I’ve been reading that entertainment in late medieval France involved, for many of the unlettered inhabitants’ activities and performances we today might find a bit disturbing.
The Church was always on the lookout for those among the population whose behaviors might suggest possession by the devil (or devils, I guess). Exorcisms were a popular occurrence attended by the citizenry who looked with rapt attention as devils were extricated from the possessed by various means sometimes involving holy water enemas.
Women who were known to employ magic were considered in league with the devil and so declared witches subject to burning at the stake or drowning unless she floated in which case she would be burned. Such events were another well attended attraction no doubt.
These uneducated medieval folks saw most everything in terms of the supernatural. Fear of the Devil was a significant aspect of their reality. Satanic power begets respect leading many to participate in Black Sabbaths where the Evil One was worshipped, moral abandonment the rule, promiscuity encouraged, and great fun was had by all.
I guess for the average medieval townsfolk all was not pain and hardship, entertainments were there to be had if one could avoid becoming the focus of attention.
It’s pretty easy to get caught up in the proliferation of bad news I’m constantly bombarded with these days. I’m made aware, daily, of impending disasters awaiting me around nearly every corner. Attacks are perpetrated and battles are waged on multiple fronts by various actors, in various ways, stressing the limits of my abilities to realize some semblance of peace. The psychic discomfort I experience from following the news makes it difficult to maintain any sort of optimistic outlook, any sense of an ultimate ‘happily ever after’ scenario ever becoming possible in this life. If only I could glimpse even pinpricks of light passing through the shroud of impending gloom I might be able to catch a breath, slow my heart rate down a bit.
Of course, I’m thinking these things as I sit here sipping hot chocolate while reclining in the living room of my home where I will soon take to bed to catch my regular 8 hours and rise in the morning to read of another day’s multiple disasters.
I’m not sure how to think about such contradiction.
I’m a little concerned with my near obsession with the writings of the Romanian Philosopher Emil Cioran; he was a most egregious misanthrope who wrote with great profundity, drawing me into ideas I fear would feed the innate skepticism I harbor and would find not particularly useful in keeping my demeanor sunshiny. I try to keep in mind the post-WWII world he lived in, one he must have seen as a moral low point in the history of western civilization.
Anyway, in his aphorisms, E. C. vehemently condemns mankind’s false distractions (mainly religious idealisms) the obsession with which dooms man’s existence to inconsequence. Fear of the nothingness of existence, he writes, compels man to conjure beliefs, champion absolutes, to impose on others’ Truths in the hopes of gaining reinforcements sold on the delusions of life’s meaningfulness. What can man expect to gain were he to overcome such delusional thinking? Well, not a whole lot. Life will still be a painful experience, suffering the rule; slow physical deterioration and the realization existence has no meaningful worth must be expected.
As I process E. C.’s reasonable lines of thought I happened upon a big But: maintaining imagination, creating inventive scenarios, reveling in the beauty of nature will (while still a distraction) provide a means of surviving an otherwise disgusting existence. The fluidity with which the aesthetic mind can flow, travel between imaginings, provides the basis for hope. I’m sure E. C. wouldn’t agree.
I’ve been reading about the many visionary women living during times of particular religious fervor who the Catholic church eventually endowed with sainthood. What made these women special was, that from an early age, they experienced altered states of consciousness, euphoric experiences during which they were able to channel God, were able to perform miracles, heal the sick and provide life affirming insights to those in need.
Catherine Emmerich was an 18th century mystic who received the stigmata, the wounds of Christ, which must have been a credibility producing event beyond doubt. Catherine of Siena, through rigorous fasting experienced a mystical marriage to Jesus at which time she received the ring of his foreskin (providing, I suspect, motivation to require circumcision of all males in the future). Bridget of Sweden, a practicing ascetic experienced over 600 visions in her life. Dorothea of Montau, a 14th century mystic, became an Anchoress, spending her life confined to a cell attached to the cathedral in Kwidzyn in what is now Poland.
What all these women seem to have in common is deep sense of religious mystery that led them to extreme commitment to God and the Church even at the expense of their own physical well-being. There’s small doubt there are commitments people ruin their bodies for these days that are far less significant.
I’ve been reading aphorisms by the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran. E. C. was an extreme misanthrope of such pessimistic belief it led his distraught mother, unable to understand his negativity to tell him she wished he’d never been born, that had she known what he’d become she’d have aborted him.
As I seek something enlightening (or at least redeemable) in his writings I find him relating that, while life is a misery, chronically painful, that suffering is universal and never ending and that most people are too pathetic to do anything about it, sustainable existence may lie in hope and the distractions engaging in arts activities might offer. But for the talentless, the disaster which is reality will be overwhelming. E. C. thinks better to give one’s life to heroic acts since there really is nothing to live for. The talentless hero can at least have a sort of remembrance.
As for me, I’m not sure how fair it is to reduce the heroism of, say, a combat troop who falls on a grenade to save his comrades to lack of talent. Still, it’s hard to imagine that an inner life of some sort wouldn’t keep one from diving for cover in such circumstances.
I’ve been thinking about the influence Christianity had over the people of the Middle Ages. The fact that the peasants, poor as they were, would sacrifice to enrich the church and volunteer back-breaking labor to erect the cathedrals must have meant extreme piety. Their most important event of the year would have been Easter, celebration of the resurrection.
I’ve been reading, though, that perhaps religious experiences, the visions, messages from God so common to these medieval folks might have had something to do with chemistry; an inadequate diet brought on by Lenten fasting as well as the hallucinogenic effects of the ergot that formed in the grain bins as supplies ran low in the spring.
If such was the case for the medieval peasants, any means of tempering the harsh realities of their existence might certainly be thought of as a gift from God.
I’ve been thinking, lately, about the trickster gods polytheistic religions have conjured or otherwise discovered among their myriad deities. Tricksters like the Nordic Loki and Kokopelli, God of the indigenous tribes of the desert southwest, are known to be instigators of chaos, are blamed when life’s routines are interrupted or seen as tempters when one strays from the straight and narrow. Deceit, betrayal and treachery are the domains of the tricksters.
In contrast the monotheistic religions, who, of course, do have Satan to blame when things go awry, have the dilemma of reconciling their infallible, all-powerful Deity with the idea He would allow evil to occur, that He is unable to thwart the Satanic demons mortals struggle with.
On the one hand we have the pagans, who, keeping things simple, perform rites to solicit favor from gods they recognized as having faults as well as attributes, who may or may not perform as desired. On the other hand, the intellectual discrepancies monotheists are continually confronted with in order to sustain faith in an Infallible God must consistently be addressed.
When it comes down to it, though, I guess the real issue isn’t about specifics of belief but the mystery of belief in the unknown itself.
The science section of the Sunday paper often has an unsettling item or two, usually involving reports by researchers who have determined the dangers of various common behaviors that will likely shorten one’s life. The article that caught my attention most recently warned that alcohol consumption will shrink the brain. Researchers apparently measured brain sizes of some several hundred people and determined that as little as one drink a day will cause one’s brain not only to stop growing but to actually reduce in size.
As I think about this and being aware, as I am, of my forgetfulness as well as the consistency of my inability to come up with the word I want in a conversation, I’m led to believe the researchers may be on to something. The fact that I’ve been consuming alcohol for probably fifty years has me wondering whether dementia may be just around the corner. After all this time it probably wouldn’t make any difference if I quit my daily glass of wine or not; how much smaller could my brain get?
I guess I’ll just have to add alcohol consumption to my other life-shortening behaviors: too much coffee will give me cancer and I can expect diabetes from the sweetened sodas I drink. Such thoughts dim the brightness of the generally healthy lifestyle I see myself living. I guess the realization of life’s fragility will keep me reading such reports even though I won’t be thinking about them too long: shrinking brain, you know.
I’ve been reading, recently, about the experiments with the drug mescalin Aldous Huxley performed in the 1950’s. He determined that the drug will ‘open the door’ of one’s perceptions, allow one to pass through the wall of harsh reality and for most everyone with proper introduction and guidance, will produce expanding insights, an increasing ability to see more deeply and observe the world ego-free. Being able to embrace the ‘isness’ of our visible world, the stuff of experience that has by survival instinct been reduced to labeled objects, would make everything we see more significant as the drug inhibits self-consciousness.
There are caveats. A sound, stable mind grounded and free of anxiety is essential. AH points out the drug may induce schizophrenic response, scare the user into interpreting his surroundings as cosmic malevolence, begin viewing experiences as conspiratorial, as a plot to destroy him.
Which has me thinking about the alternative realities so prevalent in the public sphere these days. How so many of us have caved to conspiratorial narratives, have fallen into the dark world of the ‘deep state’ even without experiencing the negative effects of a mind-altering drug.
Even so, it seems to me cracking open some of those ‘doors’, gain at least a glimpse beyond our limiting realities would gain us a worthwhile perspective. Maybe, if one really tried one could will the expansion without the drug.
There’s a lot of discussion these days about whether or not humankind is putting excessive pressure on our earth’s finite resources. Population growth, new technologies for extracting fossil fuels, depletion of forest lands, loss of clean fresh water sources, garbage in the oceans, over fishing, the list goes on and on.
I was reading an interesting commentary on what would happen to our world if humankind was suddenly to disappear, how quickly it would rebound, become healthy again. Such a scenario, human extinction that is, is not all that unthinkable in view of international tensions these days.
Such thinking made the book, The World Without us, by Alan Weisman, compelling reading. Mr. Weisman suggests that, in his believable future world, infrastructures would begin to fail, the New York subway tunnels would flood almost immediately and within a few hundred years our most solidly built brick, mortar and concrete structures would crumble. Native vegetation would push up through asphalt roadways hastening nature’s reclamation of the earth. Coral reefs and sea life would rebound as the resilient oceans healed themselves.
Even 500 years later the earth, it seems to me, would be a much more attractive place to be; except, of course, I wouldn’t be here; unless I could somehow live in the future. But, I guess that’s a whole other issue.