John Walsh: Understanding literature is better than just calling it names

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The Independent Online

Oh, no, look who's "giving offence" now – it's that well-known reckless tearaway Dante Alighieri of Florence. His epic poem, The Divine Comedy, has been considered by most of Western civilisation a rather fine allegorical treatment of the soul's journey to God through hell, purgatory and heaven, ever since it was printed in 1472. But that cuts no ice with Gherush92, a Roman human-rights group which advises the United Nations on "social issues".

They've decided it is too "offensive or discriminatory" to be taught in Italians schools. In the Inferno section, for example, "sodomites" are condemned to an eternal rain of fire, Jews are shown as greedy, Judas is frozen in ice for his betrayal of Christ, and Mohamed portrayed split down the middle with his entrails hanging out. "We do not advocate censorship or the burning of books, but we would like it acknowledged that there is racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic content," said Gherush92's president, Valentina Sereni. "Art cannot be above criticism."

It shouldn't have surprised Valentina that Dante's poem contains images of chastisement and death; they came from the mind of a 14th-century failed politician who supported the Pope and mortally disliked his enemies: they were all unbelievers and deserved to be punished with fates worse than death. The Divine Comedy gives a rare insight into how the major religions saw each other then. You would no more try to ban it from classrooms than you'd ban The Merchant of Venice from the GCSE syllabus.

But we know what these "human rights" people are up to, don't we? They don't give two hoots about the supposed racist or homophobic or anti-Semitic content. They're terrified of Islam. They're scared that, if a single prickly Muslim objects to the portrayal of the Prophet, Italian schools would soon have a jihadist inferno on their hands. Their declaration is a pre-emptive strike against potential nutters. They say they worry students may not have sufficient "filters" to appreciate the historical context; I suspect they worry that Muslims may not have enough.

In fact, Dante's poem owes a good deal to Muslim religious writing, especially Isra and Miraj, about Mohamed's night-time journey to heaven, and the Risalat al-Ghufran, about a poet's wanderings in the afterlife. In Dante's lifetime, there was lots of contact between West and East, much productive traffic between Christian and Sufi mystics. Might it be better for Gherush92 to suggest that students were taught the connections between Islamic and Western philosophy, than trying to emphasise their differences and hide Italy's greatest literary masterpiece because they're frightened of upsetting a gang of extremists?

Opera arrested by the police

The news that the enterprising Birmingham City Orchestra is to mount a complete performance of Stockhausen's five-hour opera Mittwoch aus Licht – involving a string quartet playing live by videolink from four helicopters – reminds me of the time that Stockhausen's earlier Donnerstag aus Licht was performed at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The score called for, among other things, a trumpeter who would play a note outside the theatre that could be heard in the auditorium.

Just before his cue, the trumpeter slipped outside, stood in the dark doorway, raised the trumpet to his lips – and was nabbed by a policeman. "You can't play that thing there, mate," said the copper, "There's a posh concert goin' on inside. You be a nice gentleman and bugger off 'ome." The orchestra inside the theatre waited fruitlessly for a note that never came.

j.walsh@independent.co.uk

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