[ by Charles Cameron — more food for thought on religious and irreligious outrage — and Paris again, too ]
It will not have escaped the eagle-eyed readers of Zenpundit that three of the incidents we have been discussing recently — the Pussy Riot affair, the Innocence of Muslims video and the Charlie Hebdo cartoons — all revolve around issues of blasphemy and free speech.
I’m indebted to whoever it was pointed me to Colin Jager‘s Pussy Riot’s punk prayer, posted on the SSSR’s Imanent Frame blog ten days ago as a comment on the punk grrls incident:
Perhaps its most obvious precursor is the intervention staged by several young lettrist poets at Notre Dame Cathedral, on Easter Sunday, 1950. In the middle of the service Michel Mourre, dressed as a Dominican monk, climbed into a pulpit and began to read a sermon/poem that condemned the Catholic Church for “infecting the world with its funeral morality,” and announced that God was dead “so that Man may live at last.” As Greil Marcus details in Lipstick Traces, the response was dramatic: the Cathedral’s guards attacked the four with their swords, and the crowd chased them out of the Cathedral and down to the Seine, where they were apprehended by the police.
That’s the sort of hint I like to follow up on, so I found my way to Greil Marcus‘ book, and to this paragraph for starters:
At 11:10 A.M. on 9 April 1950, four young men — one got up from head to foot as a Dominican monk — entered Notre-Dame in Paris. Easter high mass was in progress; there were ten thousand people from all over the world in the cathedral. “The false dominican,” as the press called him — Michel Mourre, twenty-two — took advantage of a pause after the credo and mounted the altar. He began to read a sermon written by one of his co-conspirators, Serge Berna, twenty-five.
Let me say right away that there is at least one pointer here suggesting that Marcus may not be the best observer of religious detail. Marcus says Mourre “took advantage of a pause after the credo and mounted the altar” before reading his sermon — Mourre’s own account has him “mounting the pulpit”. Curiously enough, the writer of the Immanent Frame piece makes a similar error in describing Pussy Riot:
Singing “Mother of God, Chase Putin Out!,” and clad in brightly colored dresses, leggings, and balaclavas, the women danced, kneeled, and crossed themselves in front of the Cathedral’s high altar.
Only in a stretched sense can the Pussy Rioters be described as performing their act “in front of the Cathedral’s high altar.” They were in front of the great doors of the ikonostasis, which when opened, lead to the altar. But the ikonostasis itself is no more an altar than a pulpit is.
Sacred architecture, gentle readers: these are differences here that do make a difference.
Marcus then gives the text of the sermon, which can be found on Wikipedia and concludes with the line:
We proclaim the death of the Christ-god, so that Man may live at last.
Compare the Pussy Riot prayer, the Guardian’s translation of which can be found here, and which includes the lines:
Fight for rights, forget the rite – Join our protest, Holy Virgin.
Moving along, Greil next allows us to glimpse the response, which included the drawing of swords and the threat of lynching:
The cataclysm that followed went beyond anything expected by Mourre and his fellows, who first planned merely to let loose a few red balloons. The organist, warned that a disruption might take place, drowned out Mourre just after he pronounced the magic words “God is dead.” The rest of the speech was never delivered: swords drawn, the cathedral’s Swiss Guards rushed the conspirators and attempted to kill them. Mourre’s comrades took to the altar to shield him — one, Jean Rullier, twenty-five, had his face slashed open. The blasphemers escaped — his habit streaked with Rullier’s blood, Mourre gaily blessed the worshippers as he made for the exit — and were captured, rather rescued, by the police: having chased the four to the Seine, the crowd was on the verge of lynching them.
You may recall for comparison with this incident that the sum total of weaponry attributed to Christ’s disciples in the Gospels was two swords, worn on just the one evening —
And they said, Lord, behold, here are two swords. And he said unto them, It is enough.
— [Luke 22.38], and that the sum total of wounds inflicted by those swords was the loss of one ear, which was quickly and miraculously replaced by the savior himself —
And one of them smote the servant of the high priest, and cut off his right ear. And Jesus answered and said, Suffer ye thus far. And he touched his ear, and healed him.
— [Luke 22:50-51]
Next up, here is Michel Mourre’s own, retrospective account, from his book In Spite of Blasphemy:
It would be absurd to expect that the incident I was organizing with my friends was going to bring about a change in the state of the Church. In the fever of excitement we were in at the time, some of my friends, particularly one who was a former monk, a Spanish Jesuit, really believed it would. But I knew only too well that I had no message to deliver, no reforms to attempt, since I as in a far more wretched moral condition than so many others. I did not believe that God could be found anywhere outside His Church or that God could be an ally of ours against the Catholic Church. In this connection there was the example of all the pseudo-saintly sinners, the pseudo-mystics, the pseudo-illuminaries, both Buddhist and otherwise, who flourished in Saint-Germain-des Pres, and the “hidden knowledge,” the “esoteric intuitions,” the “visions” of the diabolical procession in honor of Satan, the Devil-Lucifer, of which at least one initiate could be found any evening in a Saint-Germain bar ready to describe his “trances.” All these voluntary outcasts from the Church, all these madmen drunk on occult fumes and in search of a substitute God, a substitute Church and Mysteries, discouraged, by the very excess of their nonsense, any attempt to look for God outside the discipline and rules of the Church.
No, I had really no idea of changing anything in the Church! I was trying rather to convince myself that God no longer counted for me, nor did His Church, nor above all did the atmosphere of sacredness that could be felt in the ceremonies of the Church. By this insult to God, by this small sacrifice I was going to make, but not without anxiety or fear, I was trying to make God equal in my eyes with human, transient things which are destined to die and which can be trodden underfoot relentlessly and without regret.
And yet, once I was embarked on the details of our scheme for creating a disturbance during the Easter service at Notre Dame, I began to take it all quite seriously. To my feverish mind the cry of revolt which we decided on at a table in the Mabillon was like a message to the Church, to the world, and I found it quite natural to put on my monk’s habit again before mounting the pulpit. For me the habit of Saint Dominic was an exasperating symbol, an object of reproach. By profaning it I hoped to be rid of it.
Next day, after the Credo of the Easter High Mass in Notre Dame, dressed as a Dominican and wearing a tonsure, I mounted the pulpit and shouted out the old blasphemy: “God is dead!” But the blasphemy is no longer what it was in Nietzsche’s day, the prelude to a hymn of joy; it is only a cry of madness and horribly sad.
While the Moscow Cathedral and Notre Dame incidents are similar in some ways, the Notre Dame venue — Paris, 1950 — prefigures both the students at the barricades in 1968 and the Last Temptation troubles that I reported in connection with the Innocence of Muslims video — and Charlie Hebdo, too. The motivations, however, are quite dissimilar, as the quotes from the grrls closing statements, which I’ve excerpted here and which are extensively quoted in the Jager piece, suggest:
Maria Alyokhina, for example, asserted that for the Orthodox Church “[t]he Gospels are no longer understood as revelation, which they have been from the very beginning, but rather as a monolithic chunk that can be disassembled into quotations to be shoved in wherever necessary.” Noting that Jesus himself had been accused of blasphemy, Alyokhina goes on: “I think that religious truth should not be static, that it is essential to understand the instances and paths of spiritual development, the trials of a human being, his duplicity, his splintering. That for one’s self to form it is essential to experience these things.” And she makes the link to contemporary art explicit: “all of these processes—they acquire meaning in art and in philosophy. Including contemporary art. An artistic situation can and, in my opinion, must contain its own internal conflict.”
The radical power of that diagnosis becomes most clear in Yekaterina Samutsevich’s closing statement: “In our performance,” she writes, “we dared, without the Patriarch’s blessing, to unite the visual imagery of Orthodox culture with that of protest culture, thus suggesting that Orthodox culture belongs not only to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch, and Putin, but that it could also ally itself with civic rebellion and the spirit of protest in Russia.” Most striking here, perhaps, is the language of “uniting” orthodox and protest culture, rather than setting them against each other. This is done, Samutsevich suggests, in the name of a democratic ideal: both orthodox and protest culture are properties of the people rather than of one group or another. The performance, on this analysis, becomes a visual and aural demonstration of what Alyokhina had called “internal conflict,” something posed by all three women as the space in which religious revelation happens. Thus art, religion, and the state are not conceptually separated here but deliberately mixed up, in the name of religious truth.
It is worth noting that Michel Mourre, who had been a Dominican friar before the event in Notre Dame, came back into the Church and lived until 1977, writing a number of books including Religions et Philosophies d’Asie, Le Monde à la mort du Christ and L’Histoire vivante des moines, as well as his Dictionnaire d’histoire universelle.
As the world spins, so spins my head.