I’ve been reading about the reality lived by people of late-medieval Europe who were inclined to interpret the phenomena of daily existence as a struggle between the forces of good and evil. Caught, as they were, between the beginnings of a science-based understanding of the physical world and the ancient beliefs they held about the potency of the supernatural, these folks tended to lean most heavily on the latter, which unfortunately led to ill-conceived practices detrimental to their existence: bloodletting and exorcism to name just two.
Not so easy, though, to dismiss the magical thinking of those earlier times: many of us still conjure images of evil entities responsible when bad things happen. As much as we might like to think ourselves intellectually superior to our medieval forebearers it would appear their ancient beliefs still inhabit our psyches.
A beautiful late spring day, sun shining, light breeze blowing, conjures images of youthful optimism, of the immanent occurrence of wonderful happenings likely in the near future.
Now, the number and quality of possible outcomes, many not necessarily good, have me wondering about what’s been lost. No doubt my earlier optimism was swayed by a generously youthful naivete, and world events, these days, are dire, oppressive if one pays too much attention.
Still, the opening into the transcendent ought to be there, shrunk maybe, narrower, more constricted but the window, grimy as it may be, ought to admit a bit of light.
I’ve been thinking lately that language is a limiting and essentially inadequate means of describing experience. (As I think about this it occurs to me I’ve probably thought this very thing before; in fact, I doubt I’ve had a truly original thought anytime recently).
Anyway, language may be the only way of describing experience, but the descriptions rendered no matter the mastery one may have of the written word will fall well short of sufficiently describing the color and complexities of sensual experience.
Roland Barthes, the late French literary theorist, said that man cannot know, understand prior to developing at least a rudimentary language. I’m inclined to disagree with such an idea. It seems to me my colorful and complex sensual experiences can occur to my conscious self without interpretation; that it is unnecessary for language to supervene upon my experiences for them to actually exist.
But, then, maybe my memory is going, I am aging after all; brain cells are being lost. Still, the visual imagery is there and doesn’t seem to require captions. I’m thinking language is over-rated. It simply is unable to account for the ineffable.
I’ve been thinking lately about how one determines beauty. Arguments can be made for the primacy of the ‘eye of the beholder’ in such a determination, but one can’t discount cultural or experiential factors in defining the quality. I’ve been reading that the beauty of classical sculpture may lie to a great extent in the imagined perfection that the damaged remnants still in existence conjure in one’s mind. The figurative Greek sculpture that has over the centuries suffered abuse and intentional destruction still represents what many consider the ideal of physical beauty despite its fragmentary existence.
This idea has me thinking that maybe the greatest beauty, that which is most aesthetically pleasing is beyond physical manifestation; an argument for the existence of God.
I guess the idea of transcending one’s reality has always been imagined by the contemplative mind. For many who seek such adventure religious engagement may provide the pathway to that other world imagined to be beyond painful relationships, workplace power struggles or battles involved in securing a bit of personal dignity, in realizing a certain respect from others.
In the past those truly committed to rise above mundane reality had been known to tax their physical health to the extreme, nearing death in order to weaken their natural self-serving propensities in favor, hopefully, of achieving enlightenment, sensing a divine Ground of Being where original virtue is realized, a state of existence where ego is lost, replaced by an inner serenity.
I do like the idea of rising above mundane reality on occasion, to find serenity, but the means to such an end would be more attractive if it didn’t involve masochism.
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.
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.