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Marina Warner: Excerpts

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On scepticism, the irrational, and covert enlightenment

On fear, making mock, and lulling

On women as storytellers, and on storytelling as politics

The curious cohabitation of saint and scientist

Soul stuff through the ages

Secret lives of books

Language, consciousness, and the “voice of the toy”


On scepticism, the irrational, and covert enlightenment

The writer Heinrich Böll, recalling his childhood in Nazi Germany, described a schoolteacher who taught Mein Kampf, as he was obliged to do, but had the idea of setting his pupils passages from the book to précis.  To some extent, this wasn’t a hard task, since so much of the writing was guff; but it was very difficult for the schoolchildren to produce a summary that was cogent, convincing, or in any way thoughtful, let alone appealing.  In this way, the teacher helped Böll see the Fascist text for what it was — not by means of heroic resistance, but through covert enlightenment.  As Emily Dickinson wrote,Signs and Wonders

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Success in circuit lies.
In China, the Confucian emphasis on teaching by example inspired many sequences of stories that relate edifying acts: these include the famous “Twenty-Four Acts of Filial Piety,” in which heroes perform acts of self-sacrifice and self-abasement to bring happiness and dignity to their parents in their old age....  The idea of elevating anecdote in turn inspired the contrary notion of “teaching by negative example”: under Mao, some forbidden texts from the past or from the West could be analysed in class for their wickedness and corruption and deviation from the true way of Communism.  By this means, which was admittedly highly circumscribed and remained perilous, some Chinese were able to smuggle knowledge past the censors and quietly absorb proscribed ideas, fiction and poetry.  Scepticism can cut both ways, and the idea of error can refine the idea of truth beyond the control of demagogues or propagandists or simply lazy minds.

[...]

Historians and critics research and write under the sign of Doubting Thomas, probing the wounds of the past, but not content until the evidence has been uncovered, verified and analysed, and even then, still subject to challenge.  I have always tried to question received ideas, customary arrangements, notions of  natural order, as embodied in ideal and heroic figures like the Virgin Mary and Joan of Arc or, more recently in my work, the comical and despised old beldame storytellers like Mother Goose or the cannibal cradle-snatcher preying on babies as she — or he — roams the night.

Yet a convent schooling trains its pupils to believe more widely than in matters religious; nevertheless, it was through belief that I arrived, after many detours, at scepticism.  In the convent where I boarded from the age of nine until A Levels, the New Testament wasn’t the only book we were taught as gospel.  Permitted reading included the pamphlets of the Catholic Truth Society on sale in the weekly “Holy Shop” where we were allowed to spend our pocket money on rosaries from the Holy Land, holy water stoups, holy pictures — and booklets about figures in the Catholic pantheon.  The heroes and heroines of the stories, like Confucian model children, conveyed thrilling lessons, but in lives of adventure, rebellion and violence.  From the dull security of the begonia flowerbeds and murky rhododendron groves of suburban Ascot, the ingenious torments that afflicted martyrs far and wide opened vistas on unknown worlds: the remarkable heroism of Saint Francis, stripping in the public square of Assisi before his father, rather than be tainted by his family’s material goods; the brilliant stand of Saint Catherine when she confounded the emperor and all his scholars in a public battle of wits in Alexandria; the dream oracle of the black dogs who appeared to Saint Dominic to call him to found the order that then inaugurated the Inquisition.  All these stories filled the imaginations of us schoolgirls and drew irresistible images of possibility in the mind’s eye.

Apart from the tales of heroism, there were the miracles, too: tales of blood that fell from the host in the hands of a priest who was racked by doubts about the Real Presence and so proved to him — and to all others — that the bread truly changed into the flesh of Jesus’s body; the severed head of Saint Denis (and of other saints) that continued to sing praises to God when he picked it up and walked with it; the heavenly fragrance of roses that emanated from the wall where Teresa of Avila’s body was interred; the flowers that appeared miraculously in the basket of Elizabeth of Hungary when she was discovered taking food to the poor by her wicked husband, who had forbidden her to do good works.  We were wrapped in stories, in signs and wonders, in fantasies, myths and dreams.

The education stamped me with an abiding, irrepressible interest in the irrational, both as an expression of the mind in its most mysterious mode, and as a terrifying force in history. 

Signs and Wonders, p. 1-3


On fear, making mock, and lulling

A theme of this book has been a contradiction at the heart of human responses to fear: the processes by which people seek to undo enemy power simultaneously make it visible.  In other words, the drive to define and delimit “home”, to name and circumscribe the abode and the milieu to which one belongs and where one feels safe, leads to naming and defining things — and people — out there beyond the fence, on the other side of the perimeter wire.  Humour takes part in this making of likenesses and differences. 

No Go the Bogeyman, p. 328


One of the most profound and puzzling features of the bogeyman is his seductive power: he can charm at the same time as he repels.  For it is not only parents or nurses who resort to impersonating him; children are also ready to identify, to adopt his ways and, far from being successfully intimidated, are often quick to learn and to mimic the adult game.  Thus the demonization of figures is never stable and the devil’s attractions can never wholly be undone, even by the skill of a Christopher Marlowe. [...]

Children’s resilience springs from their laughter: Punch and Judy is often performed with a commentator on the side, who eggs on the audience to find Mr. Punch’s antics ridiculous, and guides the children’s mockery.  If they did not laugh at Mr. Punch’s antics, they would be very frightened.  But they do not always need steering by an adult; in the right circumstances children can spontaneously make fun of intimidation, and turn its threats hollow.  Or they may use it to establish their own power — over other children.  But to both ends, they love — apparently almost by instinct — to play the bogeyman and scare themselves into fits.  The pretence appears to match the observed pleasure in fright that children take: it defies fear at the very same moment as conjuring it.  It exemplifies a defensive response that is frequently adopted in real experience: internalizing the aggressor in order to stave off the terror he brings.

No Go the Bogeyman, p. 167-169


Nowhere does this cruel trick that the imagination plays with anxiety show more vividly than in lullabies.  Ostensibly songs to soothe and lull, they reflect the rich range of feelings that the young and vulnerable inspire.  Soothing through repetitive song and sound is used to conjure away fear of the dark; the singers of these ancient, often anonymous songs desire above all to protect the infant from all dangers, known and unknown.  But surprisingly, the songs do not always seem to bless the baby or even placate possible furies; they sometimes issue curses and threats themselves.  In their  unexpected variety — and perversity — lullabies are fulfilling many tasks, at once magical, pedagogical and psychological.  No Go the Bogeyman
[...] “M. and Mme. Croquemitaine, the French nursery bogeyman and his wife, become a child’s paper cut-out toy, complete with tongues that pull and hands that grab.  French, c.1900.” (cover caption, p. 166)

Some lullaby lyrics start at shadows in the corners, and then flesh them out with the features of familiar devils.  The traditional Aesopian fable about a wolf at the door, retold by La Fontaine, and by William Godwin in his pseudonymous anthology of fables, develops the familiar cautionary sequence of danger threatened, then allayed: [...] a marauding beast hears the exasperated nurse threaten the baby that if it does not go to sleep she will abandon it to be eaten by wolves.  The wolf’s mouth waters with delight at the promised feast: but he is discovered and immediately shot by the villagers, or by the baby’s own father. [...]

The disturbing content of such songs is surprising enough; what is even more so is that lullabies often threaten the infant directly, the infuriated singer of a cradle song summoning the monster or bogeyman to work on her behalf.  It is often the baby, not the barbarian at the gates, who is the target of the threat.  This kind of lullaby conjures the terrors of the night, not always to silence them, but to flourish them.

No Go the Bogeyman, p. 182-183, 217


On women as storytellers...

The pedagogical function of the wonder story deepens the sympathy between the social category women occupy and fairy tale.  Fairy tales exchange knowledge between an older voice of experience and a younger audience, they present pictures of peril and possibilities that lie ahead, they use terror to set limits on choice and offer consolation to the wronged, they draw social outlines around boys and girls, fathers and mothers, the rich and the poor, the rulers and the ruled, they point out the evildoers and garland the virtuous, they stand up to adversity with dreams of vengeance, power and vindication.

From the Beast to the Blonde, p. 21


From the Beast to the BlondeSpinning a tale, weaving a plot: the metaphors illuminate the relation; while the structure of fairy stories, with their repetitions, reprises, elaboration and minutiae, replicates the thread and fabric of one of women’s principal labours — the making of textiles from the wool or the flax to the finished bolt of cloth.

Fairy tales are stories which, in the earliest mentions of their existence, include that circle of listeners, the audience; as they point to possible destinies, possible happy outcomes, they successfully involve their hearers or readers in identifying with the protagonists, their misfortunes, their triumphs.  Schematic characterization leaves a gap into which the listener may step.  Who has not tried on the glass slipper?  Or offered it for trying?  The relation between the authentic, artisan source and the tale recorded in book form for children and adults is not simple; we are not hearing the spinsters and the knitters in the sun whom Orsino remembers chanting in Twelfth Night, unmediated.  But the quality of the mediation is of great interest.  From the mid-seventeenth century, the nurses, governesses, family domestics, working women living in or near the great house or castle in town and country existed in a different relation to the élite men and women who may have once been in their charge, as children.  [...]   The rapports created in ancien régime childhood shape the matter of the stories, and the cultural model which places the literati’s texts on one side of a divide, and popular tales on the other, can and should be redrawn: fairy tales act as an airy suspension bridge, swinging slightly under different breezes of opinion and economy, between the learned, literary and print culture in which famous fairy tales have come down to us, and the oral, illiterate, people’s culture of the veillée; and on this bridge the traffic moves in both directions.

Women writers like Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier and Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy mediated anonymous narratives, the popular, vernacular culture they had inherited through fairy tale, in spite of the aristocratic frippery their stories make at a first impression.  Indeed, they offer rare and rich testimony to a sophisticated chronicle of wrongs and ways to evade or right them, when they recall stories they had heard as children or picked up later and retell them in a spirit of protest, of polite or not so polite revolt.  These tales are wrapped in fantasy and unreality, which no doubt helped them entertain their audiences — in the courtly salon as well as at the village hearth — but they also serve the stories’ greater purpose, to reveal possibilities, to map out a different way and a new perception of love, marriage, women’s skills, thus advocating a means of escaping imposed limits and prescribed destiny.  They fairy tale looks at the ogre like Bluebeard or the Beast of “Beauty and the Beast” in order to disenchant him; while romancing reality, it is a medium deeply concerned with undoing prejudice.  Women of different social positions have collaborated in storytelling to achieve true recognition for their subjects: the process is still going on. 

For a long time, authenticity was an issue — the scientific folklorist, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, sought to catch the accent of the common people; and authenticity was equated with the pristine, the autochthonous, the tale pure and unadulterated by élite ideas; the enterprise was closely associated with romantic nationalism, as in the case of the Grimms.  Oral purity is, however, a quest doomed to failure; the material of fairy tale weaves in and out of printed texts, the Greek romances, The Arabian Nights, Tristan cycle or matière de Bretagne, the novels in verse of Chrétien de Troyes, Mélusine, saints’ lives, and so forth ­­— language conducts from mouth to page and back again, and orature, or, in the West, oral literature, has not existed in isolation since Homeric times.  The evangelists knew they had to write down Christ’s teachings, in order to continue the process of passing them on by word of mouth, for preachers to use.  But the sacred story’s appeal of oral transmission remains crucial.  The memory or the fancy of the story’s origin inspires the simulation of a storyteller’s voice in the literary text, and this performance modifies the narrative, it solicits the audience.

From the Beast to the Blonde, p. 23-25


...and on storytelling as politics

The voice of the traditional storyteller, negotiating the audience’s inclination, may well entrench bigotry, if that is what is expected: how thrilling is the wicked queen; she loves her face in the looking-glass; let her dance in red-hot shoes.  The contrary directions of the genre, towards acquiescence on the one hand and rebellion on the other, are all of a piece with its fabulism, intrinsic to its role of moral arbitration and soothsaying.  Because the teller struggles to locate and find an audience who will receive the stories’ message with favour, children emerge as hearers, established in printed literature as the special audience by the mid-eighteenth century: they are still, in the lucrative market of mass entertainment that draws on fairytale material.  Children are not likely to be committed to a certain way of thought; they can be moulded, and the stories they hear will then become the ones they expect.  They do not present the same problem as the circle, at the veillée or in the preview film theatre, who might shuffle or heckle or boo.

Fairy tales often engage with issues of light and darkness — the plots represent struggles to distinguish enemies from friends, the normal from the monstrous, and the slant they take is by no means always enlightened.  The tales often demonize others in order to proclaim the side of the teller good, right, powerful — and beautiful.  Fairy tale’s simple, even simplistic dualism can be and has been annexed to ugly ends: the Romantic revival of folk literature in Germany unwittingly heralded the Nazi claim that “their” fairy tales were racially Aryan homegrown products; in former Yugoslavia, the different factions are using folklore as one more weapon in their civil strife, raising heroes from the past, singing old ballads as battle cries, performing folk dances to a cacophony of competing regional music.  Folk tales powerfully shape national memory; their poetic versions intersect with history, and in the contemporary embattled quest for indigenous identity, underestimating their sway over values and attitudes can be as dangerous as ignoring changing historical realities.

But vernacular culture is multiple, many-throated and remarkably robust in its resistance to state propaganda, and less brutal nationalist passions than those raging today have also drawn inspiration from folk culture in all media.  [...]  The very territory of popular, anonymous storytelling has proved an arena of resistance to tyranny, as well as a site of reconciliation and reversal for ostracized and condemned figures.  Storytelling can act to face the objects of derision or fear and sometimes — not always — inspire tolerance and even fellow-felling; it can realign allegiances and remap terrors.  Storytellers can also break through the limits of permitted thought to challenge conventions; fairy tales, I have argued in this book, offer a way of putting questions, of testing the structure as well as guaranteeing its safety, of thinking up alternatives as well as living daily reality in an examined way.   [...]

For what is applauded and who sets the terms of the recognition and acceptance are always in question.  Nor are the measure and weight of those terms assigned fixed values; unlike the statutory yards and metres kept safe in government vaults, they can and do change.  Creating and contributing to the inhabited culture is not just a matter of individual creative genius, the exceptional masterwork.  We, the audience, you, the reader, are part of the story’s future as well, its patterns are rising under the pressure of your palms, our fingers, too.

From the Beast to the Blonde, p. 409-411


The curious cohabitation of saint and scientist

Nobody in the street knew where the mummified saint was, and I had left my guidebook in the hotel room.  Bologna is a city famed for free thinking in science and politics, so my request for directions to the body of Santa Caterina de’ Vigri, preserved entire in a reliquary chapel since the fifteenth century, met with embarrassment and, sometimes, incredulous laughter.  It was a very hot day, quite unseasonably hot for June, and only a holy fool — or an Englishwoman — would pursue such a quest down one side street after another.  But I had seen a photograph of the effigy, and female saints and Catholic magic have always held a spell over me, so I persevered. 

Eventually, past the barrier on a side street in the process of excavation, there stood the church of Corpus Domini.  Inside, through a bare antechamber, and in the very depths of the convent buildings beyond, I found la Santa, in a reliquary chamber of her own, oval in shape, musty, shadowy, glinting with silver and gold ornament, crystal and velvet; there are no windows, and the walls are all richly encrusted with dusty ex votos in the shape of flaming hearts and other body parts.  The whole room is her reliquary.  Caterina died in 1463 at the age of 50, and is sitting up in the middle of the shrine quite straight in a glass box, looking younger than her age.  She is wearing a white wimple, black veil, and brown habit of her order, the Poor Clares, with the knotted cord of her vows.  Her eyes are shut as if in concentration; her face has developed a brick-red complexion, while the rest of the flesh that is visible has blackened till her thin fingers and bare toes look like a small monkey’s, with touches of rouge on the toenails.  She is wearing a narrow ring on her wedding finger (as a bride of Christ), and all around her, on the circular walls of the reliquary shrine where she keeps vigil, there are bones among the offerings, resting on faded silk cushions in crystal caskets. 

[...]

According the Catholic belief, a holy person, especially a virgin, will remain incorrupt in death while awaiting the reunification of body and soul on the Last Day.  In Catholic cult, this belief — this hope — inspires effigies of the body of the deceased saint, displayed in their miraculous entire and imperishable state.  [...]

La Santa’s living likeness, this life-in-death effigy of her kippered corpse, is much too grisly for most of us now, even those of us who have been brought up Catholic, and who, like me, are curious about the religion’s magic rites, its play with the flesh and the spirit.  […]

In Santa Caterina’s presence, I felt I had entered the ambiguous, terrible, and enthralling borderland between animation and lifelessness.  The effigy of Santa Caterina gave me a vivid experience of the uncanny, the mixed-up feeling famously discussed by Freud in 1919 […].  A lifelike effigy like Santa Caterina’s throws the question of spirit into sharp relief: it excites inquisitiveness, to plumb the mystery of its lack. 

When I came out of the shrine into the main body of the church, I found a trace of the search for that principle.  In an open side chapel across the nave, an inscription on a large marble monument read simply “Galvani”: it was the tomb of the great physiologist who was a professor of medicine at the University of Bologna, where he died. 

Luigi Galvani (1737-98) probed the effects of electricity on dead matter, and in 1786 wrote up the famous experiments he made when he caused the corpse of a frog to twitch and kick.  His experiments recast divine relations to life itself, and Galvanist theories implied such foundations to animate being that I was surprised to find him buried inside a church, in a side chapel of his own with such a fine, proud monument.  For after his work, a different metaphor was needed to convey God’s activity, that divine effect on human clay that Michelangelo had conceived, for example, in the much overused image of the Creation of Adam. […]

As I say, it surprised me to emerge from the hushed and fervid atmosphere in Santa Caterina’s shrine and find Galvani memorialized there as well.  But somehow the two great citizens of the place balance each other in the business of understanding the relation of body to spirit, embodied identity and remembered individuality. […]

In her glass box, Santa Caterina looks like the embalmed effigy of Jeremy Bentham, who left his body to University College, London, to be displayed as an “auto-icon”.  Like her, he is also sitting, displayed in the main corridor of the college seated in a wooden box with folding doors which are opened for viewing the figure.  But Bentham’s mummy preserves his identity for posterity precisely because, according to his principles, the body is the seat of the person and there is nothing beyond it.  He also desired, he said, to keep his friends company at dinner on the anniversary of his death, and he is still brought out to take his place at the table at the annual gathering of the Bentham Society.  But he was a sceptic, and he was bidding posterity to accept his mortal remains as vacant matter, no different from any other inanimate thing.  While la Santa is sacred, a hallowed recipient of suppliants and adorers, the rationalist philosopher Bentham was claiming the freedom to be profane and let his corpse remain in the world.  […]

By a profound paradox, [...] the Christian, religious effigy and the skeptical philosopher’s auto-icon are solid, present, corporeal, and material, whereas the force that the scientist Galvani detected and applied is immaterial — or, more precisely, it inheres in the material world but is mysterious, elusive, and ethereal.  The proximity of these different figures of the dead, and the inversion of religious and scientific approaches they communicated, describe an arc in the story I am trying to tell.

Phantasmagoria, p. 1-6


Soul stuff through the ages

In response to the first question posed in this book — “What is soul stuff?” — doomed scientific quests mined the materials of the symbolic imagination and speculated about ether, magnetic light, radiant matter, and, eventually, ectoplasm, as they searched for an answer.  The historical record is one of failure.  But it also reveals how history can inform our future endeavors, if only to warn of excessive confidence in answers presented by each successive generation.  The other question — “What is the psyche?” — touches us as human beings even more closely today.  The age of databanks, mechanical reproduction, and instantly accessible digital archiving has unravelled the Genome, with the full combinatory codes of human DNA, giving us spectrography of the iris of the eye and of a strand of hair in order to identify and track individuals.  But the two questions are coupled, because consciousness is part of the body, and questions about the workings of consciousness raise questions about its constitutive elements, and these lead straight back to the complex problem of individual being.

The logic of the imaginary furnished materials for thinking about spirits — wax, air, light, and shadow.  But it turns out that however deeply rooted in the imagination’s forms, these metaphors are contingent, shaped in relation to time and experience — and can be superseded.  So one of the most tried vehicles of the sublime — the cloud stuff of heaven — has changed meaning; while its power to communicate terror remains, it has fallen into the sump of the impure in any vision of metaphysical realities.  The classical and baroque ether was fiery, and the radiant clouds that filled heaven were made of this fiery element, as we saw.  Today, combustion announces pollution and poison, for industrial progress gradually abolished the gambolling cloud-babies, the underlit vortices of the empyrean, the radiant nimbuses that sheathe angels in vaporous light.  Once upon a time, Raphael painted the Madonna of Foligno upwafted by curling surf of blue-grey angel-clouds, Correggio depicted the ravishing approach of a god as a mass of glue-grey smoke, Titian invited us to believe in the Assumption of the Virgin taking place within and upon a roiling mass of shadowy cumulus, and Poussin caught Mary up to heaven on a roll and blast of thundercloud.  But we live now as successors to the splitting of the atom and to the nuclear-powered ascension of the mushroom cloud at the end of the Second World War and during the hydrogen bomb tests in the South Pacific.

Photography made the crucial difference in adulterating the materials of this airy family of symbols.  The Crimean War was the first to be documented by the camera, but Roger Fenton’s famous images show a hushed and still desolation, for the camera speeds in the 1860s were simply too slow to capture action or explosions as they were happening.  The first images of shells bursting, of bomb blasts and billowing gusts of smoke in warfare, seem to have been taken in the First World War.  [...]  Black-and-white photographs show the effect of mines exploding, of shells’ impact, of gas canisters spewing out their poisons, of rifle fire igniting: boiling plumes of grey smog, or solid walls of smoke and debris, sometimes soft, miasmic bodies of cloud floating above the ground, apparently the purest shade of white, all innocence and ethereality.  Poison gas filled the landscape of the trenches with light, spiralling heads of cloud, and brought Darth Vader muzzles to the troops — and their horses — for protection against the evil; infantry smokescreens raised tall, impenetrable barriers.  The new horrors of chemical warfare proved parts of the invisible air materially present and undeniably tangible, while the contamination of industrial emissions added to the new experience of air, to the newly malignant character of the fiery aether. 

[...]

While the imagery conveying soul, spirit, and ghosts has been shape-shifting, the study of human consciousness has been moving over from one discipline to another: from theology to philosophy, from biology to neuroscience, where an array of scientists, from different backgrounds, are industriously experimenting, researching, speculating, and writing [....]  What sins were to the Christian philosopher, or teeth and bones to the palaeontologist, dendrites, axons, neurons, and synapses have become to the questors after consciousness.  The brain, together with its genetic inheritance, has emerged as the prime vehicle of selfhood — after the soul and the psyche.  Memories stored in the brain carry the plot of a person through a lifetime; by tracking the brain’s complexities, a new kind of story about consciousness emerges, which dislimns supreme human ego in favour of exchanges at the level of the cell, the species, the animal condition, and reveals human resemblance and sympathies to the rest of the natural world.

Phantasmagoria, p. 371-374


Secret lives of books

“I opened it: But I could not reach beyond the title page. I was to be the first reader, I realized, since the pages were uncut. Excited, I ran with it to the supervising librarian and asked for a paper knife.… I will leave you to imagine the rest, but I'll just say that the book has remained a virgin to this day and continues to rest in the Library of Congress, intacta. And I do understand that it should be so.” Author MARINA WARNER on her chaste encounter with a rare book on the topic of virginity, The Times (U.K.), July 21, 2007.

Quoted in American Libraries, October 2007 (v. 38, no. 9), p. 50


A copy of the German children’s classic, Struwwelpeter, that I found last year had been vigorously defaced: scribbles scratched out the face of Tall Agrippa in his sinister robe and long beard where he stands by the giant inkwell, and a criss-cross of colouring pencil marks scored his upraised scolding finger.  The books’ title page was missing and so was Struwwelpeter himself — Shock-Headed Peter ­— with his hag nails and his blond Afro; later pages were hanging off the mesh binding.  Here and there, clumsy scissor cuts had slashed into the pages, where the blades, too heavy in the child’s hand, had closed crookedly, under their own momentum.  Was she, was he, cutting out a figure that was too frightening to allow to remain there, that might have gone on living and speaking from inside the book, even after it had been closed tight shut?  On the final endpapers, though, there was the survivor’s mocking cry: “Ho Hah!” boldly scrawled across the pages. 

Vandals go for the eyes and mouths of public images.  [...]  One or two paintings in national collections still bear the scars of old iconoclast attacks: there are not many examples of these left, because the works are usually restored.  The continuing sight of the damage is painful, even unbearable, as if something living had truly been attacked and left bleeding.  But one such survival is a predella panel from Paolo Uccello’s story sequence, The Miracle of the Profaned Host, painted in 1467-68.  Its subject adds to the body of spooky lore encrusting the Eucharist and the feast of Corpus Christi.

Two devils at the foot of a bier are haggling with two angels over the corpse of the dead woman who lies there; one of the devils is blue and has magnificently deployed sooty bat’s wings, the other, in front of him, with a clawed foot proprietorially placed over the bier’s platform, was once scarlet; he has been deeply scratched, over and over, by someone with a sharp instrument, until almost all his features have gone with the lost paint, turning him into an empty thing, a shade, a ghost.  Both devils have also had their eyes obliterated. 

The devils’ presence is indeed diminished by the vandalism; they have literally been made to vanish by the scraping away of the pigment to the gesso underneath.  [...]

Many of us learn to live peaceably with this power of images to conjure realities.  But our restraint does not mean that we are not enthralled, that fantastic pictures in the mind, triggered by verbal description or materialized in visual media, do not stamp out experience on their die.  Before I found the defaced copy of Struwwelpeter, I had noticed that old copies of children’s books often bore traces of their owners’ feelings, in the colouring-in, the scrawls, the thumbing and dirt, the torn pages, the splodges.  When I was a child, Struwwelpeter terrified me.  I did not find it funny because I sucked my thumb and I was truly afraid that the Tailor, drawn like a leaping pair of scissors, would come to get me and cut off my thumbs, as he does to little Suck-a-Thumb, who stands at the end of the rhyme with his stumps stuck out and his feet turned in:

Snip! Snap! Snip! the scissors go;
And Conrad cries out Oh! Oh! Oh!
Snip! Snap! Snip! They go so fast,
That both his thumbs are off at last.

I must have been around seven when I read Struwwelpeter, and it took such possession of me that I kept going back and looking at the scirssorman, [...] until I could not bear the terror any more and took the book to my father when he was gardening and asked him to burn it on the bonfire.

My father was a bookseller and a great reader, and, besides, his previous bookshop, in Cairo, had been torched in the anti-British riots of 1952, and so, although he said he would burn Struwwelpeter for me, he had no intention of doing so. I found the book again when I was looking for something else to read from the bookshelves in the sitting room. It was tucked behind the row, and the fear of the scissor-man returned, in a flush and a creeping over my skin, for I had still not stopped sucking my thumb.

[...]

Dr. Hoffmann may have meant his high-spirited parody [Struwwelpeter] sincerely, and his creation has enjoyed a huge success, in dozens of languages and hundreds of editions, even if copies have been defaced or (nearly) burned.  With the Tailor and Tall Agrippa, he invented vivid, even immortal bogeys, as much flesh and blood as semblance can achieve.  They are the very first such that I remember.  This book explores the reasons for their vitality and their terror, and turns over some of the ways people have invented for dealing with them and their like.

No Go the Bogeyman, p. 374, 379-381


On language, consciousness, and the “voice of the toy”

Language is a mysterious universe, a strange place in which pre-existing patterns, dimly perceived, seem to bespeak some original harmony. As we follow the threads of its labyrinthine lace, the everyday meanings of language become obscure. Homophony comes to haunt it with the spectres of other meanings, and the skeletons of etymology begin to rattle in their cupboards. Syllables break loose from their verbal context, and, like the sibyls of old, call up the shades from an other, spirit world. In the ensuing darkness new constellations of meaning begin to glimmer. The former, seemingly unproblematic representational function of language has sunk beneath the horizon to be replaced by the non-representational Idée, by Mallarmé’s music of the spheres. [...] The reader’s task (and the critic’s) is to listen to this “music”.

[...]

The key concept here is Babel: babel as babble, babble as a word — babiller in French — that itself imitates exactly the first sounds of a baby learning to speak, and speaking at that stage of development a kind of nonsense that brings joy in the utterance, that fills both speaker and listener with delight, and causes answering babble in the mother or father or grandparent or nurse or friend playing with the infant as he or she stumbles out of the state of speechlessness (infans) into speech. But babble also connotes the failure of powers — in senility and in mortality’s triumph.

[...]

These strands fuse in Beckett’s writing — lexical estrangement, organic sound tending to the comic, sense relations (the colour of consonants), and the language of physical suffering as age meets infancy in a loop of half-remembered fragments from the past of his own early life; and they take us to the zone where words are performative magic.

[...]

All children talk to their toys; toys become actors in the great drama of life, reduced by the camera obscura of their small brains. Children bear witness through their games to their great faculty of abstraction and their high imaginative power. They play without playthings.” Significantly, Baudelaire goes on to say children also want “to see the soul” of a toy, and remembers how they will turn it about, shake it and hurl it to the ground, baffled, even enraged, by its stubborn inanimateness. His meditation hints that the primal loss brings with it an understanding of mortality, and that this takes place when make-believe fails and the vitality of toys vanishes: “But where is the soul? It’s here that vacancy sets in — and bewilderment”. Around sixty years after Baudelaire, in his essay on playing with dolls, Rilke meditated in similar terms on the passions aroused by this relationship, on his fury when confronted by the doll’s mute obstinate solidity, and the onrush of compensatory fantasy.

This ambiguity about the soul of the toy — the doll or other object — haunts the psychology of play, and through play, the theory of language’s relation to the world, and the impact of imagination. Beckett’s work probes the puzzling boundary of consciousness, of animation and inanimateness, with ceaseless, patient, forensic curiosity.

“Babble with Beckett: How foreign languages can provide writers with a way out of the familiar.”  Times Literary Supplement, February 27, 2008.  Available online.


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