Some Thoughts on Medieval Statuary, Gay Talese, and Iconoclasts.

The west façade of the Cathedral at Exeter, in Devon, England, like countless other Gothic façades, is honeycombed with niches containing statues of saints, heroes, angels, and princes, and these are interlaced with stone vines, flowers, animals, grotesques, and gargoyles. Thirteenth century frogs, mice, baboons, oxen, and dogs perch around doorways. Bishops lift their hands in blessing. Winged demons smirk. Martyrs stand in frozen glory, the instruments of their martyrdom held in their hands like trophies. The statues’ impassive eyes stare out over the Cathedral Green, which serves as a park and meeting place for the city. Couples lounge together on the grass, groups of tourists eat picnic lunches; toddlers run around chasing the seagulls. Almost all of these—human and seabird—are oblivious to the more than one hundred thousand bodies buried inches beneath them. The Green used to be the town cemetery; for centuries it was illegal to bury one’s dead anywhere else. And so the community of stone keeps watch over the community of bone. Together they have dwelt here for seven centuries and if anyone can lay claim to owning this place, it is them, mute witnesses to a long history that to me, as an American, seems overwhelming.

Exeter Cathedral

Although all of the figures are literally blind, some of the statues see less than others. These have been decapitated or have had their faces smashed in. They stand resolutely in their niches, bearing their devastating scars proudly, the souvenirs of a second martyrdom at the hand of protestant iconoclasts: Henry VIII’s reformers, or, later, Cromwell’s Puritan supporters.

When we, inhabitants of the 21st century, use the word “iconoclast,” we tend to mean someone—often an artist or writer or activist—who attacks accepted ideas, beliefs, or traditions. But the original meaning of that word comes from the literal breaking of icons—the destruction of images used in religious decoration and observance.

In the case of the Exeter statues, while both groups of iconoclasts may also have had political motivations for their actions, their stated motivations were religious ones. Protestant iconoclasts saw the images as graven images, false idols of Catholicism, the remnants of a dark, misguided religion. Henry’s men, and later the Roundheads, went about the country smashing medieval sacred art, stabling their horses in churches like Westminster Abbey, and using centuries old stained glass for target practice. In the space of a few years, they’d destroyed hundreds of thousands of works of art. The iconoclasts were not only destructive, but also lazy: only the statues within reach of the ground have been vandalized. Anything higher than that was spared.

Centuries later, as I stand at the foot of Exeter Cathedral’s western wall, I am still filled with rage at the obscene vandalism, the complete ignorance that prompted it. I fucking hate iconoclasts (the original definition).

I’ve been here the past week as part of an American choir that is filling in for the cathedral’s resident choirs. As I sit in the Cathedral day after day singing, I am constantly aware of the work that went into its creation. Its interior walls are covered with the same kind of decoration that graces the west façade, and they have been similarly vandalized. I think of the hundreds of gifted medieval masons, sculptors, and craftsmen who dedicated their lives to serving God and decorating God’s temple. I think of all those gifted, worn, callused hands lifting stone, cutting it, carving it, shaping it, polishing it, painting it. I think of all the love and care and energy and time those men gave—as well as their intellect and creativity. The decorations at Exeter—and other Gothic places—are whimsical as well as beautiful. The Cathedral’s builder’s flea-ridden dog pops up in unexpected places—at the base of arches, in doorways. Demons roast a hapless sinner on a spit.

I think of the love and labor of the artist, and then I think of anger and ignorance of the iconoclast who did not understand the art. The iconoclast who, having reduced his worldview to the narrow strictures of a fundamentalist faith, could only comprehend those statues as idols. Ignorant of history and suspicious of art, he couldn’t fathom any other purpose to those statues. But of course, the statues on the west wall were never meant to be worshipped, but to serve as nonverbal religious instruction and as inspiration to the faithful. They were meant to be beautiful.

While I’ve been in Exeter, I’ve been reading Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife, his study of sexual liberation in the United States. In addition to the more famous—or infamous—descriptions of sexual activity and his immersion in it, there is also an extended history of American literary censorship. The impulse behind American censorship seems to me to be the same as the one behind those hammer-wielding Protestants of hundreds of years ago. Self-appointed morality committees and anti-pornography crusaders defined as obscene any frank or detailed depiction of sexuality, including marriage manuals, birth control pamphlets, and classical literature. As a result of their advocacy, works of art as intricate and genial as the Exeter statuary were banned alongside cheap pornography: Ovid. Boccaccio, Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Joyce’s Ulysses, Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, etc. Countless independent editors, publishers, and distributors were jailed for selling them. Like their Puritan forbearers, the censors in their dogmatic ignorance could not conceive of a purpose in those books other than prurience. And, like their forbearers, their fear of one sin, idolatry (in the case of the Puritans) or libidinousness (in the case of the censors), led them to commit a greater sin: the wanton destruction of culture.

Talese himself faced criticism for Thy Neighbor’s Wife, especially for his participatory journalism. Although he was married, Talese included in his research a stay in a free love community, intercourse with other women and erotic massage, among other immersion experiences. Many believed he’d only used the book as an excuse to engage in extramarital sex. Talese said in an interview for a 2009 profile in New York, “If you want to write about orgies, you’re not going to be in the press box with your little press badge keeping your distance. You have to have a kind of affair with your sources. You have to hang out! I wanted to write about sexuality and the changing definition of morality. Maybe if I had put that in a subhead on the cover I might have gotten a better hearing.” Instead, Talese received the worst reviews of his career and, he felt, the scorn of fellow writers. We are, now, perhaps, more comfortable with creative nonfiction’s techniques of immersive writing and the use of detailed scene. I wonder if the book would have been as controversial in 2013 as it was in 1980. I wonder how many of us would be comfortable in immersing ourselves in such experiences? Whatever the answer, it is certain that Talese was breaking rules and taking risks—personal, artistic, and moral. An iconoclast, if you will.

While it was never banned, Thy Neighbor’s Wife enters the tradition of books like Ulysses, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Tropic of Cancer, whose authors saw sex and sexuality as topics worthy of exploration through literature. Talese was surely aware that without the efforts of the writers, independent publishers, and anti-censorship crusaders he writes about—the true iconoclasts, many of whom suffered for the cause of artistic freedom—his own book would also have been banned.

In writing about the new sexual landscape, Talese changed—or if you prefer, shattered—readers’ cherished beliefs about ‘normal’ sexuality, an iconoclasm that expanded our understanding of contemporary American culture and our own desires.

As I continue to read They Neighbor’s Wife, I’m put in mind of an amazing essay we will publish in the next issue of 1966, Alicia Catt’s “On Saliva.” Like Talese’s book, it is a sharply observed, wide-ranging look at the body and what we do with it. I can’t wait for you to read it.

–Kelly Grey Carlisle

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