“Ample food and sleep” : A thought on retrospective diagnosis, visions and full bellies

From Geoffrey Moorhouse’s fine bookSun Dancing

A clinical diagnosis of Aedh’s erotic and other visions would doubtless have concluded that , whatever shaped them in his psyche, they were triggered by his reckless fasting. Hallucination as a result of extreme exhaustion, including that which has resulted from semi-starvation, is a well-established condition, though many more centuries would pass after Aedh’s time before this was recognised. But visionaries of every father at all stages of history have tended to be people whose lives are marked by exceptional austerity, and it is difficult to think of a single instance in which a holy man or woman has reported tempting, fearsome or inspiring manifestations, on a regime of ample food and sleep.

On one level there is nothing objectionable about the above. Moorhouse, whose book I greatly admire, is careful not the ascribed the visions to starvation per se, but as a triggering factor. I I am suspicious of retrospective diagnosis and also of transporting the clinical worldview outside its natural habitat But reading this passage, a brief thought occurs. For the vast majority of the time homo sapiens has been in existence “ample food and sleep” have not been the common condition of humanity. Indeed, a regime of ample food and sleep could be said to be as anomalous as complex societies themselves- as Tainter points out

Brittasdryland, Lousybush, Mortgagefields: some Kilkenny townlands

Brittasdryland, Lousybush, Mortgagefields: some Kilkenny townlands

Brittasdryland (Bhriotás an Drílinnigh) – “Briotás” a borrowing from Anglo-French “bretesche”, wooden stronghold from “big oak tree” (see here and here) and “Dreeling”

Lousybush (Sceach na Míol): 
And my favourite, Mortgagefields which sounds like a possible title for a Martin Amis-ish dystopian take on post-crash Ireland – and whose Irish name Na Morgáistí does mean “the mortgages”

 

Fifty Years On: “I Heard the Owl Call My Name”, Margaret Craven

I first read I Heard The Owl Call My Name when I was about 14. It was one of those books that one reads far too young to really understand; its beautiful cover perhaps seduced me. At the time I was disappointed: a recent re-reading had a powerful impact. I would agree with the poster here that Mark’s terminal illness is one of those conveniently fictional ones, and that Mark himself is a little bit of a too-good-to-be-true cipher. However, this is a far from sentimental portrait of a remote community. Is it really slight? There are two incidental characters – the atheist teacher and an overbearing anthropologist – who Craven uses to neatly and concisely skewer some of the academic approaches to this kind of First Nations community. The book overall is far from slight – like The Great Gatsby or Heart of Darkness, a brief book with a power far beyond its pages.

Leaves & Pages

i heard the owl call my name margaret craven 001

I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven ~ 1967. This edition: Clarke, Irwin & Co., 1977. Softcover. ISBN: 0-7720-0617-2.138 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This is a slight, quiet, non-sentimental though rather romanticized novel about a young, terminally ill Anglican priest and his short residence in the Tsawataineuk (First Nations) village at the head of remote Kingcome inlet, on the southwestern British Columbia coast, opposite the northern tip of Vancouver Island. The time frame is contemporary with its writing, in the mid 1960s.

The doctor said to the Bishop, “So you see, my lord, your young ordinand can live no more than three years and doesn’t know it. Will you tell him, and what will you do with him?”

The Bishop said to the doctor, “Yes, I’ll tell him, but not yet. If I tell him now, he’ll try too hard. How much time has he for an active life?”

“A little less than…

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Hore Abbey, Cashel

Hore Abbey, Cashel


Hore Abbey is literally overshadowed by theRock of Cashel. It is well worth taking the path down from the Rock to the considerably less touristed Abbey. There is a relative lack of interpretative material, to say the least, except for this interesting information, especially on what I suspect was a rather convenient dream:

 

The abbey is reached by paths via a field which was populated by cows (and cowpats) aplenty. One doubts a Royal Visit is imminent.
From above on the Rock it appears a somewhat slight structure, an impression quickly corrected closer to. An air of monumentality remains, all the more accentuated for the relative abandonment.

St Jerome in His Study, Albrecht Dürer

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I first came across this engraving in an exhibition of Dürer engravings in the Chester Beatty Library over a decade ago.  In my completely uninformed way, what struck me most was the pleasingly cheerful sleeping lion, a contrast with the more famous apocalyptic engravings by the same artist of Melancholia, The Knight Death and The Devil,  and of course The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

While it is a little dispiriting to see Dürer reduced to listicle format, the Mental Floss article linked to above is actually pretty informative:

 

There’s no evidence to suggest Dürer saw Saint Jerome in His Study, Melancholia I, and Knight, Death, and the Devil as companion pieces, but modern art experts group the works because of their technical similarities. Each was created from copper printing plates between 1513 and 1514. They are similar in size and use of contrast, and as you’d expect of pieces called Meisterstiche (or Master Engravings), each is densely detailed with an expert care.

There is also a link with one of my recurrent blogging subjects:

12. JORGE LUIS BORGES PENNED TWO POEMS ABOUT THIS PIECE.
Named “Ritter, Tod, und Teufel” (I) and “Ritter, Tod und Teufel” (II), the first shows the Argentine author’s admiration for the knight’s bravery in the face of death and damnation, while the second reveals he can see himself in that very position.

 

I have never explored Borges’ poetry nearly as much as his prose. This page features  English versions of these poems.

Anyway, back to St Jerome after this knight’s move. Usually the saint is shown in the more dramatic setting of the desert. As you can read in this piece:

If you spend any time in the great art museums of Europe you will see with surprising frequency a more or less stylized portrait of an emaciated monk in a wilderness den, often pummeling his body with a stone …

In nearly all the portraits, Jerome is depicted as a tormented ascetic, praying, with his four hallmarks somewhere on the canvas: a crucifix, a skull (symbolizing meditation on mortality), a recumbent lion (which Jerome reputedly befriended by extracting a thorn from its paw and which may symbolize the peaceable kingdom of Isaiah 11), and a red cardinal’s hat (symbolizing Jerome’s status, along with Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great, as one of the four great doctors of the Latin church).

There is however a rich tradition of paintings of him in his study.  The Christianity Today article linked to above acts as a good introduction to who St Jerome was and why, in the author’s view, he is especially relevant today (see my major caveat after the end of this passage):

The church’s debt to this brilliant, prolific, and influential scholar-monk is immense. Jerome was a thunderbolt, however, and conflict was a hallmark of his career. Indeed, he may have been one of those individuals who needed conflict in order to reach his zenith of his abilities.

What did the Renaissance find so appealing in Jerome? It was the conflict itself of a man who loved both the Christian faith and the pagan classics. Jerome had a terrifying dream of standing before Jesus Christ on judgment day and being rejected from salvation because of his love for the classics, and especially Cicero. Jerome’s intermittent and not entirely successful pursuit of the ascetic lifestyle was an attempt to purge the influence of paganism from his life. In its attempt to synthesize humanism and Christianity, the Renaissance found a mirror image in Jerome. The conflict of Christian versus classical, Trinitarian monotheism versus pagan polytheism that contended for the soul of Jerome also contended for the soul of Europe in the Renaissance.

There have been times when the Western church seemingly came close to resolving the conflict between the pagan and Christian. Dante’s synthesis of the classical and Christian worlds in The Divine Comedy was one instance, and the post-Reformation world of Protestant “state” churches was another.

The fitful romance between classical and Christian has never led to formal marriage, however, at least in the Latin West. The soul of the West continues to be nourished by the pagan and Christian, the Renaissance and (Counter) Reformation, but they stand in tension with one another. Go to Paris: in the Louvre you’ll feel the sensual attraction of paganism; in Notre Dame you’ll sense the spiritual attraction of Christianity.

In America the tension is present in other ways. The pagan current manifests itself in the ubiquitous temptation to put our ultimate trust in human idolatries such as advanced missile systems, the hegemony of athletics, or the lure of science as the arbiter of the only truth that matters. But a Christian and salvific current is present as well, as manifested in the ongoing debates over the meaning of the gospel for issues such as abortion, infanticide, torture, homosexuality, divorce, and utilitarian and militaristic ends of human life.

As long as we live in a fallen world a complete synthesis of gospel and culture will not be possible. Indeed, whenever it is attempted, the gospel is inevitably compromised. My own life repeatedly bears witness to the tension between the two worlds. Perhaps yours does too.

Ponder again the urbane scholar-monk in his wilderness den. A skull – our impending mortality; a docile lion – the majesty of the powerful and untamed in nature; the cardinal’s hat – a reminder of the ministry of the church in the world for good; and above all, the crucifix – the symbol of the redemptive suffering of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world. Jerome seems to be a necessary, if uncomfortable, icon for our own day.

While I don’t fully buy the idea that the gospel and culture (as opposed to, let’s say, worldliness, are in inherent tension – and one can feel a sensuality to the art of Notre Dame and a spirituality to the art of the Louvre), this is an interesting essay. Perhaps this engraving, while not as dramatic as the Desert Jerome, is in its way as counter cultural as Edwards suggests the more famous image is. Sitting in a study – with or without a sleeping lion – is its own form of contrariness in a distracted age.