Is Whispering Nothing?

Sometimes I randomly accede to the frivolous demands of boredom, but more frequently I am goaded, and approach not of my own volition, but like Don Quixote, hoping to right some wrong. At those times I am, I like to think, teleology’s servant. I assume that it is the purposes they end up championing, rather than the initial inciting events that deserve my interest. After all, Curiosity is the lust of the mind, as Thomas Hobbes reminded us.

So, when I happened upon an article questioning whether women were less important than cows in India, I was intrigued: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20170630-are-women-less-important-than-cows-in-india I claim no omniscience of societal customs –not even of my own, perhaps- and I have to admit that my background is in Gynaecology, not Anthropology, but nonetheless I couldn’t resist the allure of a sociological pentimento. Is a mask really meant to deceive, or merely illustrate a reality that is otherwise hidden? Unnoticed when undisguised?

‘The striking photos are the brainchild of Sujatro Ghosh, a Delhi-based photographer, who believes that Indian society values the lives of cattle more highly than the lives of women. In order to call attention to endemic misogyny that he feels disfigures cultural life in India (where authorities, Ghosh says, are more likely to punish the mistreatment of a cow than the abuse of a woman or a girl), the photographer invited his female friends to pose for photos wearing a cow mask […].’

The idea of metaphor to illustrate perceived inequity whether social or gendered, is certainly not new of course –not even in art: ‘Ghosh’s photos echo earlier efforts by artists to expose the sexist instincts of cultural institutions. Preferring the visual pun provided by gorilla (as opposed to cow) masks, members of the all-female collective known as the Guerrilla Girls have, for the past three decades, been committed to raising awareness of issues of gender (and racial) bias in the international art world.

‘Relying on street art to communicate their message, the anonymous activists are perhaps best known for a series of arresting posters from the 1980s that have become as recognisable as any works of contemporary art from the period. […] The Guerilla Girls’ provocative poster was rejected by city officials from display on New York transport on the grounds that it was too risqué. The banner satirises French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s lounging portrait of a concubine, La Grande Odalisque (1814), slipping an ape mask over her head and turning the image into one that is impossible to ignore.’ In fact, the striking metaphor has not been lost in other venues, either: ‘Placed alongside Ghosh’s viral photos from this week, the Guerrilla Girls’ memorable poster corroborates a recent claim made by another incognito icon, Banksy: “If you want to say something and have people listen, then you have to wear a mask.”’ (Banksy –to quote Wikipedia- is ‘an anonymous England-based graffiti artist as well as a political activist.’ His ‘works of political and social commentary have been featured on streets, walls, and bridges of cities throughout the world.’)

I suppose we are all inclined to read between the lines at times. To wonder why a particular thought needs to be portrayed covertly. There is a thrill in deciphering a metaphor, I think –first of all in knowing that it is indeed a metaphor and not really meant to trick the wary… More to beguile them. But more importantly perhaps, the ability to peek behind the curtain suggests membership in a cadre of like minds. Or at least an awareness that someone else has noticed something that is often masked. Something usually hidden by equivocation or, to use a word I can rarely justify, sesquipedalianism –obfuscation, in slightly less confusing terms.

Sometimes we need to be jolted by the unexpected, the unusual, to even notice something. We are, by and large, creatures of context; it is where we feel most comfortable. Incongruity is unsettling and, as in harmony, we feel a need for a resolution of any dissonance. But whereas in music we can passively await the adjustment, in art there is a need to actively pursue accommodation. To decide what it is that makes us feel uneasy and why. It is a goad that brooks no turning away.

It’s no accident, that art has been with us from the beginning of Time, I suspect. That we have been compelled to draw things on whatever surface was available, speaks to our need interpret whatever we felt was important. Whether it was animals in motion, the beauty of the sky, or the mysteries of pregnancy, a visual representation seemed as necessary and important as the thing itself. And as full of meaning. Who knows what metaphors hide within the Palaeolithic paintings in the caves at Lascaux, or in the Venus of Laussel?

The risk, I suppose, is the temptation to view every creative act as serving a purpose other than the sheer joy of craftsmanship, the ecstasy of virtuosity, the fulfilment of imagination. And yet, to assume the cause might be merely one of portrayal, or even propitiation, is to denigrate the accomplishment, I think. We all see the world through our own eyes, naturally, but it is the ability to share our view and allow it to seep silently into other eyes, that is the gift of art. And if that opens minds –or, perhaps, even alters them- then maybe the circle is complete.

 

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Can Anyone Laugh?

Frailty, thy name is woman, Hamlet said, upset about his mother’s behaviour. Perhaps Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc had bad memories of the play. In a recent speech on moral corruption in Turkey, he is quoted as saying that : “Chastity is so important. It is not only a name. It is an ornament for both women and men. [She] will have chasteness…. [The woman] will know what is haram and not haram. She will not laugh in public. She will not be inviting in her attitudes and will protect her chasteness.

http://www.syracuse.com/news/index.ssf/2014/07/deputy_prime_

minister_of_turkey_says_women_shouldnt_laugh_in_public.html   

She will not laugh in public? This part, at least, is so patently stupid that I wondered whether it hid a voracious appetite for literature and philosophy -some reference or other to something pedantic or arcane. He is reputedly well educated and intelligent; perhaps he was naively mindful of Nietzsche and his assertion that laughter is an escape from the prison of reason and logic, while also having the potential of expressing social conflict. Maybe Arinc is afraid that women may have reason to stir up social tension.

Too academic? Okay then, suppose he has read Henri Bergson who felt that laughter may eliminate eccentric behaviour because it derides those who deviate from social norms… On the other hand, maybe he hasn’t: I suspect this is a bit more of a Mobius strip than Arinc would like.

Well, there’s always Plato, who didn’t feel that laughter had much value for human experience and in fact may be malicious. He argues that laughter is a malicious reaction to the domination over a more unfortunate member of society, and those occasionally engaged in laughter are exposed to something base which should be avoided. (Many of these quotes are from Sewanee Senior Philosophy Essays:

http://www.sewanee.edu/philosophy/Capstone/2002/Greenfield.html)

But of course Arinc would then be cognizant of the various classical theories of laughter – the three most mentioned ones being: Superiority Theory which is the one advanced by Plato and which suggests that “all laughter is a response to the comical ignorance in others.” And then there is the Relief Theory engendered by stress or anxiety. Another would be the Theory of Incongruity which is a reaction to something unexpectedly inappropriate…

But these don’t seem to capture the thrust of his argument. Maybe he understood the impenetrable words of Thomas Hobbes: “The passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.” –although isn’t that just the Superiority Theory disguised by words..?

My own theory is that he was unduly influenced by the Wikipedia take on Herodotus:

For Herodotus, laughers can be distinguished into three types:[32]

  • Those who are innocent of wrongdoing, but ignorant of their own vulnerability
  • Those who are mad
  • Those who are overconfident

Why not Wikipedia? It’s easily found, easily assimilable and, in a pinch, easily editable. And it would be simplistic enough to appeal to people who are only half listening to his speech. Who only half remember his words. Too bad he didn’t plagiarize the page –then he could have been exposed for more than just propounding a silly statement. But no, he decided to try on the philosophical garb of religious authority.

And yet, when I actually stop and think about what he said, I have an uneasy feeling that his comments were not steeped in philosophy –Western philosophy, at any rate. They seem to emanate from an assumption that women are beginning to assume a too prominent –too equal–  role in Turkish society. You note that he uses the term ‘haram’ to contain a woman’s actions. As I understand the term, it is an Arabic one of Islamic jurisprudence employed to designate any action forbidden by Allah, and referred to in the Quran as such.

Clearly I am not an Islamic scholar and may be way off the mark, but I cannot seem to find any prohibition on laughter –male or female- in my research. It doesn’t appear to be haram… So what is Arinc talking about? Occuring as it does in a speech for an Eid el-Fitr meeting July 28, it is not likely to be a simple off-the-cuff remark.

http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/women-should-not-laugh-in-public-turkish-deputy-pm-says-.aspx?pageID=238&nID=69732&NewsCatID=338

No, I suspect this was an ill-conceived, and terribly naïve attempt to curb the rising power of women in Turkey. It no doubt disturbs the sleep of those in power –those with vested interests in maintaining the archaic status quo. But by using the religious card, it is all the more abhorrent. That any religion –any culture, for that matter- would proscribe laughter for its adherents is itself ridiculous. Unbelievable. Risible…

At the risk of parsing the stereotype, let me return one final time to Shakespeare –this time to Valentine in The Two Gentlemen of Verona:

“That man that hath a tongue, I say is no man,                                                                                   If with his tongue he cannot win a woman.”  

Listen up Arinc; the world is waiting…and laughing.