Poem/Song: “On the Strange and Lamentable Tale of the Witches of Saluda”

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The Bonham House, Saluda, SC (Source).

It’s been a while since I posted any original wordcraft, so here’s a poem I wrote recently. The last part is a song. I wanted to hearken to the Scotch-Irish traditions of the poor folks who settled the Carolinas. You can hear me sing it on the embedded audio I have included.

On the Strange and Lamentable Tale of the Witches of Saluda

I. The Town

I saw them dancing at the old waterworks
with torchlight in their eyes, huge
gates to unseen countries
of the damned and dying.
Off in the woods, the fog
snaked through like a hungry hound bent
low over the scent
of some lesser beast.
The pines keep our secrets from us,
so we can forget.
Didn’t you know that even the
goats and horses have eyes, ears,
loose lips muttering imprecations
under their breath? Never
look over your shoulder
at a crossroads. Men have died,
petrified, for less.
Or else they shoot into space
and freeze in the rictus of their fathers,
grinning madly at the dead sun
below. I have drawn
salt from the shadow of your footsteps,
I have planted rows of teeth in my head.
What dragons will come
when I bring a scythe
to the harvest?

II. The Purlieu

You hardly know how dark
the young pine woods can be.
Not a patch of tall trees, mind you,
but ones that stand
just about twice your size.
Still plenty of silent life ahead of them.
You can see them at the edge of evening,
surrounding a field surrounding
a low crop of tombstones
all asunder and blurred
by the rain’s improvident hand.
The trees wait there, wordless,
dusk-bleached, lined up like so many
carious teeth. But they are not
what draws my eye
the fathomless
dark that spreads behind
like a growling and
hungry gullet.

III. The Back Yard

It will not go away.

Momma said to come to the table,
no use passing your life
by the back window
daydreaming.

But I could see it pacing the lawn as I ate.

Huge, black,
unblinking, white
of tooth.
I don’t think it ever sleeps.
The heat of the noonday and the
shadow that flies by night
do not afflict it
the stones in its shoes
and the rancid water it sips
out of our traschan lids
do not injure it—
the play of the neighbors
and the tumult of the street
do not distract it.
I have not yet seen it blink.
I have not yet seen it turn its gaze
from the house.
It watches.
I don’t think it ever sleeps.

Momma says
daddy woudn’t have tolerated
any such foolishness.
I don’t know.

It makes not a sound.
I think it knows what we talk about
in the house.
I think it knows when we rise and fall
to our prayers.
I think it listens to what we confess,
to our fights, to the whisper of the rain.

I don’t want to go out there.
I don’t want it to get it.
I don’t think it ever sleeps.

IV. Found in a Buried Notebook, Written in Red Ink

Don’t turn your back to the trees
or walk up the weed-cracked pavement
beneath the sign that reads
CAR  ASH CO N LAUNDRY
and don’t keep the pottery you dig up
in your garden
bonewhite under the red
clay and grey sand. Don’t
venture to the edge of the field that
smells like salt
and don’t keep your teeth in a shoebox
(it might become a skull)
and don’t knock on walls
where there should be a door
or take down the portraits
of the nameless.
Don’t ponder what might have
broken the sign from the fencepost
or written its replacement
in an unknown script.
Don’t let your children go to the post office alone.
Don’t let your daughter play with the dolls
she doesn’t remember receiving.

V. The Song of the Lost Daughters


The young girls singing thread silk in their hair
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Discarding the rest of the clothes that they wear
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee

They join with the voices of the torchbearing throng
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee
And soon they forget every other sweet song
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee

Songs that illumine the queer, darkened lands
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Like the water you pour over bloody hands
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee

Her lace crown covers her eyes as they lead
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Her into a thicket that smells of ripe seed
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee

To hide from the angels that watch in the trees
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee
And teach her the sacred rites of the bees
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee

“An will ye cam back to yer mother so fine?”
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee
“Ah will ye return to me, daughter of mine?”
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee

“Ah mother, dear mother, I can’t come at all”
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee
“Until I’ve repeated our first mother’s fall”
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee

“The Sabbath is waiting, the dance oh so dear”
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee
“To teach us the meaning behind every fear”
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee

They never did see her again in the day
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee
But once on a new moon, as old people say
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee

Seven years waiting and seven years won
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Seven years burning, but far from the Sun
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee

Beware, all me daughters, what hides in the air
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee
And never thread silks so fine in your hair
Io Hymen Hymenaee
Io Hymen Hymenaee

The Vampirologist: Dom Augustin Calmet OSB

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Vera Effigies Augustini Calmet Abbatis Senonensis. (Source).

I was recently asked by the administrator of Catholics from the Crypt to write a brief introduction to Dom Augustin Calmet, Abbot-General of the Congregation of St. Vanne. My qualifications for this task are minimal but, I think, sufficient. First, I know a little about Calmet, which is, sadly, more than many can say. He is an unfairly overlooked figure in our religious and cultural landscape. Secondly, I hope to write my Master’s Thesis on Calmet’s Histoire Universelle, though of course the actual process of research might change my direction. For the time being, I am glad of the challenge, and will likely turn this into the first of a series of short biographies of weird religious figures.

Dom Calmet, born on the 26th of February, 1672, in the then-Duchy of Bar (now Lorraine, France) had a long and impressive career. Entering religious life at the Benedictine Priory of Breuil, he moved around over the years to obtain his education at various abbeys. His itinerary reads like an honor roll of some of the finest establishments of the Franco-German monastic intelligentsia: St. Mansuy, St. Èvre, Munster, Mouyenmoutier, Lay-Saint-Christophe, St. Leopold. Yet the two monasteries most closely associated with his career are Senones Saint-Pierre and Vosges, where he eventually died a holy death.

He achieved widespread scholarly respect for his work in three different fields. First, Calmet distinguished himself as an Exegete. His Biblical method differed from more classical forms of exegesis by focusing entirely on the literal meaning of the text; this exposed him to criticism, even amidst the general acclaim which the book and its abridgements garnered.

DomCalmetTitlePageVampires

Title page of Book I of his most famous work on Vampires. (Source).

Second, he became an eminent author of sacred and profane history. While my own interest lies most heavily with his Histoire Universelle (1735-47), Calmet also devoted considerable attention to more specific topics. It should come as no surprise, given the libraries to which he had access, that he devoted special care to the region which bore him. His titles include History of the Famous Men of Lorraine (1750), Dissertation on the Highways of Lorraine (1727), Genealogical History of the House of Châtelet (1741), and posthumous histories of both Senones (1877-81) and Munster (1882).

However, Calmet achieved lasting fame for his extremely popular work on Vampires: first, Dissertations on the Apparitions of Angels, Demons, and Spirits, and on the Revenants and Vampires of Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia (1746) He later expanded the text into his famous Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on the Vampires or Revenants of Hungary, of Moravia, &c. in 1752. These texts were, to the best of my knowledge, the first attempt to apply scientific rigor to the tales of the undead then current throughout Europe.

The books were a huge hit, and remain widely respected by occult writers today. To quote one source:

Re-released in 1748, with the most complete edition in 1751, this book is considered to be [the] authoritative treatment on the subject, containing an unprecedented collection of ghostly stories of revenants. It was a best seller for the period, quickly translated into German and Italian for a broader audience. Calmet’s tone considers the possibility of vampires with a certain ambiguity, possibly in light of the larger body of his publications for the church. Still, this is widely regarded as the starting point of all vampiric literature.

 

The work garnered critical attention from no less a figure than Voltaire. As that eminent source, Wikipedia, relates, Voltaire wrote of Calmet with no small astonishment:

What! It is in our 18th century that there have been vampires! It is after the reign of Locke, of Shaftesbury, of Trenchard, of Collins; it is under the reign of d’Alembert, of Diderot, of Saint-Lambert, of Duclos that one has believed in vampires, and that the Reverend Priest Dom Augustin Calmet, priest, Benedictine of the Congregation of Saint-Vannes and Saint-Hydulphe, abbot of Senones, an abbey of a hundred thousand livres of rent, neighbor of two other abbeys of the same revenue, has printed and re-printed the History of Vampires, with the approbation of the Sorbonne, signed by Marcilli!

[NB: translation is my own]

We can only imagine what conversation transpired between the two thinkers when Voltaire stayed at Senones in 1754, only a few years before the abbot’s death.

It is perhaps unusual that a monk who was, by all accounts, part of the same intellectual circles as the Maurist Enlighteners and the Philosophes would take to such a strange subject. Calmet certainly saw himself as partaking of that wider project. He writes in his preface to the Treatise,

My goal is not at all to foment superstition, nor to maintain the vain curiosity of Visionaries, and of those who believe without examination all that one tells them, as soon as they find therein the marvelous and the supernatural. I do not write but for those reasonable and unprejudiced spirits, who examine things seriously and with sang-froid; I do not speak but for those who do not give their consent to known truths but with maturity, who know to doubt things uncertain, to suspend their judgment in things doubtful, and to refute that which is manifestly false. (Calmet ii).

[NB: translation is my own]

Perhaps we should not be so surprised. After all, the religious history of Europe is peppered with eccentric and erudite men drawn to esoteric studies. And by the time that Dom Calmet died in 1757, the French monastics had not yet reached the height of their oddity. That would come later, with the well-traveled and thoroughly bizarre Swedenborgian and Martinist monk Antoine-Joseph Pernety, whom I hope to someday investigate more thoroughly.

The Revolution changed all that. No longer could monks live their lives freely, let alone attempt serious academic inquiry. It would take the genius of men like Dom Prosper Guéranger to restore the French Benedictines to their former glory.

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Senones Abbey today. The monastery was dissolved by Revolutionary forces in 1793, then later sold off as State Property and converted into a textile mill. This desecration continued until 1993, when what was left of the abbey became a Monument historique. (Source).

The Waste Land of Father John Misty

image

Father John Misty. (Source).

A Christ in sunglasses is nailed to a papier-mâché cross. He is, in fact, not just Jesus, but also Macauley Culkin and Kurt Cobain at once, the triune victim of philistines and a squad of jackbooted, mocking Romans who are dressed as Ronald McDonald. A Xenomorphic version of the clown himself pops out of the hook-handed captain’s chest and fires a lazer at a bleeding-eyed Virgin in a red Wendy’s wig. The good thief is Bill Clinton on a confetti-colored cross. The titulus crucis has been replaced with a cardboard scroll that reads “King of the Cucks.” Before departing, the last fast-food fascist takes a selfie with the Cobain-Christ. And good old George Washington, Oculus Rift still clasped to his head, burns to a crisp in orgiastic entertainment as the virtual sacrifice concludes.

Was this an Ayahuasca trip, a mystic hallucination, or a rather heavy-handed SNL skit?

The answer, of course, is D, none of the above. It’s just another Father John Misty video. This one is entitled “Total Entertainment Forever,” and the track comes from his new release from Sub Pop, Pure Comedy. Father John Misty (alias Josh Tillman) has long produced a body of work at once blasphemous and baffling, though occasionally given to brief bursts of beauty. There is less of this latter quality in his newest album, and it’s sorely missed. Tillman has instead given us a project bloated with its own sense of self-importance and suffocating on its own shallow satirical spite.

Of course, it’s perfectly fine for an artist to mock, to rally, or to critique. Some of the greatest art does all three at once. Take, for instance, that modernist monolith, The Waste Land. T.S. Eliot may have contended for years that it was just “the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life…just a piece of rhythmical grumbling,” but critics of every generation have recognized in the poem a powerful diagnosis of the sickness of Western civilization. Much of Eliot’s “grouse” remains relevant today, in part because, even as he pilloried all kinds of people, he grounded his art in the perennial images of human culture.

Father John Misty, alas, does not. He is content to complain without saying anything all that deep, and without investing his work with the kind of symbolic depth we recognize in Eliot.

The titular track, “Pure Comedy,” sets the mood for the rest of the album. We might as well spend some time looking at the lyrics. They reveal quite a lot about Father John Misty’s priorities and self-perception. Here are the first lines:

The comedy of man starts like this
Our brains are way too big for our mothers’ hips
And so Nature, she divines this alternative
We emerged half-formed and hope that whoever greets us on the other end
Is kind enough to fill us in
And, babies, that’s pretty much how it’s been ever since

The song goes on to announce that mankind’s lot is really just,

Comedy, now that’s what I call pure comedy.
Just waiting until the part where they start to believe
They’re at the center of everything
And some all-powerful being endowed this horror show with meaning

That right there is the little light in the plane that tells us to buckle up and get ready for the hackneyed atheist bits.

Oh, their religions are the best
They worship themselves yet they’re totally obsessed
With risen zombies, celestial virgins, magic tricks, these unbelievable outfits
And they get terribly upset
When you question their sacred texts
Written by woman-hating epileptics

For those of you who didn’t watch the video I linked above, let me save you some time. He’s not talking about Islam and Judaism. Tilman is mainly targeting Catholicism, even if he refrains from becoming explicit about it in the lyrics. Worse, he’s not even terribly original. The verse just distills the common, fedora-tipping New (c. 2006) Atheism of the Internet. Josh Tilman is no Ivan Karamazov.

Tillman has shown a longstanding interest in religious themes, as his previous two album covers demonstrate. He is known to sprinkle his songs with religious allusions. Pure Comedy features a track entitled “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay.” Tillman sings about what he would tell Jesus as the Apocalypse unfolds. He says that he would give Jesus a tour of the world, then says:

Barely got through the prisons and stores
And the pale horse looks a little sick
Says, “Jesus, you didn’t leave a whole lot for me
If this isn’t hell already then tell me what the hell is?”

Tillman, never wary of blasphemy, says to Christ, “And now you’ve got the gall to judge us.” One might point out the irony of Tillman posing as a holier-than-thou moral authority when, just a few lines earlier, he equates prisons and stores. If this fatuous and fundamentally unserious judgment doesn’t betray a warped moral sensibility, then I’m not sure what does.

On a more philosophical note, let me say that it is the prerogative of the artist to explore the bounds of the possible, especially when crafting strange hypotheticals like the one that Tillman imagines. Tillman also works in a long tradition of artists who mediate their work through the careful deployment of personae. His stage-name, Father John Misty, is a good example of this tendency (and a religiously-tinged one at that). But even granting these stipulations about the nature of art, we should remember a third point. All art inherently crafts aesthetic experience and therefore “sets the stage” for a presentation and affective reception of beauty. Insofar as art is bound to beauty, it is necessarily tied to the good and the true as well. Art can deny, flatter, hide, contest, mask, or assail goodness and truth, but it can never be rid of them and their own proper criteria. The problems that arise when we try too hard to make art “good” or “true” are many and easy to identify. But we cannot totally separate the aesthetic world from the moral and scientific spheres of life. An artist whose work displays a perverse moral sensibility may produce great art, but it will be somewhat immoral, and it may not correspond to the way things really are.

FearFun

Fear Fun (2012). A much better album. Note the religious imagery underneath all the chaos.

ILoveYouHoneyBear

I Love You, Honeybear (2015). A not very good but still better album. Here, too, FJM appropriates Christian iconography.

But back to “Pure Comedy.”

Perhaps because his criticism of religion/Christianity is so stale, Tillman spices things up a bit in the next verse by trying to be Relevant© and Woke™. Even without watching the video, you can tell that it’s about a certain unsavory Head of State.

Their languages just serve to confuse them
Their confusion somehow makes them more sure
They build fortunes poisoning their offspring
And hand out prizes when someone patents the cure
Where did they find these goons they elected to rule them?
What makes these clowns they idolize so remarkable?
These mammals are hell-bent on fashioning new gods
So they can go on being godless animals

It’s not clear whether Tillman lost his faith in humanity because of Trump, or if the Donald’s ascent merely confirmed a longstanding pessimism. One could perhaps sympathize with the latter position, if only because it would be intellectually honest.

But I digress.

We come to the emotional climax of the song.

Oh comedy, their illusions they have no choice but to believe
Their horizons that just forever recede
And how’s this for irony, their idea of being free is a prison of beliefs
That they never ever have to leave

I would take his point more seriously if it were not a banal and adolescent bastardization of Camus or Rand or Nietzsche or [insert edgelord here]. “Pure Comedy” is not unique in this sense of immaturity. Listening and reading through all the songs, I was repeatedly reminded of angsty teenage poetry. Tillman’s unhappy tendency to be biographical, abstract, and preachy was not nearly as pronounced in his earlier work as Father John Misty (I can’t speak to his releases as J. Tillman).

Unfortunately, the song doesn’t get better from there. In the final verse, Tillman croons,

The only thing that seems to make them feel alive is the struggle to survive
But the only thing that they request is something to numb the pain with
Until there’s nothing human left
Just random matter suspended in the dark
I hate to say it, but each other’s all we got

The idea of our planet being nothing more than a rock in space comes up again and again throughout the album. At the beginning of one track, Tillman calls the earth “this bright blue marble orbited by trash.” It’s Eliot’s “Unreal City,” brought up to date for the space age. But in that last line, we hear the echoes of Auden’s famous poem about the beginning of World War II; “We must love one another or die.” It’s a maudlin sentiment that Auden repented for the rest of his life. One wonders if Tillman will someday look back on the shallow clichés of “Pure Comedy” with the same sense of regret.

The rest of the album continues these themes. Tillman gives us a tour of the imbecility of human nature, especially as manifested by the entertainment industry, pharmaceutical corporations, Republicans, fast food, the religious, Middle America, social media, public intellectuals, and ideologues of all sorts. By the end, the Holden Caulfield act gets old. In most of the songs, the music trundles along aimlessly, neither powerful nor novel enough to sustain Tilman’s puerile lyrics.

Democritus-laughing

Democritus laughs because he sees that the world is hopeless. (Source).

All of which is a serious disappointment to someone like me, who’s been a fan for years. You see, this ain’t Father John Misty’s first rodeo in the American Wasteland. His earlier work often treated these same themes, but in a more aesthetically and intellectually sophisticated way. Where in Pure Comedy do we find a song that matches the sultry and haunting sense of doom rippling through “Funtimes in Babylon?” Or the perky, quirky, frenzied mania of “I’m Writing a Novel?” Or the languid malaise of “Bored in The USA?” Or the soulfully earnest and operatically desperate madman’s litany, “Holy Shit,” perhaps Tilman’s finest piece yet? All of these songs work, not just because of their evocative lyrics, but because they are genuine musical accomplishments. Each is a gem of a song in its own way. In each, Tillman flexes the considerable powers of his unique voice. His sound manages to swing seamlessly between a controlled vigor and a vulnerability that shines without brittleness.

The album is not without its strengths. The satire does sometimes land pretty well, as in “Birdie” and “Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before the Revolution” and “Ballad of the Dying Man.” In “The Memo,” Tillman wields his well-refined sense of shock value to drive home an unremittingly cynical take on the entertainment and advertising industries. But perhaps I’m just gravitating to songs that are pretty clearly meant to mock the left establishment or deflate the pretensions of neoliberals and transhumanists.

In “Dying Man,” we hear:

TheHangedManTarot

“Consider Phlebas…” (Source)

So says the dying man once I’m in the box
Just think of all the overrated hacks running amok
And all of the pretentious, ignorant voices that will go unchecked
The homophobes, hipsters, and 1%
The false feminists he’d managed to detect
Oh, who will critique them once he’s left?

A nice bit of biting sarcasm there. But sadly, Tilman smothers his wit under clunky dictiona verbose, chatty mess apparently composed without any care for euphony. Paired with lackluster music, the song fails.

The only really superlative work in the entire album is Tillman’s flawless penultimate track, “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain.” Here, too, he is commenting on the madness of our times. But he’s left aside the pose of the pontificating prophet. Gone are the grand and sweeping lines about “human nature” as in “When the God of Love Returns.” Gone, too, are the plastic, pop-culture in-jokes that masquerade as hot takes; gone, the pearl-clutching about the woes of consumerism and fast food and the stupid white people who vote Republican and believe in God.

Instead, Tillman tells a story. A New Year’s Eve party has just ended, and the revelry is fading away. One of the guests describes the scene.

That’s it. Observe:

The wine has all been emptied
And smoke has cleared
As people file back to the valley
On the last night of life’s party
These days the years thin till I can’t remember
Just what it feels like to be young forever

Tillman’s more symbolic and sensitive tack suits his message; our age echoes the cultural moment that led Thomas Mann to write The Magic Mountain, and coming to grips with that realization has aged us. His sonic scene-craft evokes universal images and elevates the song into a testament of the human condition. If Tilman intends to speak to our particular cultural moment in Pure Comedy, he succeeds with “Magic Mountain.”

The only real shame is that there weren’t more songs like it on the rest of the album.

Pure Comedy
Father John Misty, Sub Pop Records, 2017
5.5/10 stars.

Life Update: Graduate School

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St. Stephen’s House, Oxford. Source.

This won’t come as a surprise to those of you who know me personally, but in the interest of honesty, archiving, and my own historical interests, I thought I’d post here that I have decided to attend the University of Oxford next year in pursuit of an M.Phil. in Theology, with a concentration in Ecclesiastical History. I will be living at St. Stephen’s House.

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The coat of arms of St. Stephen’s House. It incorporates elements of the coat of arms of its founder, Bishop Edward King. (Source)

I’m very happy to be at St. Stephen’s. It is the Anglo-Catholic seminary in Oxford. I am guaranteed to be around people who are seeking ordination in the Church of England. And very high Anglo-Catholics at that. I’m really looking forward to morning and evening prayer every day. While it may not be the prayer of the whole Church in the Divine Office, the Book of Common Prayer is nevertheless a fine, beautiful way to pray and meditate on Scripture in community. I also think that the liturgical rhythms of life at “Staggers,” as it’s called, will be salutary on the whole. It’s even motivated me to try to memorize a few of the old collects, as Peter Hitchens demonstrates in this debate.

While I realize it has changed a great deal over time, the history of St. Stephen’s House is one of the reasons I’m happy to be here. It may not be one of the well-known colleges (it doesn’t even seem to have very much merchandising in the way of scarves, ties, pins, cufflinks, etc., like all the other ones). But Staggers did play its part in the history of Anglo-Catholicism. Founded by Bishop Edward King of Lincoln in 1876, the house soon became a major center of Anglo-Catholicism. It started to produce Tractarian priests by the dozens, and eventually gained a reputation as a factory of bishops and deans of cathedrals. This prolific connection to the Church of England’s highest chambers has continued into its more recent years.

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Edward King, Bishop of Lincoln. (Source)

Its relationship with Oxford, on the other hand, has varied. It only attained Permanent Private Hall status in 2003. In moving to that arrangement, it joined other historically religious foundations at Oxford: Blackfriars for the Dominicans, St. Benet’s for the Benedictines of Ampleforth, Wycliffe Hall for Evangelicals, Campion Hall for the Jesuits, and Regent’s Park (nominally) for the Baptists. It was at that time that the House broadened its emphasis to include those who were not seeking ordination in the C of E.

Moreover, Staggers has moved around Oxford. It started as a small community near the heart of town, and only much later moved to its present location across the Cherwell. To wit:

For the House’s first years, it was situated near the centre of Oxford, where the New Bodleian Library now stands. From 1919, the House had a site in Norham Gardens, near to the University Parks. In 1980 it moved to the current site…(St. Stephen’s House Blog).

The accommodations that the House took up were built by the Society of St. John the Evangelist, named alongside the parish church they ran (although it is now largely a concert venue, the House clergy still conduct liturgies there each week). The Society priests were also known as the Cowley Fathers. T.S. Eliot conducted at least one retreat there, although he was generally closer to the Benedictines at Nashdom and the Society of the Sacred Mission at Kelham (see Spurr’s biography, Anglo-Catholic in Religion).

In the mid 20th century, the House prospered under the benevolent influence of Father Arthur Couratin, allegedly referred to by some as “Noël Coward in a clerical collar.”

Halliday, Edward Irvine, 1902-1984; Reverend Canon Arthur Couratin, Former Principal of St Stephen's House

Canon Arthur Couratin, Principal of St. Stephen’s House. (Source)

Although its ethos remains largely Anglican, the House has offered a few important alumni to the Church of Rome. Balthasar scholar and theologian Father John Saward graduated there, as did the one-time Bishop of Ebbsfleet and current priest of the English Ordinariate, Monsignor Andrew Burnham. Indeed, they’ve even produced the Primate of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America, Hovnan Derderian. He is the youngest Armenian archbishop.

Staggers also gave the Church of England Fr. Kenneth Leach, an important Christian Socialist priest. He was trained at St. Stephen’s when it had become a rather homoerotic place, and Leach would famously sum up his time there as “gin, lace, and backbiting.” The writer and Staggers alum A.N. Wilson composed a bitingly comedic satire of the House in those years, entitled Unguarded Hourswhich, as Ignatius Press’s reviewer puts it, is decidedly “not a Catholic novel.” Alas. Wilson, who would eventually return to Christianity after years of very public atheism, would later recall the custom formerly in vogue at Staggers of taking “religious names” that were actually rather saucy nicknames, often of the opposite sex. If Father Couratin was “Noël Coward in a clerical collar,” it seems that by the 1970’s, you were more likely to find Julian and Sandy in soutanes.

I seriously doubt that any of that persists. Women’s ordination in the C of E means that, while many Anglo-Catholics have become more liberal, their seminaries no longer smack of the kinds of homoerotic associations that fueled so many stereotypes (see Cousin Jasper’s famous quip in Brideshead Revisited). Staggers seems to remain as a pillar of sensible, ornate, properly Anglo-Catholic liturgy at its best.

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A liturgy at the parish church of St. John the Evangelist, St. Stephen’s House, Oxford. (Source).

Requiem

A requiem for the founders of the House. (Source)

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A priest says a Mass at St. Stephen’s House. I highly recommend the source I took this from, Merrily On High. An excellent source for all things Anglo-Catholic.

Of course, I could also emphasize the importance of Oxford in general as a center of CatholicismRoman and otherwise. Here, the Subtle Doctor “fired France for Mary without spot.” Here, Cardinal Wolsey established a college named for his office and, later, all of Christ’s Body on earth. Here, Archbishop Laud attempted to bring back devotion to Our Lady through a little portico on her church in town. Here, Charles I took refuge while his queen heard the Mass of Ages in Merton Chapel. Here, Keble railed against a “National Apostasy.” Here, Newman battled the liberals, and in doing so, broke ground for the Second Spring. Here, Gerard Manley Hopkins served briefly as curate. Here, Oscar Wilde flirted with men and the Church for the first time. Here, Monsignor Ronald Knox cut his clerical teeth as the chaplain of Trinity College. Here, Montague Summers was first haunted by the Vampyre’s shadow. Here, Tolkien and Lewis and Williams and their friends spoke about God long into the stout-softened night. Here, T.S. Eliot studied briefly before going on to greatness in London. Here, Evelyn Waugh thought up a story about two men and a teddy bear. Here, Father Martin D’Arcy pondered the ways of divine and human love. Here, the Oratory finally arrived in 1990 to fulfill Newman’s dream. Here, the late Stratford Caldecott wrote of God’s undying beauty in all things.

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An Oxford morning. (Source).

I could name more ways in which Oxford has played a special role in the life of the Catholic Church. Perhaps I will do so in another post, or a series of posts. For now, I’m just happy to say that I’ll be in a place with a lot of Catholic history, learning about that history. And thank God for that.

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“Saint Stephen,” by Carlo Crivelli. Proto-martyr and patron of St. Stephen’s House, Oxford (and perhaps a rather wan patron at that, by the look of this paintingis that asparagus in his hand?). (Source)

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Also, apparently the Prince of Wales sometimes visits. (Source)

A Theological Primer on Emblems

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“I Live,” from the Emblemata Sacra (1618)

Of all the myriad forms of visual theology that draw upon the Western traditions of art history, perhaps no medium is quite as neglected as the emblem. The books that contained these small, symbolically rich images constituted a prolific genre in the early modern period. They had a fairly standard format. Usually, the emblems sat alongside a few moral or sacred verses in Latin, Greek, or a European language. Daniel Cramer’s Emblemata Sacra (1618), from which the image above was taken, is a good example of this polyglot tendency. On the verso, one can find a quatrain in Latin, German, French, and Italian, always connecting the symbolism of the emblem with a French and Italian verse of the Scriptures. On the recto, the emblem sits under the same verse, this time in Latin and German. The page concludes with an epigrammatic prayer in Latin.

It seems that emblem books were popular in early modern Europe. Mara R. Wade of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign writes, “In the preface to his Companion to Emblem Studies (2006) Peter Daly estimates that ca. 6,500 emblem books were published during the Renaissance, with an individual volume containing anywhere from 15 to 1,500 emblems.” Wikipedia lists no fewer than 54 representative titles, though there were certainly many more produced between 1500 and 1800 (as any cursory review of UIUC’s  Emblematica Online or the French Emblems at Glasgow archives can show). The fact that these books were often printed with multiple languages of text side by side suggests that they were documents with cross-cultural appeal. They were meant to speak not only to the elites who knew Latin, but also to the literate bourgeoisie. All of that makes their emergence as a genre at a time of religious strife even more remarkable.

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“Le Monde est L’Image de Dieu,” one of the more explicit expressions of esoteric philosophy, in Boissard’s Emblemes latins […] avec l’interpretation Francoise (1588). It anticipates Boehme’s De Signatura Rerum by nearly 40 years.

Of course, not all emblem books were targeted for mass appeal. Occult works often made rich use of emblems. The chief virtue of the emblem is its capacity of succinct complexity. It can communicate a lot by saying very little. It obscures by revealing; it hides by manifestation. As one source puts it, “Emblems are concise yet potent combinations of texts and images that invite, and require, decoding.” This makes the emblem the perfect vehicle for the esoteric proliferation of ideas. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” says the Lord. If He had come in the age of Gutenberg, perhaps He would have delivered His parables in emblem books. Of course, to say so is to implicitly claim Christ as a Protestant. Catholics did produce emblem books; indeed, one of the latest examples I have found is the 1780 French reprint of Dom Bonifaz Gallner’s earlier Regula Emblematica Sancti Benedicti. However, it would seem that the majority of important emblem books flowed from Protestant presses.

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Emblem XXI from the alchemical text Atalanta Fugiens (1617), by the Lutheran Rosicrucian Michael Maier

There is a good historical and aesthetic reason for this. The emblem functions by setting up a symbol or a system of symbols independent of any text. While text was sometimes used to elucidate the meaning of those symbolic networks, it was always secondary to the image itself. The emblem book is one of the last gasps of the primacy of image over text in European thought. Along with the Wunderzeichenbuchen, the emblem book is one of the main genres mobilized by Continental Protestants to rediscover a non-iconographic (and, to their mind, a non-idolatrous) use of image in moral and spiritual development. Instead of an image asserting its “auratic” power to the exclusion of text, the emblem book suggests a way that text and image can mutually illuminate each other. As Mara Wade writes, the emblem books engendered “a process of reciprocal reading of texts and images, whereby the back and forth between the words and the pictures creates meaning. The picture presents the reader with a recognizable scene or symbolic collage, and the text then reorients the reader’s understanding of that scene to present a new and unexpected message.” In this sense, the emblem book clearly partakes of a distinctly Humanist and Protestant heritage. Note again that emblem books were very often the chosen medium for the quasi-scientific magical teachings of the Rosicrucians and alchemists. Those strange laborers were also, in their own quixotic way, seeking to reclaim something of the sacramental worldview thrown away by the iconoclastic Reformers (see Henry 2015).

The triumph of discursive reason over image in the Enlightenment led to the decline of the emblem book as a genre (there are surely other reasons tied to shifting book markets, but my capacities to do research into textual history are limited at this time). After that, the record has been rather sparse. Hamann occasionally used emblems in his philosophical works. More recent theologians have largely overlooked the emblem book as a theological genre. The single counterexample I can readily think of is Valentin Tomberg’s Meditations on the Tarot, which can only count as an emblem book when we ignore its departures from the traditional form. Yet the renewal of esoteric Catholicism by reliably orthodox publishing houses like Angelico Press suggests that the emblem book may have a place in the theology of the future.

Its revival seems particularly apropos in an age when memes have become topics of serious political discourse, when visual self-representation has been amplified through various social media, and when new norms of communication emphasize brevity over detail. An epoch is defined, in large part, by the relation of its people to their media. The development of the printing press launched early modernity by helping to bring about new conceptions of subjectivity, as well as new questions about the relationship of text and image. Consequently, the emblem book arose to grapple with some of those questions. The next great civilizational step in communication arrived with the internet, accompanying nascent postmodernity. Perhaps we shall see a revival of the emblem book for theologians to navigate this “brave new world.”