Shamans and Heretics

September 3, 2011

Once again, I have to ask, “Who were they?”  These cave paintings of bison at Niaux are as good as it gets with freehand drawings.  Done by torchlight, in the back of a long dangerous cave passage, with primitive brushes no less…about 15,000 years ago.  The large domed chamber near these images has an excellent echo, and the guide suggested it may have been a hangout for shamans.  The cave is not easy to get to, and the view from the entrance of the glacial valley is impressive.  I wonder what the artists thought of it.

Meanwhile, back in the near present, i.e. about 800 years ago, this land was the Pays du Cathar, a region where a heretical sect, a sort of Manichean twist on Christianity, held sway along with the local language, langue d’oc.  (Up north, ‘yes’ was oui, but down here it was said oc, thus the language of ‘oc)’.  Although closely related to Catalan, it didn’t survive as well.  The northern French, with the agreement of the Pope and the creation of a special French Inquisition, launched an internal crusade, known as the Albigensian Crusade after the city of Albi that was a political center of the heresy, and successfully stamped it out with great brutality.  The castle at Foix, located in a stunning valley, is one of the many strong points that couldn’t hold back the tide of the north.

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Augustine on Intercourse before Sin

May 9, 2011

In Chapter 23 of Book XIV of Saint Augustine’s City of God, the good doctor deals with some very thorny delicate questions.  He is considering the nature of Adam and Eve’s fall after they ate of the Tree of Knowledge, and thinking of just what was the state of their souls, and their virtue, before the fall.  A question arises:  Would procreation have taken place in paradise, if no one had sinned?

Why does this question of sin and sex arise?  Well, as a Christian, Augustine is at pains to show time and again how the lusts of the body are evil, man’s state of thralldom to his passions turns him from goodness and virtue, and towards damnation, and that the saintly path of renunciation of the flesh is the means to salvation.  But, surely, God did not intend for Adam and Eve to live in purity for all eternity by themselves!  All alone in that great big garden of Eden?  No – it was necessary for the number of saints to increase to its fixed limit (somehow I missed this bit of theology, but when the number of saintly humans reaches a certain value, it will be time for the Last Days), so naturally, Adam and Eve had to have children, had to…do…it.  But sex without sin, without lust, without base animality is not possible, correct?  Ah, not so!

Augustine proceeds to describe to us just what sex without sin would be like, but he does so with great circumspection, avoiding coarse language, and trying to do without any explicit reference to the private parts, because, after all, even with such a virtuous aim, the reference could excite some people to impure thoughts.  The whole business comes down to will power. 

Virtuous men and women have power over their bodies.  Their souls and virtue rule their body, and control its baser impulses.  Just so, Adam would have ‘relaxed on the bosom of Eve’ without any enthusiasm brought on by lust and desire or impure thoughts.  He would simply will his organ to do its duty just as any man can will his arm to move up and down.  The entire thing would be quite wholesome and reasonable, actually.  Viagra would have nothing on him!

Augustine points out that some animals seem to have control over parts of their bodies that we do not.  For example, many animals can cause their hides to flex and jerk, and they do it to shoo away flies, or even to shake out spears. 

Man has not this ability: but surely that does not mean that the Creator could not have bestowed it, at his pleasure, on any animate creatures?…It would not have been difficult for God to fashion him such a way that even what is now set in motion in his flesh only by lust should have been moved only by his will.

To further make his point, Augustine brings forward contemporary evidence:

We do in fact find among human beings some individuals with natural abilities very different from the rest of mankind and remarkable by their very rarity.  Some people can do some things with their body which are for others utterly impossible…Some people can even move their ears, either one at a time or both together.  Others without moving their heads can bring the whole scalp … down towards the forehead and bring it back again at will.

There you have it, simple!  Certainly Adam could have impregnated Eve by virtuous exercise of his will, bringing his mind in its clear grasp of sinless need for children to make his body do what was necessary.  Augustine is filled with such breathtaking insights, but this is only a hypothetical.  We all know what really happened.


Fully Slaved

November 11, 2010

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Reading Marcus Rediker’s book, The Slave Ship: A Human History, I learned of the Liverpool Seamen’s Revolt of 1775.  The slave ship owners decided to seriously cut the wages of the crews, and the sailors responded with a labor rebellion.  They cut down the rigging from the ships, looted the homes of the rich slavers, commandeered canon and bombarded the Exchange, headquarters of the city elite.  It was noted that the rebels, violent and destructive as they were, treated most people decently, reserving their rage for the directors of the slave trade.  They were finally put down by the military after a few days. They were protesting against their awful treatment by the controllers of the slave trade, not the trade itself.

The term “fully slaved,” refers to a slave ship (slaver) that has its full complement of human cargo and is ready to sail for the Americas.  The process of acquiring slaves took months, and the toll on the captives waiting below deck, as well as the sailing crew subject to sickness, was terrible.  Rediker’s book details all aspects of life aboard a slaver and the economic and political web that surrounded them.  It makes for horrifying reading – the first time I delved into this subject in detail.  It also adds a lot to my reading of Melville’s Benito Cereno and Eugene Sue’s Atar Gull. The book is quite repetitive, and not too well-organized, but the depth of scholarship is amazing.

In the course of his narrative, Rediker touches at length on John Newton, the author of  the hymn “Amazing Grace.”  He points out that Newton did not speak out against slavery until nearly thirty years had passed after he left the trade.  Moreover, his famous conversion to evangelical religion took place while he worked the trade, and did not prevent him from continuing profitably in it, believing he was following God’s path.

Better late than never.

The images below are of an old movie theatre in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, that startled me the first time I drove by it years ago.


We are in the 21st century, no?

September 19, 2010

I saw this bumper sticker ahead of me on a van this morning.  I’m no expert on Marxist sociology, but I believe the idea is that ideology is determined by material circumstances, i.e., the means of production determine the dominant ideas of an era.  Okay, so how come this fellow, and he’s in good company, is espousing ideas that are right out of Saint Augustine’s City of God?  Clearly, this driver is a citizen of that heavenly city, not the city of the world.

Or, are we to assume that all the significant elements of society are not much changed today from what they were in the early 5th century A.D?  How else to account for the incredible staying power of these ideas?


Augustine: Lost in the clouds

August 23, 2010

 

After devoting hundreds of pages to a sharply worded, often funny, and always derisive deconstruction of the folly of Roman paganism, St. Augustine finally turns his attention to more positive topics, e.g., the superiority of Platonism as the one pagan philosophy that is closest to the true religion of Christianity.  What strikes me most is the way in which thinkers of his day, and ours, are bewitched by their own polished use of language.  So many chasms of unexplained propositions are glided over so lightly.

From Book VIII, Chapter 6 of The City of God:

As for the teaching which is comprised in [what] Platonists call logic, or rational philosophy, heaven forbid that I should think to compare them with those who have placed the criterion of truth in the bodily senses and have decided that all that belongs to the realm of learning is to be measured by such unreliable and misleading standards.

In other words, abstract thought gives knowledge; observation yields error.  Here we have the Christian imprimatur placed on a Greek concept that will inhibit the growth of science for another thousand years.  As I remarked on my post about Playfair, the great innovator in representing quantitative data with graphs, this prejudice against the evidence of the eyes lingered on into the scientific age.

Here I always wonder what bodily senses they use to see what beauty which they say is found only in the wise. With what physical eyes have they beheld the beauty and grace of wisdom?

A marvelous example of rhetorical skill tripping up the search for truth.  He fixes on a metaphor, takes it as concrete, and then teases out the contradictions that ensue, using it as evidence for his spiritualist point of view.

They saw also that in every mutable being, the form which determines its being, its mode of being and its nature, can only come from him who truly is, because he exists immutably.

This lapidary phrase is almost like a chant, a mantra.  Often, in this chapter, Augustine uses rhythm and apparently simple logic to build to towards a triumphant declaration of the obvious truth of his religion.  He continues with this evocation of the entire panorama of existence:

Nice glasses!

It follows that the whole material universe, its shapes, qualities, its ordered motions, its elements disposed throughout its whole extent, stretching from heaven to earth, together with all the bodies contained within them; and all life, whether that which merely nourishes and maintains existence, as in the trees, or that which has sensibility as well, as in the animals; or that which has all this, and intelligence besides, as in human beings; or that life which needs no support in the way of nourishment, but maintains existence, and has feeling and intelligence, as in the case of angels – all these alike could come into being only through  him who simply is.

Yes, I love it, I do

For a wonderful introduction to The City of God, see this text.


Catherine’s Hours

February 12, 2010

The Morgan Library and Museum is having a wonderful exhibit of the illuminated manuscripts from Anne of Cleve’s Book of Hours [online fascimile here].  For those who feel we need to regain our sense of sin, this image at the left might be welcome.  A hellmouth within a hellmouth, within a castle of the dead – and not a pretty sight.

Most of the images are not so gruesome; some are familiar scenes from the New Testament, a few from the Old, and there are many “suffrages,” prayers directed at specific saints whose images are provided.    Below is an image of Saint Lawrence.  Commentary from the museum points out the puckish humor of the artist:

St. Lawrence is framed by a border of eels and fish, beautifully executed in gold and silver foil. The saint holds his attribute, the gridiron upon which he was fried to death. The artist made a playful parallel between Lawrence’s method of martyrdom and the way fish are cooked

The Morgan is currently showing another exhibit called Rome after Raphael – outside of the Cleves exhibit is a space that opens to both of them in which documents and manuscripts relevant to both were displayed.  On my way out, I stopped to take a look at some fine specimens of papal indulgences.


Are monsters sad?

August 18, 2008

I went to a wonderful exhibit of prints by Albrecht Durer today, including many of his most famous – The Knight, Death, and the Devil, Melancholia, and St. Jerome in his study. Looking at the detail from an image in his Apocalypse series shown above, (full image) I was struck by the forlorn aspect of this beast from hell as he vomits fire onto the world.  He doesn’t want to do it, but he must.  It’s his life.  Laying waste to the world.  Godzilla had his tragic aspect too, no?

I was also struck by the vomit imagery, so much like this visual trope that is to be found in Maakies again and again.  (See the whole strip here.)  It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Tony Millionaire were a fan of Durer.

And then, there is that beautiful image of the Prodigal Son at the moment when he is inspired to return to his father and beg his forgiveness.  I can’t help but think that the pigs, on which Durer has lavished so much loving attention, are looking at the wayward son slyly, a little knowingly…”Oh, you’re leaving are you?  Well, be gone with you.  We have eating to do…

I was much taken as well by this image of Christ before Pilate, a woodcut from his Small Passion series.  I love the slightly crazy steps, rendered carefully in perspective but not like any steps I’ve seen lately.  They give it a slightly dreamlike atmosphere, I think.