Thursday, 8 January 2015

Le cas Voltaire

Nothing can be expressed about the 'executions' in the Charlie Hebdo headquarters beyond horror and revulsion, but the ramifications of what happens next are thousandfold. I heard that folk at the French Institute today were in shock and tearful mourning; many of them had grown up familiar with the work of several of the murdered cartoonists, and felt that with their deaths went part of themselves. Of the thousands of outpourings, I was struck afresh when our beloved Sophie quoted a French journalist citing lines attributed to Voltaire: 'I disapprove of what you say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it'.

The first point here is probably trivial, but the fact is that Voltaire didn't put it in those words: that was how a 1907 book by one Tallentyre, The Friends of Voltaire, summed up Voltaire's attitude to the state burning of a controversial book by the philosopher Helvétius. What he actually said, which doesn't begin to do justice to the present situation, was, 'so much fuss about an omelette!'. Anyhow, it was instructive to learn of the circumstances.

More troubling is an article by Brendan O'Neill in Spiked, which points out how the lawyer of the radical Muslim men tried in Luton back in 2010 for verbally abusing soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan  invoked that very phrase in their defence. Five of the seven were found guilty and fined £500 each with a conditional discharge, so Voltaire's tenet wasn't accepted. Certainly O'Neill's points about the west's forgetting Voltaire at its un- or dis-enlightened peril are rich and troubling food for thought, though I don't agree with them all. After all, European societies' hypocrisies are nothing compared to the wholesale pursuit of bloody revenge which is such a mass psychosis in the world today.

I'm still not comfortable enough with the question of spoofing Mohammed to declare 'je suis Charlie Hebdo' (I know, I'm being too literal there). But I do embrace this truth with all my heart (and a question mark about the slaver), courtesy of  Index on Censorship.

Here is probably not the best place to reinforce what I wrote in the comments to the previous thread, since master musicologist Michael Kennedy's death at the age of 88 on 31 December was relatively peaceful and natural. Still, a sombre time seems appropriate to voicing something of my feelings. How I admired that man. His biography of Barbirolli was the first I ever read about a musician, since it was one of the few in my grammar school library that stood out when I first went there at the age of 11. And his Master Musicians study of Richard Strauss stoked my teenage infatuation; since then he's been the model of informed enthusiasm, not just about Strauss but also in warm appraisals of Boult, Britten, Elgar and Vaughan Williams.

We met often at operas and concerts, and shared several study days and discussions. He always looked a little wry when I told him how influential he'd been on my musical life, thinking perhaps that I was overdoing it ('licky, licky'; as another colleague, David Fanning, rather disarmingly put it). But I meant it. Since so much of his time was spent on the Northern edition of the Daily Telegraph, it seems right to link to that paper's obituary. Thoughts to the vivacious Joyce Bourne, his widow.

This is merely a detail, since it can't be seen clearly below, of a panel gathering at the Manchester Prokofiev Conference in 2003. How sad it makes me to note that Michael is only the latest person photographed to be no longer with us. Also here are Sir Edward Downes, my dear Noelle Mann, Lynne Walker and Sasha Ivashkin, all of them untimely gone.

I've not written about other deaths towards the end of 2014 which affected me personally, for various reasons; at the request of his griefstricken partner Cristian, I can't enlarge on how sad I feel about his dear Gary, and I'll miss two of my mother's closest and liveliest friends, the two Marys (Farrington and Hooper), though their lives had been so wretched in the last year or so that it really was that clichéd thing, a blessed relief.

So it goes. Il faut cultiver notre jardin.


Susan Scheid said...

David: In a way, your turning toward homage to David Kennedy's life is wholly appropriate--we do far too little of celebrating the good (particularly in the press)--as is Sophie's theme for next week's calligraphy competition. I do love the story of Kennedy's biography of Barbarolli as your first ever biography about a musician, at age 11 no less. (At that age, I scoured the library shelves for biographies--there was a whole series of them at that time, but I don't think any were about musicians.) I'm glad you had the opportunity to tell him how much he meant to you during his lifetime. We should all do that when we can.

David said...

It's Michael Kennedy, Sue - I expect he's even less well known in the States than Larkin (must say that surprised me, but we all have our limited perspectives).

Agreed about letting people know - that was something the late Lynne Walker (mentioned in the piece) and I discussed; it doesn't happen very often in our chary world, indeed very seldom among my musical colleagues - fact, not self-pity. I met the dance writer Louise Levene at Swan Lake the other night, and was able to enthuse specifically about a brilliant article she'd written for a Decca box of complete ballet scores. The way she'd encapsulated it all so clearly showed such deep knowledge. And I suspect it was that specific reference which meant so much to her.

David Damant said...

Maybe when analysing the "right" of free speech we should look at comments on Christianity where the element of violence in response does not ( usually) add a complicating dimension to the argument. Was it right for a poem to be written describing the sexual attentions given by a Roman soldier to the body ( described) of Christ on the cross? Of course not. The author was morally corrupt to even think of such a thing. Yet one of those killed the other day in Paris was praised for the fact that for him nothing was sacred. In the discussions over past years as to what should replace traditional morality it was said that one principle is not to hurt other people. The pain caused by this poem was manifest. And in any case the idea of the Death of God is very powerful and through Christianity integrated with Western civilisation. Yet the freedom to publish that poem was keenly supported by the urban intellectual elite, the artistic people and the media. This is not to suggest censorship but it is to say that freedom to publish is not the only criterion, and the "right" and desire to be crude is not a morally defensible position

Susan Scheid said...

With apologies, David, and thank you for the correction. I'm glad to learn of him and his work, however late. I've just read a lovely paean to him that also makes an important point about the value of good music criticism, stating that "critics are part of the enlightening, or civilising, process; and as such are worth their weight in gold. One of the most precious metals of all is Michael Kennedy." It is something to be thankful for, and celebrated, whenever there is a chance--as you did for Lynne Walker, too. I know I've learned a great deal from not only your work, but also from the many insightful writers to whom you've pointed me over time.

Susan Scheid said...

David D: No one, no one, should be killed as the result of speech.

David said...

I'm sure that's not what David meant, Sue. But he reads a little harshly under the circumstances. I think the false comparison here is with an extreme poem on Christ (though I've not viewed all the Charlie Hebdo cartoons).

Still, I have to balance my own feeling that I wouldn't want to cause public offence to good Muslims with the right to put out what you want. It all comes back to Voltaire, or rather his gist, with which I'm sure DD agrees.

Interesting, all the same, the raising of 'not doing harm to others'. It's one of the two commandments according to the poet in Nabokov's Pale Fire, 'thou shalt not kill' being the other. I was thinking that the big tenet of ALL religions would be the latter - which of course also comes under the category of doing harm to others. I recall again the actor Paul Eddington's words in interview when he knew he was dying and was asked how he would like to be remembered: as someone who did very little harm.

Meanwhile, more positive tenets from our Sophie. Read her blog (linked at the head of this piece), but I'll reproduce the relevant passages:

'I too in my little way here in Djenné have decreed that the theme for the calligraphy competition at the library next week (sponsored by MaliMali) is “Islam: a Religion of Peace”; and the texts that have been chosen for the calligraphy have been chosen in the Koran to reflect this theme.

'The Muslim communities of the world have spoken their condemnation of this event via many religious leaders and via their imams in many cities of the world. But I don’t think that it is enough! The “real “ Muslims of the world, all those that abhor the behaviour of the Taliban, Al-Quaida, Isis, Boko Haram et al need to form an energetic movement for peace in order to show the world that their Islam has been hi-jacked. It cannot be left to the liberal masses of agnostic post-Christians to fight the politically correct battle for Islam! Get yourself together and save the face of your own religion- we may help you as well as we can in the name of peace and understanding but if you want to save the reputation of your religion it is YOUR duty to do so with more vigour than you do now!'

Finally, lovely words you quote about critics and MK there, Sue. Whose were they?

Susan Scheid said...

David N: I awoke this morning thinking that I surely had to have misunderstood what you meant, David D, and came over to say so just now. I do just despair about this constant resort to violence in response to speech and feel, whatever the complexities of the situation, on that issue a bright line must be drawn. (I would also not put "right" to free speech in quotes.)

I had read Sophie's wonderful words yesterday and found them so heartening. She has offered a positive, meaningful response, and I hope it is heard around the world.

On Michael Kennedy, here's the html to the article I read:

Best wishes to all.

Susan Scheid said...

Just a footnote on the right to free speech: there is absolutely, as you both have noted, a great deal of speech that is abhorrent, irresponsible, and morally reprehensible. I don't condone any of that and, where confronted with it, I use my own right to free speech to dispute it. As Justice Brandeis once said, "If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence."

David said...

You're right, Sue, DD's "right" was not (right). But maybe he'll be back with some dodgy justification.

Sadly the word 'dodgy' also applies in my experience to high-handed tory Heffer (and that's not just because I still smart from a tangential review of my Prokofiev book). Precious metal his writings on music are not. But still, Michael deserved that tribute.

David said...

Your second message came in after I'd posted that reply, Sue. The Brandeis quotation is of a Voltairean eloquence. Ah, the power of language.

David Damant said...

My point is that no one who is moral and politically sensitive could possibly want to write a poem about a soldier having sex with Christ on the cross, or want to draw a vicious picture of the Prophet.

Unless there is a valid reason? I cannot see that in most of these cases there is a reason, apart from a crude desire to hit at every icon, often based on intellectual vanity, regardless of the views of others.

My point is separate from whether there should be any control on what is written or spoken. In my view, on that separate matter, there is no absolute right in this or any other sphere. [Note - I put "right" in quotation marks since the word is frequently invoked as an absolute]. Voltaire needs footnotes. And indeed already I cannot write an article referring to a black guy as a nxxxxx, or argue that anti-semitism is the fault of the Jews themselves who should xxxx xxxxxxxxx. It is a matter of balance - some positions do need to be attacked, and how that is done is another consideration. But I am sure that the moral position of those who produce vicious anti-Islam or anti-Christian things out of a sophisticated selfishness is to be condemned, irrespective of whether their work is published or not.

David said...

You're very inflexible, sir, in your supposed flexibility, and I'd have to ask if you know in detail the contexts of the cartoons in question. Until you do, comparison with the extreme cases you mention doesn't hold very firm. Actually I don't know the poem you mention, but as there's no evidence Christ ever existed, I can't see how people can be hurt to the marrow if their belief is strong. Everyone has the "right", and should have the sense, to ignore something if it's not exactly mainstream wisdom. Surely faith isn't that fragile.

Finally, though, it's just not so far below Farage to talk of 'sophisticated selfishness' as something 'to be condemned' when nerves are so raw. There's a positive blog entry above this one: how about embracing that instead?

wanderer said...

David, Im afraid I have to way in. You're asking DD about what he does or doesn't know about the cartoons before moving on to confess no knowledge and therefore context of the offensive poem about Christ. And then seek absolution in the lack of proof that Christ existed. Faith is very very fragile, by definition. It is not based on proof or fact, but on faith. Ipso etc.

Anyway, fractiousness is the wrong path to take, self included.

What has been overlooked I think is DD's critical point about the essence of morality: to not cause harm. And I would add this is not to replace some fading traditional morality but has been the root of moral thought for as long as. Harming others is the most destructive behaviour as (we have had the conversation before) it is harming self. To not cause harm. That is the rider on everything. Are good outcomes possible from bad means?

At its simplest, it is the essence of Quentin Crisp's marvellous book (and book title) Manners from Heaven.

I have read the ET blog you direct DD to. She is wonderful at so many levels. But I did pick up on one thing which I raise here and not there as it rather continues the thought pattern about causing offence and good manners. When referring to her son's name she uses the myopic expression I for one grew up with - Christian name - long replaced by 'first' or 'given'. Fancy asking a Jew or a Muslim for their Christian name these days?

David said...

Just a touch of fractiousness there, too, wanderer. We all need a bit of Sue's generosity, perhaps. What I knew about the Christ poem was what DD told me - it was about a soldier sexually abusing Christ on the cross. And I don't think any of the Mohammed cartoons begin to approach that level of nastiness.

I also don't think giving offence to others is the same as doing harm to others (the avoidance of which would be my desire, too, though it's not always possible to live up to that standard). Sue is right: if you object, engage in rational, point-for-point dialogue.

That's the first point, and my main drive to DD is to ask him to show a bit more generosity, if only at the moment, about people who've lost their lives in the most barbaric way possible.

Anyway, I'm reading Karen Armstrong's excellent book Islam: A Short History which has been a revelation (lower case r) on what the Prophet's original tenets were: generosity to the unfortunate, respect towards women and a relative freedom in that respect, a wish for peace which resulted in a bloodless bringing together of clans. Didn't take long for it all to go horribly wrong, but it's always good to go back to roots (as with JC).

Em's slip was, I think, pardonable in spontaneous conversation and I hadn't noticed it. She'd have had to be more careful in writing about same.

Susan Scheid said...

Wanderer, David D: may we talk? You know, I don’t know either of you, but I do know one thing we all share, and that is admiration and love for David N, whose blog this is. I so appreciate the intelligence, thoughtfulness, and sheer humanity that David N always displays, and I know this to be true of both of you.

So, here’s the thing. David hit the proverbial nail on the head. Nerves are raw over this incident. Certainly mine are. Yet I suspect there are two things on which we can all agree:

First, not one of us is likely to subscribe in toto to “Je suis Charlie.” Let me expand on that, from my own point of view: I have seen only a couple of the cartoons, and I am not eager to see more. I suspect my reaction would be they are often immature and disrespectful and not a form of expression I would endorse.

Second, even though we may think the content woeful, our own response to it would not be to get out our guns (indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if the two of you, like me, don’t even own one). Rather, we would respond with words to express our views, just as each of us have (volubly) done here.

Our cherished friend David N has made the important points, and I’d like to note them here. First, in reply to my own response to David D’s initial statement, David N rose to the challenge of mediating between two of his friends. The very first thing he wrote was this: “I'm sure that's not what David meant, Sue.” It’s very unclear to me what David D meant, but hearing David N’s voice on this was persuasive, as he knows us both.

David N. went on to make a salient point on the whole matter, one with which I’m sure we all agree: “'not doing harm to others'. It's one of the two commandments according to the poet in Nabokov's Pale Fire, 'thou shalt not kill' being the other. I was thinking that the big tenet of ALL religions would be the latter - which of course also comes under the category of doing harm to others.” Wanderer, I hope you’ll take it in good spirit when I say that I don’t think David N overlooked David D’s “critical point about the essence of morality: to not cause harm” at all, but rather that he not only had already endorsed it, but also put it in the context of the horrific events that gave rise to this discussion.

I’m grateful to David N for giving us this open and thoughtful forum in which to share our views. I hope you’ll both join me in thanking him for that. As for the rest of this, I hope we can let fraught nerves cool, and, together, whatever our other differences or points of view, share in mourning, to borrow David’s words, “people who've lost their lives in the most barbaric way possible.”

David said...

Thanks a thousandfold, Sue: I hereby appoint you moderator, as I am likely to get a little overheated at times (though I would never go so far as a former blogger who declared 'this is not a democracy. My blog, my rules').

I'd just add two things. One is that my friend Rory, former Middle East correspondent of The Guardian and now brilliant student of Arabic researching in Tunisia, had tried to find as many Charlie Hebdo cartoons on line as he could (it wasn't easy). Two were what we'd call mild, harmless spoofing except if you believe that all images of the Prophet are blasphemous. Two were beyond the pale by our standards, offensive to me at least. I wouldn't ban them, but I suggest they'd be more subject to press scrutiny in more cautious Britain (where, contrary to the ludicrous belief of some American 'adviser' dredged up by shameful Fox News, you do not need a passport to enter 'Muslim' Birmingham and there are not regular race riots in most towns).

The other things is that if you go back to what Mohammed actually said, the tenets of Islam are all admirable and open-minded. Karen Armstrong expounds beautifully and all you really need is the first chapter of her little book on Islam. I'll be summing up in a future post. What I would argue here is that the Jihadists and all other extremists are, far from being fundamentalist in the strict sense, parodists of the Koran themselves, twisters and warpers. As our mutual friend Sophie says, this needs to be spelled out around the world by the millions of devout and humble Muslims.

David Damant said...

David - so sorry not to have shown my horror and pain on reading of the terrible murders - I was ( perhaps too logically) pointing to the other dimensions that I mentioned.

I fear that I constantly analyse which may give rise to the appearance of a lack of humanity. And I will risk another analysis. I find nearly all the discussions on immigration ( a central element in the pressures that lead to tragedy) inadequate as they overlook two things. First as Bishop Butler the philosopher said, everything is what it is and not another thing. Wishing to defend one's own culture is not the same as being hostile to other races. And secondly Europe has to clamp down on immigration for a fundamental reason - not a lack of humanity, or racism, but simply because millions and millions want to come here from their tragic countries. Far, far too many even if one's heart goes out to them.

I fear that my remark in War Peace and Love on 2nd January - that because of the internet etc there will always be horrible violence everywhere for ever - has had some early validation ( not only from Islamic actions)

David said...

No problem with analysis, David, but that too can come with what you might think can be taken for granted.

By all means let's have the debate about immigration - and especially about integration, which seems to be more important - but there's still a lot more wealthy countries can do for the millions persecuted and unable to stay in countries less fortunate than ours.

I think in this and in your comment about the internet you may be guilty of what an American lecturer friend of mine calls 'bad binaries'. I would still say the possibilities of the internet give rise to more democratic good than bad. I don't believe 'because of the internet' need be appended to 'there will always be horrible violence everywhere for ever'. Can we just leave it at 'human nature' and accept that the world is moving at different speeds in different places - backwards and forwards simultaneously?

Susan Scheid said...

David N & David D: I don't know that I'm qualified as moderator--after all, I certainly jumped in there pretty fast at one point, too. David N, thanks for the info from your friend at the Guardian & I'll look forward to your sum-up of the Armstrong. David D: I do know just what you mean about moving past the event to point to other dimensions, and certainly, that discussion is needed, too. Particularly when we don't know one another, sometimes these asynchronous written modes of conversation can go off the rails a bit. I won't weigh in at this point on the complexities of the immigration issues (and of course, in the US, the issues may be somewhat different), as I have a pile-up of things to get on to today, but it's certainly true that the issues are complex.

David Damant said...

I think that we need a face to face to "lay a foundation" as Perry Mason would say. Invitation from me to a LONG lunch in London if that can ever be fixed

Susan Scheid said...

David D: I would very much enjoy that, and was so sorry that it didn't happen the last time we were in town!

David said...

Excellent. Peace and love. So that settles it between three of us (I think the fourth might respond graciously to your mediation, Sue). Any thoughts from others, of course, always welcome - don't be intimidated...