Monday, September 25, 2006

Behind the veil

One of the major flashpoints between Islam and the West is the role of women. In Islam this is symbolized by the veil.

In the West, the fraternization of the sexes is so ubiquitous that we rarely give it a second thought.

This takes many forms. Whether all these forms are appropriate I’ll discuss momentarily, but to take a few examples:

Female movie stars have been around since the silent era, and they paired off with leading men, viz. Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.

An actress like Garbo was so mesmerizing that she tended to overpower her leading man by her sheer stage presence.

This dynamic may well be a carryover from opera, where, once again, the interaction of the sexes is the dramatic center of gravity—and that, in turn, has its pop cultural counterpart in musicals, viz. Top Hat, An American in Paris.

The popularity of such operatic composers as Verdi and Puccini is centered on the boy-meets-girl motif.

One of the conventional incongruities of opera is the mismatch between the aural ideal and the visual ideal—although there are a few rare exceptions, viz. Schwarzkopf, Corelli, Te Kanawa, della Casa.

At a mythopoetic level, one of the purest examples is Mozart’s Magic Flute, where the hero undergoes trial-by-ordeal to win the hand of the princess.

On a related note is the Cinderella motif. An especially charming variant on this theme is Catherine Deneuve in Donkey Skin.

The traditional marriage ceremony is, itself, an embodiment of the Cinderella theme, wherein—if only for one day—the bride and groom play prince and princess for a day.

Other examples include the Homecoming queen and the high school prom.

It’s striking to see the appeal of ritualized romance—of just how quickly these traditions arise.

Another classic romance is Cocteau’s adaptation of the myth of Orpheus, while Ladyhawke, staring the lovely, but underrated Michelle Pfeiffer, is a modern fairly tale.

Figure skating is one of the few athletic endeavors, along with dancing, in which women are truly competitive with men. And it’s a sport that accentuates feminine grace.

The most popular forms of figure skating are pair skating and ice dancing.

Figure skating is a combination of dance and gymnastics.

Dance is a vast topic unto itself. Not all forms of dance are romantic, and some are obscene, but in general, the appeal of dance is romantic in nature.

Then you have the role of cheerleaders in football.

Football is a form of ritual warfare—which is one reason it’s the most popular sport among the armed forces.

It’s a way of structuring and channeling male energy and aggression in bloodless combat.

Traditionally, men fight over women. And that’s the symbolic function of the cheerleader. In effect, the football players butt heads to impress the ladies.

This is also more than symbolic since football players really do date cheerleaders.

Since, historically, most painters and sculptors have been men, it comes as no surprise that women are a favorite theme in the fine arts.

In some cases, such as Botticelli, this takes the form of glamorized sex appeal. He leaves no doubt in the viewer’s mind regarding his “type” of woman. He reproduces the same face in every painting.

After his conversion, under the fiery preaching of Savonarola, he simply transferred his feminine ideal from his neopagan paintings like the Birth of Venus and Primavera to chaste paintings of the Madonna. The uniform has changed, but the woman remains the same.

Raphael is another famous painter of Madonnas. And while his depictions are not as unabashedly sensuous, there’s no doubt that he had an eye for beautiful women. Same thing with a Baroque sculptor like Bernini, who moved freely between Christian and Classical themes.

Indeed, much of the revival of Classicism was simply a pretext to paint beautiful women in puris naturalibus. Catholic martyology could also be deployed to serve the same purpose.

This goes to a point of tension in Catholic theology. According to the dogma of Mary’s perpetual virginity, she is the archetype of the asexual ideal, yet Catholic painters and sculptors, as normal men—not to mention Italian men!—can’t resist depicting Mary as a woman of idealized beauty, as if she were a Hollywood love goddess like Ava Gardner, Dolores Del Rio, or Merle Oberon.

I’d add that in Italy, suitable models are not hard to come by. Once, as I sipping lemonade at an open-air café in San Marco Square, I became aware of the fact that every third woman could sit for one of those paintings.

(As a then-single man, I was allowed to notice these things!).

In the paintings of Rembrandt and Vermeer, by contrast, women are lovingly portrayed, but as wives and mothers rather than erotic fantasies—whether sublimated or explicit. A domesticated sensibility kicks in.

Same thing with drama. In the plays of Racine, the male/female dialectic is central.

What I’ve been describing, from high art to pop culture, is the cult of womanhood. Historically, this has its background in the chivalric code, exemplified by the chanson de geste, the Arthurian cycle, and the donna angelicata.

The role of Beatrice, in the Divine Comedy, crystallizes one aspect of this tradition.

And that, in turn, goes back to the iconography of the Church as the Bride of Christ.

This, at bottom, is the source of the difference between Islam and Christianity on sexual role relations.

Islam has no chivalric code, for Islam has no church or Redeemer thereof. And because this spiritual exemplar is absent, it also lacks the corresponding romantic exemplar, which typifies the spiritual ideal.

All of the illustrations I’ve cited are forbidden under Sharia. To take just one example, can you imagine Cyd Charisse or Ginger Rogers doing her dance routine in a Burqa?

Of course, as the chivalric code is progressively secularized, its outworking becomes increasingly decadent. Not all my examples are above criticism by any means.

But Muslims have a dress code that makes the Victorians look like raging nymphomaniacs:

I’d add that Muslim hang-ups aren’t limited to women. In the so-called Abu Ghraib “scandal,” what was offensive to Muslims was not the question of torture. Torture is routine Muslim countries—and torture in the real sense of the word.

No, what got them all lathered up wasn’t the question of torture, but nudity—male nudity in particular.

In the West, with our sports-oriented culture, we take locker-room nudity for granted. But in Islam, for a man to appear nude in the company of other men is verboten.

This is seem illogical, for as long as the men in question are heterosexual, erotic attraction is nonexistent.

However, Islam has a very ambivalent attitude towards sodomy, as seen in its traditional cult of pederasty:

Ironically, it’s Muslim misogyny that breeds a homosexual counterculture.

From reading the Levitical injunctions against incest (Lev 18; 20), especially in the KJV, some people come away with the misimpression that Judaism is just as inhibited.

But “’to uncover nakedness,’ while it may at times refer merely to voyeurism (see Gen 9:22-23), is most commonly a euphemism for sexual intercourse,” J. Currid, Leviticus (Evangelical Press 2004), 238).

Of course, there’s no doubt that the West, in its post-Christian phase, has swung to the opposite extreme, wherein our senses are assaulted by an increasingly and aggressively pornographic culture. Too much immodesty. Too much fraternization.

The popular caricature notwithstanding, the Puritans struck a healthy balance between heavenly-mindedness and earthly concerns, and we would do well to recapture their emphasis. Cf. L. Ryken, Worldly Saints (Zondervan 1990).

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