Monday, July 15, 2019

Faithful and True

I don't know why I decided to pick up Gainsborough Pictures' 1945 melodrama The Wicked Lady from the display shelf at the public library, but it turned out to be a good choice.  It's an astoundingly raunchy film for the period, featuring adultery, highway robbery, multiple murders, gender transgression, plunging necklines and more.  Before it could be released in the US, several scenes had to be reshot with more modest costuming of the ladies, which shows the idiocy of censors: the glimpses of bosom are the least of The Wicked Lady's transgressiveness.  The title character, Barbara Skelton, steals her cousin's fiance, takes up robbery to get back a jewel she'd carelessly gambled away, finds she likes crime, has a wild affair with another highwayman, kills two people, and eventually is shot dead, dying alone as she crawls piteously on the floor of her lavish boudoir.

The Wicked Lady was based on a best-selling historical novel by Magdalen King-Hall. Lady Skelton is a semi-fictional character derived from the real-life Katherine Ferrers Fanshawe (1634-1660), celebrated with prurient delight in late nineteenth-century folklore.  In the introduction to a recent reissue of King-Hall's Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton (University of Hertfordshire Press, 2016), Rowland Hughes shows that there's no contemporary evidence that Ferrers actually did any of the exciting things King-Hall describes, and it's likely she died in childbirth in London rather than of a bullet wound in Hertfordshire.  The legend of the Wicked Lady seems to have appeared full-blown two centuries after her death, ripe for exploitation by King-Hall and Gainsborough Pictures.  (There's also a 1983 remake starring - Faye Dunaway?)

I enjoyed The Wicked Lady and intend to have a look at Gainsborough's other "wicked melodramas."  What I'm interested in today, though, is what it implies about faith, especially now that liberal Democrats and Republican NeverTrumpers are wrestling with Robert Mueller III's apparent failure to vindicate their faith.  A popular motif in atheist / secular attacks on religion is the gullibility of people who believe in supernatural "fables told by Bronze Age goatherds." But there's nothing supernatural about what Russiagate believers hoped would be revealed, or about many other beliefs that people cling to without evidence or in defiance of evidence.  It's tempting to dismiss such faith as religious (or perhaps religion-like?), and I've been to known to succumb to that temptation myself, but I think it would be more accurate to turn it around: I think that "religious" faith is a subset of the way human beings think about and discuss the world, and it's not different in any important way from other beliefs -- even well-supported beliefs.  That latter is the scary part.

I just finished reading archaeologist J. M. Adovasio's The First Americans: In Pursuit of Archaeology's Greatest Mystery (Random House, 2002), about the controversies surrounding the first human settlers of the Western hemisphere.  Its core is the "Clovis bar," the belief held by many archaeologists that "Clovis man" was the earliest inhabitant, arriving about 12 to 13,000 years ago.  Adovasio's excavations at Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Pennsylvania during the 1970s were the first strong evidence that Clovis culture had predecessors, and he details the debates that raged over the issue.  He depicts his opponents as driven by an irrational refusal to change their position, though they don't see themselves that way: they see themselves as rational critics, doing the necessary work of Science.  He gives an exhausting account of a scientific summit held in Chile to evaluate another possibly pre-Clovis site, and while I'm basically sympathetic to the pre-Clovis position (for not particularly rational reasons), I can only rejoice that neither faction had the power to do more than hiss at each other.  Though apart from the scientific questions, there are real-world matters at stake: research funding, professorships, publications, etc., nobody was put to the rack or burned for heresy.  Given the very high emotional temperature Adovasio reports (and embodies himself), though, I wouldn't assume that torture and execution wouldn't have happened if the parties involved had the power to inflict them.

The conventionally religious will reject my suggestion as fiercely as the conventionally non-religious.  Both sides want to see religious faith as a special case, distinct from all the others and privileged.  One reason I don't see it that way is that religious believers, especially but not limited to Yahwist monotheism, lightly dismiss the religious beliefs of other believers, even other members of their own sect.  If faith is so sacrosanct, beyond rationality and question, why don't believers respect other believers' faith?