In honor of the shortest day of the year, here’s an excerpt from my upcoming book, Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith (Unbridled Books, June 2012)
Van Gogh’s The Night Café is an image of destitution, its garish colors unable to hide its bleak desperation. Around the edges of the room huddle silent patrons, beneath the dandelion-halos of a few harsh overhead lights. The painting’s perspective is skewed: A billiards table juts out at an improbable angle, and the floor tilts forward as if the whole room is ready to spill onto the ground at the viewer’s feet. It’s an unsettling image, a distorted view through diseased eyes, vertiginous and bleak. “I have tried to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime,” Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo. “So I have tried to express, as it were, the powers of darkness in a low public house, by soft Louis XV green and malachite, contrasting with yellow-green and harsh blue-greens, and all this in an atmosphere like a devil’s furnace, of pale sulphur. And all with an appearance of Japanese gaiety, and the good nature of Tartarin.” Van Gogh sought to unearth the darkness in something as banal as an all-night bar to show us what’s hiding underneath.
A month after Van Gogh finished The Night Café, Paul Gauguin arrived in Arles, invited by the younger painter to form something like an artist’s colony in a small yellow house where Van Gogh had been living. Gauguin arrived at night, waiting until daybreak at the same all-night café, that place of infernal solitude. Things did not go well; within a few weeks, their relationship had begun to sour. “Gauguin,” Van Gogh wrote to his brother, “does not like the little yellow cottage.” They quarreled about art, and about money. (“One thing that made him angry was having to acknowledge that I was very intelligent,” Gauguin later wrote with characteristic humility.) Even as they painted each other’s portraits and encouraged each other’s work, Van Gogh’s behavior became increasingly erratic, and a few times Gauguin awoke in the dead of night to find Van Gogh standing directly over his bed, silently staring at him.
Just after the winter solstice, on one of the darkest nights of the year, Van Gogh ended an argument by flinging a glass of absinthe at Gauguin’s face, and the latter resolved to leave Arles for good. The next night—December 23—Gauguin was walking home when, as he later recalled, “I heard a well-known little step behind me, quick and jerky. I turned around just as Vincent rushed at me with an open razor in his hand.” Van Gogh halted abruptly, and in that bleak alleyway the two men stared at each other for a long, perhaps interminable, moment. “The look in my eyes at that moment must have been very powerful,” Gauguin wrote, “for he stopped, lowered his head and ran back toward the house.”
Van Gogh took Luke the Evangelist as his patron because Luke is the saint of painters. But the saint whom I most associate with this artist, and particularly with that dead winter night in Arles, is not Luke but Lucy, patron of the darkest nights of the year. Lucy’s story began as a sort of sequel to that of another saint—as a young girl she’d come to pray at Agatha’s shrine, bringing along her mother, hoping to cure her dysentery. Agatha not only cured Lucy’s mother but also appeared to the young girl in a vision, telling her that she, too, would one day be revered in her home of Syracuse as Agatha was in Catania. Lucy, like Agatha, subsequently pledged her virginity and paid a similarly high price for it—she, too, was sent to a brothel at one point and later tortured. And, like Agatha, she’s now recognized by the body part cut from her during these tortures: her eyes.
At least, that’s the most common version of Lucy’s story; there are differing accounts of how she lost her eyes. Another involves a suitor who relentlessly pursued the virginal Lucy, repeatedly complimenting her on the beauty of her eyes. Lucy, wanting to be left in peace, simply gouged out her eyes and sent them to the suitor, telling him he was free to have them if he felt they were so beautiful and asking to be finally left in peace.
This story is likely apocryphal, but it has echoes of another, a story that also happened on December 23, 1888. After threatening Gauguin with a straight razor, Van Gogh took that same razor to a nearby brothel, where he cut off a portion of his right earlobe, giving it to a prostitute named Rachel and asking her to hold it for safekeeping.
It was these dual stories of self-mutilation that initially led me to equate Van Gogh and Lucy, but there are other reasons why I think he should have adopted her over Luke. “The symbol of St. Luke, the patron saint of painters, is, as you know, an ox,” Van Gogh wrote to Émile Bernard in the summer of 1888. “So you just be patient as an ox if you want to work in the artistic field.” But Van Gogh didn’t need a patron saint of patience; he needed a saint of the night, when he was most troubled. (“The thing I dread most is insomnia,” he wrote to his brother after he’d been hospitalized.) He needed a saint to offer hope in the darkness, salvation from the darkness of winter.
Lucy’s time is the winter, when the nights are long and unforgiving. Midwinter is sometimes called the “days of roughness,” precisely because it was impossible for earlier cultures to identify that exact moment when the earth begins its tilt back. Lucy, patron saint of blindness and of the darkest nights of the year, is meant to be celebrated on the solstice itself, but pinpointing the exact moment of the solstice has never been easy. Her feast day was originally on December 16, though it later changed to December 13. Neither of these is close to the solstice as we now understand it, but prior to the Gregorian calendar, the date of the solstice changed every hundred years. The Julian calendar was based on a calculation of 365.25 days to a year, when in fact the number is closer to 365.2422, creating a slight slippage that had added up to thirteen full days before Pope Gregory XII rectified it in 1582.
Lucy’s day was still December 16 when Dante wrote his epic in the early 1300s, though the solstice then would have fallen on December 12. When John Donne took Lucy as his muse three hundred years later, the longest night of the year was December 9. But Donne’s great poem to Lucy, “A Nocturnal upon Saint Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day,” is dated December 7. Donne didn’t know when the solstice occurred, nor when Lucy’s actual feast day was, but he understood on some level that Lucy’s is a movable feast—her day is every night, since at night all calendars stop.
Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
Donne was far less sanguine than Dante that the world is perfectly ordered and just. He had been born Catholic in a newly Protestant country, which was being torn apart by religion and by conflicting views of the order of the world. His brother Henry was imprisoned in 1593 for harboring a Catholic priest and died of disease in prison (the priest, meanwhile, had been hanged until he was nearly dead, at which point he was disemboweled). Donne had learned to keep his faith a secret throughout his early years before ultimately converting to the Anglican faith in 1627.
It was three years later, with the deaths of both his patron, Countess Lucy of Bedford, and his young daughter Lucy, that Donne turned to the Catholic saint of darkness. Like Dante, he came to Lucy in his darkest hour, beset by gloom. But unlike the Italian, Donne could not find solace in a divinely revealed master plan of the universe. Dante found a love beyond death through Lucy’s intercession, but Donne saw death hidden even in love, despair that outweighed belief, darkness to match the longest night of the year. The bleakness of Donne’s work dispels the order in Dante. If the Italian found paradise emerging from the inferno, Donne found midnight in a summer’s kiss. “I am re-begot,” he tells us, “Of absence, darkness, death—things which are not.” Donne called on Lucy in the wake of a personal loss, and his poem suggests that if God exists, His purpose is only to affirm our emptiness. Lucy’s name is here invoked to remind Donne that the world will yet turn back on its axis, even if Donne himself can’t yet see it.
Some Upcoming Events:
April is the cruelest month, particularly if you find listening to me read cruel. I’ll be giving a few different readings at a few different excellent venues, to whit:
On Saturday, April 9, I’ll be reading along with the extremely excellent Amina Cain and Amarnath Ravva. This is part of Atlas Obscura’s 2011 Obscura Day, which we’re thrilled to be a part of. I’ll be reading from my ongoing work-in-progress about the lives of the saints (other pieces of which can be found here and here).
Dead Saints, Fulgarites, and Botanical Expeditions
Join Betalevel for expert talks on odd subjects: Amina Cain will speak on oil burning lamps and fulgurites; Colin Dickey will share stories of mutilated saints; and Amar Ravva will take us to Australia on the Investigator with an account of a few early botanical expeditions.
Located in a basement down two back alleys in the heart of Chinatown, Betalevel will open its doors for a day of readings and an odd tour of downtown Los Angeles – part performance space, part music venue, part speakeasy.
Open to the public but probably not suitable for children.
Betalevel is located behind the Full House Restaurant in Chinatown
That day will also feature another event sponsored by Betalevel and Atlas Obscura as part of Obscura Day, a Paranoid Bike Ride through downtown LA, led by Sean Deyoe and Jason Brown. This will also be truly excellent; details:
Join Betalevel members Jason Brown and Sean Deyoe for a paranoia bike ride throughout Los Angeles. Explore stops around downtown for the lizard tunnels, alien contactees, cybernetic nodes, and the LA.
Bring your own bike and be prepared for a two-hour long, moderate intensity bike ride.
The Paranoid Bike Ride will convene at Chungking Plaza on Hill Street (between College and Bernard)
On April 30, I’ll be lecturing alongside Jason Brown and Jason Torchinsky at Machine Project. I won’t speak for the Jasons, but I’ll be discussing Anatoly Fomenko’s New Chronology, the Phantom Time Hypothesis, Alberto Santos-Dumont, Cyrus Teed, and various failed Apocalypses. Some more details here.
If you can’t make the LA lecture, Jason, Jason and I will be delivering the same lecture a week later in Berkeley, on Friday, May 6. (NOTE: unless the April 30 event is a disaster, in which case we have a week to make it better.) Details here.
Among those present at Haydn’s funeral in June, 1809 was a contingent of French officers who had been granted leave to attend, including a young commissary named Henri Marie Beyle. Beyle loved Haydn’s music and would shortly publish a biography of the composer (which, it turned out, was largely plagiarized); he also had an abiding interest in phrenology, having been one of Gall’s patients back in Paris.
Beyle’s connection to Haydn might have resonated in other ways, had he been aware of what had lately happened to the composer’s corpse. Beyle, after all, was fascinated by the story of Marguerite de Navarre and her lover Boniface de la Mole: Boniface had been guillotined for high treason during the height of the French terror, and his head had been impaled on a spike as a warning to other dissidents. Marguerite had put herself at some risk by taking down the head and then, according to legend, had had it embalmed and placed in an ornate jeweled case that she would show off to friends. In 1830, when Beyle was writing his masterpiece under the pseudonym “Stendhal,” he would be reminded of the story of Marguerite and Boniface and would incorporate a version of it into the final scene of the book that was to become The Red and the Black. In that novel, after Julien Sorel’s death, his lover Mathilde (whose family name, de la Mole, was itself an homage to Boniface) goes alone to his crypt the night before his burial and decapitates his corpse, spending a night alone with the head before interring it in a separate, private ceremony.
Paying his respects to Haydn that day, Beyle scarcely could have imagined that life was busy imitating art some twenty years in advance and that, while he and the other mourners had gathered to honor the composer, Haydn’s decapitated, stolen head was soaking in limewater at a nearby hospital.
Among the other wonders and pleasures that early nineteenth century Vienna displayed was Angelo Soliman, or at least, what was left of him. Born in Nigeria around 1721, Soliman had been enslaved as a young child and bought by the Austrian governor of Sicily, Prince Johann Georg Christian Lobkowitz. In the service of Lobkowitz, Soliman distinguished himself as a companion and a soldier, and his fame and stature grew as he accompanied the governor on a number of military expeditions. After Lobkowitz’s death, Soliman went into the service of Prince Wenzel von Lichtenstein in Vienna. There he became a court favorite—he was fluent in six languages and was widely admired for his erudition and wit. He became a Mason in the same lodge as Haydn and Mozart.
Despite this prestige, when he died of natural causes in 1796, the Hapsburg emperor, Franz II, did not see fit to accord him the same rite of burial that any other Mason would have been granted. After Soliman’s death the emperor had him skinned, and his skin was fitted onto a wooden frame and put on display in Franz II’s “Imperial and Royal Physical Astronomical Art and Nature and Animal Cabinet.” Wonder cabinets had been around for over a century, so when Franz II opened his in 1797, he wanted something special. In life Soliman had dressed in the latest fashions and proved himself equal to the greatest minds of Europe; in death he was decked in a loincloth and headdress made of ostrich feathers, perched alongside the birds of paradise. He was the highlight of the cabinet.
“All the efforts of man to restore the skin of his fellow creature to its natural form and beauty, have hitherto been fruitless,” Sarah Bowditch wrote in her taxidermy manual in 1820; “the trials which have been made have only produced mis-shapen hideous objects, and so unlike nature, that they have never found a place in our collections. We have only some parts of man, either dried or preserved in spirits of wine, sufficiently entire to be recognized.”
Either she was unaware of Soliman or judged him to be one of those “mis-shapen hideous objects,” because the lone exception that Bowditch mentions is the work of Frederick Ruytsch, who was well known for his exotic and ground-breaking preparations—“The anatomical collection of the Museum of Natural History in Paris possesses a head…by the celebrated Ruitch [sic], a Dutch physician. It still preserves all the vivacity of its colours. The cold so far affects the liquor in which it is contained, as to hide it completely, but at the return of spring the liquor becomes clear, and we perfectly distinguish the object.” Ruytsch was in fact so famous that in 1824 the poet Giacomo Leopardi composed a operetta about him, entitled “Dialogue Between Frederick Ruytsch and His Mummies,” in which Ruytsch’s specimens come to life for a single night to explain the mysteries of death:Alone in the world, eternal, toward whom does move Every created thing, In you, Death, finds rest Our naked nature; From ancient suffering. Profound Night in our confused mind Obscures our grave thought; Towards hope, desire, the shriveled spirit Feels its strength wane; Thus from affliction and from fear is freed And the empty slow years Unbored whiles away. We lived; and as the confused memory Of a frightening ghost And of a sweating dream Wanders in the souls of infants, So in us remembrance lingers Of our lives: but far from fear Is our remembering. What were we? What was the bitter point called life? Stupendous mystery is today Life to our minds, and such As to the minds of the living Unknown death appears. As when living From it death fled, now flees From vital flame Our naked nature Not joyous but secure; For to be happy Is denied to mortals and denied the dead by Fate.
Ruytsch’s mummies, Bowditch notes, are an exception, “and since the bony part of our body is the only one which we are able to preserve entire and in its natural position,” Bowditch recommends that the best way to preserve a human is by cleaning and displaying the skull.
In early nineteenth century Britain, grave robbing had become such a problem that numerous devices were invented to secure one’s everlasting peace. One such device, “The Patent Coffin,” was devised by a London candle maker named Edward Bridgeman: made out of iron, with concealed spring catches that prevented any would-be resurrectionists from prying off the lid; additionally the sides were joined in a manner that would prevent anyone from being able to pry them apart. The Patent Coffin was so popular that songs were written about it, such as this broadsheet, credited to a “Mr. Didben”:
Here’s what happens when you take a cheap print, do a mediocre matte job with a store-bought frame, and then hang it in a room with high humidity so that the crappy tape you used to center the print loses its grip.
Apropos of not much at all, here’s an image I took of a great trepanned skull. It was discovered during the excavation of Monte Albán in Oaxaca.
Phrenology was a science for an uncertain time, and perhaps no one exemplified this better than the phrenologist and revolutionary Gustav von Struve. The young Struve had come to Mannheim in Baden, Germany, to practice law, but his ambitions quickly grew. He began actively to promote both phrenology and radical reform, which he saw as inextricably linked.
Ever since Gall’s expulsion from Vienna, German-speaking countries had lagged behind the rest of Europe when it came to phrenology. For Struve, this rejection accounted for Germany’s lack of progress and why it still lay captive to oppressive religious and aristocratic regimes. He set out to remedy the problem, co-founding the German-language Phrenological Journal and advocating tirelessly for the New Science. Combe recognized the value of his contributions in his own A System of Phrenology, and the Fowlers regularly translated excerpts of his work in their own journal. His colleague Alexander Herzen claimed that Struve was so devoted to phrenology that he deliberately chose a wife who lacked a “passion” bump.
Struve’s own passion was for political and social reform. He argued for vegetarianism and temperance, against capital punishment. He set aside a portion of every day to meditate on the great secular heroes of revolution, from Washington and Lafayette to Rousseau and Robespierre. Contemporaries described Struve as having a face that “showed the moral rigidity of the fanatic … with uncombed beard and untroubled eyes,” but he was sincere in his desire for reform, and in 1847 he dropped the aristocratic “von” from his name in solidarity with the common man.
Mario Vargas Llosa, in his 1984 novel The War at the End of the World, would reincarnate this archetype of the revolutionary phrenologist and put him in South America. An amalgamation of Struve and Combe, Llosa’s character, a Scotsman who takes the name Galileo Gall, comes to Brazil to foment revolution: “As other children grew up listening to fairy stories, he had grown up hearing that property is the origin of all social evils and that the poor will succeed in shattering the chains of exploitation and obscurantism only through the use of violence.” Inextricable from this revolutionary fervor is a fervor for phrenology:
Whereas for other followers of Gall’s, this science was scarcely more than the belief that intellect, instinct, and feelings are organs located in the cerebral cortex and can be palpated and measured, for Galileo’s father this discipline meant the death of religion, the empirical foundation of materialism, the proof that the mind was not what philosophical mumbo jumbo made it out to be, something imponderable and impalpable, but on the contrary a dimension of the body, like the senses, and hence equally capable of being studied and treated clinically.
Galileo Gall thus operates from a simple precept: “Revolution will free society of its afflictions, while science will free the individual of his.”
Something very similar was at work in the mind of Struve: a desire for a violent overthrow of oppressive regimes, which could in turn allow the democratic and progressive principles of phrenology to flourish. He was not alone in his democratic zeal: In 1848 democratic revolutions broke out all over Europe, starting in France and quickly engulfing the entire continent. The year Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto, all of Europe was ready for change, and men like Struve saw their chance. On March 31 of that year, German reformers gathered in a “Pre-Parliament” to discuss the establishment of a free, united German republic. During the discussion Struve read his fifteen-point plan to end the “subjugation, stultification, and bleeding dry of the people,” which included the abolition of the standing army, all aristocratic privileges, and any connection between church and state and their replacement with laws that were based on “the spirit of our age,” including phrenology.
The Pre-Parliament rejected Struve and his radical coalition in favor of a more moderate approach, and so the radicals decided to bring about emancipation by force. They raised a small army to march on the capital of Baden, but when they met the government’s forces in the Black Forest they were severely routed, and Struve and the others were imprisoned. Freed the following year, the undaunted phrenologist once again joined another failed uprising against the government—one in which, it should be noted, his “passionless” wife fought with unmatched tenacity.
When David B. Metcalfe posted this article with its reference to dreaming of dogs, I immediately responded with another curious fact, this one from Roman superstition. While dreaming of dogs may be a good omen, as Artemidorus of Daldis (2nd century, CE), writes, to dream that you are a tanner is an ill omen, “for the tanner handles dead bodies and lives outside the city.” I found this quote in the inexhaustibly rich “The Cult of the Saints,” by Peter Brown. (though Valerie M. Hope’s book on Roman attitudes towards the dead has a similar quote from another source—tragically, I had to return this one to the library before I could dig up the quote again.)
Googling this piece of evidence, David came up not with Artedmidorus, but rather this article, by Lawrence S. Thompson, “Tanned Human Skin.” Which is odd, since I knew the article already. Over the summer I had been researching the practice of anthropodermic bibliopegy, that is, binding books with human skin, for a talk on Saint Bartholomew for Morbid Anatomy in Brooklyn.
Anthropodermic bibliopegy is one of those truly practices that was far more widespread—and far more accepted—than I think we are prepared to admit nowadays. Often this was done for non-punitive measures, but in early nineteenth century England it became particularly popular as a means of marking the extreme status of the criminal. In 1827 a man named William Corder murdered his girlfriend in a barn (the so-called “Red Barn Murder”); caught and convicted, he was not only sentenced to death but to dissection at Cambridge University afterwards. And after the dissection, one of the attending surgeons removed a portion of Corder’s skin, tanned it, and used it as the cover of a book containing the court record of Corder’s trial. Additionally, William Burke, the famous murderer who sold his victims to medical schools, giving rise to the verb “burking,” underwent a similar process. After his dissection, part of his skin was made into a wallet that was given to the doorkeeper of the dissection lab; another part was bound in a book containing a record of Burke’s crimes given to Sir Walter Scott.
The question about all of this, of course, as David mentioned about that original Lawrence S. Thompson article he turned up: what does the U. S. Department of Agriculture have to do with tanned human skin?
As I mentioned, I’ve been returning to some material I discovered in researching my piece on cemeteries for Lapham’s Quarterly, material which wasn’t suitable for the essay but which nonetheless captivated me. I had already wanted to write something about the history of dog burial when David B. Metcalfe shared a very excellent post from the blog The Eyeless Owl, under the heading “If You Dream of a Dog and He Bites You…”
This heading, along with the great material that followed, reminded me once again of one of the more stellar infographics I came across while researching cemeteries, from an article on Roman burial in England. The article, “Dedicating the Town: Urban Foundation Deposits in Roman Britain,” was written by Peter and Ann Woodward, and appeared in World Archeology in Mar. 2004. In order to test various hypotheses regarding Roman Britain’s burial practices, the Woodwards turned to archeological evidence in Greyhound Yard, Dorchester, where various pits and shafts had been excavated over the years. In order to demonstrate the contents of these various pits, they included a graphic of the recovered remains in three shafts, prepared by Henry Buglass:
Buglass’s image is for me one of those unintentional moments of art, disguised through this schematic depiction of bodily remains in the earth. It’s analogous, for me, to those early Sumerian tablets, some of the earliest extant writing by human hands, which record simple business transactions (such as the buying and selling of sheep), but yet which radiate, over the span of years, what Walter Benjamin would call an aura.
The appearance of actual human remains was quite rare, with only one of the three shafts containing a human cranium. Instead, what they found were copious quantities of animal remains. Some of these—rodents, birds, and frogs—were classified by the Woodwards as “pitfall victims”; that is, animals who were not deliberately buried but were trapped in these pits or were otherwise accidentally buried in them.
What I found of most interest was the high number of dog remains that were found in these pits—burials which were definitely deliberate. Shaft 6 contained the remains of at least 17 dogs, and shaft 13 had 9 dogs and 4 puppies.
What accounted for this prevalence of ritual dog burial? The Woodwards explain:
Dogs held a special place in the rituals and iconography of Iron Age and Roman Britain. Depictions of such creatures occur commonly, usually in the form of small figurines, and the skeletal remains of the animals themselves often were deposited in auspicious places. Such places included temples and shrines, and also deposits located in deep shafts or wells. Several systems of symbolic referencing seem to have been involved. First, dogs were traditionally associated with healing and aspects of fidelity and protection of humans—the guarding instinct. The association with health appears to have been linked to the fact that dogs could induce rapid healing by licking their own wounds, and those of humans. A somewhat contrasting group of associations included those with death and hunting, and links with chthonic themes and the underworld.
The dog, then, as a Roman symbol, is closely linked to our bodies in any number of ways, and seems poised to accompany us through various stages of life—the dog provides bodily protection to keep us out of harm, offers an almost supernatural ability to heal us through its bacteria-killing saliva, and finally accompanies us on the final journey to the underworld.
To this one could add one more association with dogs and healing: early anatomists could not dissect actual human corpses, and so their understanding of the human body was limited to the animal kingdom. Galen in particular, the founding father of anatomy, regularly dissected both apes and dogs in an effort to understand human anatomy better.
It’s hard for me to think of our own dog’s saliva as particularly healing, especially after watching the various trash he roots around in and eats whenever we take him walking in the park. So it’s nice to be reminded—through a rather beautiful graphic of some excavated burial plots in Dorchester from fifteen hundred years ago—that as he methodically and seriously goes about licking my hand every night, he’s watching out for me.