La-Bas

by Andrea Elizabeth

In between reading and writing about Amy Lawrence’s Echo and Narcissus, I’ll interject some other thoughts on the value of women. The hedonistic view (not necessarily the author’s) is described in the controversial French writer Michel Houellebecq’s novel, The Possibility of an Island:

 

“Women in general lack a sense of humor, which is why they consider humor to be one of the virile qualities…. women who are interested in comedians are getting old, nearly forty, and are beginning to suspect that things are going to turn bad…. In other words, there was nothing arousing about them…the interest goes. They weren’t all that old, either; I knew that as they approached fifty they would once again long for something reassuring, easy, and false—and of course they wouldn’t find it. In the meantime, I could only confirm to them—completely unintentionally, believe me, it’s never a pleasure—the decline of their erotic value; I could only confirm their first suspicions, and instill in them, despite myself, a despairing view of life: no, it was not maturity that awaited them, but simply old age; there was not a new blossoming at the end of the road, but a bundle of frustrations and sufferings, at first insignificant, then very quickly unbearable; it wasn’t very healthy, all that, not very healthy at all. Life begins at fifty, that’s true; inasmuch as it ends at forty.”

 

Even the sample pages of this novel have very crude depictions (…), but there is a verifiable point of view in them. I must say that I find similar crudity, though not sexual like Mr. Houellebecq’s, but gory, in his favorite author, J.K. Huysmans (1848-1907), who recounts his conversion to Catholicism in La-Bas (Down There), describing Christ’s crucified body:

 

“Durtal’s introduction to this naturalism had come as a revelation the year before, although he had not then been so weary as now of fin de siècle silliness. In Germany, before a Crucifixion by Matthæus Grünewald, he had found what he was seeking.

He shuddered in his armchair and closed his eyes as if in pain. With extraordinary lucidity he revisualized the picture, and the cry of admiration wrung from him when he had entered the little room of the Cassel museum was reechoing in his mind as here, in his study, the Christ rose before him, formidable, on a rude cross of barky wood, the arm an untrimmed branch bending like a bow under the weight of the body.

This branch seemed about to spring back and mercifully hurl afar from our cruel, sinful world the suffering flesh held to earth by the enormous spike piercing the feet. Dislocated, almost ripped out of their sockets, the arms of the Christ seemed trammelled by the knotty cords of the straining muscles. The laboured tendons of the armpits seemed ready to snap. The fingers, wide apart, were contorted in an arrested gesture in which were supplication and reproach but also benediction. The trembling thighs were greasy with sweat. The ribs were like staves, or like the bars of a cage, the flesh swollen, blue, mottled with flea-bites, specked as with pin-pricks by spines broken off from the rods of the scourging and now festering beneath the skin where they had penetrated.

Purulence was at hand. The fluvial wound in the side dripped thickly, inundating the thigh with blood that was like congealing mulberry juice. Milky pus, which yet was somewhat reddish, something like the colour of grey Moselle, oozed from the chest and ran down over the abdomen and the loin cloth. The knees had been forced together and the rotulæ touched, but the lower legs were held wide apart, though the feet were placed one on top of the other. These,beginning to putrefy, were turning green beneath a river of blood. Spongy and blistered, they were horrible, the flesh tumefied, swollen over the head of the spike, and the gripping toes, with the horny blue nails, contradicted the imploring gesture of the hands, turning that benediction into a curse; and as the hands pointed heavenward, so the feet seemed to cling to earth, to that ochre ground, ferruginous like the purple soil of Thuringia.

Above this eruptive cadaver, the head, tumultuous, enormous, encircled by a disordered crown of thorns, hung down lifeless. One lacklustre eye half opened as a shudder of terror or of sorrow traversed the expiring figure. The face was furrowed, the brow seamed, the cheeks blanched; all the drooping features wept, while the mouth, unnerved, its under jaw racked by tetanic contractions, laughed atrociously.

The torture had been terrific, and the agony had frightened the mocking executioners into flight.

Against a dark blue night-sky the cross seemed to bow down, almost to touch the ground with its tip, while two figures, one on each side, kept watch over the Christ. One was the Virgin, wearing a hood the colour of mucous blood over a robe of wan blue. Her face was pale and swollen with weeping, and she stood rigid, as one who buries his fingernails deep into his palms and sobs. The other figure was that of Saint John, like a gipsy or sunburnt Swabian peasant, very tall, his beard matted and tangled, his robe of a scarlet stuff cut in wide strips like slabs of bark. His mantle was a chamois yellow; the lining, caught up at the sleeves, showed a feverish yellow as of unripe lemons. Spent with weeping, but possessed of more endurance than Mary, who was yet erect but broken and exhausted, he had joined his hands and in an access of outraged loyalty had drawn himself up before the corpse, which he contemplated with his red and smoky eyes while he choked back the cry which threatened to rend his quivering throat.

Ah, this coarse, tear-compelling Calvary was at the opposite pole from those debonair Golgothas adopted by the Church ever since the Renaissance. This lockjaw Christ was not the Christ of the rich, the Adonis of Galilee, the exquisite dandy, the handsome youth with the curly brown tresses, divided beard, and insipid doll-like features, whom the faithful have adored for four centuries. This was the Christ of Justin, Basil, Cyril, Tertullian, the Christ of the apostolic church, the vulgar Christ, ugly with the assumption of the whole burden of our sins and clothed, through humility, in the most abject of forms.”

 

Not in the earliest icons I’ve seen. Crudeness seems pagan to me, but maybe that’s Puritan of me to say. I’ll admit I’m more critical of this type of realism than I am of idealism. To me Eastern icons with their passionlessness are the ideal. I have heard of another conversion story stemming from looking at a graphic Catholic crucifixion and which eventually lead a famous person to Orthodoxy. God meets western people where they are. I say western because our cultural makeup makes us respond to certain things in a certain way.

Along this line, some people get married and have children because of the appeal of the small and the weak and compellingly suffering to the strong. It’s better than not getting married and having children or becoming a Christian, but, like I alluded to in the previous post, having immaturity and in this post hedonism and/or suffering as a necessary component to relationship misses the mark. Not that the nature of the ideal female body can only be an object of hedonism, which is not a Puritan thing to say. I’ll not even say that its sole purpose is childbearing. Beauty can be appreciated in other ways.

Naturalistic (back to) crudeness is scientifically materialistic. Beauty incorporates the transcendent. Devotees of honesty and realism will revel in crudeness, but I think it, like sin, is transitory and thus should be treated as a phantom. This is why eastern icons of the crucifixion have Jesus as majestic and serene. The above depiction may have been witness-able by “objective” observers, but it is not the whole, nor enduring story. Even in this licentious age, I think the possibility of a veil can be used when assessing people. Not to cover reality, but to see them more timelessly; as what they may become in the future.

Oh yes, I forgot to comment on how much weaker Mary was than John. Of all women, she was probably the emotionally stronger of that pair.

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