03/05/2006 08:55 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Those Mohammed Cartoons Were "Graven Images"

The fuss having subsided, it's a good moment to recall the giant cultural fact that conditioned the whole dynamic over those depictions of Mohammed. It goes much deeper than the politics of exploitation that all but drowned the actual phenomenon in cycles of spin.

Saturated as our lives are with images, we forget the magic, the miraculous effect of--producing a likeness.

Oh, it's a devilish power. Plato understood the danger. He wanted strict regulation of representations of all kinds in his Republic. Old Testament prophets were just as alarmed. And Protestant Puritans too.

Next time you're up New England way, drop in on one of those charming old churches that dot the countryside, the simple white clapboard structures, green shutters, modest steeples--sometimes no steeples at all. What will you see inside? Not much. Certainly no graven images. No depictions at all.

You know how voodoo dolls work? Anthropologists used to call that "homeopathic magic," that link between something real and images of it.

Oh, it's a devilish power--to recreate creation in depictions, to create a second creation. It so manifestly bespeaks a blasphemous aspiration when you look at it that way, does it not?

Perhaps you've heard how people in some tribal societies recoil from the idea of being photographed when they are first introduced to it? They think that pictures of them will steal their souls.

Remember that while you're watching the Oscars...