Monday, September 03, 2012

Fifty shades of blasphemy

In the last years of his life, Malcolm Muggeridge became rather a figure of fun. His appearances on television were easy to parody, and his censorious views on sex seemed increasingly ludicrous. In fact the more he went on about the subject the more I thought "bad luck, Mrs. Muggeridge". 

Yet, perhaps the much lampooned St. Mugg might have had a point after all. Fifty Shades of Grey, the latest literary "sensation" is a pretty terrible book. The dialogue is awful, the plot ludicrous, and -considering that this is the new genre of "mummy porn"- the sex scenes are laughable. Yet this absurd book has sold in millions. It is the epitome of the smutty book, but with the twist that it was written... ta-daa... by a woman. One of the most popular scenes is when our heroine is testing her limits of sado-masochist joy to the background of some choral music provided by her sexual Svengali.

"The singing starts again … building and building, and he rains down blows on me … and I groan and writhe … Lost in him, lost in the astral, seraphic voices … I am completely at the mercy of his expert touch …
"'What was that music?' I mumble almost inarticulately.
"'It's called Spem in Alium, a 40-part motet by Thomas Tallis.'
"'It was … overwhelming.'"

Anyway, you get the idea.

The problem is that the Forty Part Motet is not a hymn to the sado-masochistic orgasm. It is a hymn to God:

Spem in alium nunquam habui praeter in te
Deus Israel
qui irasceriset propitius eris
et omnia peccata hominum in tribulatione dimittis
Domine Deus
Creator coeli et terrae
respice humilitatem nostram

I Put my hope in no other but thee, 
O God of Israel
who can show both anger
and graciousness,
and who absolves all the sins of suffering man
Lord God,
Creator of Heaven and Earth
be mindful of our lowliness

Of course God isn't too popular these days- our determinedly secular society is begin to feel that belief in a Creator is an early signifier of the kind of mental illness that leads to 9/11. Perhaps in some people it is.
I find it difficult to feel the certainty in every detail, every ritual, every facet of religious faith. On the other hand, when I listen to Ed Mitchell, an Astronaut on the Apollo 14 mission, describe an extraordinary experience on the voyage back to Earth: "I realised that the molecules of my body and my partners, and the molecules of the spacecraft were prototyped, maybe even made, in ancient generation of stars. And suddenly, instead of being an intellectual experience, it was an emotional experience, a kind of ecstasy!", then I feel the Universe we are discovering through science is every bit as magnificent and mysterious as the religious Universe.
In the face of the magnificence of the Universe, and the power of Thomas Tallis's music, the tawdry fictitious couplings of Fifty Shades of Grey do seem slightly demeaning. The Godhead- for want of a better word- of the Universe may grant the joy of orgasm, but no matter how good, perhaps this is quite a small joy compared to the exultation of the infinite. (or maybe it is just bad luck to me and my partners!).
On the other hand I was listening to the 40 part motet on my IPod walking through the medieval streets of Tallinn this morning and my head was full of Angels. 

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