Dialogue on the Threshold

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Sunday, 29 September 2013

Shadows that in darkness dwell

 John Dowland (1563-1626), Flow My Tears (Second Booke of Songes or Ayres, 1600)


Hark! you shadows that in darkness dwell,
Learn to contemn light.
Happy, happy they that in hell
Feel not the world's despite.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The cicatrix

Scars can be literal or metaphorical, physical or psychical. The scar is the memory of the wound, imprinted on the warp and weft of the flesh or in the incrassate tissue of the brain. Every scar is unique, the trace left by an unrepeatable concatenation of circumstances and events that culminate in a trauma affecting the body or mind
But the one scar that is common to all is the umbilical cicatrix. It is the primordial scar; it is the mark that unites all men (and, indeed, all living things not born from the seed or egg). For, no man can enter the world without the cord that bound him to the womb being severed and leaving its trace. The umbilicus thus also marks us as separate distinct individuals. For the scholastics, it was a subject of fierce debate whether Adam and Eve, the only humans not to have been formed in the womb, possessed a naval, the umbilical scar. Were their bellies smooth, unblemished, or when God moulded them from the red earth and the rib respectively did He fashion them an umbilicus in order not to be incomplete? Likewise, when God removed the rib from Adam's breast from which to shape Eve, did it leave a scar?
What is certain is that the scar is to be found only in the fallen world, a place of toil, disease, violence, natural shocks and heartaches. We enter the world in a state of original sin, and this entrance is thenceforth and forever marked by a scar. The umbilicus, as the first scar, is the nexus whence all other physical scars radiate, the primal node of a web of accidents, mishaps, injuries and illnesses that forms an intricate and unique map of our passage through the world. Each body has its own uniquely patterned web of scars, and each scar tells its own story. The cicatrix is thus the imprint and bearer of memory, a sign by which man is revealed in his uniqueness, in the particularity of his own unrepeatable acts and sufferings, and the marks made on him by the latter.
When Odysseus returns to Ithaca disguised as a wandering beggar, his old nurse, Eurycleia, recognises him by the scar on his leg, when, bidden by the unwitting Penelope, she washes his feet in the basin of ringing bronze. The cicatrix, once revealed, aches for its tale to be told. And at this moment of agonising suspense in the flow of Homer's epic, when it seems that Odysseus might be unmasked before he can exact his revenge on the upstart suitors, the narrative breaks off and the listener is taken back to Parnassus, whither the young Odysseus had journeyed to visit Autolycus, his mother's father, beloved of cunning Hermes. And thus begins the story of one of the most famous scars in all of literature. Hunting with the sons of Autolycus, among the windy hollows of Mount Parnassus, Odysseus corners a boar, within a glade on the steep forest-clad slopes. Charging from its deep, bosky lair, where neither the rainy winds blow nor the bright rays of Helios ever strike, the boar gashes Odysseus' thigh with its tusk, and in his turn the resourceful son of Laertes transfixes the beast with his spear. In the halls of Autolycus, on the hunters' return, the wound demands that its tale be told, the same as the scar (oulê) will demand that its memory be unfolded by the rhapsode once it is secretly revealed in the halls of Odysseus many years later, after the war on the windy plain of Troy and the many years of bitter wandering that followed. Unlike in the Odyssey, it is significant that in the Iliad, the epic of the wrath of Achilles, a narrative of never-ending fresh wounds, the word oulê (scarred-over wound, cicatrix) does not occur once.
Thus, the recounting of the wound is like a scar that forms a break in the tissue of the narrative. A text itself might be full of scars, if the author, like an over-zealous surgeon, wields the critic's knife, hacking away at even the flesh of healthy passages. Cicatricosus (full of scars) is the adjective used by Roman rhetorician Quntillian in his Institutio Oratoria to describe the bloodless works of those orators who cannot resist tinkering with their manuscripts whenever they have them in their hands, in the belief that every first draft must necessarily be riddled with faults. (1) Of course, for the Romans, who for everyday purposes wrote by incising letters with a stylus upon waxed tablets, a text could be a reticulation of scars in quite a literal sense.
The mind, too, has been likened to a waxed tablet, upon which impressions are imprinted. Impressions and thoughts are incised in the mind, each leaving a deeper or shallower scar. In the Satyricon, it is said that the man of true culture must smooth all irritation (scabitudo, from scabies, "roughness") from his mind without leaving any scar. (2) Ataraxy would therefore be a state of supreme scarlessness. But just as none can enter life unscarred, life itself cannot be lived without incurring or inflicting scars. And the cicatrix is both memory and the inscription of a tale.

(1) Quintillian, Instituio Oratoria 10 4.3. Sunt enim qui ad omnia scripta tanquam vitiosa redeant et, quasi nihil fas sit rectum ess quod primum est, melius existiment quidquid est aliud, idque faciant, quotiens librum in manus resumpserunt, similes medicis etiam integra sectantibus. accidit itaque ut cicatricosa sint et exasanguis et cura pejora. 

(2) Petronius, Satyricon 99. Tantum omnem scabitudinem animo tanquam bonarum artium magister delevet sine cicatrice.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

De daemonibus (3): species and habitats

[Thracian] Are there many species (γένη) of daemons, Marcus, I asked?
Many indeed,” he said, and of every shape and form, so that the air above us and around us is full of them, full too are the earth and the sea and the innermost (μυχαιτάτους), deepest places. [...] Altogether, he said, there are six species of daemons, but I do not know whether he was dividing them according to their habitats or because the demonic race as a whole takes corporeal form, and the hexade is [intrinsically] corporeal and earthly [...] In his barbarous native tongue, he named the first species the Leliurium (1), which means the igneous (διάπυρον). This species moves around in the air above us, because all species of demon are kept out of the regions around the moon, the same as the unhallowed are kept out of a holy sanctuary. The second species move around in the air surrounding us, which is why many call them aerial demons. The third species is the earthly. The fourth dwells in fresh and salt water, the fifth below the earth. The last species abhors the light and is barely sentient (μισοφαὲς καὶ δυσαίσθητον).

Michael Psellus, Dialogus de Daemonum Energeia seu Operatione (PG 122: 841b-845a)

trans. Alistair Ian Blyth

(1) Gilbert Gaulmin (Michaelis Pselli De Operatione daemonum Dialogus, 1615) conjectures that Psellus coined this word, which occurs nowhere else, by combining the Hebrew lel night and ur fire.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The narrowing chambers of hell

"In each of the hot and secret countries to which that man went he kept a harem, he tortured witnesses, he amassed shameful gold; but certainly he would have said with steady eyes that he did it to the glory of the Lord. My own theology is sufficiently expressed by asking, which Lord? Anyhow, there is this about such evil, that it opens door after door in hell, and always into smaller and smaller chambers. This is the real case against crime, that a man does not become wilder and wilder, but only meaner and meaner." 

G. K. Chesterton, "The Sign of the Broken Sword", The Innocence of Father Brown, 1911

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Husk and kernel

The foundation of any national character is human nature. A national character is simply a particular colouring taken on by human nature, a particular cystallisation of it. (. . .)  Reactionaries seek to excise and destroy the deepest and most essentially human aspects of a nation's character; they promulgate its most inhuman and superficial aspects. They prefer the husk to the kernel. When they promulgate nationalism, reactionaries try to destroy what people share at a deep level; they recognise only what people share at the most superficial level. (. . .) It is important to understand what is primary and what is secondary. Of course, there is such a thing as national character. Nevertheless, far from being the foundation of human nature, it is simply one of the many colours, the many timbres, that human nature takes on. During the twentieth century the importance of national character has been hugely exaggerated. This has happened in both great and small nations. (. . .) The nationalism of a small nation can, with treacherous ease, become detached from its roots in what is noble and human. It then becomes pitiful, making the nation appear smaller rather than greater.

Vasily Grossman, An Armenian Sketchbook, translated from the Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, with an introduction and notes by Robert Chandler and Yurky Bit-Yunan, New York Review of Books, New York, 2013, pp. 15-16.

Original: Василий Гроссман,  Добро вам, Собрание сочинений в четырех томах, Москва, Аграф, 1998

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

De daemonibus (2): physiological processes

[Thracian:] And I asked him whether daemons were endowed with affectivity (ἐμπαθεῖς). “Yes, indeed,” he said, “just as some of them even discharge sperm and breed worms from that sperm.” But it is incredible that daemons should be capable of secretion (περίττωσιν) or possess animal-like genital organs, said I. “They do not possess organs,” he said. “They are, however, capable of secretion, on this point you may believe me.” But surely they must feed the same as we do, said I. “Some are nourished by indrawn breath (δι’ ἐισπνοῆς),” he said, “like breath (πνεῦμα) in the bronchial tubes and the sinews, and some by moisture, feeding not through a mouth, as we do, but in the manner of a sponge or a shellfish, absorbing the external moisture surrounding them and then expelling a spermatic accretion. Not all demons are capable of this, however, but only those species that are conjoined to solid matter, those that shun the light and those that dwell in water or underground.”

Michael Psellus, Dialogus de Daemonum Energeia seu Operatione (PG 122: 840c-841a)

trans. Alistair Ian Blyth

Monday, 17 June 2013

De daemonibus (1): corporeality

Timotheus: How then, if they are not corporeal (μὴ σῶμα ὄντες), are they visible to our external vision (τοῖς ἐκτὸς ὄμασσιν)? 

Thracian: But my dear fellow, the demonic race (τὸ δαιμόνιον φῦλον) is not incorporeal (ἀσώματον); they operate by means of bodies and upon bodies. [...] Basil the Great, explicating the words of Isaiah: Howl ye idols, says, “demons secretly sit before idols, delighting in the pleasure of the polluted sacrifices (τῶν μιασμάτων). The same as greedy dogs come to hang around a butcher's shop, where there is blood and gore, so too the greedy demons eagerly take their pleasure from the blood and steaming fat of the sacrifices, wallowing around the altars and the idols erected to themselves. And indeed their bodies feed thereby, being made of air or fire or a mixture of the two elements.” Again, the divine Basil, an observer of invisible things that are indistinct to us, not only demons, but also the immaculate angels, contends that they are embodied as tenuous, airy, unadulterated spirits (πνεύματα). And he cites as evidence the words of David, the most famous of the prophets: “Who maketh his angels spirits; his messengers a flaming fire” (Ps. 104,4).  [...]

Timotheus: Why then are they lauded as being incorporeal in so many places in the Scriptures?

Thracian: Because with both writers outside the Church and even the earliest writers within the Church it is customary to use the term body for that which is grosser, while that which is more tenuous, that which is elusive (διαφυγγάνον) to the eye and impalpable, is wont to be called incorporeal, not only by our writers, but also by many of the pagans.

Michael Psellus, Dialogus de Daemonum Energeia seu Operatione (PG 122: 836b-837b)

trans. Alistair Ian Blyth

Sunday, 16 June 2013

The soul's katastasis

ᾍδης λέγεται ἡ ἐκ τοῦ ὁρωμένου πρὸς τὸ ἀειδὲς καὶ ἀθέατον κατάστασις τῆς ψχῆς. οὐδὲν γὰρ ἄλλο οἱ παρά τε τῶν ἔξωθεν, καὶ τῆς θέιας γραφῆς σημαίνει τὸ ὄνομα τοῦτο, ἐν ᾧ τὴν ψυχὴν γίνεσθαι λέγουσιν ἀπολυθείσαν τοῦ σώματος.

Theophanes, Homil. viii. pag. 50

Hades signifies the soul's being brought forth (katastasis tês psukhês)* out of the visible and into the formless and invisible (or: the soul's being re-established out of the visible and in the formless and invisible, or: the soul's transference from the visible to the formless and invisible, or: the soul's assumption of the condition of the invisible and formless after that of the visible). For, both writers outside the Church and the holy texts say that the word signifies nothing other than the soul's being loosed from the body.

* animae domicilium (malim ego, animae status, vel potius transitus, ut legatur μετάστασις, quemadmodum in prorsus simili loco Theophylacti).

κατάστασις apud recentiores Graecos non est statio, sed ipsa hominis conditio, ritus, ordo, constitutio, et mores (according to later Greek writers, katastasis is not man's fixed place, but his condition, religious usage, rank, makeup, and customs) - Johann Caspar Suizer, Thesaurus Ecclesiasticus e Patribus Graecis (1728)

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Sleep and death

Καθεύδοντα καὶ νεκρὸν, τὸν ἐν ἁμαρτίαις φησί. Καὶ γὰρ δυσωδίας πνεῖ, ὡς  ὁ νεκρὸς, καὶ ἀνενέργητός ἐστιν, ὡς ὁ καθεύδων, καὶ οὐδὲν ὁρᾷ, ὡς ἐκεῖνος, ἀλλ' ὀνειρώττει καὶ φαντάζεται.

Chrysostomus Homil. xviii in Epist. ad Ephesos, pag. 851.

Dormientem et mortuum eum dicit, qui in peccatis est. Etenim tetrum odorem spirat, ut mortuus, et non potest operari, ut qui dormit, neque quidquam videt, ut ille, sed somniat et varia sibi fingit.

trans. Johann Caspar Suizer

By him that sleeps and the dead he means him that is in sin, for he both gives off a noisome stench, like the dead, and is inactive, like one that is asleep, and like him sees nothing, but is dreaming and hatching illusions.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

La peur de l'enfer

Et puis, il y a cette histoire curieuse que rapporte Ségur et qui me paraît vraie :

« En 1787, dans une auberge près de Moulins, un vieil homme se mourait, ami de Diderot, formé par les philosophes. Les prêtres des environs étaient sur les dents : ils avaient tout tenté en vain ; le bonhomme ne voulait pas des derniers sacrements, il était panthéiste. M. de Rollebon, qui passait et ne croyait à rien, gagea contre le curé de Moulins qu'il ne lui faudrait pas deux heures pour ramener le malade à des sentiments chrétiens. Le curé tint le pari et perdit : entreprise à trois heures du matin, le malade se confessa à cinq heures et mourut à sept. " Êtes-vous si fort dans l'art de la dispute? demanda le curé, vous l'emportez sur les nôtres! -- Je n'ai pas disputé, répondit M. de Rollebon, je lui ai fait peur de l'enfer. " »

Jean-Paul Sartre, La nausée, 1938

Monday, 11 February 2013


Vivre dans le monde comme dans un immense musée d'étrangeté, plein de jouets curieux, bariolés, qui changent d'aspect, que quelque-fois comme des petits enfants nous cassons pour voie comment ils étaient faits dedans - et déçus, nous nous apercevons qu'ils étaient vides.

Giorgio de Chirico

To live in the world as if in an immense museum of strangeness, filled with curious, colourful toys of shifting appearance, which sometimes like little children we break open to see how they have been made, and find to our disappointment that they are hollow.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

The twittering dead

Of the ferryman across the "Waters of Death" there is no trace in the Old Testament. Spirits are supposed rather to "fly away" to their abode (Ps. 90:10). The bird-like form assumed by the soul for its journey was a wide-spread belief of antiquity, and appears probably in the word "twitter" that is used of the voice of ghosts in Isa. 8:19; 29:4. This idea was not unknown to the Babylonians. In Ishtar's Descent (obv. 10) we read of the shades, "They are clothed like a bird in a garment of feathers."

Lewis Bayles Paton, "The Hebrew Idea of the Future Life. III. Bablyonian Influence in the Doctrine of Sheol", The Biblical World, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Mar., 1910), p. 164.

Isa. 8:19: οἱ κενολογοῦνται "the twitterers", lit. "the empty-talkers"

Wednesday, 9 January 2013


Des démonologues du moyen âge mentionnent le démon Tintinillus comme ayant pour mission de recueillir dans une grand sac les versets des psaumes que les moines sautent en bredouillant, les syllabes mangées, les oraisons écourtées.

(Curiosités théologiques, 1861)

D'autres légendes rappelaient aux copistes le soin qu'ils devaient apporter à reproduire les textes exactement. Il existait, disait-on, un démon appelé Titivilitarius ou Titivillus, le vétileux, par corruption d'un mot populaire de l'ancienne latinité, et ce démon apportait tous les matins en enfer un plein sac des lettres que les religieux avaient omises, soit dans leurs copies, soit dans leurs psalmodies de nuit. 

(Franklin, Dictionnaire historique des arts, métier et professions exercés dans Paris depuis le treizième siècle, 1906)