore author event.
November 4 of this year was proclaimed Eugene Mirabelli Day in Albany, N.Y. In her proclamation, Mayor Kathy M. Sheehan noted that in his most recent book, Renato After Alba–a sequel to his 2012 novel Renato, the Painter (both published by McPherson & Co.)–the 85-year-old author “touches upon universal aspects of human existence by creating lovably flawed characters who subtly express the full range of human emotion and experience, from great joy to crushing loss, from deep love of life to rage against the inevitability of death. All written with clarity and cleverness and craft.”
As part of the celebration, the Book House at Stuyvesant Plaza hosted an event last Friday, with renowned author Joseph Bruchac interviewing Mirabelli. I stopped by the bookstore to learn more about Renato Stillamare before–and after–Alba, but what I heard was something extraordinary about how one writer mourns… and works.
When I read Mirabelli’s two novels back to back not long ago, I was struck by how intricately, and intimately, woven together they were, despite being in many ways quite different reads. Renato, the Painter’s narrator is a 70-year-old scoundrel of an artist, still hungry for fame and not particularly averse to temptation. In the sequel, Renato is 12 years older and trying to reorient himself after the loss of his beloved wife, Alba, a striking presence in the first book and a stunning absence in the second. The borderline between these two novels is life and death.
“Anybody who’s written a first-person novel knows that you’re going to be identified with the narrator,” Mirabelli told his audience. “My wife died after I’d written the book that precedes it. She had read everything in that first Renato book. We were about to go down and see the publisher, in fact, when she passed away. And I had a great sense of revulsion against that Renato, the Painter because I knew instinctively that people were going to identify me with him and I hated the idea. I took the galleys of the book and threw them in the garage, which is usually the stop that precedes being thrown away entirely. And it took about a year before the publisher and I got together and went ahead with that publication.”
Although he acknowledged that he could have written a memoir after his wife’s death, Mirabelli recalled that “for two or three years I didn’t feel like writing at all. And my friends said, ‘Oh you’re a writer, you’ll write.’ That was the last thing on my mind. I did after a few years come to the point where I wanted…. not to write so much, but I wanted to have the feeling I used to have when I did have a piece of work I was writing. I really liked that feeling and wanted it back again.
“And sooner or later I did write a short story and another short story, but whenever I sat down to write my head was suddenly filled with death, and it became apparent finally that I couldn’t write anything unless I wrote something about death. Something about grief. So the question was what…. And one of the things that had happened to me during that early period, very early, was the recognition that what happened to me, which astonished me, was happening to people every day. All over the globe. I wasn’t unique at all. Grief is a strange emotion…. But grief is something you’ve never felt unless somebody you love has died. It’s a remarkably unique emotion…. One of the curious things is how similar people’s experiences can be while being unique in all the details.”
Mirabelli added: “It’s funny, or ironic that when I wrote Renato, the Painter, I decided that I wanted to write a really life-affirming book. At the end of that book, everybody who could possibly get pregnant is pregnant. I wanted that. Renato is a deeply flawed, but very creative person. I think it’s a life-affirming story…. I didn’t intend to write this book. No one would ever intend to write a book like Renato After Alba. But when I did start to write it, it was kind of weird… I went back to Renato, the Painter and there were all sorts of things that I found in the book that made sense in this book. And I don’t know how that happened, but it just happened.”
His publisher, Bruce McPherson, told me: “I’ve been working with Gene for about five years, and, for whatever reason, I think he’s been an underrated and unjustly overlooked author for too long. Renato Stillamare is a remarkable creation, the literary offspring of a comic tradition dating at least from Fielding’s Tom Jones through Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth and Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, with a touch of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. But for all of his irrepressible life force and cranky artistic sprezzatura in Renato, the Painter, Renato is most completely realized and fully human in Renato After Alba, where he ultimately overcomes terrible suffering with wonderment toward life and creation. I now see the two books as necessary to one another, a perfect balance.”
The saying goes that time is money. On the other hand, you’ve probably heard that rich people live longer than poor people. So we can turn the old saying around and say that money is time. A few years ago, a movie with premise that time and money are interchangeable came out. The action-adventure sci-fi thriller was called In Time and starred Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried.
The movie takes place in an alternate present where everyone’s diminishing 25-year life expectancy is visible in luminescent numbers on their forearm. The body-clock stops at age 25, after which you have a year in which to buy more time, if you have the money. If you don’t, you can gamble for it, beg for it, steal it — or give up and die. The premise is very interesting, but the film is disappointingly commonplace with the usual smooth talking rich villains, the lower strata of relentless killers, and the dashing heroic lovers who steal from the idle time-rich to give to the desperate time-poor.
The most interesting scenes are simple visuals where Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried — he with a shaved head and not-quite-shaved cheeks, she in a high-heels and tight miniskirt — run as fast as they can to escape thugs and the time police. The pair are good runners even when holding hands. It’s too bad everything else is so lame, because a movie in which more money means more time alive dramatizes an essential fact of life in the US today.
Nowadays, men in the top 1 percent can look forward to celebrating their 87th birthday, which is about 15 more birthdays than those poor guys in the bottom 1 percent. As a matter of fact, really rich men in the USA can look forward to living longer than men anywhere on the planet. Those other guys down in the bottom 1 percent of in the United States, can expect to live as briefly as men in Sudan.
These sad facts come from an investigation into wealth and life expectancy by Stanford University economist Raj Chetty and seven other researchers. The surprising news in this news is that for the poor, where they live will help determine how long they live. The rich do well in any city, but the poor – while generally living more abbreviated lives – live longer if they reside in, say, San Francisco or New York city rather than in Detroit or Tampa. According to the researchers, it helps if the place where you live has an abundance of affluent smart people and social policies which encourage a healthy lifestyle. To be specific, if a municipality reduces the areas where you can smoke cigarettes and increases the areas for bicycling and other healthful activities, all people will benefit.
Another effect of wealth is that it tends to even out the differences in life expectancy between men and women. Poor women tend to live 6 or 7 years longer than poor men, but as men and women rise in wealth, the difference in their life expectancy shrinks and at the top, women can expect only 3 or so more years than men.
Of course the movie is, as we tell our frightened children, only make believe. In real life a phone call doesn’t cost you a minute off your life, and breakfast in a really good restaurant won’t chop eight-and-a-half weeks from your lifespan. One of the In Time characters says, “Many must die so that a few can live forever.” The relationship of wealth to life expectancy in the United States isn’t that bad. Not yet, anyway.
These Easter eggs were made a generation ago. Delicate little things, real egg shells painted by hand, and the kids who made them have kids of their own now. These lovely ornaments spend most of the year in boxes stored under the eves in the attic, then come into the light for a brief time once a year.There’s no question that for Christians such hollow decorated egg shells came to symbolize the empty tomb of the risen Christ, but precisely when and where the symbol got its start is a vexed piece of history. No matter. Humans have been decorating eggs for thousands of years and for sure a lot of life starts with an egg. For Romans of Christ’s time, all life comes from an egg or, as they say, omne vivum ex ovo. We too came from an egg and without kids all life would cease. So there they are, bowls of real hollowed egg shells painted by children. There’s resurrection for you!
Maybe you know about Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter, a very bright young mathematician who worked with the older scientist, Charles Babbage, when he was developing the first programmable computing machine — a precursor of the contemporary computer. If you know a bit more, you know that the machine, which was never actually built, was to be programmed by punched cards, similar to the punched cards that were used a hundred and more years later in the early computers of the 20th century. And if you’re like most people who know about Ada, that’s about all you know of her.
Ada’s life has the elements of a good gossipy story, and that’s the way it’s treated in James Essinger’s biography, Ada’s Algorithm. Or, as the book’s subtitle says, How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched The Digital Age. Ada’s father was as notorious for his bad-boy behavior as he was famous for his poetry, and Ada wasn’t able to escape the celebrity of his name. Probably the most decisive effect of having Byron for a father was that Ada’s mother constructed an educational program for Ada that was designed to stamp out any fanciful or imaginative tendencies the girl might have inherited from dreadful dad. Lady Byron gave birth to Ada on December 10, 1815, and thirty-five days later she folded back the covers from her side of the bed, slipped from her sleeping husband’s side, then bundled herself and her daughter in warm clothes and, with a maidservant, left their London house.
Ada never saw her father after that. George Gordon, Lord Byron, was a great poet but he wasn’t cut out to be a husband or father.
James Essinger’s light and chatty biography provides brief sketches of Ada’s parents and grandparents and, what’s more to the point, it gives the reader a good sense of how mother and daughter behaved in regard to each other. Lady Byron’s plan to protect Ada from whatever imaginative tendencies she might have inherited from her father included a good dose of mathematics. As it happened, Ada did very well in mathematics. Indeed, she excelled in that field and eventually directed her own studies and became a fine mathematician — not an easy feat for a woman in the early 19th century. She had a lively interest in science and technology, too. In 1833 Ada turned 18 and, following the custom of her class, she was formally introduced to society as a marriageable young woman. Young women of high social status were often presented at court and so it was with Ada who, wearing white satin and tulle, and accompanied by her mother, curtsied to the king and queen, and hobnobbed with the dignitaries there on that day in May. (more…)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, affectionately called Wolferl by his family, or Wolfie, as we might say in English, was born on January 27th, 1756, in Salzburg, Austria. The kid was a musical prodigy. He was playing the harpsichord and composing music when he was five years old. His older sister, Marianna, called Nannerl ( call her Nanni), was musically talented, too. Their father, Leopold, was a musician and in no time Leopold and his two children were touring Europe and astonishing audiences.When it came to music, Mozart’s brain was neurologically different from others: the Vatican never permitted copies to be made of Allegri’s Miserere, but Mozart — around the age of 14 — was able to listen to that composition twice in the Sistine Chapel and to write it out from memory. Mozart married Constanze Weber, a woman who had, among other virtues, a fine singing voice. He composed over 600 pieces, symphonies, operas, choral music, chamber music, masses, serenades — you name it, he was astonishing at whatever form he turned his hand to. Most of his life Mozart was famous and successful, and he spent money freely, much too freely. When times turned bad, the brilliant young man, husband and father, found himself asking his friends for loans. Eventually, modest good fortune returned — but then Mozart fell ill, sickened and died. He was 35 years old, survived by Constanze and two of their six children. It was a brief life, but astonishing and productive of dazzling music.
The intellectual magazine Foreign Affairs displays a humanoid robot on the cover of its July/August issue, and one of the summer’s most popular movies, Ex Machina, is about a similar robot. The Foreign Affairs robot is posed much like Hamlet glumly contemplating the skull of Yorick. And the female robot advertising Ex Machina looks at us skeptically from the movie advertisements. These humanoid machines are not our cheerful servants.
Star Wars brought us happy, useful robots — the charming barrel-shaped R2-D2, and the humanoid, etiquette-expert C-3PO. But that was then, before we had smart phones and drones that made their own flight plans. Nowadays, people are beginning to wonder if artificial intelligence or building a really, really smart robot is such a good idea.
In Ex Machina, Caleb Smith, a programmer who works for the world’s largest internet search engine, wins a company-wide contest which rewards him with a week as guest at the home of Nathan Bateman, the brilliant and reclusive CEO of the company. When Caleb arrives at Nathan’s isolated ultra-modern dwelling, the owner doesn’t come to the door. Caleb wanders through the big shoebox structure, an interior of glass-walled rooms and no windows to the outside, until he exits onto a terrace where he finds muscular black-bearded Nathan in boxing gloves, pounding a punching bag.
Nathan tells Caleb that he wants him to perform a Turing test on Nathan’s newest creation, a human-like female robot named Ava. Over the next seven days Caleb interacts with Ava and is interrogated by Nathan as to whether Ava’s artificial intelligence and awareness of self are indistinguishable from those qualities in a human.
OK, the setup is silly. Maybe we can accept that Nathan is one of the richest people on the planet, a Mozart of coding who created an entire programming language as a teenager. But, no, we don’t believe that he or anyone can run a successful global corporation from an isolated forest valley located on the far side of a colossal glacier. And, no, we don’t believe that anyone working alone and in total paranoid secrecy could build, piece by piece, a robot sophisticated enough to pass for human.
But forget all that. It’s a science-fiction movie and the important thing is that we now have our Frankenstein in his laboratory. We have our egomaniac scientist Nathan and his humanoid creation Ava and, as the stand-in for ourselves, a decent and intelligent outsider, Caleb. So we suspend our disblief and watch the drama play out.
And it’s worth it. The writer-director Alex Garland has written an excellent script and chosen precisely the right actors to direct. Alicia Vikander, who plays Ava, studied ballet at the Royal Swedish Ballet School, but opted for acting instead of ballet and that earlier training works beautifully in this role. Vikander conveys, by the ever so subtle placement of her head, her torso and limbs, a sense of hidden machinery. At the same time, her face – again by very subtle changes – convinces us that there’s a vulnerable human sensibility at work inside that machine.
Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb comes across as the opposite of his boss; there’s nothing about him that suggests overbearing masculinity or violence. Quite the contrary, he is a vulnerable man with a naivete we might have expected in Ava. Indeed, those two make a good match. You might say they were made for each other in this prison-like Eden, watched over by omniscient Nathan who thinks of himself as God. Oscar Isaac, an actor who fits perfectly with the other two, plays Nathan as a man who controls everything, including his own violence.
As the drama plays out, Caleb begins to see — sometimes more slowly than we in the audience — that Nathan has created Ava as perhaps sentient and maybe endowed with free will, but certainly as constrained as a slave. And the question arises, as it must: if you build a machine that displays all the outward signs of human intelligence and human feeling, is it moral to treat that machine as a machine? How do you distinguish between a machine that mimics human sensibilities and a human?
Of course, in Ex Machina, these are not merely philosophical questions, they’re matters of life and death. During recurring power outages, when — presumably — Nathan’s camera’s and recording devices don’t work, Ava asks Caleb’s help to escape from Nathan’s glass walled prison. And Caleb does respond to her appeal.
The robot C-3PO looked like a streamlined version of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, but Ava is convincingly female, at least in regard to her expressive face and that part of her upper body covered by a sweater-like garment. Furthermore, Nathan assures Caleb that she has a vagina loaded with sensors and if stimulated, she will feel pleasure. Her midsection and parts of her limbs are a maze of gleaming silvery rods and wires, so she is visually an expression of the contradiction between being human and being machine.
Caleb and Ava are separated by an unbreakable wall of clear glass, but as they talk and respond to each other over those seven days we can see Caleb’s emotional involvement deepening. But Caleb, like the rest of us, knows that Ava’s artificial intelligence, her entire sense of self, her stratagems and ways of relating to the world and specifically to this new man, Caleb — all this in Ava was designed and programed by omnipotent Nathan. So, does Ava have free will, or is what she says and does ultimately the result of Nathan’s handiwork?
Ex Machina begins slowly and builds with relentlessly increasing tension as we and Caleb see ever more clearly the truth of the situation — along with certain terrible ambiguities. We can take this drama as an updated version of the goings on in Frankenstein’s laboratory or as a false Eden contrived by an ego driven God, the moral dilemmas and the physical dangers are the same. Whether the ending is necessary or arbitrary and whether it fits esthetically are questions that viewers will decide for themselves, but certainly this stylish multidimensional movie is something to enjoy and think about.
In the aftermath of the slaughter in Paris our instinct is to condemn the killers and mourn their victims and to defend — defend to the death, as some have said — the right of editors and cartoonists to write and draw what they please. If they want to satirize Moses or the Pope or Jesus or Mohammed, fine, let them do it.
The offices of Charlie Hebdo had been firebombed in the past by Islamic extremists, so the editors and cartoonists there knew what they were doing. Workers on the magazine weren’t constrained by prudence or the unwritten rules of ordinary decent behavior, such as civility, politeness, and live and let live. They were, as their publication says of itself, irresponsible. We know that.
We also know that safe speech that offends no one, and safe cartooning that ridicules only the conventionally ridiculous, doesn’t maintain or test the limits of free speech. People on the social margin — anarchistic, pornographic, outrageous and disobedient — people working at the disreputable edge, they’re the ones who keep the mainstream free. We have no qualms or quibbles, no questions about any of that.
But we do question whether they had the right target when they lampooned Muhammad. Every nation engaged in fighting Islamic extremists has said over and over again that it is not at war with Islam — it’s at war with Islamic extremists. French President François Hollande has distinctly and emphatically said it many times this past week. About 18 percent of the French population is Muslim. Those Muslims aren’t visitors; they are citizens of France, they are French.
Satirists have generally aimed their barbs at the rich and powerful, at the people in charge who lord it over the poor and downtrodden. But in creating cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, Charlie Hebdo offended all French Muslims — a group made up, by and large, of poor and marginalized citizens. Yes, yes, the cartoons were visual statements against Muslim extremists and terrorists. But extremists and terrorists don’t change their behavior by being bashed in a low circulation satirical magazine. Charlie Hebdo’s broad brush cartoons injured the religious sensibilities of all Muslims.
In France, as in the United Sates, there aren’t laws prohibiting the publication of magazines such as Charlie Hebdo. Open, pluralistic, democratic societies don’t pass laws against publishing satirical cartoons, no matter how offensive, nor do they punish editors for adolescent rebelliousness or gross misjudgment. They don’t even pass laws against cartoonists for being offensive simply for the sake of offending. An open and democratic society puts up with a lot. It’s worth it.
One of the curses or blessings of contemporary life is that we get news instantaneously from all over the world, and a lot of days it’s truly depressing news. Whether or not you believe in angels singing over a stable in Bethlehem, whether or not you credit the tale of shepherds startled in their fields, and magi who traveled to Bethlehem bearing gifts, magi who got there by following a star — surely the news of that event would be better than what we’re getting these days. So enjoy this event, this balm for the soul. Use your imagination.
The painting is a detail from a much larger work, The Adoration of the Magi, painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio,the Italian Renaissance painter. Along with two brothers and a brother-in-law, he managed a studio workshop that turned out a number of paintings, a sort of “school of Ghirlandaio.” His most famous student-apprentice was Michelangelo. Those angels, or ones resembling them, appear in some other of the works to come out of that workshop, not quite mass production, but not unique either, and, indeed, how much was done by Domenico and how much by someone else is unknowable. The music that the Angels are singing is largely unknowable and quite inaudible. Do use your imagination.