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Apology for the Idols

Just as the ear needs to hear words of love and anger, so the eye, if it is to be the eye of man, needs to see the idols.

The earliest recorded dream is that of a Mesopotamian woman, written down thousands of years B.C. The woman was a temple guardian. One night she dreamt that she went into the temple and saw that all the idols were gone and that the people who should have been there worshiping were gone too.

This ancient dream shows an ancient anxiety, an anxiety still with us today. We fear that the idols will go missing and that if they do there will be only empty space where they once stood. We fear that if this happens we might be voided out as well.

Our eye, having nowhere to rest in the flatness of space, begins to wander aimlessly, and in that wandering our essence is lost.

Whether of wood or stone or otherwise, man needs the idols. This doesn't mean that man worships the idols. Such is the old misguided fear of the iconoclasts. The idols merely allow man's eye to focus, which is what allows man to worship at all. The idols bring the eye to rest in order that the spirit may roam to the right places, seeking the divine.

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In ancient Israel, if the prophets succeeded in extirpating the idols, the Temple became an idol. In the Diaspora, the Jews had to carry their idols with them into exile: the new idol thus became the Torah itself, a scroll containing the sacred texts. The Jews became "the people of the Book."

As for the Muslims, they forbade all representational art (i.e. idols) so that the Koran itself or calligraphed texts from the Koran could take the idols' place. Under pressure of the interdiction against idolatry, the Muslims created the world's most striking examples of manuscript illumination, works that nearly take the breath away for their subtlety and balance.

In Europe the Protestant revolution made a similar displacement: the paintings of saints and the reliquaries had to go, they said, and they lifted up the Bible in their place. Translated into the vernaculars, the Bible could henceforth hold the eye of this new people of the Book.

That the Bible is now bound in one volume, that one can clutch it, that its words have the thin but stark substantiality of black ink on paper--all this allows it to continue in its function.

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Along with the other nightmares our new millennium brings us, there returns the same ancient nightmare of the missing idols. The flat computer screen with its constantly shifting contents and its hypertext links leads the eye to wander in unprecedented ways. Where and how can the eye focus? Doesn't it rather become fatigued and diverted? I myself can never read a text online. If I want to really read something I must download and print it. But like many of the faithful, I wonder about the people around me. I wonder if they may not be drifting into a Diaspora they themselves only vaguely suspect: an ultimate Diaspora away from the possibility of worship, away from man himself. Is this unduly pessimistic? Is it only a bad dream? Uncertainty and persistence. Our concentrated waiting will tell.

Eric Mader-Lin
2001

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