Friday, April 06, 2007

The Surface of Things

That the meteorite is the source of the light,

And the meteor's just what we see;
And the meteroid is a stone that's devoid of the fire that propelled it to thee.
And the meteorite's just what causes the light,
And the meteor's how it's perceived;
And the meteoroid's a bone thrown from the void, that liese quiet in offering to thee. -Joanna Newsom

In the season of Good Friday in medieval churches across Europe, parishioners sat in the silence of a single flickering candle. The priest took this candle behind the old high alter so that the vaulted chapels were dark save the muted glow of that one entombed candle. Then the Christians would pound the pews – a wrenching of nature demanding the return of that unfiltered light; Christians took on the form of a storm which convulsed upon the death of Christ – demanding his resurrection. And the light of the Holy Spirit showed the way to salvation, said the priest at Saint Malachy’s Church on 49th Street. I think cacophony demands a return to a more sensible order of things. I like the physicality of this practice – it brings desire to the surface. Just like the pipe organ and choir mixed with yellowing marble columns, blood red stained windows, flowing white robes, and the singing liturgy of Catholic faith. Candles are lit to the tune of “O sacred head surrounded by crown of piercing thorn!” by hands splashed with holy water and scented with Easter lilies. Even without belief of understanding these rituals can be meaningful like music without words: like the Gregorian chant to which I refuse the translation. For now, only signifiers arranged, that’s all there is.

Last week I watched Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man which is about a man who lived with bears in Alaska until one ate him. He thought the bears were his friends: that they were capable of loving him like he did them: recklessly. And animals do seem to become like small childrenpets, yet according to Paul Theroux who raises geese: “the only imperative of most animals, wild and tame, is the quest for food, which is why, with some in your hand, you seem to have a pet, if not a grateful pal.” Yet even without the anthropomorphism of petting – “the doting dog-lover with his baby talk, the smug stay-at-home with a fat lump of fur on her lap who says, ‘me, I’m a cat person,’ and the granny who puts her nose against the tine cage and makes kissing noises at her parakeet” – even without these ways of loving (ourselves), animals are great. Geese are plump, soft with thick down, alert, socially flocking, yawning, with sleepless unblinking clear blue eyes. If animals are not Claude Levi-Strauss’s metonymical humans, they still have meaning: that is, a goose as a goose and thunder as thunder instead of a goose as E.B. White’s sorrowing old timer or thunder as a protest by Thor against the death of Christ. I think people pounding pews so that the priest will bring back a candle is a perfectly fine way of re-presenting the light of the world contained in Christ. It’s not a metaphor as much as it is a “making present again”: a group of people united, struggling to see the same flickering flame.

There is a nun in front of me contemplating a mosaic of Christ with her head tilted to the side like Fay Shaum. She is quietly listening and watching the surface of things. Like a nun I think.


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