Wednesday, August 07, 2019


Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:    (Exodus 20:4)

Judaism and Christianity have had aniconic strands at one time and another but the best known, most lasting and most theorized of these religious traditions is Islamic aniconism. This has been variously understood in different times and places. Typically (e.g. from the Sunni hadith) it proscribes the depiction of human and other sentient creatures, i.e. animals, but not trees or other plants.

The two common theological arguments are 1. Man should avoid the propagation of false objects of worship (i.e. idolatry). 2. Since God alone is the creator of sentient beings, it is impious for man to mimic that creation, as well as futile (because human-created images aren't alive).

In practice, vegetable forms in Islamic religious art, though permitted, have tended to be abstracted: they don't evoke identifiable individuals or species like the photos in this post. The Islamic religious art of arabesques and geometric patterns nurtures a void. "Nothing must stand between man and the invisible presence of God" (Titus Burckhardt).

This thinking has also been extended beyond the visual arts. For don't the same arguments apply to images of the human in literature? Isn't the reader's imagination filled with a mental image of a sentient being, even if he or she isn't literally seen?

Aniconism remains a central theme of most Islamic religious art. But outside the mosque the encroachment of westernization and consumerism into the Islamic world has altered things drastically. All Islamic nations have TV channels. Billboards show enormous photographic images of ordinary well-groomed men and women, as well as national rulers. The Taliban banned cameras, but that was a lone protest.

In western commerce and media, depiction reigns supreme, its usefulness demonstrated beyond dispute.

And yet (perhaps as a direct consequence) depiction in modern western art and literature has for a long time been a matter of anxiety. The theme has been expressed in various ways; I'm not going to rehearse them, but discussions of the Other, the male gaze, objectification, orientalism, blackface, yellowface and much more are all concerned with the ethics of depiction. And in daily life, nearly all of us acknowledge some reserve about e.g. posting photos of children or strangers on social media.

And as with the aniconic theologians, it isn't only about morality but also about futility: is it even possible to depict another human being (still less ourselves) without projecting our own preconceptions, in other words without some element of stereotyping and framing? If a depiction is necessarily a fiction, what can it achieve but to add to the sum of the human world's dishonesties?

   Baroque has made this triangle
   a midland party of reluctant start
          to spilt-out            plethora 'yes it hurt'
and with primordial screws we held our hands out
to be welded to the wheels our ancestors
       paid kisses for (oh my darling
               asps and welts, come further
             don't succor me for bandly
                    I must walk ideas of danger promise)
         the motto of the village whorled
          discreetly in our palms whilst our relations
    build the vertical enclosure STAND RIGHT THERE
beside the shunt.

One might get it all oneself one's body
stretched completely round the tasseled circle
we might call a calling island without
                          VOICE WE RECOGNIZE
       inside the skin
   whose circle gets pried up and wrapped
   in one kid glove to fit him, the voice
     has muffled longer claims
                            THE TREES STING NATURE'S VISIONARY
                   RATTLE DETACHED FROM TYPE
                   FACE SEEMING
           smiling fractious for the team
               crowded at tiny tables
 outside our brains we half-commit
our gleaming scales our univocal
           dominance to feed them

(Lisa Samuels, from Gender City (2011), section 6: Exodus)

A couple of pages from one of my favourite contemporary poets. Lisa's style is unique, but this sample illustrates some of the strategies of non-depictive modern poetry, e.g. the pronouns (I, our, we, him, them) resolutely refuse to cohere into recognizable character/location/event, and everything that resembles an outright statement is implicitly in quotes. 

When he entered the miserable room in which they were confined, Dolly and Miss Haredale withdrew in silence to the remotest corner. But Miss Miggs, who was particularly tender of her reputation, immediately fell upon her knees and began to scream very loud, crying, ‘What will become of me!’—‘Where is my Simmuns!’—‘Have mercy, good gentlemen, on my sex’s weaknesses!’—with other doleful lamentations of that nature, which she delivered with great propriety and decorum.

‘Miss, miss,’ whispered Dennis, beckoning to her with his forefinger, ‘come here—I won’t hurt you. Come here, my lamb, will you?’

On hearing this tender epithet, Miss Miggs, who had left off screaming when he opened his lips, and had listened to him attentively, began again, crying: ‘Oh I’m his lamb! He says I’m his lamb! Oh gracious, why wasn’t I born old and ugly! Why was I ever made to be the youngest of six, and all of ‘em dead and in their blessed graves, excepting one married sister, which is settled in Golden Lion Court, number twenty-sivin, second bell-handle on the—!’

‘Don’t I say I an’t a-going to hurt you?’ said Dennis, pointing to a chair. ‘Why miss, what’s the matter?’

‘I don’t know what mayn’t be the matter!’ cried Miss Miggs, clasping her hands distractedly. ‘Anything may be the matter!’

‘But nothing is, I tell you,’ said the hangman. ‘First stop that noise and come and sit down here, will you, chuckey?’

The coaxing tone in which he said these latter words might have failed in its object, if he had not accompanied them with sundry sharp jerks of his thumb over one shoulder, and with divers winks and thrustings of his tongue into his cheek, from which signals the damsel gathered that he sought to speak to her apart, concerning Miss Haredale and Dolly. Her curiosity being very powerful, and her jealousy by no means inactive, she arose, and with a great deal of shivering and starting back, and much muscular action among all the small bones in her throat, gradually approached him.

‘Sit down,’ said the hangman.

Suiting the action to the word, he thrust her rather suddenly and prematurely into a chair, and designing to reassure her by a little harmless jocularity, such as is adapted to please and fascinate the sex, converted his right forefinger into an ideal bradawl or gimlet, and made as though he would screw the same into her side—whereat Miss Miggs shrieked again, and evinced symptoms of faintness.

‘Lovey, my dear,’ whispered Dennis, drawing his chair close to hers. ‘When was your young man here last, eh?’

‘MY young man, good gentleman!’ answered Miggs in a tone of exquisite distress.

‘Ah! Simmuns, you know—him?’ said Dennis.

‘Mine indeed!’ cried Miggs, with a burst of bitterness—and as she said it, she glanced towards Dolly. ‘MINE, good gentleman!’

This was just what Mr Dennis wanted, and expected.

‘Ah!’ he said, looking so soothingly, not to say amorously on Miggs, that she sat, as she afterwards remarked, on pins and needles of the sharpest Whitechapel kind, not knowing what intentions might be suggesting that expression to his features: ‘I was afraid of that. I saw as much myself. It’s her fault. She WILL entice ‘em.’

‘I wouldn’t,’ cried Miggs, folding her hands and looking upwards with a kind of devout blankness, ‘I wouldn’t lay myself out as she does; I wouldn’t be as bold as her; I wouldn’t seem to say to all male creeturs “Come and kiss me”’—and here a shudder quite convulsed her frame—‘for any earthly crowns as might be offered. Worlds,’ Miggs added solemnly, ‘should not reduce me. No. Not if I was Wenis.’

(from Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge Chapter 70).

A sample of Dickens' depiction of Miss Miggs, who lights up the pages of Barnaby Rudge whenever she appears. It's a deeply un-PC portrait, founded on eighteenth-century stereotypes of ugly old maids: embittered, religiose and desperate for sex. The insights are all too crudely effective, the obfuscation covert and manipulative. The depiction is a triumph of selective partiality. Yet such is Miggs' comic vigour that we rejoice as much with her as against her.

Images: photos taken in Laura's garden, 4 August 2019.

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