Religion and Cartoons: Nina Paley, Durkheim, Politics

By Donovan Schaefer

Nina Paley, who first came to my attention with her 2008 film Sita Sings the Blues, has released an animated short entitled “This Land Is Mine,” a prelude to a possible new feature length work tentatively called  Seder Masochism.  Beautifully made, clever, funny, and poignant, the short clip is worth watching in its entirety.

TLIM depicts a series of inhabitants of the Levant (variously known as Canaan, Judea, Israel, and Palestine) slaughtering one another in succession as they take turns lip syncing Andy Williams’s “The Exodus Song.”

This land is mine, God gave this land to me
This brave and ancient land to me
And when the morning sun reveals her hills and plain
Then I see a land where children can run free

So take my hand and walk this land with me
And walk this lovely land with me
Though I am just a man, when you are by my side
With the help of God, I know I can be strong
Though I am just a man, when you are by my side
With the help of God, I know I can be strong

To make this land our home
If I must fight, I’ll fight to make this land our own
Until I die, this land is mine

The final line is sung by the Angel of Death, hovering over the landscape as it erupts in mushroom clouds.

Paley’s artistic perspective subtracts religious objects from a logic of rigid seriousness and reinserts them inside a dynamic interplay between seriousness and humor.  In Sita Sings the Blues, Paley used the story of Sita as a prism to try to make sense out of one of the most weighty and painful moments of her life–her abrupt divorce–and line that moment of personal trauma up with broader ontological and cosmological questions arranged within the intellectual framework of Hinduism.

Yet in spite of this genuine respect for the depth of her source material, Paley’s depiction of Sita with her midriff showing, of Ram’s cruelty to Sita, and the general spirit of playfulness of the film as a whole made Paley a target for the right-wing Hindutva, or Hindu nationalist movement, in India and the United States.  Paley received threats and many screenings of her film were cancelled due to the ensuing global protest movement.  Paley unwittingly tripped over a tangle of postcolonial affects, enfolding the complex history of subcontinental views on sex and gender as well as the equally complex history of the interpretation of Indian religion.  Both of these lines were warped by waves of colonial and imperial encounters, many of which established self-serving discourses of religious supremacism that denigrated and shamed Indian religion as obsessed with sex, idolatrous, cartoonish.

Partly in response to this, Paley’s Seder Masochism project develops her own Jewish tradition as a new artistic resource.  As with Sita, Paley uses here a combination of popular music and brilliantly colored images to explore the intersection of history, emotion, religion, and personal experience.

It would be difficult to seriously contend that Paley’s TLIM takes a “side” in the conflict–though I would concede that there is a politics embedded in the position that there is no clear winner.  Indeed, Craig Martin has argued that Paley’s work depoliticizes the Israel-Palestine struggle in ways that are unproductive for understanding the legacy of violence and colonization in the Levant.  In spite of this, there is already a healthy debate raging in the comments section below her work, presenting all the telltale signs of a new Controversy: accusations of “propaganda” lobbed from all sides, post lengths spiraling up and beyond the range of readability, the involvement of the “Jewish Internet Defense Force,” someone insisting that we all go “read the Korean” to understand what those Muslims are really up to.

Emile Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life offers an interesting vocabulary for understanding the droning tones of censorship that have risen up to meet Paley’s work throughout her career: the dichotomy between sacred and profane.  Speaking of the religious “primitive”–by which Durkheim means the man [sic] tuned to the elements of religion–he writes:

And because his companions feel transformed in the same way at the same moment, and express this feeling by their shouts, movements, and bearing, it is as if he was in reality transported into a special world entirely different from the one in which he ordinarily lives, a special world inhabited by exceptionally intense forces that invade and transform him. Especially when repeated for weeks, day after day, how would experiences like these not leave him with the conviction that two heterogeneous and incommensurable worlds exist in fact? In one world he languidly carries on his daily life; the other is one that he cannot enter without abruptly entering into relations with extraordinary powers that excite him to the point of frenzy. The first is the profane world and the second, the world of sacred things. (Fields translation, p. 220)

What is fascinating about the reaction to TLIM is that it is not the political message of the clip that is eliciting a prohibitive response.  Paley’s political preferences in the 3 and a half minute clip are indistinct.  What Paley’s work accomplishes is a representation of the battle lines themselves as hypercolorful, as musical, as something we desire and swoon over.  In calling attention to the cartoonishness of the conflict–the way that the binary grid of the battlefield superimposed over mundane life has become an object of intense fascination on all sides, has become, in Durkheim’s word, sacred–Paley threatens to demystify it, to hurl it into the realm of the profane, to make it nothing more than a cartoon.  It is by animating the borderlands between sacred and profane–by making them dance in the flickering light of the theater–that Paley excites the fury of her religious critics.  Paley’s work is dangerous not because it picks a side, but because it compels the combatants to see that they have painted themselves in garish colors.

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