«Quand le politiquement correct réécrit les classiques» (When political correctness rewrites the classics) FIGAROVOX/ANALYSIS, 8th January 2018. To avoid showing the death of a woman, the opera Carmen has been rewritten. Welcome to the era of thought-policing through art.
“The idea was suggested to me by the director of the theatre, who wanted a way of sparing Carmen her demise. In an era marked by the scourge of violence against women, his view was that it would be inconceivable to applaud the murder of one.” That is how Leo Muscato, stage director at the Florence Opera, justified the rewriting of the end of Carmen. In its contemporary setting of a Gypsy camp, the young Bohémienne is no longer dispatched by the corporal maddened by jealousy, Don José: no, she pulls the trigger and eliminates her attacker.
Exit the very essence of Georges Bizet’s work, which was inspired by a novella of Prosper Mérimée’s, who in turn drew on the Greek tragedies. The universality of the tragic theme was no match for the Bowdlerisers: passion and pride are reduced to the modern sociological trope of the ‘feminicide’. “Carmen was written a hundred and fifty years ago, in a different cultural context. Times change…”, as Paolo Klun, director of the Teatro del Maggio Musical, explains to The Telegraph. “In some operas of the 19th century, there is a way of treating female characters that, in certain cases, is no longer acceptable today”, adds the director of the Festival of Avignon, Olivier Py.
The turning point of the ‘Weinstein Affair’
Should we then rewrite Othello because the jealous Moor kills Desdemona? Yet another non-white figure cast in a ‘negative’ role, as the CSA [Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel] might say. Antigone immured by Creon? Iphigenia sacrificed by Agamemnon to appease the gods?
Of course, this is not the first time that a theatrical work has been submitted to purification by the Bowdlerisers. It is no longer possible to go to the opera without seeing the classics retro-fitted with contemporary admonitions on racism or the struggle against discrimination. But feminist attacks on these performances have taken a particular turn since October 2017, when the global campaign against [sexual] harassment was launched after the Weinstein affair.
“Western art knows how to talk about sex in one way only: violence.”
Not long ago, a British mother called for the fairy-tale Sleeping Beauty to be withdrawn from school reading-lists, because the young prince kissed the princess without her consent: which could inculcate in the collective imagination a “culture of rape”. In a similar case, the academic Laure Murat wrote in the columns of Libération about her consternation on seeing again the film Blow-up, Antonioni’s masterpiece, in which the male lead is a young photographer who doesn’t hesitate to molest his female models. She spoke of her deep unease over the “horrible and sustained representation of male-female relations” in this film, which had now become “unacceptable”, and cited the historian Régis Michel: “Western art knows how to talk about sex in one way only: violence.” Complaints of this sort are multiplying to such an extent that the Observatoire de la liberté de création, set up in 2003 to defend artistic freedom from so-called reactionary associations wishing to protect children from pornography, is now worried about a “new form of censorship coming from the direction of feminist and anti-racist organisations”.
Bach, Pushkin and Auschwitz
In a juicy novel, L’Homme surnuméraire [‘The Redundant Man’], which appeared last autumn, the writer Patrice Jean imagines the professional retraining of Clément, an unemployed aficionado of literature, who is hired by a publisher to undertake an unusual task: to rewrite the great classics for inclusion in the canon of “Humanist Literature” by expunging all references deemed “sickening”, racist, misogynistic, or homophobic. “These days, the social prejudice of Molière is archaic. You can no longer portray peasants speaking in dialect just in order to mock them: that is truly despicable”, the editor in charge of the project explains to him. “You cannot any longer allow yourself to release texts that scorn humanity.” These lines, which were fiction in September, now appear more and more to be reflecting reality.
George Steiner, in his celebrated essay Extraterritorial, enquires into the relationship between evil and artistic creation. He was replying to Jean-Paul Sartre, who, in his What is literature?, had affirmed that it was impossible to produce a good novel taking an apology for anti-semitism as its theme. Steiner contested this Platonic vision, recalling that it was, alas, entirely possible to listen to Bach and read Pushkin, then get up each morning and go to work at Auschwitz¹. Works of art are not there to edify us, but to convey in a universally accessible way the tragic duality of human existence, torn as it is between the will to Good and the temptations of Evil. For the rest, literature is the child of freedom; it has never, ever, been subject to law. ⇒ Le Figaro
¹ There may be a non-sequitur here. Pace Sartre, it would seem entirely plausible that a good novel could be made out of almost any non-trivial theme. Pace Steiner, whether or not an æsthete can perform evil work seems irrelevant to the question. — Ed.